The other evening my dear friend Eric Eldritch –the amazingly creative artist behind the Red Dragon Festival– brought to my attention an interesting Biblical verse: Job 30:29. I’ll transcribe it here so you don’t have to look it up: “I am a brother to dragons, a companion to owls” (KJV, which most probably implies something like Job is as hurtful and lonely as these two animals). Eric’s questions were if there are dragons in the Bible, and if dragons are part of Hebrew mythology.
If the King James Version surprised me, the wide variations between other translations were no less perplexing: dragons and owls became in other Biblical translations jackals and ostriches respectively. The subject piqued my curiosity and I decided to find out about the dragons and the apparently incongruous variation between translations. What lied behind the metaphor of these lonely animals howling at the moon?
For many generations, believers and religious leaders have thought that the Bible was the perfect word of God, divinely inspired letter by letter, even scientifically flawless and historically accurate. Rivers of ink had been spent trying to harmonize each and all contradictions of the text, and struggling to make the text be –or appear as!– perfectly homogenous. It begun with the redactors of the Biblical documents (JEPD) and has not ceased until contemporary fundamentalist commentators. It comes as no surprise that for centuries the Church preferred the Vulgate over the Hebrew Tanakh: any unequal, fragmentary text does look nice, smooth and coherent if translated with enough skill. However, the tireless efforts of generations of editors and translators have never been able to devoid the Bible of all traces of Hebrew myths: the Goddess, Lilith, the Leviathan, Azazel, demons, and giants have left their footprint in the Biblical text and it is relatively easy to uncover them.
Going back to Job 30:29, the Hebrew terms used in the text are tanin (תנין) and ya’en (יען). Sometimes the Bible uses hapax legomena, that is, words whose meaning is unknown because they appear only a few times in the text and we have very few or no other external texts where the word is used, so that we can deduce its meaning. Although tanin is technically not one of these words, its exact meaning is equally unknown. The term tanin seams to designate a wide range of creatures. The Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary includes some of the meanings for this word: from crocodile and gecko, to a wide range of marine monsters and unknown humongous creatures. Thus, Gen 1:21 seems to refer to the creation of marine monsters, or at least of very big wales. Is 27:1 offers us a glimpse to a gallery of mythical monsters, including the Leviathan and another marine tanin, here often translated as “dragon.” When Aaron casts his rod in front of Pharaoh, it becomes a tanin, some sort of monstrous serpent that ends up eating the other serpents (Exod. 7:9).
In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism (p. 71), Dennis defines the tanin asan archetypical monster, usually resembling a serpent. Some readers understand it to refer to a monstrous serpent or dragon that is a menace for navigation (Is 27:1; Neh 2:13; Baba Batra 74a-b). Although in some instances it may be a synonymous of Leviathan, in the apocalyptic literature it designates a dragon of huge dimensions in Sheol that feeds on the souls of the wicked (3Baruch 4-5). Demons can take the form of taninin, dragons, according to the Talmud (Kid. 29b). In fact, the demon Samael is often given the title “serpent” or “dragon.” A cosmic blind dragon or Tanin ‘Iver serves as the steed of Lilith (Daniel Septuagint, 3Baruch, Treatise on the Left Emanation).
So what are the tanin and the ya’en? When linguists do not know the meaning of hapax legomena or of a particularly obscure term, we try to find out how ancient translators understood them. It is quite probable that ancient Biblical translators from the beginning of the common era were more knowledgeable than us regarding these two words: they were fluent in both languages and conversant with both cultures and their socio-historical contexts. Ya’en doesn’t seem to be much of a problem: other than its meaning of “owl” we only find another alternative, that of the Septuagint, which translates the term as Στρουθος, “ostrich.” However, the word tanin is another story, and the options of the ancient translators do not but increase our perplexity. The Vulgate chooses to translate tanin by draco, “dragon.” The Targum translates the plural form taninin as yerurin or yelulin (ירורין– ילולין) derived from a root (ילל) that means to howl or to cry out with full voice. Whatever the monstrous tanin was, it was understood to be howly and noisy, and therefore some translators thought it had to be a lonely jackal. The Peshitta follows the same reading and translates it as yerura (ירורא), with the same meaning.
Most surprising to me was the Septuagint, which decides that a tanin has to be a howling, marine monster of another kind: a seiren (σειρήν-σειρηνος), that is, a siren. As we know from the Odyssey, the sirens were two mythical sisters on the south coast of Italy, who enticed seamen by their songs, and then slew them. They tried to seduce Ulysses with their chants, but luckily he was tied to that mast (Od. 12.39 ff.). Strange how the alluring appeal of the siren’s song and the mournful, loud howl of the dragon converge in our story. Seiren is also one of the epithetic names of Zeus, possible related to a verb that means to scorch. The funny thing I find out is that the word σειρήν, generally feminine, can be used in a masculine form, particularly with the meaning of a kind of solitary wasp. The tanin, by the way, is definitively masculine, and so is draco. My wild imagination can’t avoid but to conjure images of Odysseus seduced by a leviathan, a serpent, a dragon, a masculine siren whose chants have the allure of wale songs and the dirge of jackals.