In 2016, I published a small collection of poems which I titled Leviathan: The Biographia Isocratica of Adrian Kun. The title poem, my “Leviathan”, continues to be one of my personal favourites. I wrote the first draft of that poem about twenty years earlier. “Leviathan”, the word and image that I used as the poem’s title is a metaphor and archetype drawn from a vast source of cultural reference. This essay is renewed exploration of the mythologies of great sea monsters, under whatever name they may be found. For me, they are all “Leviathan”. My poem is a convenient point of departure to explore how and why humanity relates to the world through the metaphor of the great see beast. I expect the essay to grow over time as I am able to devote time to this particular inquiry. Whatever you may find here today could be altered tomorrow.
What is Leviathan?
Leviathan is, potentially any great sea monster or beast. Leviathan is a sea dragon, the great white shark, Moby Dick, the kraken, megalodon, the kun form of the kun-peng.
The leviathan is one of the primal human archetypal concepts with origins in pre-historic societies. Quite possibly the archetype is hundreds of thousands of years older than the civilizations of humanity. I am convince that it is an archetype rooted in our evolutionary ancestors’ understanding of their natural world. My expectation is that a conscious and intelligent awareness of vast and powerful sea creatures pre-dates the Homo sapiens species. I doubt there has been a version of humanity that has not been aware of, and wary of, the creatures of the deep.
Self-absorbed as humanity tends to be, it may be valuable to recall to our own attention that there had been creatures of the deep long before there was a Homo sapiens. Sharks appear in the fossil record before trees. 450 million years. Primates diverged from other mammals about 85 million years ago. Homo sapiens, what we might call “contemporary humans” have existed for about 300,000 years. Leviathan are the creatures that came before us.
These vast and preceding entities which humanity has so rarely understood….these archetypes of primordiality….necessarily became a fundamental metaphor of human experience which was exploited by a wide variety of individuals and cultures. Leviathan is a primary-order symbol that acts as a foundation for other symbols and metaphors.
Despite the deep-roots of the leviathan metaphor that I was exploiting, the poem was not originally written with any intent to explore natural history. Instead the poem was an attempt to invert and re-position notions of the individual within a social and political structure.
My poem ends with a claim that “I am massive, I am Leviathan.” This declaration is a staked claim to the common and universal potentials of humanity; it is also an acknowledgement of the unseen components of my self that I sense swirling beneath the surface of my immediate awareness.
As a young student of literature, I focused my attention on Canadian and British literature and was therefore not aware of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself when I wrote my Leviathan. It would be a foolish endeavour (beyond humbling) to compare Whitman’s tremendous poem to mine. However, I can see that I was expressing similar notions to Whitman when I read the extraordinarily similar line, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
As “Leviathan”, individuals have the potential to be more, and different than what may be seen. The metaphor draws on an inversion of a concept employed by Thomas Hobbes in his political philosophy book, also titled Leviathan.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published a massive work of political theory through which he re-purposed the Leviathan metaphor. Hobbes’s use of the metaphor was to describe a national collective as the “Leviathan”. When all of the people are combined and united, they are a monstrously-powerful force, symbolically headed by a monarch. Hobbes’ Leviathan is an argument for monarchy but it is also an argument for a social contract that recognizes all people within a society.
Why did Hobbes use a monster to represent the human collective rather than some other metaphor? And why a sea monster rather than a land monster, such as Behemoth – another awe-inspiring Biblical creature that would have been familiar to his contemporary readers?
The choice of Leviathan seems, in part, to be based on the etymology (linguistic background) of the word itself which may be broken into root words of “lavah” (to connect or join” and “thannin” (a serpent or dragon”. The first root word establishes interconnectedness of the people. This was an important feature of Hobbes’s philosophy. The second root word has deeper cultural roots.
Clearly, basing the metaphor on a biblical source was familiar to his audience. For a Christian nation, as England certainly was at the time, the Biblical Leviathan was a familiar concept. Serpents and dragons are ancient concepts in England’s mythology such as St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf and other ancient tales. Symbolically, Hobbes extends the English (British) identity beyond merely slaying the dragon, to embodying and superseding the dragon. Hobbes is saying, when we unite, we are the monster others may fear….or as in the Biblical quote “no greater power”.
The use of sea monster also established a connection to the sea as a place of power for Britain.
Underpinning all of these associations is a awareness and sense of awe for the mysterious, immense and powerful creatures of the ocean.
Leviathan of Job 41:1
Given Hobbes’ use of the word “Leviathan” and the massive influence of the Bible on global culture and literature, it would be beyond reason to omit the depiction of Leviathan in Job 41:1. Despite being a biblical passage, at this juncture, we can set aside any analysis of the underlying theology of the text and focus on the awe-invoking depiction of a a monster of the deeps:
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me. I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal- a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.
In reading the passage, it is clear that the creature being invoked was expected to be familiar to its contemporary readers as something as far beyond human conquest. This was power and strength incarnate. Unbeatable.
It is easy to see how and why Hobbes’ might want to invoke this image as something the British people might aspire-to. In a time when Hobbes described the average human existence as nasty, brutish and short, a political treatise offering to make the British people a nation of kings over all that are proud would have been appealing.
Beowulf is considered to be a gate-keeper to English literature. At one time, most students of English literature were expected to study the poem. While that kind of literary attention may or may not still be a feature of contemporary literary studies, this epic poem absolutely contains a valuable usage of the Leviathan archetype. And I’m not talking about the dragon that Beowulf fights at the end.
Early in the story, Beowulf recounts a youthful swimming dare between he and a rival named Breca. The two young warriors challenged each-other to swim in the cold Atlantic. For Beowulf, the dare resulted in a deadly fight with sea-monsters.
Within the structure of the poem, this brief anecdote helps to establish Beowulf’s character as a fearless warrior and athlete but it also helps to reinforce a connection between water and dreadfulness. The youthful sea-fight is a foreshadowing of the dive that Beowulf must undertake to combat Grendel’s mother as well as a foreshadowing of the land-based dragon that Beowulf must face at the end of his life. As with the biblical leviathan references, it is often difficult to separate ocean-dwelling leviathan from dragon myths of sea, land and air.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
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The Old Man and the Sea
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The Peter Benchley novel, Jaws was published in 1974. The movie followed in ’75. There may not be a more relevant and important iteration of leviathan in the twentieth-century film – nor in the modern conception of what leviathan means. Jaws established sharks in general, and the great white in particular as the sea beast that humans most dread. In 1978, the film Orca (based on Arthur Herzog‘s 1977 book) attempted to include the killer whale as an alternate leviathan representation. But Orca was derivative and didn’t capture public imagination as the sharks of Jaws had.
An important feature of the shark in Jaws is the enormous size of the fish. It is huge. One of the most dramatic and unforgettable moments in the film is when Roy Scheider’s character (Martin Brody) catches a first-glimpse of the shark and says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The Jaws film also clearly demonstrates that leviathan is a creature against which heroes may measure their deeds and mettle. Just as Beowulf recounted his swimming competition and struggles in Hrothgar’s court, Robert Shaw (as Quint) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Matt Hooper) compare scars and stories of their encounters with the dangerous creatures of the sea while drinking in the boat’s galley.
The scene in reminiscent, also of the opening of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when the narrator and his audience gather to share stories. Monsters and the void of the sea are deeply and permanently linked.
Quint’s lines call to Mind Friedrich Nietzche’s famous passage, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
These are notions and insights of the leviathan mythology. The relationship between humanity and the monsters that it chooses to fight.
My leviathan poem and this essay is a very small contribution to a vast and wonderful human heritage. Humanity’s relationship to the monsters of the deep is one of the primal orientations that occupies our species. Leviathan is the vast and unseen predator that can crush us, as individuals or as a collective. Our awe, dread, fear, respect, admiration totemic aspiration or whatever other affect we may put upon Leviathan are a fundamental motivating force in our lives.
We are leviathan.
Do you know of a ”Leviathan” poem or reference that should be included here? Let me know using the contact page.
External References and Links
- Job 41:1 Rendering Courtesy of: https://www.christianity.com/bible/bible.php?ver=niv&q=job+41
- Image of a naturalistic depiction of the biblical Leviathan https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/423619908672037529/
- Image of a watery Dragon and Beowulf artist cited as Karl Kopinski: https://www.pinterest.ca/Ginwarrior/the-story-of-beowulf/