In the Bible and talmudic literature the leviathan (Heb. לִוְיָתָן, livyatan; Ugaritic ltn, presumably pronounced lōtanu, or possibly, lītanu) denotes various marine animals, some real, others legendary, and others again both real and legendary. The word leviathan seems to derive from the root lwy, “to coil,” which is further confirmation of its serpentine form.
In the Bible it is used interchangeably with several other sea monsters – tannin (“dragon”), rahav, and yam (“sea”; of which the last-named alternates with neharim (“flood”) in Hab. 3:8) – all of whom are represented as supernatural enemies of God. This hostility directly reflects a myth widely known in pre-biblical sources of a primordial combat between the creator deity and the forces of the sea, personifying chaos, which the former must overcome to create and control the universe (see Creation).
The Hittites knew it as the struggle between the dragon Illuyankas and the mortal Hupashiyas (Pritchard, Texts, 125–6; COS I, 150–51). In Mesopotamia it appears in several forms, of which the most famous is the battle of Marduk and Tiamat in the creation epic (COS I, 390–402). More relevant is a cylinder seal from Tell Asmar of the 24th century B.C.E., which pictures two men fighting a seven-headed serpent (reproduced in IDB 3, 116).
The leviathan itself may have been found in a Mesopotamian incantation designed "to revive a serpent" (see van Dijk in bibliography). The closest Near Eastern parallel to the biblical materials, however, and probably their actual source, is the Ugaritic myth(s) of Baal and Anat pitted against various sea monsters, one of which is named Lotan (Pritchard, op. cit.; COS I, 265). Not only is this merely another form of the name leviathan, but the same epithets used of leviathan are here prefigured of Lotan, e.g., btn brḥ and btn ʿqltn as compared with naḥash bariah and naḥash ʿaqallaton of Isaiah 27:1.
I. Broydé and K. Kohler, in: JE, 8 (1904), 37–39; H. Wallace, in: BA, 11 (1948), 61–68; T.H. Gaster, in: IDB, 1 (1962), 708; 3 (1962), 116; M.D. Cassuto, in: EM, 4 (1962), 485–6; C.H. Gordon, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 1–9; J. van Dijk, in: Orientalia, 38 (1969), 541; Lewysohn, Zool, 155–8 (nos. 178–80), 355 (no. 505); H.L. Ginsberg, Kitvei Ugarit (1936); M.D. Cassuto, Ha-Elah Anat (19532); J. Feliks, Animal World of the Bible (1962), 51, 94, 108; Gutman, in: HUCA, 39 (1968), 219–30. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. Uehlinger, in: DDD, 511–15, incl. bibl.; J. Day, in: ABD, 4:295–96.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.