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Behemot and Bahamut

The umbilical cord of my omphalos winds its way back in time to the blessings of my mother and father, but also inwards and outside-of-time, stretching into a womb land that is all myth and dream and imagination. With some effort I can follow my way back into this makom, this space and hopefully return from it with something useful — or at least, interesting — and not just to myself mind you. I do love sharing these thoughts, but I am also interested in their relevance, by which I mean, their utility. Let me explain.

I was having a conversation with a mathematician, Yaakov, at the University of Maryland recently, and he was struggling with aesthetic questions on what is good or bad art, so I suggested an alternative more useful question as rather, “what is this art good for?” recalling Marcel Duchamp’s 1957 essay, The Creative Act (audio link):

What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.

The verdict of the spectator is separate from the activity of the artist. The spectator might very well take umbrage if the art object, the object of fascination (or boredom) had been or had not been toiled over, had or had not been the expression of a theory or movement, had or had not been the work of an artist at all. As a spectator, my verdict is not whether art is or is not art, but whether the art is useful — and useful only in the sense of whether it has opened my eyes and expanded my conscious awareness as to the existence of wonder in the world of relationships and things outside of frames and pedestals, galleries and museums — whether appreciation of the art object has brought me to appreciate everything else in the Everything Else room in the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum.

In a related sense, as much as I ponder myth in Judaism specifically, and religion in general, I return to this concern, that these ideas, while interesting to me, while stimulating and enriching an emerging creative expressive innerverse within me, that these ideas should also hopefully be useful for others. That if they are not, that they are trivial, and that this whole project is a delusion of self-indulgence. I will be honest with you, that I am not wholly convinced that this is not, but I am writing — with the intention that these labyrinth of ideas I’m exploring and sometimes getting lost in — that I will bring back along my wayfinding thread/trail of breadcrumbs/umbilical chord, something useful.

I’m hopeful that just as art becomes useful by revealing to an observer the greater wondrous reality outside the frame of (framed) Art, that my insights into myth and religion might also be useful for helping to reveal a greater wondrous imaginary world only hinted at within the source text of religious doctrine and dogma. Myth and storytelling thus convey the promise and potential of enduring creative liberty and the subversion of religious control to generations of eager children and aging heresiarchs.

Having said this, let me share with you something totally weird that I just found (on wikipedia, where else) that blew my mind. An Arabian myth of a creature called Bahamut (بهموت) which unlike the Behemot is not terrestrial, but like Leviatan, inhabits the endless depths of the ocean. This is mind blowing to me because the tradition in Sefer Ḥanokh, that the Leviatan is the mate of the Behemot seems much more plausible (in a sort-of mythic taxonomy) if we imagine both of them as sea dwellers rather than as opposites on a terrestrial/aquatic scale.

Just for review, I’ve written about the Behemot in Jewish myth, how it seems to relate to Apsu, the ancient ur-deity in Babylonian mythology, the personification of heavenly fresh water. I’ve written how the Behemot is imagined as a cosmically large hippopatamus dripping with condensation, and referred to in midrash as the “Ox of the Pit.” I’ve wondered whether the Pit was a reference to the t’hom, the primordial abyss, the abstraction of the other Babylonian ur-deity and personification of saltwater, Tiamat. How Leviatan seems to be synonymous with Tiamat in biblical writings. How Behemot/Leviatan are mated to one another in Sefer Ḥanokh. The Talmud also prefers the notion that Leviathan and Behemot were each created like all other creatures, male and female. So the existence of a myth where Behemot takes the form of a non-terrestrial sea creature like the leviathan seems significant.

From the wikipedia article on Bahamut:

Bahamut (Arabic: بهموت, Bahamūt) is a vast fish that supports the earth in Arabian mythology. In some sources, Bahamut is described as having a head resembling a hippopotamus or elephant.

If that’s not enough of a teaser, here is the entire fantastic entry on Bahamut written by Jorge Luis Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Margarita Guerrero, Norman Thomas di Giovanni). I want to point out that I find it significant that similar to the Behemot tradition, the Bahamut myth describes the creatures with hippopotamus features.

Behemoth’s fame reached the wastes of Arabia, where men altered and magnified its image.

From a hippopotamus or elephant they turned it into a fish afloat in a fathomless sea; on the fish they placed a bull, and on the bull a ruby mountain, and on the mountain an angel, and over the angel six hells, and over these hells the earth, and over the earth seven heavens. A Moslem tradition runs: God made the earth, but the earth had no base and so under the earth he made an angel. But the angel had no base and so under the angel’s feet he made a crag of ruby. But the crag had no base and so under the crag he made a bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, tongues, and feet. But the bull had no base and so under the bull he made a fish named Bahamut, and under the fish he put water, and under the water he put darkness, and beyond this men’s knowledge does not reach.

Others have it that the earth has its foundation on the water; the water, on the crag; the crag, on the bull’s forehead; the bull, on a bed of sand; the sand, on Bahamut; Bahamut, on a stifling wind; the stifling wind on a mist. What lies under the mist is unknown. So immense and dazzling is Bahamut that the eyes of man cannot bear its sight. All the seas of the world, placed in one of the fish’s nostrils, would be like a mustard seed laid in the desert. In the 496th night of the Arabian Nights we are told that it was given to Isa (Jesus) to behold Bahamut and that, this mercy granted, Isa fell to the ground in a faint, and three days and their nights passed before he recovered his senses.

The tale goes on that beneath the measureless fish is a sea; and beneath the sea, a chasm of air; and beneath the air, fire; and beneath the fire, a serpent named Falak in whose mouth are the six hells.

The idea of the crag resting on the bull, and the bull on Bahamut, and Bahamut on anything else, seems to be an illustration of the cosmological proof of the existence of God. This proof argues that every cause requires a prior cause, and so, in order to avoid proceeding into infinity, a first cause is necessary.

The story of Bahamut is thus a variation in a wide tradition of cosmic creatures said to be supporting the world. In Hinduism, the creature is Akupara, a ginormous tortoise. Or elsewhere in the Vedas, as the turtle being Kurma, second incarnation of Vishnu. In Greek myth, it is the titan, Atlas. If you’ve read any Terry Pratchett, you might also be reminded of the turtle that supports his fictional Discworld.

In modern Western philosophical debate, an anecdote relating the myth of Bahamut or Akupara is sometimes referred to as “Turtles all the way down” (explanation below). The anecdote has been used by enlightened moderns lampooning the logical fallacies of irrational belief systems since the 17th century. Or as the wikipedia describes it, the anecdote is used “to humorously illustrate both infinite regress, in cosmological imagery, and the perils of religious/mythic myopia.” This is how Stephen Hawking relates the anecdote in his A Brief History of Time (1988):

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Russell probably wasn’t the scientist to have been the recipient of this retort. Most identify the scientist in this popular anecdote as the 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James. But Hawking can be forgiven for thinking so since Bertrand Russell, said the following in his lecture Why I Am Not a Christian (1927):

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

William James’ godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, may very well have been acquainted with the story from his peer, Henry David Thoreau who wrote in his journal in 1852,

Men are making speeches…all over the country, but each expresses only the thought, or the want of thought, of the multitude. No man stands on truth. They are merely banded together as usual, one leaning on another and all together on nothing; as the Hindoos made the world rest on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and had nothing to put under the tortoise.

So whether the Turtles anecdote originated with Russell or James, it is clear that myths representing cosmological proofs were useful arguments of ridicule for enlightenment rationalists and other freethinkers. In 1690 John Locke may have been the first western philosopher to refer to this myth in a philosophical argument on what the substance is of an object being empirically investigated. From book 2, chapter 23 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke writes,

If anyone be asked what is the subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say but, the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better case than the Indian before-mentioned who, saying that the world was supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on, to which his answer was, a great tortoise; but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad backed tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.

Perhaps the Indian said, “Bahamut.” Bahamut, the imaginary foundation of the world of myth.

Illustration of Bahamut for The Book of Imaginary Beings by the graduate students in the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece.

Illustration of Bahamut for The Book of Imaginary Beings by the graduate students in the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece.

Illuminated page from the pinkas ("minutes") books of the Mishnah Society of the Apter Rov's kloyz, Medzhybizh, circa 1840.

Illuminated page from the pinkas (“minutes”) books of the Mishnah Society of the Apter Rov’s kloyz, Medzhybizh, circa 1840.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

1 comment to Behemot and Bahamut

  • Facinating/marvelous! Recall also, the Babylonian depiction of the astrological sign we now call “Cancer” with, not a crab, but a snapping turtle, the word in Babylonian “MUL.AL.LUL” meaning either one, but a stark absence of crab imagery on old Babylonian art, as opposed to the turtle who is oft represented. This turtle is identified, like the crab-cancer is later Greco-Roman astrology, with the entrance to the underworld, carrying on our defintion here of Bahamut at the summit between being and non being. Cancer is located right near the mouth of Draco, the water serpent, of course. Her Egyptian name is Scarab, with similar implications. Nice work!

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