Changing Literary Representations of Lilith
and the Evolution of a Mythical Heroine
When singer/performer Sarah McLachlan founded an all-female touring music festival in 1997 and named the event "Lilith Fair," the most widely asked question was: "Who is Lilith?" According to Sarah McLachlan, the story of Lilith is as follows:
Adam . . . asked God to send him a mate, a partner like the other creatures had. God obliged by making Lilith and sending her to Adam. At first he was pleased, but then she opened her mouth, showing that she had a mind of her own. He wanted her to lie beneath him and she promptly refused, saying that they were equal and she would not be subservient to him. Adam flew into a tantrum, so Lilith took off to calmer territory. -- (Childerhose xiii)
This overtly feminist version of Lilith's story is not rare in modern culture. In 1976, for example, Lilith, an independent Jewish women's magazine with a self-proclaimed feminist focus, was founded and given Lilith's name.
There exist countless other invocations of Lilith as a feminist heroine in modern culture. In 1991, Dagmar Nick published a novel in which Lilith tells her own sarcastic version of the Lilith myth, including her own subversive reasons for having been expelled from the Garden of Eden. A more recent text -- Which Lilith?, 1998 -- plays upon the multiplicity of Lilith's identity by incorporating various re-creations of Lilith by modern feminist writers. Yet the story of Lilith as a feminist heroine is just one of the stories of her identity. Before the thirteenth century, many different versions of Lilith's identity existed, none of which heralded her as a positive or welcoming figure.
The uncertainty and debate surrounding Lilith stems from the fact that she developed as a mythical figure over centuries of time, with many strands of her story evolving along completely separate lines. Because of this, Lilith was various known as a succubus, as a child-slaying witch, and as the equitable first companion of Adam. Not until the writing of the Zohar in 1200 CE did these distinct guises of Lilith combine to form a complete picture of her identity.
Yet the debates continued, for Lilith had become such a well-known and widely used mythical figure that her identity was continuously being appropriated. Through today, countless writers have ascribed personality traits to Lilith which often, seemingly, have little to do with her identity as it was known in any of the founding texts. This was possible because of men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and John Keats, Romantic writers who brought Lilith from the realm of Jewish mysticism and thought into that of "mainstream" literature and culture.
After being brought to this level, Lilith's story was appropriated by the most famous artist/writer of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In his art and poetry, Rossetti employed the image of Lilith in such a way as to open her to feminist interpretation. Bram Dijkstra states, "Lilith, who, in her unwillingness to play second fiddle to Adam, was, as Rossetti's work already indicated, widely regarded as the world's first virago [late nineteenth-century feminist]" (309). Rossetti, therefore, is responsible for beginning the transformation of Lilith that would allow her to move from the demoness of early Jewish culture to the feminist heroine of today.
The argument central to this paper, therefore, is that the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti were responsible for transforming Lilith in such a way as to allow for feminist interpretations of her identity. As evidenced by the quote above from Dijkstra, this assertion is not new. In almost all studies which examine the evolution of Lilith's identity, Rossetti is recognized as the first to portray Lilith in a "modern" way, allowing her to leave the mold of vice in which she had previously been cast.
Rossetti was indeed "a dramatic imagist, a seeker of meaning, a mythmaker," establishing Lilith for all time as a strong and independent female figure (Garner 66). Since this fact is little disputed, it is not the primary focus of this study. The more important question is: How was Lilith transformed from a demoness to a feminist heroine? Furthermore, what techniques and devices did Rossetti use in implementing this transformation?
The study begins with a historicizing of Lilith's identity in Chapter One by exploring the various "founding" texts in which she appears. These texts will be placed within their respective cultural contexts in order to demonstrate why particular aspects of Lilith's identity were focused on at that time and in that text. Located within this chapter is discussion of The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work which includes the version of the Lilith story most cited today: that of Lilith as the first wife of Adam who flees the Garden after refusing to submit to Adam's authority.
Although very concentrated on chronology, history and Jewish tradition, the development of Lilith in the founding texts is vital in order to understand the legacy that Rossetti inherited when he employed Lilith as a primary figure in his work. While Rossetti himself quite possibly knew little or nothing about these works explicitly, he was obviously aware of the legacy they left behind, a legacy that can be seen in Goethe's mention of Lilith in Faust.
Chapter Two then explores Lilith's identity in the works of Goethe and Keats, Romantic writers who moved Lilith from the realm of Jewish mysticism to that of literature-proper. While Goethe merely mentions Lilith briefly in the Walpurgis Night scene of Faust, Part One, and Keats describes a Lilith-like figure but refers to her by another name (Lamia), both of these writers exerted the utmost influence on Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
This section, therefore, briefly discusses Faust, "Lamia," and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" in order to demonstrate that Lilith's transformation from the evil child-slaying succubus had begun. Further, it explicates these texts so that, when reading about Rossetti's use of Lilith, the reader will recognize the references Rossetti makes to his literary predecessors.
Finally, Chapter Three focuses on the thesis of this project, examining the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in order to demonstrate how he transformed Lilith's identity in such a way as to allow for the feminist interpretations of her that are employed today. Of all his works, "Eden Bower" most clearly demonstrates this transformation. Yet it is the combination of all Rossetti's works that deal with Lilith which makes this transformation complete.