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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lilith: Spirit of the Night

She is a demon. She is a monster, a wraith, a vampire. She is everything you fear when the sun dips down below the horizon and your world slides into darkness. Both scorned and feared by men, her name is Lilith, the spirit of the night.

Lilith: Spirit of the Night
This is the way in which Lilith has traditionally been portrayed in folklore, and it is an image which endures into popular culture even today. Goth, metal and post-rock bands continue to get mileage out of referencing her in lyrics, and she has reached our own age via the Romantics of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, who were happy-enough to turn her into an alluring Victorian femme fatale. At times her identity has been blended with that of Lamia, that other predatory being of legend, half serpent, half female. But how did this legend begin?

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Book of Genesis is that, in just its first two chapters, it relates two separate and conflicting accounts of the creation of the first humans. Chapter Two is the familiar version of God forming Eve from a rib of the comatose Adam. But in the previous chapter the first couple, who now remain unnamed, are created at the same time, and from the same prima materia. It might at first seem like a minor adjustment to this story, for such stories already were an inherited oral tradition, and must have varied with subsequent retellings. But this difference has impacted folklore, and spawned a legend.

This Babylonian relief carving of a winged and bird-footed female is a reminder that Hebrew texts were influenced by the lands of Hebrew exile. In Babylonian beliefs lilitu were a class of female demons.
Later Jewish folklore names the nameless woman in Chapter One (which also is the first chapter in the Jewish Torah) as Lilith, the first wife of Adam. Since Lilith is created in the same moment as Adam, she is not, as Eve was, formed from a part of Adam’s flesh. Eve, who was Woman, already was a second-generation product. Lilith contrastingly is an autonomous being, and as such is in every way Adam’s equal. Adam expects his new mate to be subservient, also in her sexual role. Lilith has other ideas, and protests mightily both to God and to Adam that she also has rights and expectations. Having scorned both man and deity, Lilith storms off into the night. Unlike Eve, Lilith is not ejected from Eden. Instead she keeps the power to herself, and leaves of her own volition.

Two Victorian lamias (left, by John William Waterhouse, and right, by Herbert Draper) both draped in the shed skins of their serpent selves.
In her wanderings and in legend, Lilith becomes a creature of the darkness associated with vampires, monsters and night spirits: associations which have endured into contemporary popular culture. But whatever she has become since, in folklore she originally was Adam’s equal partner – a state of affairs about which both God and Adam apparently had regretful second thoughts. The all-too-masculine deity did not make that mistake twice, and with the feisty and assertive Lilith out of the picture, Eve was created to be subservient to the man.

This serpent-entwined version of Lilith by John Collier would seem to be little more than an excuse for some exotic Victorian titillation.
Lilith’s punishment for doing nothing more than assert her equal gender rights was to be transformed in folklore into a predator of the darkness. It seems that what men feel threatened by, what invokes male insecurity, is not so much a woman’s sexuality, as a woman’s sexual autonomy. What also seems to be underscored by Lilith’s story is another simple but stark reality: that although we might not know the identities of the writers of these ancient texts of scripture and folklore, their pro-male story lines are in themselves enough to persuade us that they were written by men.

Lilith: Spirit of the Night painted for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved. For those interested in the sources of such things: the geomantic symbols which are painted on the body of my model are those meaning 'great good fortune' - a visual statement which I feel in itself redresses in some small measure the gender injustice of these pro-male stories which have become so entrenched in our culture, whether or not we are 'believers'.

Babylonian carving: British Museum, London. The blue on the manes of the two beasts is the original surviving pigment with which this carving was painted. Lamia, by John William Waterhouse, 1909 (collection untraced). Lamia, by Herbert Draper, 1910 (collection untraced). Lilith, by John Collier, 1892, in the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, England.


  1. You could well have revealed here the most important hidden truth about the equality between men and women - or rather, the lack of it. I believe as you do that these stories do have a deep influence upon us, and how we behave towards each other. Whether they are found in the Bible or in folk tales, we need to recognize their impact on our thinking, and how profound that impact can be. If I might add my own observation to your post: to me Lilith represents the 'untamed woman', whom the writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés would call 'the woman who runs with the wolves' - which is the significance of her being created before Eve. Lilith is who we as women originally really are, and are meant to be; Eve, in contrast, is men's version of women. How moving that these insights into womanhood are written by a man!
    Thank you so much, David, also for the beautiful painting of Lilith - not in the least for the symbols written on her body!

  2. Thank you so much, Emma, for for the additional insights which you have added to my post. I find your remark that Lilith is 'who women truly are, and Eve is men's version of women' particularly telling. Both versions of the creation, in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, have different insights to offer us, and are equally complimentary as contradictory!


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