I bet you’ve heard of Behemoth and Leviathan but who are/were they?
Here they are depicted as an ox (Behemoth) and as a huge fish (Leviathan) in a 13th century manuscript that was created in northern France but is written in Hebrew. The story of the pair is found in the book of Job but is far more developed in the Jewish tradition than Christian.
Behemoth, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library
Leviathan, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library
So it’s a story about an ox and a fish? Sort of but the ox is an animal so large that it covers the earth and the fish is of a similar size in the oceans.
The myth of Behemoth and Leviathan goes back to the beginning of time.
God created Leviathan on the fifth day and then Behemoth on the sixth. In some stories they both have wives created at the same time but in others only Leviathan gets female company. This doesn’t last long as Chaos comes along (like many things created at the beginning of time, chaos was both a concept and a living entity) and corrupts Leviathan. This means that Leviathan is now capable of evil intent and therefore God, quite sensibly, got rid of Mrs L. to avoid double trouble. As the pair were more powerful than any other creatures on land or earth, but equal in strength to each other, the world was held in equilibrium; evil existed but couldn’t prevail.
Ziz, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library
If you’re wondering whether the sky was represented in the same way, say hello to Ziz, the original big bird. According to a tale in the Babylonian Talmud, a bird was seen by sailors standing up to it’s ankles in water. They assumed that the water wasn’t deep but a voice warned them that they were very much deceived. Apparently a carpenter had dropped his axe seven years previously and it STILL hadn’t reached the bottom! I don’t, however, know how they knew it hadn’t reached the bottom?! If you watch the video, you will notice that I get this tale somewhat wrong but the essence is correct. These animals are massive.
So how do you represent animals of unfathomable size pictorially? You take your cue from written descriptions and think of animals that would garner the appropriate amount of respect and fear within your society.
The book of Job describes Behemoth as a strong herbivore with a tail like a cedar tree (to give some sense of scale). Leviathan is a scaly, twisty creature with sharp teeth.
Here they are again in a 13th century German manuscript. Ziz is a griffin type animal this time, Leviathan is huge enough to encircle an island and Behemoth is frankly just a happy ox chewing on a (presumably) very tall tree.
Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana
I wonder, though, whether this mosaic from the House of the Faun references the same myth? It can’t refer to a Christian context as it was created late in the 1st century BC. The hippopotamus and crocodile in the centre are certainly engaged in a little contretemps but don’t seem to be about to take it to the next level!
The mosaic depicts scenes from the Nile and these were the most feared of the animals to be found there. They also correspond with later tradition in that the hippo is a giant herbivore and the crocodile is known for its teeth and ability to twist. Could this particular creation myth have ancient roots?
Late 1st century BC mosaic, Scenes from the Nile, House of the Faun, Pompeii
So that’s what happened at the beginning of time, but how does it end? With a feast of course!
This is the image directly below Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz from the Ambrosiana Bible. The story goes that at the end of the world, God will command Behemoth and Leviathan to engage in combat. But as they are equally matched, it will be a fight to the death for both of them. Once dead, they will join the mother of all roast birds (Ziz – aww!) on the banquet table for all the righteous. And what a banquet this will be as it will herald the beginning of the Messianic Age when everyone will live in a world without evil. At least this what the Jewish tradition states. The book of Job in the bible is quiet on the matter but the apocryphal Old Testament tells the same tale.
Feast of the Righteous, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana