Leviathan Meanings, Symbolism, and Mythology

Leviathan Mythology and MeaningsThe leviathan is a giant sea monster that is referenced in the Bible and which has roots in the pre-biblical mythologies of ancient cultures. Described as a giant sea serpent, dragon, or other sea monster, the leviathan has some common cross-cultural meanings. For example, the leviathan symbolizes chaos, fearsome power, dark forces, authoritarianism, massive challenges, addiction, and more.

In this post, you’ll learn about leviathan mythology, its symbolism and meanings, similar sea creatures in other cultures, and what the spirit of the leviathan might mean in your own life.

sea monsters attacking a ship
An untitled engraving from 1684 of sea monsters attacking a ship. Image: Johann Christoph Wagner.

What does the leviathan symbolize?

  • Chaos
  • Anarchy
  • Fearsome Power
  • The Apocalypse
  • Dark Forces
  • The Devil
  • Authoritarianism
  • Enemies
  • Massive Challenges
  • Addiction
  • Irrational Fear
  • The Defeat of Ignorance
  •  

What is a leviathan?

The authors of the Old and New Testaments describe the leviathan as a massive sea monster that has serpentine and dragon-like qualities. To begin, in Job 41:26 – 30, the leviathan is described as having scales that are like armor or shields, which a javelin cannot pierce.

The leviathan is also described like a dragon. Not only does it have sharp teeth, when it breathes, smoke comes out of its nostrils and fire comes out of its mouth. (Job 41:19 – 20, Psalm 18:8.)

Furthermore, in the Book of Revelation, the leviathan is described as being red in color with seven heads and 10 horns. (Revelation 12:1-17.)

Is the leviathan real?

Strange Sea Creatures
Sea Wonders and Strange Animals, Sebastian Münster, 1570. Image: RareMaps.com.

Today, the leviathan is considered a mythical beast. However, we must put the leviathan and its sea monster predecessors in context to the times in which their stories were told.

Dating from at least 3500 BC, serpent deities appeared in ancient Mesopotamian stories depicted on clay tablets and other formats. It would be another 3,000 years before the science of marine biology began to take form. Around 350 BC, Aristotle began to write about marine life, such as noting that whales and dolphins were mammals. And even then, people still knew very little about the creatures that lurked beneath the ocean’s surface.

Certainly, when the Old Testament was written, sometime between 1200 – 165 BC, the world looked very different from the way it does today. To begin, wild animals were far more plentiful than they are now. So, early seafarers likely saw many more whales and other marine life than we see today. In addition, people undoubtedly saw far more dead whales, squids, snakes, octopi, and other marine life washed up on shores than we do in modern times. Furthermore, they most likely saw more dinosaur fossils.

All of this coupled with dearth of scientific understanding left much to the imagination. So, while the leviathan was not a real animal, it was most assuredly based on real animals, or combinations of them, that people saw at the time.

Etymology of the Word Leviathan

Etymologists surmise that the word “leviathan” is derived from the Hebrew word liwyah, which means wreath, or the word lavah, which means join or connect. It may also be based on the Arabic word lawa, which means to bend or twist. Furthermore, the word leviathan may be partially derived from the Hebrew word for sea creature, which is tannin.

Leviathan Mythology

Sea Monsters Attacking a Ship

While the leviathan is most known from its biblical references, like other mythical creatures, its origins most likely pre-date times of written language when stories were passed down orally. Luckily, we have physical artifacts, such as stone tables, that help to unravel the mystery and history of the leviathan. Here are stories about the leviathan and similar sea beasts from other cultures:

Tiamet in Mesopotamian and Babylonian Mythology

In Mesopotamian and Babylonian mythology, there is a goddess called Tiamet who is portrayed as both a mother and creator goddess as well as a malevolent force. Tiamet rules chaos as well as the sea and other waterways. She is depicted as a giant sea creature.

According to ancient texts that tell the story of Tiamet, it’s clear that the pandemonium she created had to be quelled. So, Marduk, the patron god who ruled healing, justice, and compassion, battled her to bring order to the world. Ultimately, Tiamet lost. Once she was defeated, Marduk splits her into two pieces and from her body he created Heaven and Earth. Furthermore, Tiamet’s eyes became the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Apep in Ancient Egypt

Apep Attacking Ra
Funerary papyrus depicting Ra’s solar boat being attacked by the serpent deity Apep. Image: Soutekh 67.

Around this time in world history, the ancient Egyptians told stories of a snake deity named Apep. According to Egyptian legends, as the sun god Ra made his daily journey across the sky, bringing light to the world, Apep was always there, trying to impede his progress.

Apep’s overarching goal was to create darkness and chaos in the world. Appropriately, Apep was also referred to as the Lord of Chaos. And befitting his nickname, he would create storms, lightning, and other havocs. But just as Marduk battled Tiamet, so Ra battled his own serpent arch enemy, Apep, to bring order to the world.

Typhon and the Hydra in Greek Mythology

Zeus Battling Typhon
Zeus battling Typhon. Image: Gallery of Mythology by A.L. Millin.

In Greek mythology, the Earth goddess Gaia was angry with Zeus because she felt he had treated her sons, the Titans, disrespectfully. So, she joined with Tartarus, the god of the underworld, and they produced a son – the monster Typhon.

Typhon was a dragon-like beast who spewed fire and smoke. In fact, he was so horrifying that the Olympian gods fled to Egypt where they were transformed into animals. It wasn’t until Athena shamed Zeus and called him a coward that Zeus decided to take on the snake demon Typhon.

The two engaged in a calamitous battle in which Zeus hurled thunder and lightning bolts at Typhon. However, Typhon managed to encircle Zeus with his coils and drag him to his cave on Mount Parnassus. There Typhon had his dragon sister, Delphyne, guard him. However, Zeus’ son Hermes and the goat-legged god Aigipan came to Zeus’ rescue and freed him. With newfound strength and the mighty winged horse Pegasus pulling his chariot, Zeus pursued Typhon all the way to Sicily. There he crushed him with Mount Aetna.

The Hydra

In addition to Typhon, the Greeks told stories of other sea creatures who may have been precursors to the leviathan. The Hydra was a nine-headed sea serpent who wreaked havoc on people and their livestock. If some hero managed to cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, it would stubbornly sprout two more in its place. It wasn’t until Hercules came along that the Hydra was defeated.

Undoubtedly, these stories were not only precursors to the tales of the leviathan, but they were also the blueprints for later folktales about heroes slaying dragons.

Yamm and the Lotan

In the 1920s, archeologists discovered a set of ancient seals that dated back to the 18th -16th centuries BC. The seals were discovered in the bygone city of Ugarit, which was located in what is now modern-day Syria.

The artwork on the seals depicted vivid stories of the Canaanite god Baal, who ruled the weather, battling the god Yamm, who ruled oceans, lakes, and rivers. Like Apep, Yamm was also the overlord of darkness and chaos. In fact, the Canaanites attributed huge waves and storms at sea to Yamm’s rage.

The Canaanites were people from a mix of ethnicities who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. While they were ethnically diverse, they shared polytheistic views and related mythological stories.

Sometimes portrayed as a giant sea monster, the Canaanites’ Yamm is considered to be an early manifestation of the leviathan. In a story told in a poem format called the Baal Cycle, Baal defeats Yamm just as Marduk defeated Tiamet, Ra defeated Apep, and Zeus defeated the Typhon.

In other versions of the epic story, Yamm creates his own a sea creature to battle Baal, which is called the Lotan.

The Leviathan in the Bible

Destruction of the Leviathan
Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré, 1865.

The leviathan appears in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, where its symbolic meaning bear resemblance to earlier mythologies.

A sea creature called a tannin that is referenced in Canaanite mythology also appears in the Hebrew Bible. The modern-day translation of the Hebrew word tannin is crocodile. However, biblical translations also include sea monster, serpent, sea dragon, and whale.

Most of us are familiar with the story in the Book of Genesis about the serpent in the Tree of Knowledge who tempts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So, in a biblical context, from the beginning, the serpent is a manifestation of the devil, evil, and sin.

The Staffs of Moses and Aaron

In the Book of Exodus, on different occasions, Moses and his brother Aaron are commanded by God to throw their staffs down on the ground to demonstrate God’s presence and will.

In both cases, the staffs transform into serpents. When Aaron throws down his staff, it’s in the presence of the Egyptian pharaoh and his court. The staff turning into a serpent is miraculous. However, as God predicts, the pharaoh remains close-minded. He even has his magicians perform the same “trick.” Nonetheless, when their staffs are turned into serpents and then reverted back to staffs, Aaron’s staff devours theirs. So, in the story, God’s power overcomes that of the magicians’ serpents.

In the case of Moses, he must convince the Israelites that he is a true messenger of God. So, he told by God to throw his staff down ground. Again, the staff becomes a serpent. However, as commanded by God, when Moses grabs the serpent by its tail, it reverts back to a staff.

In both cases, the serpents, or tannins, symbolize evil, negative forces, and a lack of faith, which must be overcome.

Rahab

In the Bible, at times the tannin is referred to as Rahab. The name Rahab translates to bluster, rage, insolence, and pride. As Rahab is described as a wicked serpent, it comes to symbolize Egypt after the Exodus of the Jews. And again, only God’s power can overcome it.

In Isaiah 51:9, the Servant of the Lord says, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord, awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Are you not it that has cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?”

Leviathan in the Book of Job

By the Book of Job, the leviathan takes on the more monstruous qualities of a sea monster. God describes the leviathan as having “terrible teeth” and “rows of scales” that are so “tightly bound” that not even air gets through. He also describes the monstrous leviathan as sneezing “flashes of light” and spewing flames out of its mouth. (Job 41:12 – 21.)

Essentially, the leviathan is indomitable. And in the story, God references the leviathan in context to his own strength. If Job can’t defeat the leviathan, how could he ever be more powerful than God?

Leviathan in the Book of Psalms

In Psalms, the leviathan is again mentioned as a foil for God’s power: “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of the leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.” (Psalm 74:13 – 14.)

Then in Psalm 104: 25 – 26, the leviathan is described as one of God’s creations frolicking in a sea that was also created by God, which is vast enough to contain it: “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number, living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed, to frolic there.”

The Leviathan in Isaiah

In Isaiah, the leviathan symbolizes the kings or pharaohs of Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria who oppress God’s people. Crocodiles were plentiful in the Nile River, so the Israelites most likely associated them with Egypt, which enhanced the metaphor of Egypt as a sinister sea monster.

“In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1.)

Leviathan in the Book of Revelation

The anti-Christ seated on the leviathan
The anti-Christ seated on the Leviathan. Liber Floridus (Ghent University) 1120. Image: Lambert- Liber Floridus (1120).

The leviathan also appears in the New Testament. By the Book of Revelation, the authors are starting to directly associate the leviathan with Satan: “The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the Earth, and his angels with him.” (Revelation 12:9.)

Later in Revelation, the leviathan, referred to as a dragon, symbolizes the worship of men instead of God as well as the words of false prophets. (Revelation 13.)

Jonah and the Whale (or Leviathan)

Jonah and the Whale
Jonah and the Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1621. Image: Museum Kunstpalast.

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of Jonah, the man who was swallowed by a whale. While the whale version of the story is the generally accepted one, some biblical scholars believe the whale was actually the leviathan. The confusion lies in the various translations of the Bible. For example, in the Bible, there was not a specific Hebrew word for “whale” as there was for “crocodile,” which was tannin. But as mentioned earlier, even the word tannin has some variations, including crocodile and sea monster.

When the Book of Jonah was written in the 5th of 4th centuries, there were whales in the Mediterranean Sea, as there still are today. However, only one species of whale is physically able to swallow a human being, and that’s the sperm whale. (Other whale species have throats that are too narrow to swallow a person, and their baleens are not designed to chew up large prey in order to swallow it.)

At the time Jonah was written, there were sperm whales in the Mediterranean. So technically, the story of Jonah could have been based on a sperm whale actually swallowing a many. However, while there have been some historical accounts of sperm whales swallowing people, these accounts are unproven. Still, it will probably remain a mystery whether the authors of the Book of Jonah were telling the story of a whale or the leviathan, or if they thought a whale was a leviathan.

Whether a sperm whale swallowed Jonah or not, the erroneous view of whales as fierce apex predators, even monsters, persisted to the 19th century, when Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, and beyond.

The Leviathan in Mysticism

In Jewish and Christian mysticism, the leviathan came to be a symbol of the defeat of ignorance and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. In the foundational piece of Kabbalistic literature called the Zohar, the leviathan takes on the form of an ouroboros, or the symbol of a circular snake eating its tale.

While interpretations vary, in Jewish and Christian mysticism, the symbol of the ouroboros may imply that human beings are caught in a cycle of the material world until we break free and reach spiritual enlightenment through a connection with God.

Chinese Dragon

An article about the leviathan would be incomplete without mentioning its Asian counterpart: the Chinese dragon. Like the leviathan, the Chinese dragon is an enormous fire-breathing reptile. In addition, it controls water, including the ocean, typhoons, and floods. However, the Asian version of the dragon has much more positive aspects than the leviathan. The Chinese respected and feared their dragon like the leviathan, however, they also saw it as a symbol of honorable power and good fortune.

Nordic Jörmungandr

Jormungandr
Depiction of Jörmungandr on a 17th century Icelandic manuscript (turned sideways), 8th century. Image: Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland.

The Vikings also had their version of the giant sea monster. In Norse mythology, the giant serpent is called Jörmungandr. According to Nordic legends, the god Loki had three children, one of whom was Jörmungandr. Concerned about the massive serpent’s power, the god Odin threw him into the sea. There, Jörmungandr grew so large that he encircled the world.

Native American Underwater Panther

Thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, the Native Americans also told stories of a supernatural sea monster. They called this creature the Underwater Panther. The Ojibwe Native Americans told stories of an aquatic creature that was fierce and bloodthirsty, which would eat people. In addition, it ruled lakes, rivers, and other waterways.

Leviathan Spirit Animal

Sea Dragon

On a personal level, the leviathan spirit animal can symbolize any number of great challenges that a person faces in their lifetime. These challenges are karmic in scope and can include repeated negative cycles that are hard to break. For example, the leviathans we battle in our lifetimes might be addiction, abuse, cruelty, unhealthy relationships, or unhealthy behavior. On a spiritual level, the leviathan symbolizes the negative beliefs and behaviors that we want to master in order to evolve in this lifetime.

On a societal level, which also impacts our spiritual growth, the leviathan symbolizes abuse of power, authoritarianism, anarchy, and willful ignorance. As a society, we can choose to submit to the leviathan, run away, or face it and defeat it.

While religious backgrounds and spiritual beliefs vary, the leviathan archetype challenges all of us to seek out a higher power. That power may be in the form of God or Source. Or it may be in the form of the most powerful force in the Universe, which is love.

Leviathan Dream

If you dream of a sea monster or imposing serpent of some kind, it can be a sign that it’s time to face your demons – or big challenges that are holding you back in some way.

Dream meanings and interpretations are personal to every individual. However, as a monster, the leviathan has some obvious meanings. It represents a challenge that is large in scope, that we might fear, and which might seem undefeatable. Yet, dreaming of the leviathan demonstrates that your subconscious mind, or even your superconscious, is working to help you overcome it.

Leviathan Tattoo

Leviathan Tattoo

A leviathan tattoo is not to be trifled with, as it’s a powerful symbol with deep historical and symbolic meanings. While tattoos are deeply personal to the individual whose skin they adorn, a leviathan tattoo speaks volumes.

For one, it can demonstrate that you are person who has worked hard to conquer your demons and overcome challenges in your life. It can also symbolize that you’ve conquered fears. Furthermore, it can demonstrate that you’ve found your personal power. Or it may simply show that you love sea monsters!

Whatever your reasons for getting a leviathan tattoo, hopefully understanding more about leviathan mythology and symbolism can bring deeper meaning to your tattoo.

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