Sketchbook Page 47: L is for Leviathan (songs from The Hellmouth)
July 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Bones from a Bestiary part 12: L is for Leviathan
This is the twelfth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.
With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …
My Leviathan is based on the (inverted) skull of a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), a species of baleen whale and one of the larger rorqual species. Adult humpbacks range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). An acrobatic animal known for breaching and slapping the water with its tail and pectorals, it is popular with whale watchers off Australia, New Zealand, South America, Canada, and the United States. Males produce a complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.
The ‘tattoo’ motifs on my humpback’s jaw are based on sonograph images of whale song.
Sea serpents feature prominently in the mythology of the Ancient Near East, attested as early as the 3rd millennium BCE in Sumerian iconography depicting the myth of the god Ninurta overcoming the seven-headed serpent. Examples of the storm god vs. sea serpent trope in the Ancient Near East can be seen with Baʿal versus Yam (Canaanite), Marduk versus Tiamat (Babylonian), and Atum versus Nehebkau (Egyptian) among others, with attestations as early as the 2nd millennium (as seen on Syrian seals).
In the Ugaritic texts Lotan, or possibly another of Yam’s helpers, is given the epithets “wriggling serpent” and “mighty one with the seven heads”. Isaiah 27:1 uses the first of these phrases to describe Leviathan (although in this case the name “Leviathan” may refer to an unnamed historical/political enemy of Israel rather than the original serpent-monster). In Psalm 104, Leviathan is not described as harmful in any way, but simply as a creature of the ocean, part of God’s creation. It is possible that the authors of the Job 41:2–26, on the other hand, based the Leviathan on descriptions of Egyptian animal mythology where the crocodile is the enemy of the solar deity Horus (and is subdued either by Horus, or by the Pharaoh). This is in contrast to typical descriptions of the sea monster trope in terms of mythological combat.
“And on that day were two monsters parted, a female monster named Leviathan, to dwell in the abysses of the ocean over the fountains of the waters. But the male is named Behemoth, who occupied with his breast a waste wilderness named Duidain.”
(1 Enoch 60:7–8)
Later Jewish sources describe Leviathan as a dragon who lives over the Sources of the Deep and who, along with the male land-monster Behemoth. When the Jewish midrash (explanations of the Tanakh) were being composed, it was held that God originally produced a male and a female Leviathan, but lest in multiplying the species should destroy the world, he slew the female, reserving her flesh for the banquet that will be given to the righteous on the advent of the Messiah (B. B. 74b). Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:21 repeats this tradition: “God created the great sea monsters—taninim. According to legend this refers to the Leviathan and its mate. God created a male and female Leviathan, then killed the female and salted it for the righteous, for if the Leviathans were to procreate the world could not stand before them.”
The enormous size of the Leviathan is described by Johanan bar Nappaha, from whom proceeded nearly all the aggadot concerning this monster: “Once we went in a ship and saw a fish which put his head out of the water. He had horns upon which was written: ‘I am one of the meanest creatures that inhabit the sea. I am three hundred miles in length, and enter this day into the jaws of the Leviathan'” (B. B. l.c.).
In a legend recorded in the Midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer it is stated that the fish which swallowed Jonah narrowly avoided being eaten by the Leviathan, which eats one whale each day.
The body of the Leviathan, especially his eyes, possesses great illuminating power. This was the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, who, in the course of a voyage in company with Rabbi Joshua, explained to the latter, when frightened by the sudden appearance of a brilliant light, that it probably proceeded from the eyes of the Leviathan. He referred his companion to the words of Job xli. 18: “By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning” (B. B. l.c.). However, in spite of his supernatural strength, the leviathan is afraid of a small worm called “kilbit”, which clings to the gills of large fish and kills them (Shab. 77b).
The Leviathan of the Middle Ages was used as an image of Satan, endangering both God’s creatures — by attempting to eat them —and God’s creation— by threatening it with upheaval in the waters of Chaos. St. Thomas Aquinas described Leviathan as the demon of envy, first in punishing the corresponding sinners (Secunda Secundae Question 36). Leviathan became associated with, and may originally have referred to, the visual motif of the Hellmouth, a monstrous animal into whose mouth the damned disappear at the Last Judgement, found in Anglo-Saxon art from about 800, and later all over Europe.
The Young Earth creationist opinion is that Leviathan and Behemoth are names given to dinosaurs which existed in Biblical times.