Sarah has a PhD in Classical Civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the Ancient World and other topics.
Many cultures have stories about a time when a great deluge overwhelmed the Earth, drowning most of humanity and leaving only a few survivors to generate a new and hopefully improved human race.
While the biblical story of Noah's flood is well known, the ancient Greek myth of Deucalion's flood is far less familiar, despite having some striking similarities. The following account is closely based on that given by the 1st Century Roman poet Ovid in his mythological epic The Metamorphoses.
The Ages of Man
An important theme of Greek mythology, going back at least to the time of the seventh century poet Hesiod, is that of the Ages of Mankind. This is the concept that humanity has passed through a series of stages since its inception.
In the Golden Age, humanity lived a simple, peaceful and innocent life, though in a rather childlike state.
In the Silver Age, people became more violent and warlike but they were still noble and virtuous in their dealings with each other.
In the Bronze Age however, people became not only violent, but greedy, cruel and untrustworthy, obsessed with personal gain and caring little for love of family or common decency.
As the behaviour of humanity worsened, Zeus, King of the Gods began to be concerned about their increasing depravity and lawlessness.
The Crime of Lycaon the Wolf Man
According to the poet Ovid, the final straw that made Zeus lose all patience with the degenerate ways of the generation of the Iron Age was the brutish and insolent behaviour of Lycaon, King of Arcadia, in the Greek Peloponnese.
Appalled at the rumours of the wicked deeds of this generation of humanity, Zeus descended from Mount Olympus and, disguising himself as a humble mortal travelled through Greece to see for himself if things really were that bad.
After having witnessed many scenes that served to confirm his worst suspicious, Zeus at length made his way to Lycaon's Arcadian kingdom.
Arriving at his feasting hall, Zeus made his identity known to Lycaon's ordinary subjects who accordingly showed him reverence. King Lycaon himself, however was scornful and disbelieving. Determined to test the truth of the traveller's claim to be king of the gods, Lycaon outraged the laws of hospitality and acceptable human behaviour to the fullest extent.
He planned to murder his guest in his sleep, but not content with that, he decided to add insult to injury by first tricking the supposed god into consuming human flesh at his table.
Murdering one of his hostages, Lycaon butchered the body and served the meat to Zeus in a pot. If Zeus unwittingly ate it, as he expected, it would defile him and prove he was no god.
Zeus, of course, knew exactly what Lycaon had done. Enraged, he blasted Lycaon's hall with a thunderbolt and pursued the terror-stricken king into the mountain wastes, where he transformed him into a howling wolf.
Zeus Pronounces Doom Upon Mankind: The Great Flood
Zeus was not satisfied with his punishment of the impious Lycaon. Arriving back at Mount Olympus, he called a council of all the Olympian deities and announced that due to the depravity of humanity that he had witnessed, he saw no alternative but to bring an end to humanity altogether.
While none of the other gods dared challenge Zeus' decision, they tentatively expressed regret that there would now be no mortals to offer them sacrifice. Zeus reassured them that a new human race would come into being through miraculous means to repopulate the earth.
Zeus' first thought was to simply wipe out humankind by blasting them with his thunderbolts, but then he feared that the earth and the very heavens might catch fire.
Instead, he resolved that all the peoples of the earth must perish by drowning. He shut up all the winds and prevented them from blowing, except the South Wind who drove dark clouds swollen with rain across the sky releasing a huge downpour. Iris, a messenger of the gods who appears in the form of a rainbow, busily kept the clouds supplied with rain.
The unrelenting rain destroyed all the farmers' crops in the field.
Not yet satisfied, Zeus called on his brother the Sea God Poseidon to come to his aid. He summoned all his rivers and ordered them all to burst their banks and overflow.
The waters rose and flooded the fields, villages and towns, swallowing them up. Most humans and animals were swept away and drowned. Birds flew searching for land before finally dropping into the sea from exhaustion.
Dolphins swam among the tops of great trees, while seals frolicked among the fields where goats had once grazed. Sea Nymphs marvelled as they explored the drowned cities.
The whole land became one giant sea without a shore.
Deucalion and Pyrrha
Deucalion was the son of Prometheus, the wise and cunning Titan god who often intervened on behalf of humanity. His wife Pyrrha was his cousin, the daughter of Prometheus' brother Epimetheus and Pandora the first woman.
Deucalion was the most virtuous and god-fearing of men and Pyrrha the most pious and upright of women.
On Prometheus' advice, the couple took shelter from the flood in a giant chest and were tossed about on the waves for nine days and nights.
Eventually, their chest came to ground on the high peak of Mount Parnassus, which broke the surface of the waves.
As soon as they emerged from the chest, the pious couple at once gave reverence to the local nymphs and forest gods and also to Themis, the Titan Goddess of justice and giver of prophecies before that role was taken over by Apollo.
When Zeus saw that this god-fearing couple were the last two people on earth, he knew his work was done.
He allowed the North Wind to blow the great rainclouds from the sky, while the sea god blew on his conch shell, calling on all the rivers to return to their banks. Bit by bit the waters receded and the dry land appeared, with seaweed still clinging to the high branches of the trees.
The Stone People
When Deucalion and Pyrrha saw that the flood had receded, they looked over the desolate landscape and realised that they were the only two human beings left alive. They lamented bitterly at this lonely fate and imagined what it would be like if they did not even have each other.
Approaching the Oracle of Themis, they made her an offering of pure water from the local stream and, prostrating themselves on the steps of her temple, they implored her to help them and the drowned and lifeless world they were left with
Taking pity on them, the goddess delivered them an oracle couched in mysterious terms:
"Walk away from the temple with veiled heads and your robes loosened. As you go, throw behind you the bones of your mother."
For a time, the couple stood in horrified silence, before Pyrrha burst out that she was very sorry but she could never do so wicked a thing as dishonour her mother's bones.
Both of them continued to mull over the words of the Goddess in great perplexity.
At last, Deucalion said, "I can't believe that the Oracle would tell us to do anything wicked. I think that by the bones of our mother, the Goddess means these stones that lie here - the bones of our great mother Earth."
Pyrrha was uncertain, but they agreed that there was no harm in at least trying this. Gathering up stones, the two of them did as Themis said, walking away with their heads covered in reverence and casting the stones behind them.
When they stopped and turned, they saw an amazing sight; the fallen stones were changing shape before their eyes, at first taking on the appearance of rough-hewn statues and then softening into human form.
All the stones that were cast by Deucalion turned into men, while all those that Pyrrha threw turned into women and thus the current race of humanity, hard wearing and tough like stone came into being.
The earth meanwhile, sodden with moisture and warmed by the emerging sunlight, spontaneously generated new life, some creature that had existed before and others new.
SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on October 19, 2013:
Thanks Carolyn! :) I'm really glad you're finding these Hubs interesting.
Carolyn Emerick on October 18, 2013:
I'm glad you're posting these things because I have recently become so interested in myth, but more so of the UK and Northern Europe, so it's good to get caught up with the Greek myths again, thank you :-) ps upvoted and sharing outside of HP :D