Metamorphoses I:244-312 – Deucalion’s Flood

Deucalion's Flood

Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Jupiter thought of raining thunderbolts onto all the continents but he was afraid lest so many fires ignite the sacred aether itself and the world burn from pole to pole. He remembered also the prophecy that some day the sea, the land, and the heavenly palaces of the gods should take fire, and it would go hard for all life on earth in the overwhelming flames. 

Therefore he put aside the weapons made for him by the hands of the Cyclopes. Instead he decided on a different punishment: to destroy mankind beneath the waves and to send storm clouds from every part of heaven.

Immediately in the caves of Aeolus he shut up Aquilo the North Wind and every other breeze that might scatter the clouds he would bring together, and he sent out Notus the South Wind. Notus flew on sodden wings, his terrible face covered by a pitch-black veil. His beard was thick with storm clouds, and streams of water rolled from his white hair. Fog shrouded his forehead, and dew dripped from his wings and bosom; wherever his hand squeezed the low-hanging clouds, thunder broke. Thus the dense storm clouds poured down from the aether

Juno’s messenger Iris in her rainbow garment lifted water, bringing fresh supplies to the clouds. Rain beat down crops and laid flat the farmer’s prayers, laying waste the labor of the whole year past.

Nor was the wrath of Jupiter limited to his heavens: his sea-blue brother Neptune aided him with armies of waves and called an assembly of the river gods. As soon as they’d entered the palace of their master, Neptune said, “No long speech is needed here: simply pour out all your strength! That is what is required. Open your dwellings and send out your streams unchecked!”

Thus he ordered. The river gods returned and opened the mouths of their springs so that the streams rolled into the sea unleashed. Neptune himself struck the ground with his trident so that it shuddered and opened new passages for the water to pour through.

Spreading wide the rivers rushed through the open fields, sweeping away crops and brushwood, flocks and men; houses with their altars and the images of their gods. Here and there stood a building which the general disaster hadn’t been able to throw down. Above each gathered a great wave, covering it and sinking its drowned towers beneath the sea.

Now there was no boundary between sea and land: all was sea, and the sea was without shore.

This man has climbed onto a hilltop; that one sits in his curved skiff and rows where recently he had plowed. One man sails over sunken crops and the roof of his villa; another sees a fish among the branches of a high elm. Perhaps an anchor catches in a green field or a curved keel scrapes the stakes of a vineyard.

Seals, their bodies travesties of what animals should look like, now swim where recently slender goats cropped the meadow. Nereids marvel to see groves and cities and houses beneath the water. Dolphins range the forests, swimming among the high branches and shaking the trunks of the oaks as they pass.

The wolf floats among the sheep; the wave carries off the tawny lions and carries off tigers. The boar’s flashing strength cannot save it, nor can the swift legs of the stag caught in the current. A bird, having searched long for land where it could perch, finally with exhausted wings falls into the sea.

The unbridled sea has uprooted tombs, and fresh floods rock the tops of the mountains. Most human beings are taken by the waves; starvation grinds down those few whom the waves spare.

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