Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Goddess, Demon or Femme Fatale: the Indomitable Lilith in Literature by Dr. Gillian M. E. Alban

Arte de la Jessica Gonzales


No she-demon has ever achieved as fantastic a career as Lilith, who started out from the lowliest of origins, was a failure as Adam’s intended wife, ... and ended up as the consort of God himself.    -Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess

Lilith has an outrageous herstory as the first insubordinate wife of Adam, surpassing Eve’s reputation as a defiantly seductive, rebellious femme fatale, even becoming the consort of God. Her story is rooted deep in Jewish and Sumerian myth as a fierce succubus and independent, destructive witch. Contemporary women find inspiration in this outrageous woman, who defies all proscriptions. She was irresistible to nineteenth century poet-artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who showed her as representing ‘Body’s Beauty,’ while her aggression terrified his contemporary, George MacDonald, who crushed her resistance as far as death in his novel Lilith. Contemporary writers like Angela Carter and Toni Morrison present powerful Lilith characters as strong and forceful leaders, regardless of the destructive nature of their actions. The rich heritage of Lilith, from ancient, derogatory patriarchal views, to contemporary vindications, shows both the fear and respect that Lilith’s power excites.  

Lilith was brought into existence to explain the lacunae between the two creation accounts of Genesis in the Jewish Talmud. Judaism created her in a pious attempt to rationalize the existence of the original creation story of human beings, both made in the image of God (Stuckrad 10-11), which asserts the original equality of the sexes, as well as indicating God’s androgyny, since male and female were made in His and Her image. But the second unnatural creation story of woman emerging from Adam’s rib was added, reversing the natural function of birth in older myths that show Tiamat as the Mesopotamian mother, and the Greek Gaia giving birth to Uranus, as Eve should bear Adam. With birth thus reversed, males asserted their own preeminence against women’s creative powers, and Augustine blamed Eve for the fall, her guilt tainting all women. Male dread of, yet fascination with, female sexuality and strength were then projected onto Lilith and those who follow her, affording a convenient scapegoat for all humanity’s ills.

Lilith is mentioned in the Sumerian King list from 2500 BCE and the Talmud of around 400 CE, and she is described as the original wife of Adam in the Alphabet of Ben Sira between the eighth and tenth centuries CE. Like Adam, she was created from the earth in the image of God, before his second wife, Eve, in Genesis 3: 20 named as “the mother of all living,” was putatively made from Adam’s rib. Adam and Lilith began to fight immediately, as she insisted: “Why should I lie beneath you [...] when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust” (Patai 223). In the same way that Isis had done (by controlling the name of the Egyptian god Ra while she cured him), Lilith then called on the Ineffable Name of God; and “snatching liberty” (Morrison 2004, xv), Lilith flew away from subjugation to the Red Sea. Adam begged God to restore her, and He sent three angels after her, threatening to drown her if she didn’t return. In retaliation, she threatened to destroy newborn children; boys in the first eight days, and girls within twenty days; she would desist only if they wore a protective amulet inscribed with her name. Consenting to the death of a hundred of her demon children every day, she was finally left in peace. We thus see the defiant rebellions of this primeval outrageous female demon, who became an “undoubted goddess in Sumer and the very consort of God in Kabbalism” (Patai 250). Her insubordination surpasses Eve’s disobedience in eating the apple, and initiating with her invaluable curiosity the discoveries of subsequent history.

Thus Lilith is castigated for her crimes, whether real or imputed, as a transgressive and destructive woman, a convenient scapegoat. She is equated with the snake in Eden (Baring and Cashford 512); Michaelangelo painted Lilith as the snake woman entwined around the tree facing Adam and Eve on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. She is also connected with Eve, both women regarded as demonic after the fall. Her supernatural powers as succubus or witch burst from all accounts of Lilith, and the presence of this mythic, archetypal woman posits a strikingly ancient equality between the sexes. Pagan myths reflect the snake and the tree of life as divine female sources of fertility in the Garden of Eden (Alban, 2001). The image of the Sumerian Ninhursag or Inanna, also called Queen of the Night or Lady of Heaven, has often been equated with Lilith; herstory connects with the destructive powers of Medea and Lamia against children.

All powerfully divine women, together with the sacred groves of the goddess Asherah or Ashtoreth, were crushed under monotheistic Judaism, which abhorred the idea of any goddess sharing God’s role. The only mention of Lilith in the Old Testament is in Isaiah 34: 14, where she appears as a screech owl or night hag. But the pernicious Lilith has survived despite all, seen in winged or snake-tailed creatures beside Eve in the garden, an avatar of the devil, tempting a look-alike Eve to eat from the tree (Baring and Cashford 523). Such theriomorphic, bestial figures proliferated in the nineteenth century, with Lilith a projection of men’s animistic, psychic fears and sexual desires. Writers and artists like Rossetti and MacDonald reflect their awe for such women alongside their repulsion and terror. Embracing her power, contemporary women rather find in the defiantly presumptuous Lilith one who “has become a chiffre for a certain aspect of female power” (Stuckrad 5).

Judith Plaskow, in The Coming of Lilith, describes the male bonding of Adam and God, as Lilith rejects her ascribed helpmate function and leaves Eden, whereupon this role is turned over to Eve. From outside the garden, Lilith’s demonic reputation grows through her continuing struggle against Adam. Within the garden, Eve comes to appreciate what a “beautiful and strong” brave woman she appears (Plaskow 32). Finally slipping out of the garden through the branches of an apple tree, Eve finds a sister in Lilith with whom she can relate, leading to Eden becoming polarized between male and female forces. Cinda Thompson in her poem “The Tree” turns the tables against putative male creativity in an amazingly suggestive few lines, conferring God’s creativity onto Eve who is “the mother of all living:”

my belly swells, the moon rises
genesis-full
Cursed, he swore, I say
I am
Eve. Be aware. I am
Your mother. (in Cornell 7)

These lines forcefully restore God’s creativity to the original female life-force or mother goddess, as she was understood before being crushed by monotheism (Dexter 47). Female divinity, and Lilith’s claim to equality, with her insubordination and relationship issues, make her an inspirational role model today, her disruptive influence enabling women to discard stultifying female roles. Central to Lilith lore is her independent sexuality, making her an houri and a temptation to men. The primal equality of women and men she posits gives women a powerful sovereignty, enabling them to break free of authority and imposed wifely and motherly roles. In her dubiously amoral force over mortality, with her reputation for child deaths, she implies the regenerative life and also death force of the triple goddess.

Rooted in Jewish tradition, Lilith is a universal figure; she has been connected with the African Queen of Sheba, whose demonic identity is suggested in her hairy goatish legs or “ass’s hooves” (Warner 1994, 112). Angela Carter and Toni Morrison both describe Lilith as black, affirming the African or Middle Eastern aspect of this woman of colour. The feminist use of the Lilith myth indicates women’s need for freedom and self-definition against social oppressions, forcing them to break the rules and survive against the odds. Lilith uses her powers of body and mind to great advantage. She may, as Hélène Cixous suggests in the French word “voler” (in DeShazer 400-1), “fly” from perils on her wings, or “steal” her own advantage from her oppressors, evading troubles with her snake’s cunning or wisdom. Bryant describes Morrison’s Sula as possessing an “evilness” derived from her role as a thief; Sula is defined as an outsider who robs the community of its sense of identity and strips men of their masculinity while giving them pleasure. Morrison’s novel Sula demonstrates Lilith’s sexual and personal self-assertion as pariah, morally dubious, and witchlike. Her life and death qualities as embodied in the primeval snake symbolism of Eden, assert her status as goddess, while also showing her demonic aspects. Lilith’s outrageous qualities shine through in this powerful role model.

As recently as a century ago such defiance was found unacceptable against patriarchy. In his introduction to George MacDonald’s fantasy, Lilith (1895, 1946), C.S. Lewis asserts: “From his own father, [MacDonald] said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of the Father and Son is of all relations the most central” (MacDonald v). These men thereby demonstrate an entirely partisan view of Christianity as a male religion, which, after Judaism, asserted itself against pagan mother goddess worship. Julia Kristeva describes “the harsh combat Judaism, in order to constitute itself, must wage against paganism and its maternal cults” (94), in which ancient societies ascribed creativity to birth-giving women. Luce Irigaray discusses the “archaic murder, that of the mother” (36) that occurred through patriarchy. Judaism proceeded to suppress all pagan goddess myths as “emphasiz[ing] an omnipotent, omniscient male deity; to worship any other deity was forbidden” (Dexter 47). Such blinkered views of divinity show it unable to embrace all aspects of life, whether female or male, natural and animal reflections of the world.

An excerpt from the extensive paper by Dr. Gillian M. E. Alban on Lilith in Literature, featured in Original Resistance: Reclaiming Lilith,Reclaiming Ourselves.




Dr. Gillian M. E. Alban is Assistant Professor at Istanbul Aydın University, Turkey. She writes largely on women writers from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, as well as on Shakespeare. Her book, Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt's Possession and in Mythology (Lexington 2003), exemplifies her work on women in literature through an archetypal, mythic perspective. Her current book project entitled The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive is scheduled for publication later this year by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

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——. The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and   Redemptive. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
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