/buh-HE-muth/ /bɪˈhi:mɒθ/ noun. A large Biblical animal, usually thought to be a hippopotamus; a large beast; something huge, gigantic, monstrous.
Recently, after a few weeks of unrelentingly glum headlines about politics and earthquakes (and occasionally the two combined), the God or Goddess of Algorithms (Apollo? Urania?) chose to favor my morning news feed with a mysterious headline: Ryan Gosling Inspired Behemoth to Use a Kids Choir on New Album
Thanks to its slippery grammar, the headline inspired immediate question like: "which behemoth?" and "what is with that weird word ‘behemoth’ anyway, and simply "what‽" — with that last practically demanding an interrobang.
Two thirds of the headline’s mysteries were easily, though not quickly, solved: it turns out that this behemoth is Behemoth-with-a-capital-B, a controversial Polish "blackened death metal" band famous for their craft beer with names like Heretyk and Sacrum and songs like "God=Dog" featuring lyrics such as:
If I am a missing link between the pig and the divine
I shall cast the pearls before the swine
And this Ryan Gosling is the Ryan Gosling, of the "Hey Girl" meme and one-half of the death-obsessed, childrens-choir-wielding collaboration Dead Man’s Bones that inspired Behemoth’s Nergal, Inferno, Orion and Seth to round up a cadre of crooning children of their own.
But about the word behemoth itself? What’s its story?
While it’s come to be used as a synonym for extremely large or gigantic generally, behemoth is first recorded as a biblical beast in the Book of Job:
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
The word and the original creature are both matters of some speculation.
Most writers believe the biblical behemoth refers to the rhinoceros (other contenders include the elephant, hippo and rhino), and even those who disagree on that specific identification have banded together to resist the notion that it was a dinosaur.
The origins of the word are similarly unclear. Its use in the bible is certainly from the Hebrew bĕhēmōṯ, a so-called "intensive" (or, more accurately, an irregular) plural of bĕhēmāh or beast. But according to the OED, the Hebrew word might actually be a Hebraic rendering of the earlier Egyptian term p-ehe-mau, or water-ox.
With this evocative backstory, it makes sense that the word "behemoth" would have a sprawling presence in our world today, from the blackest of black metal bands and a starring role in the Final Fantasy role playing game to the title of Thomas Hobbes’ lesser known companion to his scandalous political book Leviathan (another creature first mentioned in the Book of Job) and the sarcastic, hog-sized, vodka-swilling, chess-playing, shape-shifting, demonic cat—and main character—in Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal novel The Master and Margarita.
Biblical scholars may have rejected the behemoth as a dinosaur, but Dungeons & Dragons creatives have decidedly chosen a different course, populating their worlds with not just a class of character called the Behemoth—a warrior of steel and might—but also a series of creatures with descriptive species names including Deathclaw, Maulhead, Terrorfin, Dreadfang, and Scythe.
And you will find behemoths of all kinds in the works of today’s most talented wordsmiths.
In Candyfreak, Steve Almond’s tasty and aptly-named book detailing his obsession with lesser-known candies and his visits to some of the factories that make them, he writes:
Our first stop on the factory tour was a machine called the Continuous Cycle Starch Mogul, which was making the Goo Goo centers. It was as scary looking as the name suggests: a huge, clicking, clanking behemoth whose various pulleys, ramps, and chutes were coated in a white patina of cornstarch. The ground below looked as if Tony Montana had just thrown one of his special parties for one.
Paul Auster, in Moon Palace, provides an unforgettable example of a modern-day behemoth:
He was titanic in his obesity, a person of such bulging, protrusive roundness that you could not look at him without feeling yourself shrink. It was as though his three-dimensionality was more pronounced than that of other men. Not only did he occupy more space than they did, but he seemed to overflow it, to ooze out from the edges of himself and inhabit areas where he was not. Sitting in repose, with his bald behemoth’s head jutting from the folds of his massive neck, there was a legendary quality about him, a thing that struck me as both obscene and tragic. It was not possible that the spare and diminutive Effing had fathered such a son: he was a genetic mishap, a renegade seed that had run wild, blossoming beyond all measure.
Though examples abound, two of my favorite authors employed the word behemoth in ways I remembered without any prompting.
In Gain, Richard Powers often-overlooked novel that is even more relevant in today’s increasingly corporatized and mechanized society than it was 20 years ago when it debuted, he writes:
Every manufacturing system that Clare had yet assembled resembled those smudges in an eye-fooling painting: the crowds on a middle promontory that, to the observer who takes two giant steps backward, suddenly reveal themselves to be but bristles in the nostril of a behemoth.
And finally, George Saunders, in Lincoln in the Bardo (an extraordinary, choral novel), personifies—or whatever it is when an idea is enghosted–a feeling familiar to many of us…and its relief:
For reasons unknown to us, Tim Midden had always gone about dogged by a larger version of himself, that was constantly leaning over to whisper discouragement to him; this behemoth was now gone.