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A retelling by J. Kearns

A story of the flood.

The gods or goddesses conceal themselves in the form of everyday folk and will visit a place or household to see how they are treated, and it was once a point of honor to treat a stranger with great courtesy. The biblical story of Abraham has him visited instead by angels, but in Arcadia it was the god himself who is given as testing in this way the people of Arcadia who worshipped him in the form of Zeus Lycaeus, meaning "of the she-wolf" or "of the light". In the guise of a poor traveler he arrived at the house of Lycaon. There are numerous stories and they become confusing as to whether Zeus arrived as a humble traveler and kept his disguise, whether Lycaon through spies guessed who Zeus was and determined to test his godhood, or whether Zeus instead announced his godhood (in which case it makes little sense that he would adopt disguise at all) and finding his godhood tested by Lycaon turned Lycaon into a wolf, the name Lycaon meaning "deluding wolf", and struck his house with lightning. But it seems queer considering that Zeus was already worshipped in Arcadia as Zeus Lycaeus.
Of what crime was Lycaon accused?
Zeus, the traveler, seats himself at the table. Soup is brought to him, umble soup, a dish made of the intestines of animals. In England, these were French "numbles", considered a delicacy, and as only nobles had herds of deer it was a dish for the wealthy. Though this is Arcadia, in Greece, perhaps here too Zeus recognized the dish as prized and costly. Too costly. In a tale of Little Red Riding Hood, when she asked what the umbles were which were tied onto the door in place of a latch string, she was told quite plainly they were the intestines of her grandmother, and when she asked what the meat was she was given to eat she was told it was that of her grandmother, there was no deception involved, yet she is given as accepting the wolf as her grandmother, who devours her in the end. So it's said, but, again, in another tale converted into a morality tale, as this one has been, for Zeus, being a god, understands that Lycaon's sons have taken their brother brother Nyctimus, he who was Of the Night, killed him, and served him in the soup, and is horrified at the sacrfice.
In the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, the beloved god Osiris is slain at a banquet by his rival brother Seth and set afloat in a marvelous acacia wood coffin which fit only his proportions. Isis recovers the coffin, but Seth then takes the body of Osiris, tears it apart, and spreads the pieces of it about the land, it then becoming Isis' chore to travel the Nile searching out the scattered pieces.
Zeus performed a similar deed, gathering the pieces of Nyctimus, and recovering all but one, restored him to life, while his brothers and father he turned into ravening wolves.
Whatever the original meaning of the story, it has become attached to the great deluge, providing a reason for it, that being the corruption of humankind, and the determination of Zeus to be done with humankind for good.
In the epic tale of the hero Gilgamesh, when he learns to fear death, seeking the secrete immortality, he comes upon the ancient Utnapishtim who received secret instruction from the Wind to give up his possessions, despises property, tear down his house and build a ship in order to save his soul from the Great Deluge that would be sent to destroy manking, and being saved was granted immortality. Daily this old man of the sea gave the workmen toiling on his ship red wine, oil and white wine, that they may feast as on New Year's Day.
Umble Pie turns out to be the opposite of what we have grown up being told. It has nothing to do with humble, being instead a rich dish, not one taken by peasants.
Things aren't always as they appear to be, even in stories as seemingly straightforward as a Great Deluge sent to wipe out the wickedness of humankind, to purge women and men from the earth, and yet the gods and goddesses are so blind as to let slip through their zealous fingers men such as Utnapishtim, Noah and Deucalian, all men who tell no one of the terrible fate that awaits them even as they work upon the construction of the very arks that will save these sailors.
"You alone shall be saved, and here is the secret of your salvation, you shall build an ark," Prometheus, Forethought, who stole fire from heaven for mankind, tells his son, Deucalion. "You alone shall be saved, and here is the secret of our salvation," Ninigiku tells Utnapishtim, providing him instruction on the construction of his boat. "You alone shall be saved," El tells Noah. Then Deucalion is shut up in his ark ark with Pyrrha, his wife, daughter of Prometheus' brother, Afterthought, Epimethus, and Utnapishtim and Noah are shut up in their acacia arks with their families and the seed of all that will be saved along with them.
And it comes, a storm so terrible that it is impressed forever on the descendants of the survivors, to be confused with subsequent floods, and serves as a symbol for surviving certain death. One fair morning a dark cloud rises over the south horizon. Rain begins to fall, the south wind blows. A storm unlike other storms for the rain doesn't abate, it proceeds ever faster, heavier. The rivers rise crowd their banks, then burst them. People rush for higher ground but even there the waters overtake them. The rain shatters the land like a pot, swells over everything so that the gods and goddesses, looking down, see beneath the waters the men in their cities and weep at the horror of it. Until finally all that can be seen is water, and even the birds fall into the ocean and perish having nowhere to rest. But the arks persevere the storm, upon its waters they rest, held still by the loneliest peaks of the earth, to which heights they've risen. Within the arks upon the waters, the inhabitants rest and wait, while beneath the waters humankind is returned to clay.
Then when the storm is done, and the waters begin to recede, the top hatch of the ark is opened and from it is sent out a bird which brings a sign when it is safe to disembark.
Deucalion and Pyrrha descend the mountain to the temple of Order, Themis, which they find covered with seaweed. They, like Noah and Utnapishtim, offer prayers. They plead for humankind to be renewed.
"Shroud your heads, and throw the bones of your mother behind you," says Themis, appearing to them, then leaving them again so that Deucalion and Pyrrha must puzzle between themselves what was meant. Who is their mother when they each have different mothers? What mother supercedes and is common between them?
Looking about they see the earth is covered with rocks coughed up by the flood, dredged out of waterbeds, rivers and dug out of earth's soil by the bed. Everywhere they look there are rocks and more rocks. "Ah," they think, "Themis must mean the stones, the bones of our Mother Earth." So they each cover their heads, and as they walk they stoop and, unable to see, feel the ground for their mother's bones that they grasp in their hands and raise and cast over their shoulders, neither looking back to see what transfigurations occur, to see mother's bone grow flesh and limbs and open eyes.

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Retelling by j. Kearns based on Robert Graves and Bullfinch.

© Copyright 2004 j Kearns


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