“And the Waters Prevailed”: Some Andean Indian Versions of the Flood

Most of earth’s peoples have told the story of a worldwide flood. The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh and the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha are two examples. Cultures as different as Wales and India produced stories intriguingly similar to the Biblical account of Noah (see Gen. 6–8; Moses 7:38–45; Ether 13:2; Alma 10:22). These tales differ widely in detail and show many local variations, but most of them include several basic elements: (1) mankind becomes wicked and offends the gods; (2) a worldwide flood destroys sinners and purifies the earth; and (3) one righteous family or group is spared to begin a new, improved human race.

It is not surprising, then, that the American Indians should have preserved the story of the flood among their sacred oral traditions. From Lake Huron and British Columbia to Lake Titicaca and Patagonia, American Indians have remembered and transmitted their own colorful versions of the ancient deluge. The stories that seem to correlate most closely with the Genesis account come from Mexico and Central America, while some of the most interesting and charming Indian versions are from the Andean countries of South America.

Most of the source material for these early Indian flood stories comes to us from the writings of the Catholic priests and explorers who first visited the region and recorded some of the native legends. These men were quick to point out what they considered mistakes and diabolically inspired inaccuracies in the Indian stories, but most of them would have agreed with Antonio de la Calancha concerning the Incas and others:

“By their quipos, which are their method of record keeping, and by their songs and events that they conserve in their traditions, they knew the story of the ark and the waters of the flood, and they spoke of it.” 1

A writer named Fernando de Montesinos who lived in Peru for 15 years and crossed the Andes no less than 60 times, according to his tally, went so far as to compute the date of the flood spoken of by the Incas. According to Montesinos, they said that it occurred 340 years prior to the conclusion of the second sun or second thousand years after the creation. This would have been 1660 years after the creation, or, also according to the Inca’s chronology, about 2340 B.C. 2

The Andean Indians had special names for the deluge, as well. One early authority on the Quechua language wrote in 1608 that they called it “Llocllay Pachacuti,” meaning “universal flood.” 3 Another writer, himself part Indian, wrote in the late 1500s that

“they don’t remember that they come from the descendants of Noah after the flood, even though they preserve a memory of the flood, because they call it Yaco Pachacuti and say that it was a punishment from God.” 4

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, the soldier historian, recorded another variation of the name when he wrote in 1572:

“And above all, their god sent them a general deluge which they call Uno Pachacuti which means ‘water that transformed the earth.’ And they say that it rained for sixty days and sixty nights, and that every living thing was drowned.” 5

One version of the flood comes to us from the highly respected chronicler Pedro de Cieza de Leon. He spent many years traveling throughout the Andean area, familiarizing himself with the native languages and customs, and his books are among the very best we have, giving an eye witness account of the Inca empire. In 1550, summarizing the widespread belief in an ancient deluge held by most Indian nations he had visited, Cieza left the following account of their story:

“These nations say that anciently, many years before there were Incas, the earth being heavily populated with people, there came such a great storm and flood that the ocean overflowed its boundaries and natural course, and that water filled the earth in such a manner that all the people died, because the water rose enough to cover the highest peaks in all the mountain ranges. … Other people from the mountains and even those from the lowlands say that no one escaped drowning, except six people who escaped in a small boat or bark, who gave birth to all the people who have lived and are since that time. … Don’t you doubt this reader, because all of the people in general affirm this and tell this that I have written about it.” 6

Similar to the account recorded by Cieza is another written by Cristobal de Molina, from Cuzco, in 1572. He says that the Incas had

“great knowledge of the flood, and they say that all the people and all the created things perished in it, because the waters rose above the highest hills that there were in the world, and nothing remained alive, except a man and woman, who were saved in the box of a drum.” 7

Another reference to the flood comes from a Catholic father named Avendaño. In trying to teach the Indians about the Christian faith, he had to make references to their former beliefs and practices. In one of his sermons he related:

“Since the Incas didn’t have books, they couldn’t know these things, and their historians say that of the ancient things which they have for tradition in their Quipos, they only remember back 400 or 500 years, and before that, they say, was the Purunpacha, which means the time of which there is no memory. They only remember the flood, when God drowned the world with water, and all say that it was because of the sins of mankind. … The Indians admit that there was a deluge, and they call it Llocclai pachacuti.” 8

Two details are sometimes discussed that seem to be characteristic of Andean flood legends. They appear in the stories of this region and few other places. These are the elements of mountain peaks that float and animals that warn their masters of the impending disaster. Both of these elements are illustrated in a passage from the author Bernabé Cobo:

“The Indians of the province of Ancasmarca, district of Cuzco, had the following legend: They say that when the flood was about to come, for one month the llamas which are like sheep in this land, showed such great sorrow that they didn’t eat, and at night they only gazed at the stars, until finally, a shepherd thought about the situation and asked them what was the cause of their distress. They replied that he should look at a certain group of stars, which were conspiring and consulting about the destruction of the world by flood. After he heard this, the shepherd told his six sons and daughters, and they decided to gather with them food and cattle, as much as possible. With their provisions secured, they climbed a high hill called Ancasmarca. They say, that as the waters rose and flooded the earth, the hill rose, and floated so that it was never covered with water, and after the water subsided and gathered together again, the hill lowered itself until it came to rest again in its former place, and from these children of the shepherd who survived the flood, their province was repopulated.” 9

The second element is further demonstrated in this entertaining piece from the chronicler Francisco Dávila’s writing in 1598:

“They say that anciently the world was to be destroyed, and it happened like this: as one Indian tied up his llama in a good pasture … the llama talked to him, saying: ‘Loco, what do you know, or what do you think? Understand that I am worried, and with good reason. You should know that in less than five days the sea is going to swell and burst open until only it covers the whole earth … you must take refuge on the summit of the mountain Vilcacoto.’ Carrying his belongings on his back, and taking his llama on a leash, the Indian arrived at the summit of the indicated mountain where he found many diverse animals and birds huddled together. … The waters rose until only the summit of this Vilcacoto was not covered. … Finally the waters rose so high that some of the frightened animals were almost in it. The fox, for instance, was close to the water, waving his tail in the waves, which is the reason why the fox’s tail is black at the tip. And at the end of five days, the waters began to recede and the sea returned to its former place, even lower than it had been before, and thus the entire earth was cleansed of people except the Indian referred to.” 10

Part of the Andean flood lore includes references to the rainbow as the symbol between god and man that there will never again be a universal deluge on the earth. At least two references to this tradition can be found among the Spanish writings. The following from Cabello Balboa, written in 1586, describes the Brothers Ayar as they went forth to found the city of Cuzco.

“They came to a hill that today is called Guanacauria and one day at dawn they saw the bow, or rainbow of the heavens that came to the foot of the same hill, and Mango Capac told the rest that it was a good sign that the world would not be destroyed any more by water, and that they should follow him and climb the hill, and from there they would see the place where they were to settle.” 11

A similar version dating from 1572 is found in the work of Molina:

“The brothers Ayar climbed to the summit, and there they saw the rainbow of the heavens, which the natives call Guanacauri, and Manco Capaca said to them, ‘Hold this as a sign, that the world will never be destroyed again by water.’” 12

At least one Spanish author indicates that the Incas understood how a destruction similar to the flood was going to come in the future. The piece related here was first written in 1653.

“The other fables that they tell about this point begin with the origin of men with the flood, of which all these Indians had great knowledge, even though they didn’t know anymore than that it was the will of Viracocha, and they were convinced that just as that time the world was lost because of flood, it would again be destroyed by one of three things, famine, pestilence, or fire.” 13

It is interesting to note everything the Andean Indians did know about the flood. Even though the information is sketchy and the Spanish authors who recorded the legends speak of different tribal groups, when the traditions are grouped together, they present a rather impressive picture of the Indians’ recollection of the flood. The Incas and others in the region believed that the flood occurred anciently, before the present peoples even existed, and that it was caused by divine decree prompted by the sinfulness of mankind. They knew that only one man, or one family, had been saved, and they associated the salvation of many animals with the flood as well. The method of salvation they remembered was sometimes a seagoing vessel and sometimes a high mountain peak, often one that floated. They had some kind of idea that the flood was an ancient type or symbol of another destruction, yet future, by fire or pestilence. Finally, they associated the rainbow with the promise that the flood would never again come to destroy the earth. Of course, the Andean Indians had no writing systems generally employed throughout their culture, so their traditions are almost entirely oral, transmitted from father to son, and as such have been disfigured with time. However, I think it is valid to conclude as did Vasquez de Espinosa, who, writing in 1630, made the following observation:

“Thus, since it had been such a short time after the flood that the Indians came over to these lands, they remembered it so well that they conserved its story by tradition passed on from one to another until the present time, because the Indians had memory and knowledge of it by tradition from their ancestors, even though with the passage of time and lack of writing, they had mixed the truth with some lies and superstitions that had dimmed the light of truth, although they had some sparks and indication of it.” 14

[photo] Photo by Scott Rutherford

[illustration] Lacking extensive writing systems, the ancient Andeans transmitted their traditions by word of mouth from father to son, generation to generation. Through these oral recitations they have preserved a colorful account of a deluge that covered the whole earth with water. Although their legends differ somewhat from the Biblical epic of Noah, these charming tales still preserve the major elements of the universal story of the Flood. (Illustrated by Scott Snow.)

[illustration] While the Andean Indians preserved legends of the Flood orally, some Mayans depicted the deluge in art. This image from the Dresden Codex, p. 74, portrays the destruction of the world by water. At the top, a dragonlike creature stretches across the sky. It has symbols of some constellations and signs for solar and lunar eclipses. Water flows from its mouth and from the eclipse signs. At the middle of the illustration, the goddess Ixchel is also pouring water on the earth. The dark figure at the bottom represents the underworld god of merchants, warfare, and hunting.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Calancha, Antonio de la, Crónica Moralizada del Orden de San Augustín en el Perú, Barcelona: Pedro Lacavallería, 1639, p. 41.

  2.   2.

    Montesinos, Fernando de, Memorias Antiguas Historiales y Políticas del Perú, Lima: Horacio H. Urteaga, 1930, p. 1.

  3.   3.

    Gonzalez Holguin, Diego, Vocabulario de La Lengua General de Todo el Peru Llamada Quichua o del Inca, Lima: Ediciones del Instituto de Historia, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1952, p. 489.

  4.   4.

    Poma de Ayala, Felipe Guaman, Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, Lima: Casa de la Cultura del Perú, 1969, p. 25.

  5.   5.

    Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro, Historia de Los Incas, Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1943, p. 102.

  6.   6.

    Cieza de Leon, Pedro, El Señorío de Los Incas, Lima: Editorial Universo, 1973, p. 13.

  7.   7.

    Molina, Cristobal de, Ritos y Fábulas de Los Incas, Buenos Aires: Editorial Futuro, 1959, p. 11.

  8.   8.

    Avendano, Fernando de, Sermones, Lima: Jorge Lopez de Herrera, 1648, folios 22 y 89.

  9.   9.

    Cobo, Bernabé, Historia del Nuevo Mundo, Sevilla: Marcos Jimenez de La Espada, 1892, Tomo III, pp. 314, 315.

  10.   10.

    Agustinos y Francisco Dávila, Informaciones acerca de la Religión y Gobierno de Los Incas, Lima: Sanmarti, 1918, p. 11.

  11.   11.

    Cabello Balboa, Miguel, Miscelanéa Antártica, Lima: Instituto de Etnología, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1951, p. 262.

  12.   12.

    Molina, p. 28.

  13.   13.

    Cobo, Tomo III, pp. 310, 311.

  14.   14.

    Vazquez de Espinosa, Antonio, Compendio y Descripcíon de Las Indias Occidentales, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1948, p. 22.