Practical Campbell Essay: After the Deluge

Date of Publication: October 10, 2005

Author: Stephen Gerringer

I pen these words barely a week after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, uprooting over a million people, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, tens of thousands stranded, and unknown hundreds dead. Most Americans, cast involuntarily in the role of passive participants, watched this tragedy unfold with the same sense of slowmo horror, helplessness, and fatalistic fascination we experience in that instant before cars collide, transfixed by the seemingly endless stream of devastation, suffering, and death broadcast twenty-four hours a day…

…Though we have weather charts, satellite photos, and twenty-four hour televised images unfolding in real time, myth still speaks to us, compressing the near-total, destructive power of this elemental force of nature into one motif, out of the distant past, an image embedded in the human psyche: the Great Flood.

Yes, it’s a metaphor – which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – or rather, that it doesn’t keep happening. While waiting for the waters to relinquish their grip on New Orleans, I find my thoughts turning again and again to this mytheme.

Whence the origin of the Flood motif? Is it local history misremembered, a tale that grew in the telling? Is one Flood myth the same as the next? Or is the Flood merely an archetype, metaphor for movement in the individual psyche? What, in myth, is the purpose of the deluge – and what insight, if any, might such myths offer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

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