Noah Gets Drunk After the Flood

These mosaics in the narthex (vestibule) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice illustrate part of the story of Noah.

Most people recognize Noah. He built the Ark to save the world from the flood, right? He collected all the animals, two-by-two, and loaded them onto the ark so that they could ride out the flood in safety and after the flood was over, he released them to repopulate the earth. What else is there to know?

Noah’s story continues after the end of the flood. When Noah and his family (wife, three sons, and their wives) came out of the ark, the earth was devestated. One of the first things they had to do was begin farming so that they could have something to eat. As part of the farming project, Noah dug a garden and planted grapes. When the grapes were ripe, he harvested them and made wine. When the wine was ready, Noah began to drink it. And drink it. And DRINK it! The first recorded instance of drunkeness! He got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. Naked.

His son Ham walked into the tent and saw his father naked. He went out and told his brothers Shem and Japheth what he had seen. Rather than leave their father laying naked, Shem and Japeth went into the tent, walking backwards and holding a cloak in front of their eyes so that they would not see their father naked. They covered Noah with the cloak and walked out again. When Noah woke up, he knew–apparently without anyone needing to tell him–what had happened. He was so furious at Ham’s behavior that he cursed Ham’s son Canaan.

Ham had seen his father naked. Not only did he do nothing to cover Noah but he went out and told other people and made fun of Noah for lying around drunk, passed out, and naked on the floor. Because Noah seemed to know what had happened, even without anyone telling him, early Jewish commentary thought that Ham had sexually abused his father in some way that left physical evidence behind and suggested that he had castrated his father. Since he had made it impossible for his father Noah to have any more children, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan with slavery to insure that Ham had no legal, property-owning descendants. (This idea was used to justify the Israelite occupation under the leadership of Joshua of the area known as Palestine or Canaan after the Exodus. Since Ham’s descendants were also thought to have populated Egypt and the rest of Africa, the curse of Noah was also used by preachers and politicians in the American South to justify the race-based slavery there.)

Early Christian preachers thought that Ham’s mockery of Noah was more important than “having seen his father naked.” Ham made fun of his father’s shame in public, prefiguring the ridicule Christ would face when dying on a cross. Since Christians respect Christ’s flesh like Shem and Japheth respected the flesh of their father, Ambrose of Milan argued, they too will be blessed. Reluctant to imagine that Noah, a savior like Christ, had been raped or castrated, Christian interpreters offered comparatively mild interpretations of this passage. Still, they were also convinced that Ham—and by extension his son Canaan—were wicked and deserved the harsh punishment they received.

For more about the ways the story of Noah and his sons, read here.

On the roof of the narthex (porch) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are a series of gorgeous Byzantine-style moasiacs illustrating stories from the Old Testament, beginning with the Creation and continuing with the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the lives of Abraham and Joseph, concluding with Moses leading the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land. The mosaics were made during the 1200s.

St. Michan’s Church

A view into one of the vaults in the crypt beneath St. Michan’s Church, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

A view of another vault beneath St. Michan’s, in which some of the mummies are exposed. The corpse on the left is an early medieval nun, the one is the middle had a hand cut off (accident? criminal punishment?), and the one on the right is a medieval man.

The church of St. Michan in Dublin is a fascinating place! Dublin was first settled by Danish Vikings (“Dublin” is derived from the Viking word for “Black Pool,” referring to the swampy ground the city was founded on) and Michan was apparently a Danish or Danish-Irish monk from that early 10th-11th century period. The church itself was first built in AD 1095 although the current building was erected in 1686 on the older foundation. It was the only parish church on the north side of the River Liffey (i.e. outside the city walls) for centuries.

In the crypt beneath the church are several vaults that were used to inter the coffins of the dead. These were preserved and expanded during the reconstruction of the building. Many of the coffins in the underground vaults date from the early Middle Ages although many also date from more recent times: leaders of a failed rebellion in 1798 are also interred here.

Because opening a sealed coffin is illegal — it is part of the crime of grave-robbing — no one realized there was anything unusual about the corpses below St. Michan’s until the older coffins began to break open as the weight of the newer coffins stacked atop them became too heavy. The coffins that broke open revealed that the corpses, which had not been treated in any unusual way, had all been mummified and preserved. This was probably due to the limestone used to build the vaults and the methane gas of the swamp below the foundations of Dublin. Limestone absorbs moisture and the constant cool temperature of the vaults helped preserve and mummify the bodies as well. The presence of methane reduces the amount of oxygen in the crypt and therefore reduces the amount of bacteria etc. that leads to more normal decomposition. (We presume that the corpses in the newer coffins are also becoming mummies as well although we won’t know for sure until the newer coffins break open as well. The vaults are still used on occasion for new internments so there is always the possibility of additional weight to break open the coffins that haven’t broken open — yet.)

Bram Stoker is thought to have visited the vaults in the crypt below St. Michan’s and possibly to have found inspiration there for at least a few of the scenes in his classic Dracula.

The church of St. Michan is very near the new Teeling whiskey distillery in Dublin, making a visit to both sites an easy excursion.