by Vladimir Sazonov (Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies -Centre for Oriental Studies, Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu, Estonia. Email; firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sirje Kupp-Sazonov (Lecturer in Russian Language and Translation Studies, Department of Translation and Interpretation Studies, College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, University of Tartu, Estonia. Email: email@example.com)
“For some reason cats are usually addressed
with the familiar ‘thou,’ despite the fact that
no cat has ever drunk Bruderschaft
with anyone” (Behemoth)
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940), one of the most prominent Russian writers of the 20th century, wrote his probably most famous novel “The Master and Margarita“ (about the history of publication of the novel see Sazonov, Kupp-Sazonov 2020) where he mentioned several figures who might origin from Ancient Near East like Hella (Sazonov; Kupp-Sazonov 2020), Azazel (Janowski 1999; Dietrich, Loretz 1993), Behemoth (Batto 1999), Abbadona (Hutter, Manfred 1999) and others.
Although we have already discussed main reasons for Bulgakov’s interest in the Ancient Near East in our previous article (see Sazonov, Kupp-Sazonov), it is worth mentioning once again that firstly, his father was an associate professor at the Theology Academy in Kiev and M. Bulgakov read father’s papers. Secondly, he was influenced by A. Akhmatova whose husband was Russian assyrologist V. K. Shileiko .
In this short article we focus only on Behemoth, who is one of the characters in “the Master and Margarite” and who probably also has Ancient Near Eastern origin (Mason 2010).
In the novel Behemoth is described as three forms: a cat, a human, and a demon (Bulgakov 1992):
a cat the size of a pig, black as soot and with luxuriant cavalry officers’ whiskers/…/ the cat trotting along on its hind legs (p. 52)
black cat of revolting proportions /…/ a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had just speared a pickled mushroom, in the other (p. 90)
shortish, fat creature with what seemed like the face of a cat (p. 124)
The creature who had been the pet of the prince of darkness was revealed as a slim youth, a page-demon, the greatest jester that there has ever been (p. 427)
On the one hand, in North America and Europe cats have been associated with forces of darkness for a very long time and in different cultures cats are considered to be witches’ assistants. Cats, especially black ones, are believed to bring bad luck.
On the other hand, there also exist cultures where cats have been worshipped as positive creatures, such as Egypt, where the sun-god Ra had a cat who defended him. Ra’s daughter Bastet was also a cat goddess.
Thirdly, there are very common beliefs about people who are able to transform into animals and vice versa, such as werewolves and others.
The relationship with the forces of darkness as well as the ability to transform into human form are also characteristics of M. Bulgakov’s Behemoth. But what is the possible Oriental origin of this character?
Most likely, M. Bulgakov was particularly inspired by Mikhail Orlov’s “The History of the Relation of Man with the Devil” (1904), where the demon Behemoth (also one of the fallen angels) is mentioned and described as a monster with an elephant head, tusks and trunk, enormous belly, short tail, big hind legs and human hands (Орлов 1991: 158; see also Булгаковская энциклопедия). M. Bulgakov was probably also inspired by books of Genesis, Job and Enoch.
Laura D. Weeks associates Behemoth in particular with Judaism (Old Testament), according to which Behemoth was created together with Leviathan on the 5th day and was the greatest land creature of all time (the largest sea monster was Leviathan). Behemoth appears both in Genesis and in the Book of Enoch. (Weeks 1984: 237). Behemoth is also mentioned in the Book of Job (40: 15–24). There is no consensus among researchers about this appearance; some are convinced that it refers to the hippopotamus, and others that it could have been an elephant.
B. Batto suggests that Běhēmôt is an intense (female) plural form of the word Běhēmâ (Batto 1999: 165) meaning ‘beast’, ‘ox’, or ‘cattle’. Behemoth’s Ancient Near Eastern origins have also been discussed, but there is no solid evidence of that so we cannot state 100% that it was “borrowed” from the Ancient Near East.
There is also the theory that Běhēmôt could be derived from the ancient Egyptian word *p’-iḥ-hw ‘the ox of the water’. B. Batto (1999: 166) has stated that although it is now known that such a term was not found in Egyptian or Coptic, Behemoth is still firmly related to the hippopotamus.
It is worth to say few things about the name Behemoth as well. Although the cat’s name in English and also in German (see Bulgakow 1994) is Behemoth and therefore the reference to the biblical beast is very direct. However this is not necessarily the case for other languages. For example in original, i. e. in Russian the devil’s cat is called Бегемот, in Modern Russian this means hippopotamus and although the etymology of this word is also undoubtedly related to the Old Testament unknown creature, nowadays reader may not know about that connection anymore. As for Estonian then the cat is called Peemot and its etymology is even more complicated. In 1739 the first complete Estonian translation of Bible was published and in the Book of Job there was a description of an animal called Peemot, who ate hay as a cow, was very big and strong, had a long tail etc. Because of this description in Estonian folklore formed a belief about a monster living in water, who is very dangerous for people (Rätsep 2006: 26). This connection is somewhat strange since in the Bible there is also describe the largest beast living in the sea, but it is called Leviathan (in Estonian Leviatan). Nevertheless for Modern Estonian speakers a word peemot doesn’t have any connection to folkloristic or Biblical creature, especially since in latter Estonian translations of the Bible a word jõehobu (hippopotamus) is used instead.
Batto, Bernard F. 1999. Behemoth. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Eds. Karel van der Toom, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst, Leiden–Boston–Köln: Brill, pp. 165–169.
Bulgakov, Mikhail 1992. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Michael Glenny. London: Everyman’s Library.
Булгаковская энциклопедия – Демонология. Available at http://www.bulgakov.ru/d/demon/, last accessed on 1 May 2020. Based on the book “Булгаковская энциклопедия” [Encyclopedia of Bulgakov.] by Борис Соколов.
Bulgakow, Michail 1994. Der Meister und Margarita. Übersetz. Thomas Reschke. München: Luchterhand.
Dietrich, M.; O. Loretz, O 1993. Der biblische Azazel und AIT *126. UF 25, 99-117.
Hutter, Manfred 1999. Abbadon. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Eds. Karel van der Toom, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst. Leiden–Boston–Köln: Brill, p. 1.
Janowski, Bernd 1999. Azazel. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Eds. Karel van der Toom, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst, Leiden–Boston–Köln: Brill, pp. 128–131.
Mason, Elliot 2010. Fallen and Changed: Tracing the Biblical-Mythological Origins of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Azazello and Korov’ev. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/10012/5480, last accessed on 3 February 2020.
Орлов, Михаил А. 1992. История сношений человека с дьяволом. [A History of Man’s Relationship with the Devil.] Москва: Республика.
Rätsep, Huno 2006. Kust need loomad nimed said? Metsloomade nimetused. Oma Keel. No. 2, pp. 13–27.
Sazonov, Vladimir & Kupp-Sazonov, Sirje 2020. Some Words about the Possible Ancient Near Eastern Origin of M. Bulgakov’s Hella (Gella). Sociétés humaines du Proche-Orient ancien. Histoire et archéologie des sociétés antiques. Available at https://ane.hypotheses.org/8327#more-8327, last accessed on 1 May 2020.
Weeks, Laura D. 1984. Hebraic antecedents in The Master and Margarita: Woland and Company Revisited. Slavic Review, Vol. 43, Issue 2, pp. 224–241.