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W. S. Merwin 1956

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Leviathan” is the first poem in W. S. Merwin’s third volume of poetry, Green with Beasts (1956), and is one of the best of his earlier works. It has been praised for its mastery of both of sound and style, which is based upon an early and influential type of English poetry called Anglo-Saxon verse. Using the Anglo-Saxon line of four heavy beats marked and emphasized by alliterating three of the four accents, Merwin builds endless variations. At the same time, his frequent use of compound words and altered word order generates a poem laden with sound, begging to be juggled in the mouth as much as in the head.

Perhaps the chief influence on “Leviathan” is “The Whale,” a tenth-century, Anglo-Saxon poem in a book of verse titled The Exeter Book. But there are other influences as well: the Old Testament books of Genesis, Job, Isaiah, and Jonah, and Herman Melville’s classic whaling epic, Moby Dick (1851). While these influences and allusions make “Leviathan” enjoyable for the scholar and researcher, the reader need not know these texts to enjoy or think about the poem. “Leviathan” is divided into four parts, each with a different trajectory. The first part describes the whale plowing through the open sea. The second section repeats the Exeter legend of the whale as a piece of land that fools sailors looking to moor their boats. The third and shortest part is a series of allusions to the whale in history, and the fourth part describes the whale at rest. Taken together, Merwin’s well-muscled lines portray a sense of the great power of the sea, the whale, nature, and God. Some critics have read these forces as apocalyptic—those that will someday rise to the surface and overwhelm all of creation, including that other “leviathan,” humanity.

Author Biography

W. S. (William Stanley) Merwin was born on September 30, 1927, in New York City and was raised in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Merwin’s father was a Presbyterian minister who Merwin said had a rather narrow view of life. Despite this, Merwin did begin his career in letters by writing hymns for his father. From 1944 to 1948, Merwin attended Princeton University, but he took a year-long recess to serve in the armed forces. He graduated with a degree in Romance Languages and studied with poet John Berryman and critic R. P. Blackmur (to whom Merwin’s fifth book of verse, The Moving Target [1963] was dedicated). Several times during the late 1940s, he visited Ezra Pound—one of the most esteemed and controversial of modern poets—at a sanitarium where Pound had been confined after being labelled “criminally insane.” Pound told Merwin to write all he could and to “read seeds not twigs,” meaning that Merwin should go to the sources of poetry, the origins of verse, not its offshoots. After finishing his undergraduate degree in 1947, Merwin conducted one year of graduate work at Princeton, where he studied modern languages and translated French and Spanish literature. The next year found him starting what would become a seven-year sojourn in Europe.

Merwin’s first job in Europe was tutoring in France and Portugal and then in Majorca for the son of poet-scholar Robert Graves. From 1951 to 1954, Merwin supported himself in London doing translations from French and Spanish for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). At the same time, his first two books of poetry were published in the United States. In 1954 Merwin married. During 1956 and 1957, Merwin wrote a play in verse, Darkling Child, that was performed in London; he also returned to America to write plays for the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge. In 1956 he received a Rockefeller Playwriting Fellowship and published Green with Beasts, in which “Leviathan” appeared. In 1962 Merwin was named poetry editor of The Nation. The next year he married for a second time and divided his life between New York

City and Lot, France. Through 1971, Merwin published and won numerous awards, the most prestigious being the Pulitzer Prize for his seventh book of verse, The Carrier of Ladders (1970). At this time, Merwin divided his time between France and Chiapas, Mexico, where he refurbished his own home. Continuing with his translation and writing, Merwin moved to Haiku, Hawaii. While he was letting his abandoned pineapple plantation revert back to rainforest, Merwin traveled frequently, doing readings across the United States. In 1979 Merwin won the Bollingen Prize for Feathers from the Hills. He received the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize in 1993 and the Tanning Poetry Prize in 1994.

Poem Text

This is the black sea-brute bulling through wave-
Ancient as ocean’s shifting hills, who in sea-toils
Travelling, who furrowing the salt acres
Heavily, his wake hoary behind him,
Shoulders spouting, the fist of his forehead                5
Over wastes gray-green crashing, among horses
From bellowing fields, past bone-wreck of vessels,
Tide-ruin, wash of lost bodies bobbing
No longer sought for, and islands of ice gleaming
Who ravening the rank flood, wave-marshalling,             10
Overmastering the dark sea-marches, finds home
And harvest. Frightening to foolhardiest
Mariners, his size were difficult to describe:
The hulk of him is like hills heaving,
Dark, yet as crags of drift-ice, crowns cracking in        15
Like land’s self by night black-looming, surf
      churning and trailing
Along his shores’ rushing, shoal-water boding
About the dark of his jaws; and who should moor
      at his edge
And far on afoot would find gates of no gardens,
But the hill of dark underfoot diving,                     20
Closing overhead, the cold deep, and drowning.
He is called Leviathan, and named for rolling,
First created he was of all creatures,
He has held Jonah three days and nights,
He is that curling serpent that in ocean is,               25
Sea-fright he is, and the shadow under the earth.
Days there are, nonetheless, when he lies
Like an angel, although a lost angel
On the waste’s unease, no eye of man moving
Bird hovering, fish flashing, creature whatever            30
Who after him came to herit earth’s emptiness
Froth at flanks seething soothes to stillness,
Waits; with one eye he watches
Dark of night sinking last, with one eye dayrise
As at first over foaming pastures. He makes no cry         35
Though that light is a breath. The sea curling,
Star-climbed, wind-combed, cumbered with itself
As at first it was, is the hand not yet contented
Of the Creator. And he waits for the world to

Poem Summary

Lines 1-12

The word “leviathan” is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible’s Old Testament—for example, in Job 3:8 and 41:1, Psalms 74:14, and Isaiah 27:1. A contemporary definition, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is a “large sea creature” or “anything unusually large for its kind.” Traditionally, however, the leviathan has been associated with a whale, due to the word’s derivation from the Hebrew term for “great water animal.” Though the 39 lines of “Leviathan” are not divided into stanzas, the poem can be subdivided into four parts. The first section runs from lines 1 to 12, ending with “And harvest”; it describes a wild whale swimming at sea. This rather long section might be read more easily if the entire part is seen as a prosaic, two-part sentence with a beginning, main clause, “This is the black sea-brute bulling through wave-wrack, ancient as ocean’s shifting hills,” and a much longer, dependent clause attached at the end of the independent clause: “who in sea-toils travelling, who furrowing the salt acres heavily, ... finds home and harvest.” Line 4, “his wake hoary behind him,” comes from a description of a whale in Job 41:32: “Behind him he leaves a shining wake; one would think the deep to be hoary.” In this first part of “Leviathan,” Merwin twice uses a literary device called metonymy, whereby characteristics are transferred from thing to another because they are near. For example, in “sea-toils” and “sea-marches,” the “toilsome” swimming or “marching” of the whale through water is transferred to the sea which toils and marches; in “bellowing fields” the bellowing of horses becomes that of the fields; and in “wastes” and “tide-ruin,” the corpses of men and horses, and the wreckage of ships, become the ocean itself. Merwin also uses metaphor, where one thing is substituted for another, as in “bone-wreck,” where a wrecked futtock (the curved beams of a ship’s hull) resemble the bony ribs of a floating creature, especially a whale. Through metaphor, the ocean becomes like a field (“salt-acres”) and the whale like a plow (“furrowing”) that collects a “harvest” from the ocean-field. This image somewhat complements the idea of the whale as an ox or bull pulling a plow, or, as Merwin says, “bulling” through the field. Lastly, lines 10 through 12 contain language that is somewhat militaristic: “ravening,” “wave-marshalling,” “overmastering,” and “sea-marches.” Here the whale is a kind of weapon or one-animal army marching over fields that present no obstacle to its powerful forward progress. All in all, the ocean is a field (see also “foaming pastures,” line 35) across which the whale moves like a plow or army.

Lines 12-21

These lines are, in spirit, taken from The Exeter Book, a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript that includes a bestiary, a compendium of descriptions of animals through which morals are taught. For example, the poem “The Whale” describes how a whale is mistaken for land to such an extent that men will moor their boats to it, climb on top, and build a fire. Then, suddenly, the whale will dive and drown the men. In this respect, the whale is a kind of demon or devil that fools people and drowns them. In “Leviathan,” the dark whale is also compared to land—an island to be exact—with waves slapping at its shores.

Lines 22-26

In these lines, Merwin gives us an abridged history of the whale in story and myth. “Named for rolling” comes from an etymology at the beginning of Moby Dick, in which Melville quotes Webster’s Dictionary: “This animal is named from roundness or rolling for in Danish, hvalt is arched or vaulted.” According to Genesis 1:21, the whale was the first of the animals created by God. And also in the Old Testament, the short book of Jonah tells the tale of a whale who swallowed Jonah in the sea and vomited him up on land three days later. Line 25 likely refers to the apocalyptic passage of Isaiah 27:1: “In that day the Lord, with his hard and great and strong sword, shall punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent; and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Line 26 harkens back to The Exeter Book, with the word “shadow” referring to the whale’s blackness mentioned in the previous section and to death, as in the word “shade”—the term for a dead person, specter, or ghost. Together, these descriptions promote the idea that the whale is deadly and, thus, an animal to be feared.

Lines 27-39

The theme of these lines is the whale as a symbol of rebirth, not of death as in the previous two sections. For example, when a repentant Jonah is vomited onto dry land, he is resurrected because he pledged his devotion to God. Resurrection also complements the whale as an “angel,” even if a “lost angel.” Some have interpreted the words “lost angel” to imply the whale’s relation to Satan or the devils mentioned in The Exeter Book. What seems more fitting—since Merwin did note use the more common tag line given to the devil, “fallen angel”—is that “lost angel” merely refers to a whale alone, as if lost upon the vast sea. The whale alone, but not necessarily lonely, is reinforced by the image of the original whale that existed for a time before the rest of the animals were created. In this section of stillness, the whale waits quietly and alone for the unfinished world—symbolized by the restless, churning sea—to be reborn. It has one eye focused on the sunrise (birth) and the other on the sunset (death). The earth’s oldest animal—according to biblical legend—cannot die and will continue to live as long as does the world. The whale is that a creature so large it spans the time from the world’s beginning through its myriad deaths and rebirths. This master of the sea and angel of God, this whale that stands for the first whale and all whales that ever lived, cannot be made extinct, but is as immortal as God’s power manifested in nature.

Media Adaptations

  • Merwin’s poems have been recorded for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
  • Merwin’s animal poems, including “Leviathan,” were recorded in May and June of 1954 on the BBC Third Programme under the title “Physiologus.


Nature and its Meaning

W. S. Merwin’s “Leviathan” (1956) concerns time and nature through the specific example of the whale as narrated in myth, legend, and observation. The two major elements to “Leviathan,” are the whale and the sea. In the first eleven and a half lines, the sea is described almost as much as the whale, and the sea, overwhelmingly, appears as a place of death. The ocean is littered with animal corpses and ship wreckage and, for this reason, is referred to as “wastes,” “tide-ruin,” “rank flood,” and “dark.” There is some ambiguity, however, about whether the sea—apart from containing the wreckage of ships and bodies—is simply a place of death, since, for the whale, the ocean is a field it furrows and harvests, and, in addition, a home in which it dwells. It might be best to say that for creatures of land, the ocean is overwhelmingly deathly—a watery grave. But for whales, the sea is life-giving. This establishes the relationship between whale and ocean. The next lines (12-26) recount the relationship of whales to humans, especially in legend. Here, as in the ancient AngloSaxon poem “The Whale” in The Exeter Book, the whale is compared to an island dangerous or false to the man attempting to land on it. The whale, then, is treacherous and deadly for humans. If the whale is thought to represent the awesome power of nature, then nature as a whole becomes treacherous and deadly and, further, the measure of God’s utter mastery. For a characteristic of the Old-Testament God was Him dishing out death and destruction, especially to those taken in by false

Topics for Further Study

  • Go through part or the whole of “Leviathan,” and with each half-line and line explain the variation on the classic form of the Anglo-Saxon line as explained in the style section. For assistance, the student might first want to look at an excellent example of an almost exact imitation of the classic Anglo-Saxon form in Richard Wilbur’s poem “Junk” (1961).
  • Do a presentation on either the mythology or the biology of whales. As a class try to make comparisons between legend and research.
  • Whaling is an internationally disputed practice. Collect articles from newspapers and the Internet about such disputes and then craft a presentation explaining the debate about the hunting and killing of whales.

idols—such as the false land represented by the whale in The Exeter Book. By the end of the poem, the sea is revisited, and its constant churning reveals that creation was not finished in seven days. Similar to the whale’s mastery of the unmasterable sea at the beginning of the poem, the whale at the end of “Leviathan” waits calmly—perhaps even curiously—for what the sea, through the hand of God, will do next. One senses an awful power about to be born (perhaps worth comparing with the “rough beast” at the end of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”). This is nature as all-powerful and something to fear—a potential candidate for ascriptions of both respect and evil.


Both the whale and the sea are symbols of permanence. Although the whale was, according to Genesis, the first animal created, the sea preceded it. Both, however, are still very much a part of this world. This long life might itself be a symbol of the changelessness of the “wind-combed” and “star-climbed” sea, of the “ancient” whale and, by inference, of all of nature. Merwin draws attention to several viewpoints about the status of the natural world: the nature existing long before and during the “reign of humanity”; the nature, based on a rather early idea of a resource that cannot be exhausted or defeated, that will probably outlast people; and the nature presently emphasized in environmental rhetoric and imagery that is threatened and victimized by an upstart humanity. Merwin ’s poem was written before the birth of modern environmentalism in America, beginning either in 1962, the publication date of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, or in 1970, which featured the first Earth Day. To Merwin in 1956, earthly nature might have indeed seemed inexhaustible. This would have put him behind his time. Or, on the other hand, nature could have seemed to him exhaustible, and so he could have felt the need to write this poem and get people to once again revere nature. In this case, Merwin would be ahead of the downward curve of nature’s decimation and the upward curve of environmental awareness.

Strength and Weakness

In this poem it is nature, represented by sea and whale, that is strong. Conversely, humanity is weak. While the sea might symbolize or indicate a place of plenty for human nourishment, Merwin shows it, instead, to be a place of home and harvest for the whale and, oppositely, a grave for humankind. The ocean is littered with the wrecks of ships and corpses of animals—especially humans—that, it might seem, the ocean has swallowed. And the whale can wreak havoc too. Did it not swallow Jonah, and can it not drag foolish mariners who would mistake it for land to their doom? Is the whale not called a “serpent,” a “curling serpent” in a “sea curling.” Is he not “sea-fright” “and the shadow under the earth”? Merwin partially catalogs a list of terrible legends about the strength of a deadly sea and a treacherous whale that can tame the sea in the way it easily swims it. The message here is that nature is not to be taken lightly; it is a force full of threatening power like that of the Old Testament God who created it. The lesson of this poem, then, is beware the whale and ocean, beware nature, for it always was, is, and will be—though the world may begin again and again. “Leviathan” is a celebration of, or claim for, nature’s power or strength, to which man’s supposed power pales in comparison. This is quite a different impression about nature than that depicted at the end of the twentieth century, in which nature has become weakened, threatened, and destroyed.


Three style characteristics mark “Leviathan”: altered syntax, compound word formations, and alliteration. First, altered syntax means that Merwin has changed standard prose word order. This, at least initially, makes the poem a bit difficult to comprehend, but readers can mentally rearrange the word order to make sense of it. For example, lines 2 and 3 read, “who in sea-toils / Travelling,” but can be better understood by rearranging the syntax to “who travels in sea-toils.” Likewise, lines 5 and 6, “the fist of his forehead / Over wastes gray-green crashing” can be read as “the fist of his forehead [moves] over crashing, gray-green wastes.” The effect of such lines is to make them seem age-old, like the whale itself. The seeming archaism of such lines also ties the style to the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem “The Whale” from The Exeter Book (c. 940) that informed, if not inspired, “Leviathan.”

Another feature of “Leviathan” is compound words, which are sometimes called “blends.” These words can function as nouns, adjectives, or verbs. Examples from this poem include bonewreck (n.), tide-ruin (n.), black-looming (adj.), star-climbed (adj.), and wave-marshalling (v.)—to name just a few. Use of compound words weds the poem to the ancient Greek poems attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. These classics featured heavy use of compound words, known as epithets, such as “rosy-fingered dawn,” “many-minded Odysseus” and “earth-shaker.” There is also an economy, or efficiency, in epithets that lends a concentrated intensity lost in more usual constructions.

The last major hallmark of “Leviathan” is alliteration, the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words. For example, in line 37—“Star-climbed, wind-combed, cumbered with itself still”—the sounds repeated are a hard “c” and the hissing “s” sound of the last two words. The alliteration helps tie the lines and poem together in a unified whole. But the alliteration also serves a more sophisticated purpose; it refers readers back to the “strong stress rhythm” of Anglo-Saxon accentual verse illustrated in “The Whale,” part of The Exeter Book mentioned above. Merwin’s poem plays with the form of Anglo-Saxon verse, a prosody characterized by lines divided in half, with two strong and any number of weak stresses per half-line, or hemistich. In the Anglo-Saxon line, three of the four strong accents are alliterated with the same sound. Merwin almost never follows this exact pattern, but instead utilizes variations. Here is one example:

This is the black sea  -brute / bulling   through wave  -

In this line, as in Anglo-Saxon verse, there are three alliterations of “b,” but this sound is not always accented, as is the case with the work “brute.” Furthermore, Merwin adds the near-alliteration of “w” and “r” at the end of the line. Here is another variation on the standard Anglo-Saxon line:

Shoulders spouting,   / the fist   of his fore  head

This time Merwin employs two separate alliterations on accented syllables. These initial repetitions of sound not only serve to wed “Leviathan” to an older tradition, but to make meaning out of the materiality of sound. For example, in the first line, the repeated explosive sound of the “b” more or less fits the explosiveness of a whale spouting, swimming, and diving. Or see line 32 (“seething soothes to stillness”), in which the repeated alveolar sound of the whispering “s” helps the reader envision or hear the quietness of the waiting whale. Lastly, if the poem in divided into four sections (lines 1 to 12, 12 to 21, 22 to 26, and 27 to 39), one discovers that the first section reads faster to mimic the whale pounding through seawater, while the last section reads with numerous pauses to complement the whale almost slowing to stillness.

Historical Context

The America of the 1950s was the setting for “Leviathan,” a poem suffused with the power of nature. Perhaps the need for such a poem is no wonder. The status of nature hardly concerned anyone living in cities and suburbs; Americans were more interested in acquiring the new consumer products that had not been available or considered necessary during the years the United States was involved in World War II. If the war years yielded a frugal and less-procreative American, the postwar boom years introduced the extravagant consumer with children (what would be known as “the baby boom generation”), a consumer bombarded by television and magazine advertising promising a life made perfect by accumulation of homes, appliances, furniture, and automobiles. While war has always had a devastating effect on a more localized humanity and nature, peacetime, with its drive to re-create and consume, has its ruinous consequences as well— however slow, ignored, or unseen.

The pattern running through the fabric of the postwar years was that of great expectations in terms of both personal and national success. The

Compare & Contrast

  • 1956: The United States deploys the first “tactical” nuclear weapons in Europe. Fired by artillery guns, the eight-inch-wide projectiles are capable of travelling more than eleven miles to battlefield targets and exploding with a force almost as great as the Hiroshima bomb.

    1998: The United States is predicted to spend $4.5 billion on nuclear weapons through 2008, whereas the country spent $3.7 billion on nuclear weapons during the Cold War

  • 1950-60: The Nature Conservancy is formed in 1951, the Clean Air Act becomes law in 1955, and the Clean Water Act becomes law in 1960— all of which indicate an incipient knowledge that humanity can destroy parts of nature and make it unfit to support animal, plant, or human life.

    1998: From January to September, each month has broken a record for the highest average global heat. Some point to this fact as evidence of global warming, a condition that, if left unchecked, could lead to negative effects—including changes in sea level—on the earth’s natural environment

  • 1950s: The Aral Sea in south-central Asia is the fourth-largest sea in the world. The Soviet Union begins damming the rivers flowing into it for crop irrigation. At the same time, chemical fertilizers used on fields wash into rivers that feed the Aral Sea. The receding waters expose soil that dries out, becomes air-borne dust, and, along with the contaminated waters, result in birth abnormalities, liver cancer, and blood disease in some areas.

    1990s: The Aral Sea ranks as the world’s sixth-largest sea; its meager fishing is confined to small, contaminated ponds.

economy, which had been at full tilt for the war effort, continued to run like a leviathan for the consumption effort. In order to keep factories bustling with laborers producing profits for business, Americans were called upon to consume as if they themselves were fighting a war against nature, whose plants, animals, seas, and land were—if not actually, then potentially—to be conquered. But the war waged against a defenseless nature was undeclared, unconscious, even unknown, since Americans were too busy “getting theirs” as factory production increased, personal income continued rising, the gap between rich and poor narrowed, and inflation was kept in check. But problems did surface, although not so much with nature.

The main problem is best summed up as America’s preoccupation with the political ideology of communism. While it is debatable whether the fear of communism was cooked up and inflated or whether it was a very real danger, the Cold War cast a pall over Americans’ pursuit of pleasure in the 1950s. Initially, America, with its can-do attitude, thought it could counter any Soviet threat with its nuclear stockpile. And so a nuclear subculture burgeoned around hopes for thermonuclear defense, a subculture illustrated in the documentary film The Atomic Cafe (1982). But when the Soviet Union also got the bomb and was gathering Eastern Europe and China within its sphere of control or influence, America, in 1950, went to war in Korea. The U.S. government claimed it was trying to stop communism from spreading throughout the world by means of the hypothetical “domino effect,” whereby one country’s transformation to communism meant that neighboring countries would “fall” too. The Korean war, however, changed nothing in terms of borderlines but everything in terms of American defense: it was the Korean War—far more than World War II—that established America’s system of military bases around the world and quadrupled its defense budget. Although four million Koreans died in the war—three-quarters of them civilians—the border between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea remained and, to this day, is heavily armed on both sides. America’s inflated defense budget remains, and China, who fought the United States to a stalemate in the Korean War, is a major power in terms of its military and its markets.

The other known flaw in the hubris of 1950s America was what the rise of prosperity meant for African Americans. For it was white, not black, America that reaped the harvest of America’s postwar boom. As “white flight” into the suburbs became as important a social event as transformation of the rural into an urban populace, the cities and its poor suffered, especially the African-American poor. The decay of the cities and the continued injustices blacks suffered led to what came to be known as the Civil Rights years (1954-1965), a time when Dr. Martin Luther King became a household name. And by the late-1960s, African Americans had conquered state-sanctioned, or obvious, segregation and had created a black middle class, even if a small one.

Postwar America created a huge network of global interests fueled by its fierce desire to possess and consume products extracted from what was once considered an inexhaustible nature. No longer. America, with its boundless desires that came to full fruition in the postwar years and continue unabated, is rapidly reducing leviathan—that is, nature—to a corpse. Merwin’s poem might then be viewed as a last-ditch attempt to make nature matter—for something other than mere matter— and to reaffirm the awesome power of nature in a world where that new cultural leviathan, America, was wresting it away for the sake of its massive appetite for newer and better products.

Critical Overview

“Leviathan,” a selection from W. S. Merwin’s third book of poems, Green with Beasts (1956), is one of the best-known poems from one of the poet’s most-respected books. Paul H. Wild compares “Leviathan” to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” in its theme of a powerful, primitive nature waiting to be born. But the theme, Wild believes, is insignificant beside the poem’s “achievement of the language.” Wild goes on to write in detail about the sound of the poem: its reversal of word order and its alliteration, as in “the black sea-brute bulling.” Vernon Young (1978) asserts, without presenting any evidence, that “Leviathan” is about “the beast under the waters of consciousness.” Cheri Davis, writing in W. S. Merwin (1981), notices that “Leviathan” was selected as the first poem in Green with Beasts because the whale—called “sea monster” in Genesis—was the first of the animals created. But Davis, like Wild, is also taken with the sound of the poem. She writes: “An ebullient exaltation in the abilities of language to invoke the metaphysical reality of the serpent carries the poem forth simply on its own momentum. The rolling, choppy rhythms capture the rolling and wet slapping of the creature.” In W.S. Merwin the Myth-maker, Mark Christhilf is interested less in the language than the meaning of “Leviathan.” He says it and the majority of the poems in Green with Beasts are about celebration, about telling “the story of love’s influence in the world,” and he claims that Merwin’s desire is “to become a vessel for this song,” “the music of cosmic unity, arising from the harmony of all created things.” When specifically addressing the poem “Leviathan,” Christhilf does not talk about the whale, but the sea: “... the sea obviously embodies the Creation’s principle of love and renewal.” In W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, Cary Nelson writes little about language or meaning, but pulls back to examine style: “Poems like ‘Leviathan’ seem designed ... to exhaust their subject matter through continual variation and reiteration of the same terms and images.” Opposite to Cary Nelson, the comments of Edward Brunner (1991) pull in for a close-up. Brunner comments on how the poem begins one way—both in style and meaning—but ends another: “As ‘Leviathan’ deftly modulates from one perception to its opposite, inverting the terms with which it began, what we had once dismissed now appears, from a further perspective, as decidedly attractive.” In other words, the whale that was “sea-fright” becomes an “angel,” who is stilled because soothed by the rolling sea. This might remind one of a newborn lulled by being rocked, an image almost meshing with the whale waiting “for the world to begin.”


Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman deems Merwin’s motive in “Leviathan” as an attempt to inspire reverence for nature but argues that the poet might have unwittingly succeeded in reinforcing the ideaof the whale as a creature to be feared and, thus, destroyed.

Let me begin my essay with a minor inference: the overarching point to W. S. Merwin’s “Leviathan” is to reinvigorate nature with what Edmund Burke (1729-97) called the sublime, a feeling of awe before the unlimited power of nature, a nature that might be represented in “Leviathan” as sea, whales, nature, or God. Here is some evidence (though I doubt the view is worthy of controversy). Right away, the sinews of this poem are pulled tight with the repetition of the initial explosive “b” and the close-knit similarity between the semi-vowel “w” and the liquid “r.” The alliteration keeps up its powerful concatenation of sounds as is the way with the Anglo-Saxon verse that inspired this poem. In a line such as “The hulk of him is like hills heaving,” it is not only basic alliteration made even more powerful by the alliteration of a glottal “h” that sounds like heavy breathing, but also the large meaning of “hulk,” “hills,” and “heaving” that give this poem its forward thrust.

While the poem’s sound is there on the surface for any reader to see and feel, the poem’s meaning might demand more in-depth study. The first set of lines describes the power of the whale in a medium—the ocean—that hampers the movement of and easily destroys powerful land animals, horses and humans. The “wave-wrack,” “sea-toils,” “tide-ruin,” and “sea marches” do not hamper or hurt the whale; instead, the whale “overmasters” the sea. The second part of “Leviathan,” inspired by The Exeter Book, shows the whale as huge as an island, a kind of trap for foolhardy mariners. Hugeness is almost always part of the sublime—a characteristic of mountains, vast spaces, and explosive occurrences.

The third section is a short summary of the whale in legend and story, a mostly biblical compendium presenting the whale as the oldest animal in creation—oldness often being an adjunct to a feeling of awe. And again, the Old-Testament whale is so powerful and large as to swallow a person whole and inspire the fear attending that other fearsome animal, the serpent, who, like the whale, has been associated with evil, with the devil himself. The last section of the poem shows a lone whale whose past not only extends back to the beginnings of the world, but extends indefinitely into the future. Here, then, is an animal so old, powerful, and large as to be everlasting; it is like a god or a representative of the inexhaustibility of nature, a nature humanity will never destroy or overpower. Merwin’s “Leviathan” ably qualifies to be called sublime.

Most critics have agreed that the style of the poem—especially its agglutination of sound thick with alliteration, consonance, and assonance—is a resounding success in terms of portraying the power of nature or creation. However, Merwin’s descriptions of the whale and the allusions to the whale in Western narrative, while meant to inspire a reverential awe proper to the sublime, also have the potential to inspire an awe-ful fear, or, by this point in the late twentieth century, a mere smirk. First, take the awe-ful fear. With the sublime, one can be driven to fear as much as reverence. Sometimes these are complementary; often they are not. The sublime can make one fear and avoid nature as much it can as make one visit or revere it. This, of course, will depend upon the reader, whether he or she, after reading “Leviathan” will be inspired to go whale watching and act in some way to protect whales, or whether he or she will avoid or ignore the whale, as a creature or as an issue. So, in attempting to inspire reverence for nature, Merwin’s strategy regarding description and allusion could backfire.

Another possible response to this poem’s buildup of the whale is a smirk. Why? Because whales have long been utterly dominated by human hunters. Some species have been decimated to the point of potential extinction, a trend that was reversed only with intervention and regulations from the International Whaling Commission. Not only has the whale been dominated, but so has the sea, which is falling prey to pollution from human society. Almost since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity has had the potential to not only destroy itself, but to bring down nature with it. What I am saying is that, in a time when humanity can easily demolish the planet or simply convert it into a nature park for human amusement, the scheme to evoke awe in nature just might be dated, perhaps was even wrongheaded at the time Merwin decided upon the strategy. Or perhaps what was ill-conceived was using the Bible to inspire awe. For who but a minority are inspired by the rather tired biblical stories of Jonah swallowed by a whale and later disgorged and of the tale of all animal species being created at the beginning of time? Or who now, in the time of the over-hunted whale and of Free Willy, starring the victimized killer whale, Keiko, will be inclined toward a view of whales as deceitful, luring mariners to their death by posing as land? The stories of the Bible and The Exeter Book are no longer capable

What Do I Read Next?

  • Steve Baker’s Picturing the Beast, published in 1993, argues that representations of animals shape our understanding of both animal and human identity. Baker’s examples range from Disney to zoos to political cartoons.
  • Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century is one of the best and most important books published on the history of nature. It is an invaluable reference book for anyone thinking about how the meaning of nature has changed through history.
  • Stephen J. Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History is a collection of thirty-four essays, originally published in the journal Natural History, that bring together different manifestations of culture and establish their roots in nature.
  • Merwin’s The Lost Upland (1992) is a semi-autobiographical short-story collection set in southwestern France. Its theme is the way gradual modernization replaces the ancient way of life in rural France.
  • Merwin’s Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-82 (1987) includes fiction, autobiography, memoirs, and essays and statements regarding translation and a public conscience, especially in terms of ecology.
  • Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility is a virtuoso study of Britain’s regard for and treatment of nature, especially as it progresses from a nature that should be exploited to a nature deserving of care and preservation.

of provoking belief, let alone awe—manifested as fear or reverence—except perhaps in children.

Merwin is a bit more successful when not dishing out allusions. Perhaps he knew this, since the section of allusions is the shortest in the poem. But even in describing whale and ocean there are problems. The sea is largely described as a violent stretch of mostly human wreckage (corpse and shipwreck) through which (only?) the whale can make his way, even “overmastering” it. And the whale is described as a “brute,” his forehead a fist, a creature who ravens the ocean. This, it seems to me, is the description of a violent creature, not a large but gentle creature. Even in the last section of poem, the whale’s waiting “for the world to begin” can seem insidious, as if the whale was a stealthy submarine waiting to destroy the world. It is said that while finding fault is easy, it is more difficult to suggest alternatives. So, in place of depicting the whale as a powerful animal of doom in a sea of death within a nature that is likely to manifest God’s Old Testament wrath bent on destroying human civilization, what could Merwin have done?

He could have called upon an array of other stories about the whale—those, by the way, usually not part of the Western cultural tradition. First, he could have marshalled the legends of Viet Nam. The fishermen of Viet Nam believe that whales are messengers from the god of the waters to protect sailors, and that a whale will carry shipwrecked sailors, and their boat as well, on its back to safety. Sometimes when fishermen find a dead whale or dolphin, they haul it to shore and bury it and declare its finder the “eldest son” of the animal. For three months and six days, the eldest son wears a mourning turban, after which the buried animal is dug up and deposited in a sanctuary bearing a name only given to the tombs of royalty or high public officials. The turban is then burned. Such a sanctuary is yearly paid obeisance to assure a bountiful fishing harvest. Some Vietnamese also believe that every time it rains for long periods, a whale or dolphin has died, and that in order to stop the rain, the mammal must be given a respectful burial.

The whale also occupies an important place in Islamic tradition. Here, once the earth was created, it floated on the waters. God then sent down an angel who took up the world on his shoulders, then God sent down a green rock to give the angel a safe place to stand, then a bull to hold the rock with the horns on its forty-thousand heads and its back resting on legs with forty-thousand hooves, and then all of this resting on a whale which floated on the waters. The cosmic whale is so huge that if all the waters of all the seas were collected in one of the whale’s nostrils, it would be the size of a mustard seed in the desert. Earthquakes, then, are the result of the cosmic whale’s wiggling. Not only does the whale carry the world, but, according to another Islamic legend, the whale that swallowed Jonah is one of only ten animals that were allowed to enter paradise

While more stories of “the good whale” exist, these should suffice to show that such tales are out there, that the whale is not only a creature associated with death, deception, and evil but with cosmic centrality and kindness as well—at least outside of Western cultures. It is not that Westerners need believe such tales as much as be exposed to them to counter their own tradition in which the whale is largely demonized. It is curious that Merwin did not seek to directly counter the tradition of the Bible and The Exeter Book or utilize already existing counter-stories of the whale that would have had a greater chance of making a difference in terms of our regard of the whale. For it has long been a Western tradition, or urge, to destroy what we fear. This, in part, is what the Western tradition is known for: an utter domination of nature to overcome our fear and prove our superiority. Not that Merwin should have tried to create a cuddly leviathan to be kept as a pet, like Free Willy’s Keiko, the killer whale that is unable to kill. Still, the problems with making Keiko a poster whale—an emasculation of wildness and a simultaneous virilization of humanity, or, on the other hand, a construal of humanity as saintly—might now be fewer and less serious than creating yet another text about a whale to be feared. Fear (as well as the desire for whale-related products) has got the whale nowhere but disregarded or slaughtered.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.

Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky is a published poet who regularly writes essays and reviews of modern and contemporary poetry. In the following essay Semansky explores how “Leviathan” describes a creature that human beings have historically imbued with meaning that inevitably have more to do with themselves than the whale.

When people pledge allegiance to the American flag, they are not pledging fidelity to a piece of cloth with red and white stripes and a flock of stars in the left-hand corner; they are pledging allegiance to the abstract ideas the flag represents. These ideas include not only the country of the United States but also the values and ideas conventionally associated with the country—values such as freedom, democracy, and even capitalism. In this way, the flag can be said to be a symbol, because it stands for something. Poets often use words and phrases to signify a thing or event, which itself signifies yet something else. Because the “something else” frequently ranges widely, symbols can be notoriously difficult to interpret. In his poem “Leviathan,” W. S. Merwin describes the multiple ways in which the whale has historically served as a symbol to human culture and the ways in which the image of the whale has served as a receptacle for human hopes and fears.

Merwin begins the poem by calling the animal “the black sea-brute bulling through wave-wrack, / Ancient as ocean’s shifting hills.” These lines couple the whale’s symbolic importance as both an object of male sexual might and as an object representing the oldness of the physical world itself. In the eighteenth century, whales were often hunted for their ambergris, a gray waxy substance found in the sperm whale’s intestine, because it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. Merwin underscores the sexual prowess and might of the whale in describing the animal’s violent forays through the sea, itself long a symbol of the sexual. The image of the whale “furrowing the salt acres” of the ocean suggests a farmer ploughing his fields and preparing them for seed. Merwin’s comparison of the ocean to land throughout the poem also highlights the whale’s own evolutionary history. Scientists believe that the whale originated from land mammals, whose structure became adapted to living in the sea.

By describing the whale as a creature that exists almost outside of time, Merwin emphasizes the animal’s place in myth. Myths are stories that cultures use to explain the natural world’s behavior, and whales themselves have had, and continue to have, mythic importance for people. Arabians believed that the earth rested upon a whale named Bahamut and that when Bahamut moved, he caused earthquakes. The association of the whale with both good and evil is also evident in literary works such as Moby Dick, where the animal is variously described as a quasi-malevolent force of nature indifferent to the concerns of human beings and as a retributive response of a Christian God intent on sending humanity a signal not to mess with nature. The whale’s meanings have multiplied over the years because so little has been known about it. As Merwin makes clear, both its elusiveness and sheer bulk make it a difficult creature to depict: “to fool-hardiest / Mariners, his size were difficult to describe.” In Among Whales, Roger Payne claims that the word “whale” derives from the Old-English word wheel, “the idea being that when viewed from a boat or from shore, a whale breathing at the surface, looked like a wheel revolving slowly in the sea.” Wheels themselves are symbols of eternity— the yoking together of past, present, and future, the heavens and the earth. Merwin’s descriptions themselves never show us the whale as it appears; rather they underscore the impossibility of words to render a complete visual image of the mysterious behemoth. It is significant that “Leviathan” was first published in 1956, for it wasn’t until the 1960s, in fact, that marine biologists began to compile substantive factual information about whale habitats and behavior. The whale, then, has shifted from being an object of superstition, legend, and myth to a scientific object of critical inquiry. Or has it?

Ever since the environmental activist group Greenpeace began lobbying for the animal’s protection, the whale has emerged in popular culture as an underdog, symbolically representing those parts of the natural world that are being hunted or harvested into extinction. Nowhere has this symbolism been more tangibly demonstrated than in the public’s response to Keiko, an Orcinus orca, or “killer whale,” that has spent almost its entire life in captivity. First caught—allegedly accidentally—off the shores of Iceland, the whale was sold to an aquarium in that country, then sold to Marineland in Ontario, Canada, which then sold it to Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City which, after an article in Life magazine detailing Keiko’s living conditions instigated a public outcry, donated the whale to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Keiko’s international popularity began in Mexico and derived in large part from his appearance in the film Free Willy that, ironically enough, told the story of a captured Orca whale helped to freedom by a young boy. After two years of “rehabilitation,” in Newport, Keiko was sent back to Iceland in September of 1998, where he is now relearning to live in the ocean, albeit in a man-made bay pen. His handlers plan to release him after—and if—he can demonstrate that he can

“By describing the whale as a creature that exists almost outside of time, Merwin emphasizes the animal’s place in myth.”

hunt for himself and gain acceptance by other whales. International media coverage attended Keiko’s preparation for his trip to Iceland; reports about what Keiko was experiencing, and speculation about his future, made news programs daily. Donations continued to pour in. Contributors to the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation inscribed these messages on the “Whaling Wall” located on the building that housed the aquarium were Keiko was kept in Oregon: “From another male Keiko” (Christopher Keiko Kaplan); “Swim Free Keiko. Love you.” (Lokotah and Mischa); “Being Free is Living.” (Lily 96); “The sea is cold. Yet you are warm.” (The Abrahams); “Keiko / Warmth, Tenderness, Beauty, Trust. / It’s all you.” (Mac Technology Inc.)

These messages attest to the continuing symbology of the whale in popular culture. As Merwin suggests in “Leviathan,” what is truly prodigious about the whale is more than simply its physical size; rather, it is its capacity to contain so much human meaning. These epigraphs not only imbue Keiko with human emotion, desire, and even identity, but they also participate in the ongoing com-modification of the nonhuman world. Where formerly the whale was seen as a prime mover, emblematic of the inherent mystery and inscrutability of the uncharted earth, today it is seen as a pop icon, one more celebrity in an already crowded sea of celebrity. The epigraphs—some directly addressed to Keiko, some in memoriam of a loved one—are rooted in the kind of vapid sentimentality most commonly found in greeting cards and on bumper stickers. Their (quite literally) surface quality mimics the world of late-twentieth-century America, where the production and media manipulation of images helps to constitute a new world, one that cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard has aptly named the simulacra, where the “real” is no longer distinguishable from the world of representations. Though initially formed by his appearance in FreeWilly, Keiko’s subsequent runaway celebrity was, in effect, choreographed by Warner Bros. and New Regency Productions, who provided the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation with some four million dollars in seed money. The return on this small investment has been astronomical, as the constant and widespread publicity the Foundation has generated for Keiko’s story made these entertainment giants many millions more on Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and merchandising tie-ins. The home video of this movie—some six million copies of which were released—also carry an emotional appeal by the movie’s cast members to help Keiko. Never, in my opinion, has a private company so ruthlessly exploited a public issue for financial gain as Warner Bros. has with the story of Keiko.

Merwin’s “Leviathan” describes a world in which the whale has seen everything: the “cold deep,” shipwrecks, “lost bodies bobbing.” The animal’s symbolic status is that of a demigod who has both preceded and survived humanity. However, leviathan could never have known that the world he waited for to begin at the end of Merwin’s poem would be one in which his own significance would be trivialized, his image hijacked by the anti-poets of the West, the media moguls whose primary concern wasn’t educating the public about the whale’s sacred, timeless character or its mythic and religious meanings, but squeezing as much profit as possible from the fifteen minutes of limelight this New Age hero was allotted.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.


Bradley, S. A. J., Anglo-Saxon Poetry, London: Dent, 1982.

Brunner, Edward J., Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Christhilf, Mark, W. S. Merwin the Mythmaker, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

Davis, Cheri, W. S. Merwin, Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Donaldson, Gary, Abundance and Anxiety: America, 1945-1960, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

Morris, William, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976.

Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, eds., W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, “‘Fact Has Two Faces’: An Interview with W. S. Merwin,” Iowa Review, Winter 1982, pp. 30-66.

Payne, Roger, Among Whales, New York: Delta, 1995.

The Whale New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

For Further Study

Albert, Judith Clavir, and Stewart Edward Albert, eds., The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade, New York: Praeger, 1984.

This anthology consists of essays by the leading lights (Mills, Ginsberg, Malcolm X, etc.,) and on the leading struggles (antiwar, counterculture, feminist) of the 1960s. The volume is introduced by an overview of the 1950s.

Burk, Robert Fredrick, The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Burk exposes the government’s failures regarding civil rights.

Goldman, Eric F., The Crucial Decade: America, 1945-55, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Goldman’s history includes material on Truman’s Presidency, the end of World War II, the onset of the Cold War, the Korean War, and the Eisenhower “Era of Equilibrium.”

Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-65, New York: Penguin, 1987.

For a history heavily informed by those who participated in the civil rights struggle, this anthology is excellent. The volume includes time lines, myriad quotes and photos, and there is the excellent PBS companion video series.


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LEVIATHAN (Heb. לִוְיָתָן, livyatan; Ugaritic ltn, presumably pronounced lōtanu, or possibly, lītanu). In the Bible and talmudic literature the leviathan 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.

[Peter Machinist]

In Bible and Talmud

In the Bible Leviathan is a multi-headed (Ps. 74:14) sea serpent, appearing in Isaiah 27:1; Psalms 74:14; 104:26; Job 3:8; and 41:1ff. The detailed description in Job (40:25–32) applies to the *crocodile, although a rabbi, maintaining that the reference is to the leviathan – the legendary animal prepared for the righteous in the hereafter – concludes that "the leviathan is a permitted fish," and regards its maginnim (Job 41:7) as scales, one of the characteristics of a permitted fish (Tosef., Hul. 3:27). On the other hand, tannin, which generally denotes the crocodile, sometimes applies to the whale, as would appear from Genesis 1:21. The verse: "Even the tannin [keri: tannim] draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones" (Lam. 4:3) may refer to the whale, the female of which suckles its young (according to another view, the reference is to the *jackal). The whale is intended in the literal meaning of the verse describing the great sea: "There go the ships; there is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therein" (Ps. 104:26). At times the long-headed whale (Physeter catodon), which is as much as 20 meters (about 65 ft.) long and feeds on large fish and even sharks, reaches the shores of Israel. This may be the basis of the biblical story about "a great fish" that swallowed Jonah (2:1). On rare occasions the largest of the whales, Sibbaldus (Balaenoptera) musculus, appears off the Israel coast after entering the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar.

By tannin and leviathan the Bible also intends animals which "in days of old" are said to have rebelled against the Creator, who thereupon destroyed them (Ps. 74:13–14; cf. Isa. 51:10; Job 3:8; 7:12) – similar to the Ugaritic myths mentioned above. Relics of the bones or footprints of prehistoric reptiles may have been found by the ancients (such footprints have been discovered at Bet Zayit in the vicinity of Jerusalem) and these may have served as the inspiration for the myth of the destruction of these gigantic creatures. Some of these verses were used as a basis for the well-known aggadah about the leviathan and the shor ha-bar ("the wild ox") intended for the righteous in the hereafter. The passage: "There is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport with" has been homiletically interpreted to mean that God sports with the leviathan (Av. Zar. 3b), while the descriptions of the *behemoth and the leviathan in Job (40:15–41:26) have been construed as referring to the fight between these animals, after which the Almighty will prepare from them a feast for the righteous (bb 74b–75a; Lev. R. 13:3; 22:10). This struggle is picturesquely depicted in the *Akdamut, the Aramaic piyyut which is said on Pentecost and which describes the great reward in store for the righteous. In later popular works the words leviathan and shor ha-bar became synonyms for the reward of the righteous in the world to come.

[Jehuda Feliks]


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.


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Alternate Names


Appears In

The Old Testament, the Talmud



Character Overview

The sea serpent Leviathan is mentioned several times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Legends about this immense and powerful creature were based on earlier stories about Tiamat (pronounced TYAH-maht), a dragon defeated by the god Marduk (pronounced MAHR-dook) in a Babylonian (pronounced bab-uh-LOH-nee-uhn) creation myth. Later, a similar tale appeared among the ancient Canaanites (pronounced KAY-nuhn-eye-ts), who claimed that the god Baal (pronounced BAY-uhl) slaughtered an ancient seven-headed serpent named Lotan.

In the Bible, Leviathan roamed the sea, breathing fire and spewing smoke from his nostrils. The book of Psalms describes how the Hebrew god Yahweh (pronounced YAH-way) struggled with the many-headed Leviathan and killed it during a battle with the waters of chaos (disorder). Yahweh then created the universe, day and night, and the four seasons. Other versions state that Leviathan was made by Yahweh on the fifth day of creation. Scriptural references to the end of time say that the flesh of Leviathan will be part of a feast served on the Day of Judgment.

Leviathan in Context

It is not known whether the ancient peoples of the Near East viewed Leviathan as a mythical sea monster, a real creature, or a symbol for another culture, such as Egyptian or Roman. Many translations of the Old Testament refer to Leviathan as an animal, such as a crocodile.

Considering the similarities to Babylonian myth and the relatively limited knowledge of sea life at the time, it seems likely that Leviathan was viewed as a very real and very powerful creation of Yahweh, unlike anything else in the sea.

Key Themes and Symbols

In ancient Jewish tradition, Leviathan represents the wild disorder that ruled the heavens before Yahweh created the universe. In this way, Leviathan did not represent evil, but instead symbolized a time before gods. The flesh of Leviathan, said to be feasted upon by the righteous on the Day of Judgment, represents a victory over godlessness. In Christian works, Leviathan is viewed more as a creature of evil.

Leviathan in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although Leviathan is generally limited to appearances in religious texts, over the centuries the term has come to mean a large beast, especially one from the sea. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes used the name Leviathan in the tide of a book about political philosophy to express the idea of society as a giant body ruled by a central sovereign figure. Herman Melville used the term Leviathan in his 1851 whaling novel Moby Dick to refer to the great white whale.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Ancient and modern cultures have been fascinated with the sea and its mysteries, and sea monsters have been one of the most popular animals in myths and fables. Some scholars argue that these monsters were either wholly imaginary or were real sea animals that the ancients either did not recognize or deliberately portrayed as exotic to make their stories more fantastic. So the question remains: Were sea monsters real animals that became myths; mythic figures that were eventually recognized as real animals; or entirely imaginary creatures? Select five sea monsters that have a mythic past, and using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, trace their history and their stories to see which category they best fit.

SEE ALSO Baal; Creation Stories; Dragons; Marduk; Semitic Mythology; Serpents and Snakes; Tiamat


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Leviathan is a mythical sea monster of ancient folklore. Ancient tablets discovered at ugarit in the 1930s have confirmed the mythical background of Leviathan, or lôtān, as he is known in these texts ("the coiled one," from the root lwy, to turn or twist). In these texts, where he is called the "fleeing serpent" and "coiled serpent," exactly as in Is 27.1 and Jb 26.13, he is pictured as a sevenheaded, evidently serpentlike monster that is slaughtered by baal or his consort Anat [see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton 1955) 137, 138]. It is unfortunate that the nature and activity of the monster are not more prominent in the extant narratives, which, it may be noted, are not cosmogonic in nature.

According to the Old Testament [Ps 73 (74).14] it is not Baal, but Yahweh, who crushed the manyheaded Leviathan and fed him to the sharks. The context of the reference in this Psalm shows that here also Leviathan is pictured as a sea monster and seems to indicate that he was destroyed before the organization of the universe (v. 1617). There is an allusion to the myth, though an obscure one, also in Jb 3.8. In Is 27.1 the apocalyptist, basing himself on Leviathan's double attribute ("fleeing serpent" and "coiled serpent"), seems to have made two monsters out of one and used them to symbolize unidentified political enemies that will be destroyed in eschatological times (cf. Rahab as a symbol of Egypt). In Jb 40.2541.26 is found a lengthy description of Leviathan, the terrible monster of the deep. The author seems to have found his inspiration in the crocodile for most of the traits he attributes to Leviathan, but some of them he has drawn from his own imagination (e.g., 41.1013). In this passage, as well an in Ps 103 (104).26, Leviathan has been in large part "demythologized" and merely designates a marine animal, awesome to man, perhaps, but a plaything to Yahweh.

Bibliography: h. gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (2d ed. Göttingen 1921). o. kaiser, Die mythische Bedeutung des Meeres in Ägypten, Ugarit, und Israel (Berlin 1959). j. l. mckenzie, "A Note on Psalm 73 (74):1315," Theological Studies 11 (1950) 275282.

[l. f. hartman]


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The sea serpent Leviathan is mentioned several times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Legends about this immense and powerful creature were based on earlier stories about Tiamat, a dragon defeated by the god Marduk in a Babylonian creation myth. Later a similar tale appeared among the ancient Canaanites, who claimed that the god Baal slaughtered a seven-headed primeval serpent named Lotan.

primeval from the earliest times

chaos great disorder or confusion

In the Bible, Leviathan roamed the sea, breathing fire and spewing smoke from his nostrils. The book of Psalms describes how the Hebrew god Yahweh struggled with the many-headed Leviathan and killed it during a battle with the waters of chaos. Yahweh then created the universe, day and night, and the four seasons. Scriptural references to the end of time say that the flesh of Leviathan will be part of a feast served on the Day of Judgment.

See also Baal; Creation Stories; Dragons; Marduk; Semitic Mythology; Serpents and Snakes; Tiamat.


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le·vi·a·than / ləˈvīə[unvoicedth]ən/ • n. (in biblical use) a sea monster, identified in different passages with the whale and the crocodile (e.g., Job 41, Ps. 74:14), and with the Devil (after Isa. 27:1). ∎  a very large aquatic creature, esp. a whale: the great leviathans of the deep. ∎  a thing that is very large or powerful, esp. a ship. ∎  an autocratic monarch or state. [ORIGIN: with allusion to Hobbes' Leviathan (1651).]


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Leviathan (1651) was the masterpiece on political philosophy written by Thomas Hobbes to justify absolute sovereignty. Hobbes held that the greatest threat to human security was the anarchy of the ‘State of Nature’, and that to avoid that horrific condition, where life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, men must contract to establish a sovereign power with sufficient authority to enforce laws and maintain order. Hobbes claimed that the recent civil wars in England would never have occurred if men had followed the path of reason and worked out the necessary truths of political obligation.

Tim S. Gray


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Leviathan ★★ 1989 (R)

A motley crew of ocean-floor miners are trapped when they are accidentally exposed to a failed Soviet experiment that turns humans into insatiable, regenerating fishcreatures. 98m/C VHS, DVD . Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Amanda Pays, Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Lisa Eilbacher, Michael Carmine, Meg Foster; D: George P. Cosmatos; W: David Peoples, Jeb Stuart; C: Alex Thomson; M: Jerry Goldsmith.


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leviathan in biblical use, a sea monster, taken as the type of something of enormous size. It is identified in different passages with the whale and the crocodile (e.g. Job 41, Psalm 74:14), and with the Devil (after Isaiah 27:1). The word is also used allusively for an absolute monarch or state, from the title of Thomas Hobbes's 1651 political study Leviathan.


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Leviathan. A large sea animal. In the Hebrew scriptures, the leviathan frequently represents the forces of chaos which are opposed to God.