In Greek mythology, Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, were the ancestors of the entire human race. Like many similar figures in the myths of other cultures, they were the only survivors of a flood sent by the gods to wipe out humanity.
Deucalion was the son of Prometheus, and a grandchild of the Titan Iapetus and his niece, the Ocean nymph Clymene. Iapetus and Clymene had four sons: Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Menoetios.
Prometheus was a frequent benefactor of human beings. For example, he is credited with introducing fire and pharmaceuticals to them. His son kept up the philanthropic tradition: Deucalion became a kind of re-founder of the human race in Greece. A survivor of an early catastrophe that wiped out all or most of the early descendants of the first human families, Deucalion became the father from whom nearly all subsequent humans were descended. Deucalion married his cousin Pyrrha, the daughter of his uncle Epimetheus. (In some versions of the story, Pyrrha's mother was the first woman, Pandora.) Thus Deucalion and Pyrrha are functionally equivalent not only to Noah and his wife, but also to Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Zeus had become disgusted with mankind after Lycaon, the founding father of Arcadia (a region of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece), sacrificed his own son and served him in a soup at a banquet for the gods. Zeus changed Lycaon into a werewolf, but he still felt vengeful, so he decided to put an end to the whole human race by sending a great flood onto Earth.
When Prometheus heard of Zeus's plans, he informed Deucalion and Pyrrha, and the two of them built an ark in which to try to ride out the flood. The entire Earth was then inundated by a torrential downpour, and all of mankind was drowned, although some cities, including Delphi, Megara, and Lesbos, claimed to have ancestors who escaped the flood by withdrawing to the mountains.
Deucalion and Pyrrha spent nine days afloat in their ark before the waters began to recede. Eventually they came to land on an exposed mountaintop. The place has been identified variously as Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and Dodona, in the far northwest of Greece.
Deucalion and Pyrrha gave thanks for their deliverance by sacrificing to Zeus, the god of escape, and then set about finding how to re-create the human race. Zeus, or possibly Themis, advised them to cover their heads and throw "the bones of their mother" behind them. At first the couple wondered what that meant, but then Deucalion realized that it was a reference to the stones lying on the ground around them—the bones of Mother Earth. The stones that Deucalion threw turned into men; those that Pyrrha threw turned into women. Thus the new race of humans was a race of stone, hardy and durable. This story may be based on a pun: the Greek word for "people" is laos, the word for "stone" is laas.
Thus, ancient Greek accounts of creation place the origin of humankind before the time of Deucalion. The development of the race was then interrupted by the flood, which was sent as a punishment for errant behavior. However, although Deucalion and Pyrrha were not the very first humans, they were the survivors who started humankind over again, and most regions traced their ancestry back to Deucalion. In Athens, Deucalion's son Amphictyon was regarded as third in the line of early kings (after the two earth-born kings, Cecrops and Cranaus). The link with Deucalion was so important that Athenians claimed he was buried in their city.
The rest of Greece also claimed descent from Deucalion and Pyrrha. One of their sons was Hellen, whose name means "Greek." It is from the root Hell-, from which are derived Hellas, their name for their country, Hellenes, meaning "Greeks," and Hellenikos, the adjective "Greek."
Among the children and grandchildren of Hellen and his wife, the nymph Orseis, were the founders of each of the primary subethnic regional groups of Greece. Two of their sons were Aeolus, the first of the Aeolians, and Dorus, the first of the Dorians. Another son, Xuthus, married Creusa and had two sons: Ion, the founder of the Ionians, and Achaeus, the founder of the Achaeans. The terms Aeolian, Dorian, Ionian, and Achaean are still used today to describe both the geographical and the dialect areas of Greece. They are surpassed in importance only by Athens and the surrounding district of Attica.
Deucalion and Pyrrha were the starting point to which all Greeks traced their origins. As their civilization developed, more and more cities and regions began to claim association with the couple, and that they were central to the story of the flood. The people of Dodona, for example, claimed that their city had been founded by Deucalion after his ark had landed there. The citizens of Kynos, the main port in Locri, maintained that Deucalion and Pyrrha had lived there, and that Pyrrha was buried there.
Meanwhile, the people of Athens responded to provincial rivalry by making new claims of their own. Deucalion was already buried among them; they later asserted that the land surrounding his grave contained a large cleft in the ground that marked the spot at which the floodwaters had first begun to recede. They commemorated this event in an annual ceremony at which they threw honey-wheat cakes into the crack.
The Parian Marble (Marmor Parium) is an ancient stone on the island of Paros with inscriptions that record significant events from the time of the earliest kings to the third century BCE. According to its account, Deucalion's flood took place in 1528–1527 BCE, 53 years after Cecrops became the first king of Athens, 110 years before the introduction of agriculture by Demeter, and 320 years before the Trojan War.
The motif of a flood that inundates the world and destroys the human race with the exception of a select few is found in the mythology and legends of other cultures, particularly in the Mediterranean and West Asia, but also in other parts of the world. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian Ziusudra was a pious king who was warned by one of the gods about an impending flood. He saved himself by building a boat while the rest of mankind was destroyed.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, also from Mesopotamia, Utnapishtim survives the flood by building an ark. The major difference between this myth and its Greek equivalent is that the hero becomes immortal. In the Biblical book of Genesis, God decides to destroy the human race because of its wickedness, but warns Noah, who builds an ark and rescues creation by preserving a pair of each species.
Similar stories are found in northern Europe, Africa, Central Asia, China, Southeast Asia, and Australasia. In outline, they are almost always the same: A corrupt and sinful human race is destroyed by angry gods in a great flood, but one or more persons are warned, and so he or they take refuge in a vessel to ride out the waters of the flood. The survivors then become the ancestors through whom humankind, and often other species as well, are able to continue. An occasional variant on this basic theme is that the gods send the flood because Earth was becoming overpopulated by humans.
Recent geological discoveries have led archaeologists and other scholars to propose that what is now the Black Sea was once an enclosed freshwater lake. In about 7000 BCE, however, it burst its banks at what is now the Bosporus and Dardanelles, and opened out into the Mediterranean Sea, causing extensive flooding in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. If that is correct, the Greek and West Asian myths of a great flood may be a "folk memory" of this cataclysmic event.
Although the breach of the ancient topographical barrier between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea is an event of immense significance, the flood myths retain a broader and perhaps even greater symbolic importance. The stories can be viewed as a metaphor for one of the most fundamental preoccupations of human experience: the fear of being engulfed and swept away in a huge, elemental catastrophe. Whether such a worldwide disaster ever actually took place is thus, to some extent, a relatively minor consideration.
Deucalion is featured very little in what remains of ancient Greek art, but the theme of the great flood became popular during the Renaissance in Europe, and various Italian painters depicted topics such as the flood involving Deucalion and Pyrrha. The leading works on these themes are by Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1536), Lo Schiavone (1522–1563), Lelio Orsi (c. 1511–1587), and Giovanni Castiglione (c. 1616–1670). The topic was also favored for a while in minor operatic works by composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
See also: APOCALYPSE MYTHS; CRETE; FLOOD MYTHS; ODYSSEUS; PANDORA; PROMETHEUS; ZEUS.
- Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: Penguin, 1998. .
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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