Across indigenous cultures in rural areas, mythic floods usually came in response to a specific bad act.
A punishing flood might come after a village refused food to a god disguised as a beggar, or two brothers argue with a neighbor, or a ritual is carelessly performed. Other transgressions found in rural flood myths include a woman hoarding water, a son who won’t follow directions, the pollution of a water source with menstruation or someone killing a sacred bird.
Some rural flood myths sound very much like a children’s story. A punishing flood comes after two mountains argue over who is taller, after a bird pecks a hole in a crab or after cats and dogs fight in the streets on a festival day.
A shamanic leader might tell these “camp-level” flood stories to identify anger, selfishness and indifference as dangerous qualities, capable of wiping out the small group. One’s behavior had consequences.
Rural flood stories were also about cultural evolution, describing the mistakes made by a previous culture that caused their demise. Like Noah in the Bible, someone is always warned of the flood and survives to become the “first ancestor” of the new tribe, which presumably learns to avoid the same mistakes. We were once a fearful people who hoarded food but today every meal is eaten together.
But the rural storm god model had a flaw – good or bad weather didn’t always follow good or bad behavior. In a relatively small group, this problem could be handled by the shaman picking his weather moments to address problems or praise achievements.
A more terrifying version
But in fashionable Athens, the playwright Aristophanes satirized the storm gods in The Clouds. During the play a cloud-chorus asked the audience to vote the play best in festival, promising cool rain in return. If the audience voted against the play, the chorus warned that storms would flood the city.
The rural storm god didn’t work so well in urban areas, where good and bad behavior happened on every block, every day. Perhaps it’s no surprise the urban flood legends of Mesopotamia and the Near East were more terrifying than rural versions. Told in the context of dense populations, the Sumerian and Babylonian flood stories were less moral campfire tales and more arbitrary demonstrations of power and authority.
While rural myths featured specific violations of a moral code, urban myths claim the deluge was caused by people making too much noise or having too many babies. But these general offenses reflect typical human behavior – they’re not specific transgressions of a moral code.
After conjuring genocidal floods, the urban storm gods admitted to inappropriate anger and regretted their actions. The Sumerian god Enlil expressed regret to his brother Enki after the great flood.
But these regrets only reinforced the fact that urban storm gods were capable of uncontrolled anger. It seems religious authorities in urbanized areas needed a more intimidating god – a more capricious and unpredictable god.
And the new message was all the more effective because it reflected reality: Now the storm god was perfectly aligned with the arbitrary nature of weather.
Baal: storm god as family man
But as the terrifying urban storm god spread around the Near East, cracks must have appeared in the new model because ultimately a new kind of storm god emerged, one that was less distant, patriarchal and angry. The new storm god was more of a family man.
Known as God of the Sky, Storms and Rain, Baal emerged in western Syria about 3,700 years ago and soon became the most popular storm god in the region. Previous paternal storm gods were all-powerful, to be loved and feared equally. The seasonal Baal was dismembered every winter and put back together again in the spring by his doting wife.
When Baal surrendered to Mot (the god of winter desolation) it was Baal’s wife Anat who pursued and killed Mot and rescued Baal from the netherworld. Together they had three daughters Pidriya (mist), Taliya (rain) and Arsiya (soil).
Perhaps most importantly Baal was more relatable on a socio-economic level – he wasn’t a member of the divine “family” of storm gods. Instead – like many legends to come – Baal was just an ordinary guy won the title fair and square by defeating the chosen successor in battle. It may be the first underdog story in recorded history.
Baal, Anat and their daughters were gods that regular people could cheer – they represented the strength of family, hope, persistence, faith and yes, a pretty dramatic and terrifying adventure. The cult of Baal grew in ancient Canaan and spread to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the Phoenician Jezebel. It was said that Baal had a window placed in his cloud-palace so he could see the world below.
Paternal god comes storming back
The followers of Baal had no way of knowing that the old-fashioned paternal storm god would soon make a comeback. The god of Abraham originated as El, who rode a sky-chariot in battles and ruled over a pantheon of lesser bureaucratic gods.
But in the Hebrew Bible he became Elohim the creator and all-seeing ruler of all things, with no lesser gods. In the Book of Exodus Elohim wrapped himself in a cloud not necessarily to rain on the earth but because his inherent power would kill any man who glimpsed his face.
While Elohim no longer resembled previous storm gods, he retained the shamanic power of mastery over the waters and weather. On the first day, the spirit of Elohim “moved upon the waters” and on the second day clouds formed. “He divided the waters … ”
Similar to previous storm gods Elohim was mostly beneficent, delivering rain that helped crops grow, but like any powerful patriarch he was capable of exploding into anger. Elohim sent a genocidal flood because humanity had descended into “violence … (and) corruption of the flesh.”
But like the earlier urban myths of Mesopotamian, Noah’s Flood wasn’t an effort at rehabilitation. Like the Sumerian Enlil, the Hebrew Elohim expressed regret for the deluge to Noah afterward, promising he’d never send a flood again.
But can you really trust a god capable of such uncontrolled anger? Or must you simply fear him? Less well-known Biblical passages describe the role of God in his incarnation as the holy spirit (in the form of a cloud) rewarding his people with spiritual ecstasy.
The ecstasy of the cloud
After the Israelites build a Tabernacle to store the Ark of the Covenant and the ten commandments, God came to visit in the form of a cloud. With the “Glory of God” in their midst the Israelites were overcome by religious fervor.
About five hundred years later, the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple and as the gathering played music and sang God’s praises, God again appeared as a cloud, bringing spiritual ecstasy directly to the people. Even the priests were unable to perform their normal duties
“It came even to pass … when they lifted up [their] voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the LORD. … the house was filled with a cloud; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:13)
This was indeed a new kind of storm god.
(Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: An Eco-History of Myth and Religion, coming March 2023 from John Hunt Publishing, now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, which links to a YouTube video.)