Monday, August 22, 2011

Mythic Monday - the Great Flood

Waters flooding the Himalayas, from the movie 2012

The gods look down upon a world where corrupt sorcerers practice forbidden magic learned by consulting obscene, extra planar monsters.  These foul wizards, each a ruler of his own decadent city-state, wage war across the countryside, capturing slaves to be sacrificed on the altars of the demon princes.   Agents of the divine powers scour the earth looking for any of their remaining clerics to warn them; a crucial decision has been made by the gods - the world must be cleansed.

The countryside of a Dungeons & Dragons world is littered with ancient ruins, where gold coins forged by fallen empires of the past wait for adventurers to recover them.  Monsters lurk in the ruins, and daring explorers discover lost artifacts and relics.    The implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons is essentially post apocalyptic.  The ruined civilizations of the past had technologies (or at least magic) greater than the current age, which the characters often quest to plunder.

The reasons for the fallen state of any given fantasy world vary.  Tolkien presents the long, elegiac decline of Middle Earth as the loss of magic and the nature of passing time.  The historical Middle Ages looked backwards to the glory of Rome; the barbarians were blamed as the proximate reason the empire crumbled.

How about the great flood as the source of the destruction?  The flood theme recurs in a number of myths; most often the flood is a divine punishment.  It fires my imagination that disparate cultures in the ancient world have similar flood myths - regardless of whether a world wide flood happened, the story was powerful enough to travel across cultures.

The flood myths follow similar patterns:

  • The world becomes corrupt or man is prideful and disobedient to the divine order
  • A divine messenger warns an upright or righteous person about the coming judgment
  • The favored man builds a means of surviving the flood
  • The world of man is destroyed in the deluge, but the waters eventually recede
  • Sacrifice is made to the gods
  • Humanity begins to rebuild, once again reconciled with the divine world.

You see these patterns in the Greek myth of Deucalion, the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Noah's Ark from the Bible.

There are intriguing scientific theories about ancient floods.   Did an asteroid crash into the Indian Ocean, creating tsunamis that destroyed coastal settlements all over the ancient Near East?  Were prehistoric tsunamis instead the byproduct of volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean?  Perhaps the flood myths are memories of lost settlements when water levels rose at the end of the Ice Age due to melting glaciers.

Using the Flood Myth in D&D
Older editions of Dungeons & Dragons use a Law vs Chaos alignment axis; from there it's easy to define clerical magic and divine power flowing from Law and arcane magic derived from the forces of Chaos.  Even if you don't use any type of alignment system, there is a popular trope in fantasy regarding the tension between religion and arcane magic.

I like the idea that too much arcane magic imbalanced the world towards Chaos and led to a world wide catastrophe.  The corrupt empires of the past were wiped from the face of the earth by the gods due to the hubris of the ancient sorcerer-kings and the unearthly demons they permitted to walk terrestrial soil.  Or perhaps go with a story like that of the Nephilim I discussed recently - corrupt practices between humans and rebellious angels (or similar divine agents) created a race of super-men, demigods, or monsters, and judgment was passed on the world of man and the rebellious angels alike.  (This has the extra benefit of tying in with the recent musings on The Origins of Demons).

The Dragonlance series of novels isn't popular in our old school playing circles; Dragonlance marks a shift in D&D towards railroad plots and DM-guided stories as opposed to player-driven adventures.  Despite the Dragonlance adventures, the actual World of Krynn is really good and has a lot of ideas worth borrowing.  Krynn's current fallen state is due to a "divine judgment" that led to The Cataclysm - a widespread devastation that sunk continents and sundered mountains.  There's already a precedent in D&D for unleashing the gods on the campaign world when the created overstep their bounds.


  1. This is even a current trope in modern environmental catastrophe stories. Louise Cooper's Indigo series has essentially this myth as its back story with a tower replacing the ark and a full range of environmental disturbances, not just floods, occurring. I suspect she's far from the only example.

    One can also contrast magic (Law) and science (chaos), which is also a good environmental take on the myth, with magic being natural energies and science destructive robbing of them.

  2. Tricky - I see what you did there. Making the cosmic struggle Magic vs Science is really interesting - the future (magic) world could be like the mutant future / gamma world, like the Tales from the Dying Earth, anything where the corrupt science of the past has been replaced by more earth-friendly magical practices. Turns a lot of themes on it's head, but could also tap into the global warming zeitgeist of the modern day.