Category Archives: Kabbalah
Etymology – Crocodile (Modern Hebrew), Serpent or Snake, Dragon
There may be a root word that means “howling” or it is in reference to the way smoke spirals or coils upwards. The first part of the word, “tan” likely means or refers to snakes and lizards that are seen as foul or hidden. In Modern Hebrew, tannin can refer to either alligators or crocodiles.
Alternate Spellings: tannina (tannine for plural), Tanin, Tinnin (Arabic), Tunannu (Ugaritic), Ophioneus (Phoenician)
For those who are Bible Scholars and know their Torah or the Old Testament, they will likely already be familiar with Tannin (or Tanninim for plural) of who and what it is.
Depending on the interpretations and the context that Tannin appears, it will be either a dragon, a serpent or a large sea monster.
The struggle against Chaos; this is a familiar motif found throughout the world in many different regions and mythologies of a culture hero or god going up against a creature of chaos. This creature is often shown as and takes the form of a great serpent or dragon. This is the familiar Knight slaying the Dragon seen in many European mythologies. Parallels to this concept are even found in other cultures.
Tannin is no different as it is used as a symbol of chaos and evil in the ancient Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Phoenician mythologies and beliefs that are much older and more ancient than medieval stories of slaying dragons. Much like how Tiamat is equated as a symbol of chaos in Mesopotamian mythology. It is this part of being a sea monster or dragon and symbolic of chaos that has modern scholars identifying Tiamat with Tannin.
Tanninim appears in the Hebraic Books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Tanninim are among the many creatures created by God or Yahweh on the fifth day during the creation story in Genesis. The description of these creatures varies widely depending on the context of the scripture they’re referenced in.
The translation into the King James Bible will translate most of these instances to mean a whale. Back to the Genesis creation story, tanninim are translated as whales.
Why mention one particular creature, Tannin in all of these other passages and books and then call it a dag gadol in one Jonah? It’s assumed that whales are what’s being mentioned. Yet when we get into Isaiah, tannin is again mentioned as a sea monster that will be slain by God or Yahweh. When we go back into the King James Bible, that translation of tannin becomes dragon.
So, if dag gadol is a whale or rather, a great fish; then what’s tannin? Sticking to just Jewish mythology, tannin is often linked to the sea monsters Leviathan, Lotan and Rehab. In modern Hebrew, tannin means crocodile or alligator.
Alongside the name Rahab, Tannin is the name used to reference ancient Egypt after the exodus to Canaan.
It’s really interesting and fascinating the number of times that the word tannin is used, such as Aaron’s staff turning into a tannin in the Hebrew version of Exodus and the King James translation uses snake. Or wherein other instances, the translation is dragon.
Jackals – Since we’re already about translations. When translating the word Tannin into English, a bit of care needs to be taken.
Tannin is singular and Tanninim is plural for serpents or dragons. If the word is misspelled, then you get Tannim, the plural for Tan or Jackal. Something that can cause confusion among Bible scholars when translating texts and given the confusion with Tannin alone, this just adds fuel to the fire for which context and what creature is being referred to.
Whales – Since Tannin could exist on land and sea, given the variety of translations, such as in the Greek bible, Septuagint a whale is sometimes mentioned as being what’s referred to, notably in the Genesis creation story and the story of Jonah and the Whale.
Kabbalah – A blind, cosmic dragon called Tanin’iver is Lilith’s steed.
It’s not just in the Kabbalah, the name Tannin can also be the name for a demon as they can take the shape of dragons.
Tannin is a monstrous servant of the sea god Yam who is defeated by Baal or it is bound by his sister Anat. In the myth, Tannin is described as serpentine in appearance and likely has a double tail.
As the story goes, from the Ugarit texts found at Ras Shamra and other places that have been translated, Baal and Yamm weren’t the best of buddies and their conflicts are symbolic of the short Syrian winters with the conflicting weather of rain, hail, and tides. Baal and Yamm were fighting over who would take over as head of the pantheon after El is stepping down. El had told Yamm he would get to take charge and Baal wasn’t happy with the news.
Yamm keeps on sending messengers to Baal about this edict and Baal is having none of it. With the aid of Kothar to create some magical clubs, Baal eventually defeats Yamm.
Baal’s conquering of Tannin and defeating Yam has been seen as being similar to the myths of Zeus defeating the Titans to become King of the Gods or when Zeus usurps Poseidon as King of the Gods from Mycenean Greece to the more well-known Ancient Greece.
Jumping back to the Judaic mythology, scholars have noted that a passage in the book of Isaiah parallels the Baal Cycle. In the Ugaritic passage for the Baal Cycle, Tannin is described as “the encircler.” The other description given is “the mighty one with seven heads.” It gets debated between the Ugaritic and Hebraic texts if this is three separate figures being described or if these are epitaphs of Lotan or Leviathan.
Me, being a lover of mythology, “the encircler” makes me think of Norse mythology and the Midgard serpent Jormungand. And the seven heads, D&D anyone and the evil dragon goddess of chaos, Tiamat?
The Enuma Elish from Babylonian myth is a creation myth showcasing Marduk and his rise to becoming the head god of the Babylonian pantheon of gods. Tiamat is the primordial goddess of chaos often depicted as a dragon. After she declares war on the gods, Ea tasks his son Marduk to go slay Tiamat. The result of which is her death and the creation of heaven and earth from the two halves of her body.
Tiamat – It has been noted the similarities between Tannin in the Baal Cycle with Marduk defeating Tiamat.
It’s not hard to see a similarity and a possible connection between the two. And, for the longest time, Biblical scholars did think that the Old Testament or Torah referenced the Babylonian myths. That would change in 1924 with the discovery of texts found in Ras Shamra or Ugarit as it was anciently known. Once the Ugarit texts were translated, it became apparent that the Old Testament references the ancient Canaanite mythology more.
Dragons & Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs in the Bible! The usage of the word Tannin and how it gets translated to mean dragon, based on the context to which it’s translated into the King James and other versions of the Bible, likely and strongly contributes to this idea.
After all, there are those who, on taking a cursory look at paleontology and history know that anciently, people who came across the fossilized remains of giant creatures from millions of years ago believed that it was possible that these creatures and monsters were still around. There wasn’t the understanding of fossils, how they form and just how ancient these remains are.
The word and term dinosaur are relatively new as it originates in 1841 with British scientist Sir Richard Owen. Before this, the term dragon was applied, especially to the more reptilian looking fossils. The descriptions between both dinosaur and dragon could lead many, who want a literal translation and understanding of the Bible to mean dinosaur.
However, seeing that Tannin has the meaning of crocodile in Hebraic. We’re still describing a real creature. This just may be a more plausible explanation. Especially with any of the prehistoric crocodiles. Even today, the alligators in Florida, U.S.A. can get fairly huge.
Those who aim for a more scholarly approach to the Bible, know that mention of dragons tended to be poetical or symbolic and likely remnants of mythology within this text, the triumph of order over chaos.
There certainly is a level of confusion and some suppositions put forward say it could be Hippopotamuses that are being referenced. Some might try and apply the newer understandings from paleontology and the classification of animals that Tannin is just a generalized use word for any large, unknown animal that could be dangerous and thus scary.
Sea Serpents By Any Other Name….
Cetus – The Grecian sea monster that depending on the translation given, is either a sea monster or a monstrous whale.
Illuyanka – The name of a giant serpent killed by Tarḫunz in Hittite mythology.
Jormungand – This is the infamous sea serpent from Norse mythology that encircles the earth.
Leviathan – The name of a giant, monstrous sea serpent mentioned in the Books of Job, Isaiah, Amos, and Psalms.
Lotan – Originating more in Canaanite mythology, this is a sea creature much older than Leviathan and was just one of Yam’s many sea servants he could call on. Additionally, Lotan is also known by the name Tannanu that is similar to the name Tannin.
Rahab – A sea serpent associated with the Red Sea, Rahab is often equated with Tannin. It also the more poetic name for Egypt in medieval Jewish folklore.