Rumor has trickled down from prehistory to our day, of a legendary flood. The deluge was brought about by higher powers with the specific aim of destroying mankind and beginning afresh. But the aim was not complete annihilation: parallel to the destruction, a few righteous representatives were chosen to survive the cataclysm and perpetuate the species. They were given sufficient time and warning to build vessels that could float above the impending waters, and when the floods came, they were ready.
Ancient Flood Myths
These flood legends stem from a surprising variety of traditions. The Sumerian myths from Mesopotamia tell of Gilgamesh, whom the Gods guided to survive a deluge by building an Ark. The Hindu myths of the Indus Valley tell of the Manu, who was charged with preserving the ancient wisdom of India through a similar deluge. The Greek myths tell of Deucalion and the Torah tells of Noah – each elected to construct an Ark that could survive the destruction of the sinful world.
The resemblance of these legends and their varying origins have inspired the imagination of historians, archeologists, storytellers and philosophers. Some proposed that a deluge had actually occurred sometime in prehistory, a flood that scattered the members of a single people throughout various parts of the Earth. If few of these ancient people had by some means anticipated this flood, the might have taken the necessary precautions to survive it, so that their children would live to tell the tale. These scattered people eventually formed new civilizations, each of which formulated its own, albeit similar, variation of the theme of historic cataclysm.
Ancient Atlantis and the Flood Myth
The legend Atlantis thus came into being, first mentioned by the Greek philosopher Plato and subsequently reported by later authors. Allegedly a very advanced society, the Atlanteans predicted their demise and took necessary precautions to perpetuate mankind. They divided into groups and sent delegations of people to different parts of the world, so that when Atlantis would be struck, mankind could continue.
This theory would account for many similarities between otherwise diverse cultures. It would account for similar myths, and foremost, for the universal Ark myth found in almost all traditions. It could explain the resemblance between burial rites of cultures all around the world, the resemblance of their Hero myths and customs.
However, a physical location for Atlantis was never found, nor any archeological evidence of the existence of such a prehistoric state. The myth remains a myth – a legend, fable or parable – and the evidence to its historic existence comes to us always through others who presumably knew of it.
A Metaphysical Ark of Wisdom
Nevertheless, from the point of view of Ark in Time, the historical credibility of the flood myth is incidental. I here approach the idea of an Ark metaphysically: the cataclysmic flood is a metaphor for Time; the elect are those sensitive few desirous of preserving their wisdom for the benefit of subsequent ages; the Ark is their physical legacy, expressed through art, architecture, literature or science; its valuable contents are the ancient wisdom of mankind.
The Ancient Temple as an Ark
My metaphysical interpretation of the Ark myth isn’t new: history is speckled with metaphysical Arks in the guise of sacred sites, sacred art, ancient rituals and traditional stories. the Christian tradition, for one, adopted the Hebrew flood myth and assimilated it into the foundation of its philosophy. The church was portrayed as an Ark that called Christian followers every week to mass, in order to survive a metaphoric flood.
In this spirit, a church was constructed in the form of boats, its parts given nautical terminology: a ‘nave’ where the congregation gathered; a wooden plank by which it was called to prayer; and a cross-shaped mast on its roof to catch the favorable wind of the Holy Spirit. But here, too, the metaphysical dimension has been taken into account: churches are depositories of ancient wisdom, presenting the entire Bible visually to the visitor and preserving its message from one age to the next.
Reviewing the Ark Myth of Ancient Wisdom
The Basilica of San Marco in Venice is a classical example of a Christian ‘Ark’. Built out of spoils from Constantinople, its artists and architects covered its walls and ceilings with Biblical imagery, preserving and displaying the traditional lessons of the Bible.
Appointing a Messenger
As part of its decorative scheme, the San Marco vestibule displays the Old Testament Flood Myth. God appears to Noah and expresses His anger with mankind. He shares with His messenger His and intention of destroying His creation and beginning anew. He instructs Noah to prepare and populate an Ark that would survive this impending cataclysm.
The Misunderstanding of Ancient Wisdom
Before interpreting the first episode of this famous myth, I would like to note that “Ark in Time” offers an alternative approach to Biblical stories. Although the religious claim exclusivity to understanding the Bible, I propose that the Bible have mostly been misunderstood and, furthermore, that its misunderstanding has increased from one age to the next, so that each age has stood farther from its original meaning than its predecessors.
The ancient Arks we know–the old stories that have formed the bread and butter of our childhood education, the sacred sites that have inspired all other architecture, the art that has influenced all subsequent human expressions–could only result from a unusual spark of inspiration. If such a spark fell on a receptive group of people, it may combust into extraordinary artistic expression. We, looking back in time, perceive the extraordinary result, but not the spark. “Who build the colossal pyramids? Who designed the ingenious parthenon? Who conceived the pristine Taj Mahal?
We sense that something infused these individuals with a unique sense of purpose. We realize that they dedicated their life’s labor for an unusual, selfless end. We take this ‘something’ to be the genuine spark that inspired each of these ‘Arks’, the metaphorical ‘God’ that appears to ‘Noah’ from thin air and commands him to precise action.
The Messenger Delivers the Ancient Message
The messenger shares the spark with his household. Metaphorically, these represent those few intimately connected to the prophet and his lofty inspiration. Together, they begin building the ark, following God’s instructions. As is to be expected, those untouched by the inspiration – represented by Noah’s countrymen – mock his bizarre enterprise and laugh at his false prophecy. Nonetheless, Noah and his household disregard their external mockers and finish their task on time.
Populating the Ark
Meanwhile, Noah has stocked the vessel with provisions. He has populated it with the famous “two by two” of each breed, so that these all animals may repopulate the world after its cleansing. Noah is acting as a collector of those valuable things that God wishes to preserve for his renewed expression.
What is worthwhile saving from the flood? What would each era hold valuable enough to be saved for posterity?
The question is more simply understood on the scale of man: what would an individual strive to save if his house caught on fire? Is it one’s jewels, or one’s books, or one’s pets? Obviouslt, most of one’s personal possessions are too dispensable to risk one’s life in saving. By the same token, only few of civilization’s achievments are worthwhile preserving for the benefit of later generations. Those few are the ones to be stored in the Great Ark
In a weeks’ time, the rain begins and the messenger and his household embark onto the vessel. The downpour lasts for “forty days and nights”, flooding the lands and drowning all living things. The Ark, meanwhile, elevated by the rising water level, is raised above harm’s reach. When the rain ceases, the land remains flooded for another hundred and fifty days before the waters begin receding. Noah’s ark rests on the mountain of Ararat in present day Turkey.
The Byzantine mosaics present the dramatic vision of drowned bodies. Subtly, behind the chaos, the Ark of Noah rises in safety, discernible by its square window. From the metaphysical point of view, the mosaic is hinting to the inconspicuous nature of Arks of ancient wisdom, typically ignored by their own age and credited posthumously, if ever.
To determine whether it is time to set foot on solid ground, Noah releases a raven and a dove from his Ark. The black raven passes “to and fro”. The Byzantine depictions show it alighting on dead carrion. The dove, on the other hand, returns to Noah, having been unable to alight on dry ground. After another week, Noah sends the dove again, and it returns bearing an olive branch. After seven more days, when Noah releases the dove a third time, it never returns.
This is a significant episode of the story. Preserving the various forms of each era, its stories and artistic creations, while a grand undertaking, in fact, is quite straightforward. Being physical, these forms demand physical preservation and restoration. Museums and designated archeological sites perform this sufficiently well.
However, preserving the spirit that conceived these arts–the aforementioned spark of inspiration that commanded Noah to take action–is an altogether different undertaking. Symbolically, the white dove represents this spark. Its role in the myth indicates that both the forms, and the spirit that inspired the forms, are being salvaged from the floods from time. Since form is physical, it lingers longer than spirit – which is metaphysical. The dove is, therefore, the first to disembark.
Repopulating the Land
The animals disembark onto the new land to “breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply.” God renews His covenant with man, an agreement that had been forgotten by earlier generations. In token of this new covenant, a rainbow appears in the sky.
We take the renewal of God’s covenant with man to represent a revival of ancient wisdom. Again and again, history has shown how time can corrupt the most advanced cultures into chaos, so that their self-destruction is inevitable. The greatest civilizations have degenerated into savage societies. The once glorious Greece falls into civil war; the once blessed Israel becomes a house divided; ingenious Islam reverts to holy war and industrious Egypt to indulgent abundance. Time weakens the most solid societies, which eventually self-destruct and leave a clear slate for a phoenix to arise out of their ashes.
Ancient Wisdom Revived
The universal Ark legend conveys a progression that proceeds parallel to the aforementioned decline. A groupe of people, chosen by their sensitivity to what is occurring around them and their receptivity to ancient wisdom, team up to preserve the valuable heritage of their age. But wisdom, being metaphysical, cannot be physically preserved. It must first be given physical expression. This explains the birth of timeless works of science and art, that always outlast their creators and inspire new cultures, just like the seeds that disembarked from the legendary Ark repopulated the new earth.
The relentless ocean of Time forces this process to repeat endlessly, for no physical creation can last for eternity. Therefore, every society has been faced with this challenge, and has had to resort to a similar solution: to encapsulate its ancient wisdom in an ark that would withstand the floods of time. This would explain the universality of the ark myth, its varied appearance in almost all known traditions.
Had our ancestors never built metaphysical arks, mankind would have long ago self-destructed.