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A Modern Development: Images of Lilith in Literature, Art, and Artifacts

"Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree" (2000 BCE)
Usually found as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh of 2400 BC, this tale contains the earliest mention of Lilith. She is here associated with Eden and is portrayed as fearsome.

"The Lilith Relief" (circa 2000 BCE)
Sumerian terra-cotta relief which features Lilith as the primary figure. Lilith is identified as a succubus.

Isaiah 34:14 (circa 900 BC)
This scripture is the site of a much contested incidental literary reference to Lilith. While the word sometimes translated as "Lilith" has been variously translated as "night hag," "night demon," etc., the passage, nevertheless, associates a Lilith-like creature with the desert, night, evil, and flight.

Testament of Solomon (200 CE)
Although the character in question is "Obizuth," she describes herself in terms that correlate almost perfectly with Lilith. This text contains the earliest textual reference to the amuletic tradition of warding off Lilith, the demoness.

The Talmud (400 CE)
This text contains four incidental mentions of Lilith as a winged, she-demon of the night. Although it alludes to the succubus-myth associated with Lilith, it does not show any connection with Adam at all.

"The Nippur Bowls" (circa 600 CE)
Incantation bowls found near the ancient colony of Nippur. This set of archeological artifacts contains 40 bowls, 26 of which feature Lilith. Her guises as the child-slayer and succubus are joined together in the incantations inscribed here.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira (800 CE)
Controversial text by an unknown author, generally believed to be the "founding text" for the Lilith myth as it is known today. The Lilith of The Alphabet account is the insubordinate first wife of Adam, created from dust as his equal, who fled Eden.

Book of Raziel (circa 1100 CE)
This literary reference draws upon the Hebrew amuletic tradition of warding off Lilith during childbirth. She is here associated with Adam and Eve.

The Zohar (1200 CE)
This central work of Jewish mysticism depicts Lilith in all of her various guises: 1) Lilith as "female of Samael." Seductive and beautiful, Lilith sleeps with men and then kills them. (Zohar I 148a-148b). 2) Lilith begets demons from her intercourse with sleeping men and inflicts diseases on them. (Zohar I 19b). 3) The story of creation (Lilith/Adam/Eve) is "resolved" by making Lilith Adam's first wife. (Zohar III 19a). 4) Lilith is described as a strangler/murderer of children. (Zohar I 19b).

Hebrew Amuletic Tradition (circa 900-1800)
Numerous archeological artifacts which focus on Lilith. Primarily used during child- birth to keep Lilith away, these were worn by the pregnant woman and/or hung on her walls. Some of these artifacts also draw on the facets of Lilith's identity as a succubus and as the first wife of Adam.

Jutta (1565)
German play about Johanna, the granddaughter of Lilith and the only woman known to have been pope. As a backdrop to this plot, the existence of Lilith is explained.

Paradise Lost (1667)
Contains an apparent allusion to Lilith in the single phrase "snake witch."

Faust (1808)
Lilith briefly appears in the Walpurgis Night scene of this work by Goethe. She is portrayed as a beautiful seductress with long, flowing hair, and Mephistopheles explains to Faust that Lilith was Adam's first wife.

"Lamia" (1819)
Poem by John Keats presenting the first Romantic portrayal of Lilith. She is excessively beautiful and is trapped in the form of a snake until freed by Hermes so that she can find the love of her youth, Lycius. She and he live together happily, with him unaware of her mythical past, until, at their wedding, the philosopher Apollonius declares Lilith's name and causes her death. Lycius, unable to live without her, dies also.

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" (1820)
Ballad by John Keats which draws upon themes of "Lamia." The unnamed "La Belle" is an enchantress/phantasm who seduces even the strongest of men. She can be read as representing Lilith herself or simply the femme fatale image of which Lilith is a part.

"Lady Lilith" (1863 and 1864-1868?)
Two paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (watercolor and then oil version) which depict Lilith sitting in a magical boudoir/bower space, combing her long, ensnaring hair in a mirror.

"Lilith," later published as "Body's Beauty" (1868)
Sonnet written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to accompany "Lady Lilith." She is described as Adam's first wife and possibly implicated in the Fall of Man. The poem emphasizes Lilith's affiliation with the snake and ends with Lilith castrating/killing the universalized young man with her "strangling golden hair."

"Eden Bower" (1869)
Ballad by Dante Gabriel Rossetti which elaborates on the themes of "Lilith." Although this poem represents the first time that Lilith is directly implicated in the Fall of Man, it is also here that Lilith truly makes her transformation. By reading the poem from a feminist perspective, it can be seen that Rossetti gives Lilith the power of narrative voice, a voice which was historically denied her, and explodes the dichotomy between good and evil, thereby undermining traditional responses to the myth of Lilith

"A Sea-Spell" (1868) and "The Orchard-Pit" (1869)
Two poems by Rossetti which tell of other "femme fatales" who are not necessarily Lilith but, nonetheless, draw upon the symbols and imagery of the Lilith myth. The unnamed femme fatale of "The Orchard Pit" is more explicitly associated with Lilith while the Siren of "A Sea-Spell" merely echoes the theme of Lilith.

"Adam, Lilith and Eve" (1883)
Poem by Robert Browning where a thunderstorm drives Lilith to confess that she truly loved Adam, and Eve to confess that she truly loved another man. After the storm is over, Adam naively laughs and dismisses their tales as falsehoods.

"Lilith" (1887)
Painting by the Honorable John Collier which pictures sexuality between Lilith and the snake. While most older sources indicate that Collier's inspiration was Keats' "Lamia," the picture more accurately seems to represent the sexual scenes between Lilith and the serpent in "Eden Bower."

La Fin de Satan (1886)
Novel by Victor Hugo where Lilith is combined with Isis and is portrayed as hideous and bloodthirsty, "the world's black soul."

"La Fille de Lilith" ("The Daughter of Lilith") (1889)
Story by Anatole France about Leila, the daughter of Lilith. Lilith and all of her children are bound to the earth in immortality -- because they were not involved in the Fall from grace --and are described as "neither good nor evil."

Lilith (1892)
Play by Remy de Gourmont which gives a cynical and erotic account of the traditional creation story as described in the sacred Jewish texts. Depicts the myth of Lilith as a completely sexualized being who plots revenge on Adam and Eve only so that she can have sex with Adam.

"Lilith" (circa 1892)
Painting by Kenyon Cox where Lilith coddles and kisses the snake. In a lower panel of the painting, Lilith is shown in the Tree of Knowledge with the body of the Snake. Lilith is handing the forbidden fruit to Eve and she, in turn, passes it to Adam, thus creating a chain of destructive femininity.
(* It should be noted that during the late 1800s, images of snakes and women were widespread in art and literature. Archetypal females portrayed with snakes included Salammb�, Eve, Lilith, and Lamia. The list compiled here only includes references to Lilith explicitly and also some references to Lamia that seem to indicate an implicit representation of Lilith as well (such as Keats' "Lamia" and Waterhouse's "Lamia" paintings). For more information on images of women and serpents in fin-de-si�cle culture, see Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity, pages 305-313.)

Lilith (1895)
Novel by George MacDonald where the hero is forced down a path of painful initiation by the seductress Lilith.

"Lilith" (1896)
Story by Henry Harland in which the hero is a poverty stricken, deaf-mute sculptor named Straham. He creates a clay casting for a statue of Lilith and develops a close bond with the statue, sacrificing everything to keep it from being ruined by the coldness of the winter. He stumbles upon an old woman in the street (Lilith herself) and debates over assisting her or going back to his statue. He finally opts for the former, but when he gets home his statue has shattered. Much later, he starts the figure again, and when it is exhibited he becomes famous.

"Lamia" (1905)
Painting by John William Waterhouse in which Lamia kneels before Lycius as the snake-skin falls from her body. Clearly depicts a scene from Keats' poem "Lamia," but also, more generally, depicts Lilith as the universalized femme fatale. (See illustration #20).

Der Heilige und die Tiere (1905)
Play by Victor Widmann in which Lilith is delivered from evil by a saint.

"Die Kinder der Lilith" (1908)
Poem by the German storyteller Isolde Kurz which rejects as absurd the tradition of Lilith as a winged demon who deserted Adam. Kurz asserts that Lilith must have originally been like an angel and capable of deep insight. Adam, the "lump of clay," was created in God's boredom and Lilith, a charming, elfin creature, was given to him as a companion, in the hopes that something new, something disorderly striving for order, would come out of the contrast between their natures. Lucifer creates Eve to distract Adam from Lilith -- his rival. Lilith flees in despair and gives birth to a child that will lead Adam's other children to spiritual perfection, as God had intended.

"Lamia" (1909)
Second painting of this title by John William Waterhouse, often known to paint multiple paintings upon the same theme. Lamia is seated alone at a river bank, looking at her reflection in the water. The snake-skin she has recently shed is at her feet. Again, this painting clearly speaks to Keats' "Lamia" but also contains elements which refer to the more general femme fatale, including Lilith. (See illustration #21).

"The Avenging Spirit" (1920)
Poem by Arthur Symons which identifies Lilith and Lamia as mother and daughter, united in evil. The Snake plays a primary role in the poem as a symbol of sexuality, lust, and evil.

Back to Methuselah (1922)
Play by George Bernard Shaw in which Lilith is the personification of creative development, the mother of Adam, Eve, and all humankind. Lilith bestowed upon Eve her greatest gift -- curiosity. The last act is set in the year 31,920 and Lilith has the last word, concluding that the experience (experiment) of human development has been worthwhile and humanity is on its way to eliminating cruelty, hypocrisy, and death.

Dieu crea d'abord Lilith (1935)
Novel by Marc Chadourne where Lilith sows ruin, death and an incurable despair before disappearing to no one knows where, in despair herself and still a rebel. She may/may not be dead.

Delta of Venus (1969)
Book of "erotica" by Anais Nin, which features a character named Lilith. Lilith here is described as "sexually cold," but it is not her own fault, for her husband neglects to show any real sexual interest in her. Says Nin, "It was something to be done quickly, for his sake. For her it was a sacrifice."

Pope Joan (20th c.)
A reworking of the German play "Jutta"

"Lilith Prints" (1974)
Pornographic, passionate images of a transcendental sexual creation including Adam, Eve, Lilith, Satan, and God.

"Lilywhite Lilith" (1974)
Song on Peter Gabriel's album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" in which Lilith is the guide of the soul through the Underworld.

"Lilith" (1981)
A midrash on the text of Genesis 3:7 which explains how Lilith comforted Eve when she was told to cover her body. Eve had felt that Adam must not have liked her body and, thus, was ashamed. Lilith supports her and gives Eve the confidence and determination to speak up to Adam. The two women embrace as good friends.

La Papesse ou la legende de la papesse Jeanne et de sa compagne Bartolea (1983)
A play by Odile Ehret which reworked the "Jutta" story.

La Papesse (1983)
A novel by Claude Pasteur also based on the "Jutta" story.

"The Story of Lilith and Eve" (modern)
Modern Jewish tale by Jakob Lind in which Lilith and Eve are aspects of one female.

Lilith: A Metamorphosis (1991)
Novel by Dagmar Nick in which Lilith tells her version of the story of Adam's experiences in the Garden of Eden, why he and Eve are expelled, and why she herself is transformed into a snake.

From Lilith to Lilith Fair (1998)
Authorized story of the evolution of the Lilith Fair, with an introduction by Sarah McLachlan, founder of the event, stating her own abbreviated version of the Lilith myth. Demonstrates the way in which Lilith is defined in modern culture: the first strong, independent woman, a true feminist heroine.

Which Lilith? (1998)
Subtitled "Feminist Writers ReCreate the World's First Woman," this book contains modern feminists' cogitations upon who Lilith is/might be. The authors describe the text as "contemporary midrash," commentary on biblical text, and assert that "Jewish women have a need to imagine Lilith."



amy.scerba@english.cmu.edu

Last modified 2005-02-11 10:08 AM

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