Wednesday February 16th, 2011

The original sea serpent, Leviathan, has over the years, lent its name to virtually any ocean going giant - in particular whales. However the Leviathan of legend is as far away from those generally peaceful, family loving sea mammals as you could get. For a start, it had several heads (anywhere between three and seven)and was the absolute scourge of the gods of the ancient worlds and mariners alike.

The Leviathan was testing hero-gods in Near Eastern mythology as far back as the 3rd millennium BC and turns up regularly in the Old Testament either as a figurative name for enemies of Israel (Book of Isaiah), any creature of the sea (Psalm 104) or as a monstrous crocodile (Book of Job).

According to Jewish mythology Leviathan is the sea-monster, Behemoth is the land-monster and Zig is the air monster: '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.'

Later sources describe Leviathan as a dragon and that Yahweh created a male and female.'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.

Throughout this part of the mythology Leviathan is referred to as a sacrificial object to be slain and its flesh served to the righteous. 'May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah (tent), so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.

The humungous conceptual size of the creature is best summed up by R.Johanan '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''

This Leviathan also has breath so hot that it can boil the sea, smells so bad that no living creature can endure his odour, can light up the sea for miles with his eyes and eats a whale every day. Apparently the whale that swallowed Jonah had narrowly escaped becoming lunch for the Leviathan. Despite all this the greatest monster of the deep is scared of something - a tiny worm called Kilbit which simply clings to the gills of large fish to kill them.

Rather like elephants and mice really!
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