Rupture of major hydraulic dams, entire areas submerged by water, land subsidence, spectacular dislocations, thousands of deaths and missing people throughout the east of the country: the assessment, still temporary, of the floods which ravaged Libya in September is far from being limited to this brief and no less terrifying panorama of devastation.
Faced with the scale of the destruction and scenes of distress, some commentators were quick to describe the cataclysm as a "deluge", thus repeating the famous myth present in the Bible, but also in other cultures, and describing torrential and continuous floods caused by God (or the gods) to punish humanity. This inclination towards a mythical reading of events is reinforced by the fact that the disaster was caused by storm Daniel, a Mediterranean cyclone named after the Old Testament prophet who interpreted dreams and foresaw the future.
It is notable that the theme of divine punishment resurfaces in popular beliefs when it was thought to have disappeared with the Enlightenment and the entry into modernity.
The invocation of retributive theology in which the Ancients believed, based on the vision of an angry and vengeful God, can have the effect of obscuring the weight of human responsibilities, both moral and political. However, this convenient theology resurfaces once again in the discussion devoted to the Libyan drama, as if to compensate for the helplessness of the populations and the feeling of fault of the elites.
Supernatural punishment, divine punishment
For millennia, men seek to understand and interpret the disasters that befall them. This question, which often goes beyond any rational framework, is reiterated today in Libya as it was recently after the earthquakes that occurred in Morocco. as Syria and Türkiye, and elsewhere. Apprehended on an ethical level, these disasters always provide an ideal opportunity to invite people to the debate table the idea that the source of such disasters can only be supernatural, going far beyond human understanding, and that revenge – sometimes from the gods, sometimes from nature itself – is the most likely cause.
In countries with a Muslim tradition, particularly in the most conservative circles, the tendency to present these calamities as the expression of divine anger, followed by the judgment and punishment of men, remains common. Such a transcendental intervention would aim, according to the proponents of these discourses, to remind humans that they are not the masters of the world and that a “message” is sent to them in return for their actions. Yet, this resigned attitude is not based in this case on any singular teaching of Islam. No verse of the Koran, nor any hadith in fact enjoins believers to wallow in fatalism. On the contrary, Islam advocates faith in divine benevolence, in the same way as science and knowledge to reduce the risks weighing on humanity.
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But the legends which record, on a historical level, these seemingly extraordinary shocks, as well as the human responses to them, are not recent; they go back to the most ancient, pre-monotheistic civilizations. All existing stories raise the issue of why and provide the answer to what would come from a desire for retribution against humanity.
Geomythology of “diluvian man
As a historical-scientific discipline, geomythology looks at these supernatural narratives and attempts to connect the great flood myths of the past to the historical realities that accompanied them, to establish the part of reality and objective between this type of torrential and devastating floods and the discourses which are about them from. The myth of the flood, well known in Judeo-Christian culture through the episode of Noah's Ark, is not characteristic of monotheistic cultures alone: many other societies have transmitted similar stories of upheavals. destructive.
These stories are found among most peoples and in numerous oral and folkloric traditions linked to various natural phenomena - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, hurricanes, plagues, epidemics... Regardless of the beliefs or religions which underlie them, these They have the common denominator of wanting to explain the occurrence of disasters through a historical window leading to the reconstruction of a world full of meaning following mysterious events, situations considered uncontrollable.
Since the dawn of time, human life has coexisted with its natural environment, in a perpetual struggle for control of the latter. Therefore, the effort which consists of searching for meanings in events that are overwhelming on a psychological scale, because they are highly traumatic, like what happened in Libya, is part of an agency in search of causes, of intentions, effects, to regain control of a situation that seems to escape man, in other words his destiny. Many belief systems affirm that a supernatural or divine power does not simply intervene: it would punish by delivering to humanity, taken in part or in its entirety, violence and suffering to better invite him to reform.
Push back on human responsibility?
Should we not see in these legends and myths a strategy intended to repress the direct culpability of men in these disasters ? Fables, fantastical creatures and vengeful gods that surround premodern interpretations of the catastrophes befalling humanity are they not, in reality, proof of a land fault regarding environmental degradation with deleterious repercussions? Doesn’t the theme of divine punishment or that of reprisals from “Mother Nature” initially serve to escape this cruel reality?
In fact, the notion of supernatural punishment has the primary consequence of creating the illusion of exceptional, inexplicable cataclysms, while the floods that hit Libya and other nations span throughout history. The populations were not mistaken: the inhabitants of Derna, devastated by the waters, immediately expressed their anger against the authorities by demanding accountability, thus expressing a demand for rational responses. Relief initiatives are all the more difficult to implement as Libya has been ravaged by a deadly civil war for more than a decade and the coordination of humanitarian assistance to victims is managed by two antagonistic powers.
Against any superstitious or apocalyptic reading which would empty these developments of their human cause, the Libya's Attorney General Orders Detention of Eight Officials in charge of hydraulic resources, accused of having demonstrated mismanagement and negligence after cracks on the dams concerned were reported to them, without specific action to remedy them. Does this reaction, like others, suggest that the equation on the ground will fundamentally move in the right direction? Nothing is less sure.
Myriam Benraad, Head of the International Relations & Diplomacy Department / Schiller International University - Professor / Free Institute for the Study of International Relations and Political Sciences (ILERI) - Associate Researcher / IREMAM (CNRS/AMU), Aix-Marseille University (AMU)