Episode 11: Dragons of the Middle East, Part II

Hello, mythsters far and wide! Anike and I were super excited to dig into this second part of our trip through the dragons of the Middle East, and we do hope you enjoy it. The outtakes at the end of the episode are a clear testament to the degree of braindeadness with which I undertook the recording of this episode, but we still had tons of fun and giggles. (as we always do).

But now, without further ado, let’s get cracking! Don’t forget to whip out your MythsterMap.

A full transcript is available below, as usual.

Later, Mythsters!

Dragons of the Middle East Transcript

Jaz: Helloooooo mythsters

Anike: And welcome to episode 11 of Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales!

Jaz: And part 2 of our trip through the middle east. How are you doing today, honey?

Anike: Uhm, well, good. Can’t complain. Though I’ve lost one of my tarantulas.

Jaz: I heard you say something about that. Heard, read. I read something about that on our Discord server. I’m so sorry for the loss and I do hope she still turns up. As for me, I’m okay-ish. Working in the hospital in times of COVID is never that much fun, but we’re still surviving so I was just very much looking forward to recording today to have something fun to think about for a change, like dragons!

Anike: Same here. It’s quite the good distraction.

Jaz: Yeah, thank god for the Mythsterhood, right?

Anike: Indeed.

Jaz: So before we get started, let’s get our usual pronunciation disclaimer out the way. We hereby pronounce ourselves not liable for any mispronunciations of the difficult words we come across because, let’s face it, this stuff is hard. I mean, all these different languages and we’re doing one every other week, it’s impossible. You could, technically, look up the pronunciations on Google Translate and practice. But for the amount of words we come across, that’s more than we can handle, I’m afraid. So, you ready to get started?

Anike: Yeah, oh, I’m always ready.

Jaz: Alright, let’s do this. When you think of Jewish mythology and dragons, what comes to mind?

Anike: Hmm, well, first is the serpent that caused the fall from Eden? And also the Leviathan.

Jaz: Let’s start with Leviathan. This is another sea serpent. Mention of the Leviathan is found in several books that make up the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, like the Book of Job, Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and the apocryphal Book of Enoch. The Leviathan as mentioned in the Book of Job can actually be traced back to the Canaanite Lotan, a primeval sea monster defeated by the god Hadad.

Anike: And some parallels can actually be drawn to the respective roles of Tiamat and Marduk, but also to Vrtra being slain by Indra, which we discussed in episode 8. Oh, and Thor vanquishing Jormungandr, which we will get to at some point as well!

Jaz: Ahh, so exciting, but let’s stay with Hebrew mythology now that we finally made it here. But this recurring motif would be fun perhaps to explore in a blog post or something. What do you think?

Anike: Oh, definitely! That does sound like fun! Anyway, in the book of Enoch, Leviathan is described as a female monster. Some Jewish sources describe the Leviathan as a dragon who inhabits Tehom, the Deep or the Abyss, which in Jewish mythology signifies the primordial waters of creation. Together with Behemoth, Leviathan will be served up to the righteous at the end of time.

Jaz: OK. This still strongly reflects Tiamat and the Babylonian story of creation so far. Trying not to get sidetracked here, but the temptation is so strong.

Anike: Very strong. But hang on, we always think of Leviathan as male, I think? In current interpretations of the word? But it’s said here that the creature may have been female?

Jaz: Well, when the Jewish Midrash, ancient interpretations of the Tanakh, were being composed, it is said that God originally created a male and a female Leviathan, but that He slew the female to prevent the pair from reproducing since more Leviathans would be catastrophic. Her flesh, he reserved for the banquet that will be served to the righteous on the advent of the Messiah. Her skin will be used to form a tent in which the banquet will be held. Ooh, slightly morbid.

Anike: Quite, and grotesque. But brutal.

Jaz: Just a bit.

Anike: The Festival of Booths, or Sukkot, is concluded with a prayer recited on leaving the sukkah or booth. “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.”

Jaz: Yeah, still definitely getting gruesome vibes here. Slightly.

Anike: Slightly, you say? Do we have time for another dragon from the Hebrew Bible?

Jaz: I think we can manage. Maybe.

Anike: Well, about the Tannin? A sea monster in Canaanite and Hebrew mythology. We encounter Tannin in the Baal Cycle, an Ugaritic cycle of stories about the Canaanite god Ba’al. Ba’al was a storm god with associations to fertility.

Jaz: Hang on, I know that name. Isn’t Ba’al like a demon from occultist and satanist religions?

Anike: Well, it’s what tends to happen when newer religions try to overtake the older ones. Rooting them out is much harder than discrediting them. So instead of telling the people they were worshipping and sacrificing to false gods, leaders of the newer and ambitious religion would tell stories of how these older deities may offer benefits here and now, in the form of good harvests in return for sacrifices and prayer, but that in the long run, they’d consume the souls of their worshippers, or other such nonsense.

Jaz: Right. But Ba’al was not so bad after all then.

Anike: No, but we’re drifting off course again. I’m sorry, Mythsters. This is all so fascinating, we really can’t help ourselves. Anyway. The Tannin is described as one of the servants of Yam, the god of the Sea and an antagonist to Ba’al. I couldn’t find much more on this, than what wikipedia tells me, which is that this tannin is a serpentine creature, sometimes depicted with a double tail.

Jaz: Well, the name itself is super annoying because almost every search I tried to do on this dragon led to the use of plant tannins, either in wine making or herbal remedies.

Anike: Ugh. It was ridiculously frustrating. But when we got to Hebrew mythology on this creature, we did get a bit luckier. In the Tanakh, the tanninim appeared in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.

Jaz: They’re literally listed as one of the creatures God created on the fifth day of creation. In the apocalypse of Isaiah, they are one of the sea beasts to be slain by God. In Jewish mythology, the tannin sometimes get lumped into one heap with Leviathan and Rahab–a word also used to symbolise both the sea and Egypt. Considering Judaism’s bad relationship with Egypt, I’d say this is another evil beastie. Along with Rahab, Tannin was also used to denote ancient Egypt after the Exodus to Canaan.

Anike: That’s interesting!

Jaz: Yeah!

Anike: And the Tannin features in the Hebrew Bible in reference to Aaron’s staff as well, which turns into a snake when Aaron refuses to give in to his brother Moses’s requests to free the Jewish slaves. But it’s also used to represent Nebuchadnezzar I, the king of Babylon.

Jaz: And in modern scholarship, the word Tannin is sometimes associated with Tiamat.

Anike: Again!

Jaz: Yup. The name has also been given to three submarines in the Israeli Navy. And in modern Hebrew, the word tanin means crocodile.

Anike: Oh, but we forgot about Lilith!

Jaz: Right! The serpent in the garden of Eden is often depicted with her face. She was Adam’s first wife in Hebrew legend, but she considered herself his equal and wouldn’t accept a subservient role. She left him and Eden, rather than submitting to him.

Anike: Hah. A feminist! I think I love her already. She was often depicted as a winged snake and it was said she was the one who tempted Eve. Later, she morphed into a demon who killed newborn babies and was the enemy of mankind.

Jaz: Well, discrediting strong women is something humanity is still good at now. Why should we be surprised of this happening in ancient times? But unlike Eve, who was made from Adam’s rib, she truly was his equal. She was made on the same day, and from the same clay as Adam was.

Anike: While there seems to be a consensus among scholars that Lilith had some roots in Mesopotamian mythology as well, the connection between the Jewish Lilith and the Akkadian demon called a Lilitu has recently been disputed. But whatever she is, or was, I’m loving the idea of a woman marching out of Eden rather than submitting or accepting anything less than, well,  equal treatment.

Jaz: Absolutely.

Anike: Oh, but look at the time. If we want to dip into Islamic mythology at all, we’ve got to get to it ASAP.

Jaz: Right, ooh, right! So, okay, think of Islamic folklore and mythology. What does that bring to mind?

Anike: One Thousand and One Nights?

Jaz: Yeah, Bongo! Otherwise known as Arabian Nights, in its later iterations. Good one! The first dragon I found in there is Falak, who resided at the bottom of–well, I can’t refer to it any other way than as the stack of mythological beings that carried the world. Falak lives in the seventh hell, underneath literally everything else, and is said to be so powerful that only its fear of the greater power of God prevents it from swallowing all of creation from below.

Anike: Wow. And on top of him, is Bahamut, a sea monster described sometimes as a gigantic fish or whale, but sometimes as a sea serpent, which carries–along with a bull called Kuyutha or Kibuthan among other names, a gemstone which carries an angel who carries the earth–the whole universe including six hells, the Earth and the heavens. And right now, it’s Bahamut that I find utterly fascinating.

Jaz: Hang on hang on. Can we recap that because it got a bit confusing there? So at the bottom you have Falak, then there’s Bahamut who is either a giant fish or a sea serpent, then on top of him you have Kuyutha who carries a gemstone, who carries an angel, who carries the Earth and the heavens? Wow.

Anike: Pretty much, yeah.

Jaz: Acrobatics at its finest. Cheerleaders eat your heart out with your pyramids. OK, so why did you find Bahamut so fascinating?

Anike: OK. Does the name sound familiar?

Jaz: Uhm, yeah. Pretty sure I came across it in Final Fantasy X.

Anike: That’s not what I meant, Jaz!

Jaz: Oops.

Anike: Bahamut… Behemoth…

Jaz: OOOOH But wait, Behemoth is a LAND creature.

Anike: Yes. But there is a theory afloat, that a pair of beasts from the Bible got mistaken for one another in Arab storytelling traditions. Behemoth and Leviathan. So, this hypothesis is that the name Leviathan over time became Kuyutha or Kibuthan. So Behemoth the bull and Leviathan the whale evolved into Bahamut the whale and Kuyutha the ox.

Jaz: OH that IS fascinating. So again, we see the sea serpent and its landbound counterpart as beings of chaos, who carry the order and creation on their shoulders. In other stories, we see the dragon symbolising evil powers that must be subdued. It’s not unreasonable to see the stories and concepts out of judaism migrating into Islamic myth and folklore, since Jews lived in many different parts of the Arabic regions, many centuries before the advent of Islam. We see this not only through the appearance of creatures like Bahamut, but also through language itself. In the Arabic language, the word Tinnîn refers to the dragon.

Anike: OOH. The Tannin!

Jaz: Yeah! The etymology of the word traces back to Hebrew. When Islam came onto the scene, the prophet Mohammed claimed that unbelievers would be punished in the afterlife by the Tinnîn who would keep biting them until the Judgement day. In some interpretations of certain verses of the Quran, the story of Moses refers not to a snake as the creature that appears before the disbelieving Pharaoh of Egypt, but a fire breathing dragon.

Anike: WOW. And also, the bite thing in the afterlife thing, that sounds so much like in Norse mythology, people who die of sickness or old age who go to Hel. But murderers, thieves, rapists, they go to a special section of Helheim where the dragons who live at the roots of Yggdrasil would gnaw on those people for all eternity.

Jaz: Oh, wow.

Anike: It’s pretty cool.

Jaz: Yeah, it’s so cool. Why am I not surprised at finding even more parallels here?

Anike: They’re everywhere!

Jaz: They are! They really, really are. And, I mean, in the case of Norse mythology, the way they travelled all over the world, they must have absorbed so much of other cultures. Snippets here and there, and sort of amalgamated it into their own folklore.

Anike: Oh, definitely.

Jaz: Consider my mind blown, yet again. But to take us back to Biblical times and Islamic mythology, etc etc, did you know that King Solomon sat on a revolving throne that was propelled by a captive dragon?

Anike: As a symbol of order prevailing over chaos and evil.

Jaz: That sounds like it makes sense, yes. And get this: I found one mention of Solomon, where he traveled to Qâf mountain, which was believed to surround the earth. He stopped at a high wall, and asked the wind if it had seen beyond that wall, and the wind replied “No, it is the end of the world and only God knows what lies beyond.” Now, Solomon was not so easily intimidated and he was like ‘fuck that, carry me over the wall.’ And he saw…

Anike: What what what?

Jaz: A dragon, encompassing the earth. A beast so enormous that one would need five hundred years to go around it.

Anike: You’re… you’re joking, right? Like Jormungandr?

Jaz: I am so not joking.

Anike: It’s so much like Jormungandr and again we come back to the Norse myth.

Jaz: I know! And that’s why I definitely wanted to bring this up! BUT. We have gone so much over time already. We really do have to stop here.

Anike: You’re right, you’re right. But I mean, with so much awesome stuff to explore, who could blame us? But anyway, where are we off to next?

Jaz: We will meet up for some dragons, and a good time, in Russia!

Anike: I can’t wait!

Jaz: Me neither!



Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License


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