Tales of the ancient deluge are often combined together with the myth of the “great heat” and/or the “world fire” in many parts of the globe[i]. If we take the position that many stories of sea flooding are based in reality, then indeed, global warming would be the cause.
At its peak, this warming pattern is sometimes called the Warm Maritime Phase[ii] when much of the area of the Northern Sea and the Northwest Passage, now impassable, was free of ice. Sea levels were about five meters higher than they are today. Some time roughly between 5500 and 4500 years ago, the Earth’s climate began to cool and eventually stabilize resulting in the sea settling at present-day levels[iii].
In addition to increasing temperatures, global warming in
Recent theories suggest that major forest fires, like those in the western
During the Warm Maritime Phase, the increase of Southeast Asian fires would have resulted in haze of greater intensity than the Asian brown clouds of modern times. Ancient humans, I would suggest, may have viewed this haze as evidence of the sky moving lower. The Sun seen through the haze might also appear lower than usual. The low-hanging clouds of smoke together with the increasingly warm weather and drastic change in climate could have appeared linked. With the low sky seen by ancient observers as also bringing the Sun closer to the Earth and causing the seasons to become warmer.
The increase in forest fires might also account for the tales of the great conflagration and the World Fire that often accompany myths of the Great Flood.
If the ancients perceived the low hanging sky as responsible for the great scorching period, often described in catastrophic terms, then the raising of the sky[vii] would bring relief to humanity. Sky-raising signals also the end of the Great Flood in various mythologies. Now, we come to the question as to how the ancient storytellers perceived the sky as moving up to its present height?
My suggestion is that a major volcanic eruption occurred simultaneously with the beginning of the cooling period that began bringing down and stabilizing sea levels, and cooling global temperatures. The timing of the eruption with the cooling trend was coincidental, but the eruption itself could have contributed to global cooling just as Mt. Pinatubo caused the world to cool for a few years after it exploded in 1991[viii].
Sometime probably between 4000 BCE and 3000 BCE, when global sea levels drop and then stabilize, a major volcanic eruption[ix] occurred along the routes of the Nusantao Trade and Communication Network[x]. The vast fiery cloud of the eruption would be visible at great distances during the night. Vast portions of the sea in the region became filled with ash and lahar.
This belief in a new epoch could be linked quite intimately with the changing climate, the cooling weather and the subsiding sea levels. The imagery of the sky being pushed up would be supplied by the expanding mushroom cloud and the explosions of an erupting volcano.
Think of the volcano’s ash cloud as the pestle of Tuglibong[xiii], who in Manobo myth, strikes the center of the sky with her pestle while pounding rice causing it to move upward to its present height. The eruption likely deposited large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which works to deplete the ozone layer resulting in cooling global temperatures[xiv].
From the volcano, large fireballs may have been perceived as similar to the solar orb, giving rise to the myths of the superfluous suns. In many legends of the region, the multiple suns rise up and then are shot down often falling into the ocean where their flames control sea levels by consuming excess water.
You may see here mythological attempts to explain natural changes in climate based on observations of a series of events. These events may be coincidental as with the timing of the general global cooling trend with that of the volcanic eruption, or actually linked as in the case of the volcano-induced cooling due to atmospheric aerosol deposits.
Falling temperatures would help reduce problems with forest fires, and large volcanic eruptions often help spur El Nino events as some believe happened during last Pinatubo eruption[xv]. This would mean increased rainfall, further reducing the problems with fires and brown clouds and possibly creating the perception of a raised sky in the eyes of ancient observers. Although the immediate effects of the volcano would be harsh, in the long term the changes in weather, combined with general global trends not related to the volcano, would have brought relief from the previous situation of rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
Nusantao seafarers would have updated communities in their communication network rapidly. The short-term catastrophic effects of the volcanic eruption could have spurred even more extensive Nusantao migration, thus further spreading the reach of the myths that evolved from the natural changes. For example, the theme of sky raising relieving the world of great heat can be found in “
Now, we can examine a few sets of myths to see how the motifs agree with the natural events that I have outlined.
First, let us start with the ancient Chinese tale of Nu Gua (Nuwa) as found in the Han Dynasty classic Huainanzi[xviii]. Nu Gua appears here as the primordial female or goddess who mends the earth apparently after a cataclysmic battle of fire and water between the characters Kung Kung (Gonggong), associated with water and floods, and Chuan Hsu (Zhuanxu).
In a time long ago, the four poles were decayed and the nine states, rent asunder. The sky did not cover everywhere and the earth was not filled in all around. Fire raged and flamed without dying out; water swelled and rose without dying down. . Fierce beasts ate the vigorous and vultures snatched the old and weak. Then, Nu Gua smelted stones of five colors and patched up the azure sky and cut off the legs of a sea-turtle to stand up the four poles.
Huainanzi, 6/6b (2nd century BCE)
In other versions of the myth involving Gonggong, the floods come after the shooting down of the Nine Suns, saving the world from destruction by great heat[xix]. The Nine Suns in certain traditions are said to fall into the ocean or unto a rock in the ocean and to consume the waters that flow into the sea[xx].
If we look at the elements of these myths, we find a series of motifs that potentially link up with sea level-stabilizing climate change in the fourth millennium BCE.
Ravages of fire and water can be seen symbolically as representing the competing forces of warm vs. cool climate. They can also relate to the firestorm created by a volcanic eruption, something also hinted at by a mountain’s collapse during the battle between Gonggong and Chuan Hsu. The raising of the sky by Nu Gua and the submergence of the Nine Suns can be seen as signs of global cooling. The submerged Suns also can be viewed as a cosmic explanation for the controlled sea levels with the Suns no longer threatening the world with heat, but instead consuming at stable levels the waters that flow from rivers into the ocean. In the new age that ensues, the floods and heat that plagued humanity are now under control allowing the growth of civilization.
In Hindu myth, we also find the theme of a great fiery underwater chasm known as the Mare’s Head (Vadavamukha). The Mare’s Head is in this case not the Sun but the flaming wife of the Sun transformed into a mare’s head that continuously consumes the ocean’s waters. As such, a balance arises, with rainwater flowing into the ocean from the world’s rivers controlled by the evaporating fires of the Mare’s Head[xxi].
[i] Oppenheimer, 241, 268-9.
[ii] James Hornell. Water Transport: Origins & Early Evolution, The University Press, 1946, 212.
[iii] William James. Climate Change in Prehistory,
[v] Tim Johnson. “Warming Triggers ‘Alarming’ Retreat of Himalayan Glaciers,” McClatchy Newspapers,
[vi] Steven W. Running. “Is Global Warming Causing More, Larger Wildfires?” Science
[vii] See Map A for distribution of sky raising theme.
[viii] Joan Martí and Gerald Ernst. Volcanoes and the Environment,
[ix] Siebert L, Simkin T (2002-). Volcanoes of the World: an Illustrated Catalog of Holocene Volcanoes and their Eruptions. Smithsonian Institution, Global Volcanism Program Digital Information Series, GVP-3, (http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/largeeruptions.cfm).
[x] Wilhelm G. Solheim II. “Origins of the Filipinos and their Languages," 9th Philippine Linguistics Congress, University of the
[xi] Paul Kekai Manansala. Quests of the Dragon and Bird Clan, Lulu Press, 2006.
[xii] Paul Kekai Manansala. Sailing the Black Current: Secret History of Ancient Philippine Argonauts in
[xiii] Pieter Jan Raats. A Structural Study of Bagobo Myths,
[xiv] A. Robock. “Volcanoes and climate,” Reviews of Geophysics, 1999 38(2), 191-219.
[xv] Lisa M. Pinsker. “
[xvi] Thomas Bryan Underwood and
[xvii] Paul Kekai Manansala. The Naga Race,
[xviii] John S. Major. Heaven and earth in Early Han thought: chapters three, four, and five of the Huainanzi, SUNY Press, 1993.
[xix] Yves Bonnefoy. Asian Mythologies,
[xx] Anne Birrell. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, JHU Press, 1999, 144.
[xxi] Tudeng Nima, Gyurme Dorje, Tadeusz Skorupski, Mi rigs dpeskrun khaṅ. An Encyclopaedic Tibetan-English Dictionary,