Flood stories are some of the most ubiquitous motifs found in ancient literature. From the Hebrew Bible—the most printed book in the world—to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh—the oldest story in the world, flood myths vividly present some of early humanity’s worst nightmares.
The motif has featured very prominently in ancient Mesopotamian, Israelite, Greek, Hindu, Norse, Chinese and Mayan mythologies. These tales typically present humanity as being on the verge of extinction at the hands of supernatural forces. They frequently tell of how a small band of humans, often as few as a single pair, received some form of grace from the heavens, persevered, survived and repopulated the world anew. These accounts are both inspiring tales of survival and a mythological explanation for today’s familiar shape of the world.
Numerous aboriginal Austronesian communities in Taiwan, including the Amis, Atayal and Tsou peoples, have traditions of flood myths. The story below is a short Amis flood tale that explains the physical features of the world.
According to this tale, in the earliest days of the world, there were no mountains or ravines. The world was flat and featureless. There were no rolling hills, valleys or canyons. Flowing rivers did not exist, there were only stagnant pools of dead water.
One day, there began a sudden downpour, which soon became a terrible deluge—flooding the homes and habitats of beasts, birds, plants and humans indiscriminately. Desperate humans built an ark to stay afloat as the water rose—drowning all in the world. Eventually, the whole surface of the world became a vast ocean of death. The water showed no sign of receding, and the people prayed desperately to their gods.
Among the desperate, someone suggested a sacrifice to the divine. The idea was taken up and they began looking for a suitable candidate in their midst.
This was when an unfortunate young man was pushed forward. For the sake of his people, he was sent to go forth to the gods. The flood, however, showed no sign of receding even after his sacrifice and, instead, continued its relentless rise. The people were at their wits’ ends.
Witnessing the pitiful state to which her people had been reduced, a chief’s daughter silently resolved to act. Quietly, she prayed to the heavens, supplicating to the gods to spare her people and draw the waters back. Her sincerity touched the deities and the gods turn their eyes to her. Without causing a commotion, the maiden stepped to the side of the ark and dove into the water, sacrificing herself in the hopes of saving her people. The gods were impressed. The rain stopped and the flood water steadily receded.
When the excess water was withdrawn, the originally featureless surface of the earth was replaced by newly carved mountains and ravines. Instead of water that drowned, lakes and seas were formed and became places where life could gain a foothold in the world. The new earth became the one familiar to us today with all its glorious and rich diversity. All this, the Amis say, is thanks to that selfless maiden’s sincere prayers and sacrifice.