World consuming floods are one of the major motifs found through both ancient mythology and modern religion. In the west today, the most famous of these tales is by far the Biblical classic Noah’s Ark.
However, while just about everyone knows the story of Noah, fewer know the stories of his infamous cargo. Just what were those animals doing on that boat for forty days and forty nights? During the Middle Ages, people throughout Europe and the Middle East concocted “Animal Fables” about Noah’s menagerie.
Like many tales found in religious lore the tale of the animals aboard Noah’s ark begins with a conversation between Noah and the devil…
According to scripture and legend, after Noah has finished constructing the ark he began to fill it with animals. Two of every unclean animal and seven of every clean animal. Noah was able to distinguish the clean animals from the unclean because the clean kneeled before him when they arrived.
However, when the fly tried to board the ark Noah refused, as he – like most people – found flies annoying pests. However, no sooner had Noah denied the flies’ request for entry then did the devil appear before Noah. Now, the devil desperately wanted to find someway to make sure that the whole ark enterprise failed miserably, thus causing the extinction of the entire human race. So the devil told Noah that; “Either the flies go on board, or I do”, hoping that maybe Noah would pick the devil over the flies. However, Noah was not quite so foolish as that and promptly let the flies onboard.
Now according to European and Middle Eastern lore, because the devil was not allowed passage on the ark by Noah, he created the mouse and sent it on board where it gnawed a hole in the floor of the ark causing a leak that threatened to flood the entire ship. Seeing the problem, the loyal dog immediately tried to plug up the hole created by the mouse by sticking its nose into the hole. However, this didn’t work and only manage to ensure that from that day on all dog’s noses were wet and cold. Thus it finally fell upon the wise serpent to solve the problem of the leak, which it did by sticking its tail in the hole until the journey’s end.
This still didn’t solve the problem of the mischievous mice however who, at this point, were beginning to multiply beyond control and devour all of the ark’s grain. According to Israeli lore it was at this time that God himself intervened. In order to counteract the devil’s mice God had the lion sneeze a great sneeze and from its nostrils sprung the first cats who quickly gobbled up most of the mice.
Another animal that sprung to life on the ark was the pig. Israeli lore tells us how refuse was quickly pilling up inside the close quarters of the ark. Noah, in an attempt to remedy this problem, ran his hand down the back of an elephant from which sprang forth the world’s first pigs who quickly began to gorge themselves on the ark’s garbage.
There are also lots of legends about the birds on Noah’s ark, some good and some bad. One tale tells about how the magpies refused to roost inside the ark but instead sat on the roof discussing the sorry state of the flooded world. Ever since then magpies have been seen as an ill omen.
Genesis tells us about how after five months at sea Noah released two birds to go and see if the world was dry. The first bird was a raven, which originally had white feathers. The raven did not return to Noah but sat about eating the remains of floating corpses. Because of its foul diet the raven’s feathers have been black ever since. The second bird Noah released was a dove who returned with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that the earth was dry. To reward the dove God then gave it shinning white plumage that never molts.
Also according to folklore originating in the southern United States, after the flood God hung a rainbow in the sky as a sign that He would never flood the earth again. When Noah released all the birds from the ark they all flew through the rainbow and were given their beautiful multicolored plumage.
Finally, during the Middle Ages Christian monks told several animal fables concerning Noah Ark which involved wholly mythical beasts. Undoubtedly, the most famous of all mythical creatures to be connected to Noah’s ark is the unicorn. According to one popular story the unicorns did not make it onto Noah’s ark because they were too busy laughing and playing to give heed to Noah’s warning about the encroaching flood. According to another version the unicorn did make it on but was thrown off by Noah after an unspecified argument.
Above:Noah's Ark, painting by the American artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849).
Center: Noah releases the raven and the dove. From the Southern Netherlands, c. 1450-1460, artist unknown.