The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Leviathan’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘leviathan’ come from, and what animal does it refer to? The origins of the word are to be found in the Old Testament, but we need to take a closer look at the Bible to uncover the true meaning of the word, and to discover why the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes took the word and used it as the title for his 1651 book Leviathan.

In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, in Job 41:1, the animal called leviathan is mentioned as something that might (potentially) be drawn out of water ‘with a hook’. As Isaac Asimov noted in his excellent guide to the Old Testament, most biblical commentators interpret the ‘leviathan’ as a reference to the large and fearsome man-eating crocodiles found in the Nile in northern Africa.

Job 41 begins:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?

In this passage from the Book of Job, ‘leviathan’ is viewed as a symbol of God’s creation and its awesome power.

However, although some commentators have interpreted this ‘leviathan’ as being a crocodile, other references to the creature known as ‘leviathan’ elsewhere in the Old Testament give us pause for thought, both concerning the word’s meaning and what type of animal it symbolises.

For instance, in Psalms 74:14, God is described as breaking the ‘heads of leviathan in pieces’, and in this connection, ‘leviathan’ is clearly a force distinct from God’s power, and even some sort of adversary. Indeed, this ‘leviathan’ is often linked to myths involving God taming the wilds of the sea and, in doing so, creating the world as we know it. There’s an earlier Babylonian myth involving the god Marduk in which the god slays the monster Tiamat, which represents the sea, and it’s thought that the Judeo-Christian account may have evolved from these earlier Sumerian myths.

Indeed, ‘leviathan’ is most commonly associated not with the Nile but with the sea, and is pictured either as a sea serpent or, less commonly, as a whale. Isaiah 27:1 refers to ‘leviathan the piercing serpent’, and is widely interpreted as a reference to the forces of evil in the world.

The word was later taken up and referred to other things of vast size. In 1606, Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Dekker (in his News from Hell) used the term to refer to a vast and powerful man: ‘The Lacquy of this great Leuiathan, promisde he should be maister.’ In 1818, in his Childe Harold, Lord Byron referred to large ships as ‘oak leviathans’, and ‘leviathan’ was often used to refer to a ship of huge size.

In 1651, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a vast book, whose full title is Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. This book uses ‘leviathan’ to refer to something large and powerful: Hobbes argues that a successful state requires a strong government and a powerful leader at the head of it (Hobbes was a supporter of Oliver Cromwell), in order to thrive and avoid descending into chaos and anarchy. Thanks to the influence of Hobbes’ book, ‘leviathan’ has also been used in reference to the organism of political society or the commonwealth.

But what is the etymology of ‘leviathan’? Leviathan is a Vulgar Latin word, modelled on the Hebrew livyāthān found in the original Old Testament texts. Some scholars believe that this Hebrew word, in turn, was derived from the Arabic laway meaning ‘to twist’, as in a wreath (or a serpent coiled round?), though we cannot be sure.