Armenian tale of a Leviathan that causes earthquakes recalls the quake-causing catfish myth of Kashima Shrine

The Armenians have a tale of a fish named Leviathan that arches around the earth, trying to bite its tail, and (like the Japanese namazu giant catfish that causes earthquakes) to which its wiggles are attributed the cause of earthquakes:

“Earth turns on the horns of a bull.  When the bull shakes his head, earthquakes begin.  Others think the earth lay on an ocean, surrounded by the body of a fish named Leviathan (In the Bible and old Jewish legends, fish was a sea devil or whale–see Jonah).  The fish arches around the earth, its mouth one hand away from its tail, trying to bite it.  The fish thinks its tail is a beast playing with its nose, so the fish continues to follow its tail, trying to catch and bite it.  But it never will, from the beginning of the world until its end, Leviathan will never grow larger.  For if it did, the world would be destroyed and end.

But as Leviathan swims and tries to catch its tail, it wiggles, and the earthquakes.  On Leviathan’s head is a large diamond, which shines day and night.  When he swims, the diamond shines in different places of the world.”

Source: Creation Myths (Home tour of Armenia)

Compare and contrast the Leviathan myth with the Namazu myth below (excerpted from Gregory Smits’ Shaking up Japan: Edo society and the 1855 catfish picture prints:

“Earthquakes occur when fire overcomes water underground, thus reversing the normal state.26 Popular newspapers often started their accounts of earthquakes with a brief statement of yin and yang forces being out of balance. For example, the text of an account of the Odawara Earthquake (1853) explains that a clash of yin and yang forces resulted in thunder in the skies and shaking of the earth. An account of an earthquake in Ise (1854) employs the same explanation verbatim.27 The text of one large namazu-e provides a lengthy explanation of the causes of earthquakes that combines yin-yang correlative cosmology, popular morality, and geomancy (Ch. fengshui, Jp. fusui ¯ ), visually enhanced by exotic looking Chinese deities.28

Another print even features a denial by several namazu that mere fish have the power to cause earthquakes. Instead, the namazu protest, earthquakes are caused by imbalances in yin and yang forces.29 Various folk explanations for earthquakes co-existed with explanations based on the five agents of yin and yang. Most five agent based explanations were sufficiently vague that they did not necessarily contradict folk explanations based on popular deities or supernatural creatures moving around under the earth.

Metaphoric thinking was common whereby the supernatural creatures, deities, and other mechanisms of folk theories were concrete representations of the abstract processes of academic theories. For example, a broadsheet issued just after the Ansei Earthquake explained its cause in terms of both yin and yang forces and the subterranean movements of a giant namazu, but it called the namazu-based explanation an “unsophisticated theory.”30 Japanese folk explanations during the late eighteenth century attributed earthquakes to such things as:

1) the movement of a giant creature (an ox, a dragon/snake, or a giant fish) supporting the earth;

2) the movement of a deity or giant supporting the earth; 

3) movement or shaking of a pillar or band supporting the earth;

4) the wild sex acts of male and female deities; and

5) careless movements of human ancestors.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion that a giant serpentine dragon moving under the earth caused the earth to shake was especially popular. This dragon gradually transformed into a giant namazu in the popular imagination.31
Starting in the seventeenth century, conceptual links among namazu, earthquakes, and the Kashima Shrine became increasingly evident.32 A picture scroll from 1793 depicting the Kanda Festival parade in Edo depicts a huge namazu float pulled, pushed, and otherwise attended by 57 people. Atop the namazu’s head is a replica of the Kashima Shrine’s foundation stone (kaname ishi).33 By this time, the notion that earthquakes result from the subterranean movements of a giant namazu pinned under the Kashima Shrine by an oval-shaped foundation stone had become well established.”

The above views about the giant subterranean serpentine creature having transformed into a catfish notwithstanding, we believe that the Kashima Jingu Shrine establishment is much older, being attributed to an order by Emperor Jimmu, the first mythical Emperor of Japan, and the myth of the Kashima deity Takemikazuchi holding down the pivot stone also has great antiquity, having been mentioned in the Manyoshu. (Sources: A special edition as an English-speaking tour guide at Kashima Jingu shrineKashima’s Rock of Faith).

The antiquity of giant fish myths is also confirmed by Ainu oral folklore tradition:

“The Ainu have a tale of Ainu tale of Okina the mighty fish that makes seas rough and turns ships over (see  Ainu Folklore: Traditions and Cultures of the Vanishing Ainus of Japan, 1949 by Carl Etter p. 107-108

According to Ann B. Irish: Hokkaido: a history of ethnic transition and development on Japan’s northern island (at p. 36):

When creating the Ainu homeland or Ainu Moshir, the creator placed it on the back of a giant fish mistakenly believing it was land. Upon discovering his mistake, he sent two gods to hold the fish steady, but occasionally the fish moves if a god relaxes temporarily or if a demon god intervenes, and an earthquake occurs…


The world was supposed to be floating on and surrounded by water, and to be resting on the spine of a gigantic fish which caused earthquakes when it moved…” Source: An exploration of fish symbolism across cultures which notes that the Ainu and Kashima giant fish myths also have an affinity with the coastline-carving giant fish lore of Indonesia and the Andaman Islanders.


One thought on “Armenian tale of a Leviathan that causes earthquakes recalls the quake-causing catfish myth of Kashima Shrine

  1. There are even more similarities…

    Armenian Warriors, Japanese Samurai: Military Codes of Honor

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