The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XI

The Dragon-killing Theme…

 Biblical Dragons:  Leviathan, Rahab…

In Psalms, Job, Isaiah, the Book of Revelation…

Eschatology as Cosmogony…

     In the previous installment, we traced the afflatus of the Babylonian Enuma Elish in the creation story in Genesis.  As a transposition of the narrative of Marduk’s triumph over the chaos-monster Tiamat, the story in Genesis is subsumed within a much larger class of myths that has been denominated by Northrop Frye and others as “the dragon-killing theme”.

This is another motive of near universal dispersion in myth, folklore, and literature.  Perhaps the most famous example of it is the Greek fable of Perseus, who kills the sea-dragon that has besieged the kingdom of the impotent old King Cepheus and is feasting on its citizens, one by one, until only the beautiful princess Andromeda remains.  (The Perseus story is one of the pagan antecedents of the early Christian legend of St. George and the dragon.)  We will encounter another inflection of this pattern in the Egyptian solar myth of Re, who confronts the dragon of the night-sea on his return journey beneath the world towards the eastern sky.  The Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and Oedipus and the Sphinx are also variations of the dragon-killing theme.

Its centrality in Western consciousness, however, depends above all, as we will see, upon its being the organizing archetype of the entire biblical salvation history, which records the cosmic struggle between the Messiah and the Satanic dragon Leviathan.  But before we move on to the dragon-killing theme, we must return to the subject of cosmogony in Scripture, where the killing of the sea-monster Tiamat by Marduk is the source not only of the creation story in Genesis but of other important cosmogonic loci throughout the Old Testament and the New.

In Psalms 74:12-17, for example, we have an account of how Yahweh, in a contest with the waters, smote the many-headed sea-dragon Leviathan, and immediately thereafter created day and night, the heavenly bodies, and the order of the seasons.  We also detect traces of the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat in Job 38, where Yahweh tames the sea, to which he says, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed”.  (In Genesis, both the separation of the sea from the dry land, and the separation of the waters above from the waters below the firmament are, as we recall, transcriptions of Marduk’s bisection of the maternal sea monster).  Elsewhere in Job, in chapter 26, we have another reference to the slaying of the maritime dragon (called Rahab rather than Leviathan), followed by the taming of the sea, and the ordering of creation:  “He stilleth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through Rahab.  By his Spirit the heavens are adorned; his hand hath pierced the swift serpent.”

Again, in Isaiah 51, we find another version of the same creation myth, which has now become historicized and invested in the central event in Hebrew ritual memory, the Passover deliverance of Israel from Egypt:  “Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O arm of the Lord, as in the days of old, the generations of ancient times.  Art not thou that cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon?  Art not thou that dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over”.

Finally, the myth of the killing of the chaos-dragon passes from cosmogony into eschatology, the theological department that concerns itself with the last times or end of the world.  I’ve already mentioned the coalescence in the mythic imagination of discrete moments in time; the relationship between cosmogony and eschatology illustrates this again.  Biblical eschatology, that is, becomes invevitably associated with cosmogony insofar as the final judgment and apocalyptic destruction of the world is only the prelude to a new creation (a new cosmogony) which brings to birth the everlasting kingdom of heaven. Thus Isaiah 27 prophecies of the Last Judgment that “In that day, Yahweh with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the swift serpent, Leviathan the crooked, and shall slay the dragon that is the sea.”

In the New Testament Book of Revelation, this is finally accomplished at the end time, when Christ destroys the dragon of the sea, dries up its waters, establishes the Celestial Jerusalem, marries the White Princess (who had been in thrall to the Leviathanic dragon, identified with Satan, since the Fall of Man), and reigns with her as heavenly King and Queen.  But, as I’ve said, we’ll have to postpone a fuller discussion of this overarching mythic theme until later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *