Leviathan (Hebrew iwjatan "the writhing one") is a cosmic sea monster from Jewish mythology. Its description contains features of a crocodile, a dragon, a snake, or a whale. Leviathan is said to be defeated by God at the end of the world. The figure was later adopted into Christianity as a demon. It devours sinners at the Last Judgment.
A similar conception is found in Gnosticism. There, the Leviathan encompasses the created world and separates it from the Pleroma, devouring the souls of those who cannot leave the material world. In Arabic literature, the Leviathan appears as Bahamut, who carries the world on his back.
The basis of the concept of the Leviathan is ancient Babylonian and Canaanite myths. The oldest mention is of the dragon-shaped Mesopotamian salt-water goddess Tiamat, who had to be defeated by the man-creating god Marduk (surnamed Bel) in order to create a dwelling place for the gods.
The picture becomes clearer with the Canaanite gods Ba'al and Anath, who according to the clay tablets of Ugarit defeated the seven-headed sea monster Lotan, who is equated with the sea god Yam from Ugaritic mythology. Also striking is the similar image of Baal, the storm god, in the myths of Ugarit and in various psalms of the Bible and in the Book of Job.
According to Ps 104:26 EU, God formed Leviathan in order to "play with him" (Einheitsübersetzung). According to the Avoda Zara chapter of the Babylonian Talmud, God used to do this in the last three hours of the day after studying the Torah, judging the world, and feeding the world.
This theologically illustrates the power and sovereignty of the biblical God, for whom the fearsome being of ancient Near Eastern mythology is a powerless plaything.
According to other Bible translations, it is not God who plays with the Leviathan, but the latter in the sea or with the ships.
Leviathan occurs as a mythical beast, a cosmic dragon beast, in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible, the Old Testament of Christians) in Job and in the Book of Psalms. The Leviathan carries according to description above all features of a crocodile. In addition, however, also features of a dragon, a snake and a whale appear. Accordingly, he is translated in some Bible translations from the Hebrew also only with the name of one of these animals.
Sometimes he is taken merely as an allegory of the destructive power of the sea and thus as a counterpart to the land animal Behemoth and the bird Ziz, which, unlike Behemoth and Leviathan, is not of biblical origin.
A detailed description of the monster, described as vicious, is found in the Book of Job 40:25 - 41:26 EU, where its power and strength serve as an allegory for the fruitlessness of Job's rebellion against his fate.
"Canst thou draw Leviathan with a hook, and grasp his tongue with a cord? When thou layest thy hand upon him, remember that it is a strife which thou wilt not perform. No one is so bold that he may provoke him; Who can uncover his garment? and who may dare to grasp him between the teeth? His proud scales are like solid shields, tight and close together. Torches go out of his mouth, and fiery sparks shoot out. The limbs of his flesh cling together, and hold hard to him, that he cannot decay. His heart is as hard as a stone When he rises, the strong are terrified. If one wants to him with the sword, he does not move. He makes the deep lake boil like a pot. On earth there is no one like him; he is made to be without fear. He despises everything that is high"
- Luther translation of the Bible from 1534
Since all human effort must fall to shame before such a monster (Hi 3:8 EU), it remains for God Himself to defeat Leviathan at the end of time. According to Ps 74,14 EU he will "crush his head", according to Isa 27,1 EU "kill with his hard, great, strong sword", according to another translation also strangle him. Finally, according to the tractate Moed Katan in the Babylonian Talmud, the Leviathan will be fished out of the sea like a common fish.
According to a hymn usually recited on Shavuot called Akdamut or the Talmudic tractate Bava Bathra, after the battle of Armageddon at the end of time, there is a battle between the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth, in which the latter seeks to impale his adversary with his horns, while Leviathan strikes at the land monster with his fins.
Finally, the Lord will slay both with his mighty sword and give the flesh of the two monsters, together with that of the bird Ziz, to the righteous for food. Meanwhile, from their skin he will make them tents and canopies. Accordingly, the Sukkot prayer contains not only the well-known pious wish that they meet "next year in Jerusalem," but also that they meet in a tabernacle covered with the skin of Leviathan.
From these biblical traditions, the Apocrypha draw the motif of Leviathan as a female mythical creature sent by God, together with its male counterpart Behemoth, to chastise mankind (1 Hen 59:7 ff.). While the latter rules the desert, Leviathan rests at the bottom of the sea. In the end, both victims are saved by God's grace (1 Hen 60:7).
In the Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham looks at the world in a vision and sees it lying on Leviathan. With his destruction, he says, the world will come to an end.
In Christian times and culture, Leviathan is associated with the devil, but is also taken as an allegory for chaos and disorder, for godlessness and sinfulness of man. For Thomas Aquinas and the Jesuit Peter Binsfeld, he represents one of the seven deadly sins as the demon of envy. In Anglo-Saxon art (c. 800 and later), the Leviathan was depicted as a Hellmouth; an animal monster that Satan feeds to the damned at the Last Judgment.
Origen wrote about a Gnostic sect that he calls the Ophites, based on their attributed worship of the biblical serpent. The Leviathan has the role of the world soul, this encompasses the entire material world and separates it from the divine realm. After death, the soul would travel through the seven heavenly spheres of the archons.
If the soul does not succeed, it is devoured by an archon in dragon form and returned to the world in the form of a beast - a representation similar to the aforementioned Leviathan. Whether the Ophites identified the Leviathan with the serpent in the Garden of Eden is unclear. Since the Leviathan and the physical world have negative connotations, it is unlikely.
Another possibility would be that the serpent was definitely evil to look at, but gave good advice. Accordingly, it would be possible that the Leviathan, because of its identification with the world soul, was only mistakenly interpreted as divine.
In Mandaeism, the Leviathan is also called Ur.
In Manichaeism, a religion influenced by the ideas of Gnosticism, the Leviathan is killed by one of the sons of the fallen angel Samyaza, one of the biblical giants of prehistory. The act is not glorified, however, but shows the greatest attainable victories in life, as ephemeral and reflecting the Manichaean critique of royal power and advising asceticism.
The mythological monster inspired Thomas Hobbes to give the title to his famous treatise on the philosophy of the state, Leviathan (1651), in which the omnipotence of the state postulated by Hobbes is compared to the invincibility of the biblical monster. More recently, such a role has also been attributed to financial markets or to nature (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami).