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 my renewed exploration of the mythologies of great sea monsters, under whatever name they may be found. To me, they are all “Leviathan”.
My poem is a convenient and personal point of departure to explore how and why humanity relates to the world through the metaphor of the great sea beasts, real and imagined. 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 may be 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 as presented in Thomas Hobbes’ work of political philosphy.
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.
When I was a young student of literature, I focused my attention on Canadian and British literature and was not aware of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself when I wrote my Leviathan poem. Today, it would be a foolish endeavour (beyond humbling) to compare Whitman’s tremendous poem to my brief scribble. However, I see that I was expressing similar notions to Whitman when I read his 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 this being a biblical passage, we will set aside any theological analysis and focus on the awe-invoking depiction of amonster 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 Job 41:1, Leviathan is specifically named. There are a variety of other biblical references which seem to equate Leviathan to dragons and sea monsters.
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.
Considered to have been originally composed in the eighth century, Beowulf is a gate-keeper to English literature. Not long ago, most students of the literature of the English language 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 – though, there is a fundamental link between “leviathan” and “dragons”.
Beowulf, the character, is a prototypical warrior-king. Over the course of the epic poem, Beowulf’s heroic deeds are recounted. A lengthy depiction of derring-do. Beowulf is a “hero” in the sense of that the character is presented as a kind of ideal. A person of action, intelligence, courage, strength, humour and loyalty. Within the context of the eighth-century (if not entirely in the twenty-first), Beowulf is the person who would and should be a king.
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.
I possess about a dozen different versions of Beowulf from various author/translators, including two copies of Howell D Chickering, Jr.’s excellent dual-language edition of the poem (Anchor Books). The following passage is taken from the Chickering version of Beowulf, though without the line formatting:
“But to tell the true story, I had more sea-strength, power in swimming, and also more hardship, than any other man. To each other we said, as boys will boast – we were both still young – that we two alone would swim out to sea, to the open ocean, dare risk out lives, and we did as we said. We held taken swords hard in our hands as we sawm on the sea; thought to protect us from whales’ tusks. He could not glide, swim farther from me, away on the surge, the heaving waves, no swifter in water, nor would I leave him. Five nights we swam, together on the ocean, till it drove us apart in its churning, sliding; that coldest weather turned against us, dark night and water, the north wind war-sharp. Rougher were the waves and angry sea-beasts had been stirred-up. Then my body-armor, hard-linked, hand-joined, did me some service, against their attack; my chain-metal war-shirt, worked with gold, covered my chest. A fierce sea-monster dragged me down deep, held me on the bottom in his cruel grip. However it was granted that my point reached him; I stabbed as I could with my sharp sword, with battle-thrust kille dth huge sea-beast by my own hand. Again and again the angry monsters made fierce attacks. I served them well with my noble blade, as was only fitting. Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast, dark things in the sea that meant to eat me, sit round their banquet on the deep sea-floor. Instead, in the morning, they lay on the beach, asleep from my sword, the tide-marks bloodied from their deep gashes, and never again did they trouble the passage of seafaring men across the ocean. Light came from the east, God’s bright beacon, and the seas calmed, till I saw at last the sea-cliffs, headlands, the windy shore. So fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage holds. However it was, I had chanced to kill some nine sea-beasts. I never have heard of a harder night-fight under heaven’s vault, of a man more oppressed on the ocean streams. Yet I survived those clutches and lived, weary in my venture…“
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 convey and reinforce an established cultural 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.
Beowulf’s final battle of the epic poem, Beowulf describes his dress in similar manner to his dress when facing the sea-beasts at the beginning of of the story: “I would not carry sword or weapons against the serpent if I knew how else to grapple proudly, wrestle the monster, as I did with Grendel; but here I expect the heat of war-flames, his poisonous breath, and so I am dressed in shield and armour…” and establishes, with Beowulf’s death an expected close when combatting Leviathan. One cannot expect to survive such an ordeal more than once.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1797/98. As with Beowulf, it is a major feature of English literature and contains key themes: sea-monsters/creatures and an exploration of man’s relationship to the power of nature (and the supernatural). It is one of my favorite poems and stylistic elements of Rime of the Ancient Mariner are included in my Leviathan.
Coleridge’s poem was written to be included as a part of a co-authored collection of poems with William Wordsworth – the Lyrical Ballads. The story of the collection of the poems is, perhaps, equally or more engaging than many of the poems themselves. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote:
The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life…In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least Romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. … With this view I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’
As an aside, I titled my first collection of poems “Leviathan: The Biographia Isocratica” as a somewhat ironic imitation of Coleridge’s literary biography. In their experiment in producing Lyrical Ballada, Coleridge and Wordsworth played-out within a volume of poetry a social battle that continues to wage under various names. Coleridge explains the battle, and his side in it, in many sections of Biographia Literaria. The argument may most succinctly be described as humanism versus supernaturalism
Wordsworth wrote that,
“The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the Poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is every where true to nature, a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language; and the versification, though the metre is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable. It therefore appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the Poem a value which is not often possessed by better Poems.“
But Rime of the Ancient Mariner continues to be appreciated by many people today. Like Leviathan, it continues to swim within the culture. Coleridge’s poem helped to renew the literary theme of the struggle between humanity and fearsome oceanic powers for other works of literature such as: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Ernest Hemingway’s The old Man and the Sea (1951) and others.
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The Old Man and the Sea
Section Coming Soon
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 small contribution to the vast and wonderful human heritage which contemplates the vast and powerful . 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.