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"Walpurgis Night" Scene of Goethe's "Faust, Part I" (1808)


After the writing of the Zohar, Lilith does not again emerge significantly until the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1808 work, Faust Part I, nearly 600 years later. This text marks a divergence from earlier texts in that Lilith is no longer a figure of religious mythology directed at a specific audience with a shared cultural background, but, rather, she is presented to a larger and more heterogeneous audience. Whether Lilith was a well-known symbol before Faust's publication or whether she was reintroduced by Goethe in this text is disputable. In either case, however, the mention of Lilith in this nineteenth century text marks a turning point in the literary representations of this mythical figure.

Legends about Dr. Faustus began sometime after 1540 (when the real Johannes Faustus, a scholar, passed away) and, in most versions, are about a quest for forbidden knowledge. Previous to Goethe's refiguring of this tale, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus -- in which the protagonist is damned for his pursuit of illegitimate power through knowledge -- was the most important and influential version (Mack 462). In Goethe's Faust, however, the protagonist pursues experience rather than knowledge. "His contract with Mephistopheles provides that he will die at the moment he declares himself satisfied, content to rest in the present; he stakes his life and his salvation on his capacity ever to yearn for something beyond" (Mack 462).

During the Walpurgis Night scene of Goethe's Faust, Lilith makes her sole brief appearance. Her role in the text is not fundamental; Goethe merely incorporates her briefly into the scene. The description of Lilith's identity, offered to Faust by Mephistopheles, indicates that perhaps Goethe was aware that his average reader would not understand the reference to Lilith, thus the explanation:

Who's that there?

Take a good look.

Lilith? Who is that?

Adam's wife, his first. Beware of her.
Her beauty's one boast is her dangerous hair.
When Lilith winds it tight around young men
She doesn't soon let go of them again.
(1992 Greenberg translation, lines 4206-4211)

Thus, Goethe draws upon the ancient legends of Lilith which associate her with Adam and "ensnaring" sexuality. More importantly, however, the image of ensnaring hair serves as the identifying marker of Lilith in this passage, much as "hair" was integral to her powers in earlier texts. As this image of the hair will continue to occur throughout the nineteenth century, it is important to note its presence in this first "modern" literary mention of Lilith.

Quite ironically, after Mephistopheles offers this warning to Faust, he then encourages Faust to get up and dance with Lilith, "the pretty witch." This seeming contrast will become a familiar motif in Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite writing where Lilith is "wicked" but not necessarily damned. As a femme fatale, she will be admired and feared simultaneously. While dancing, Lilith and Faust engage in a brief conversation during which Lilith utters her only words of any substance.

FAUST. [Dancing with the young witch]
A lovely dream I dreamt one day
I saw a green-leaved apple tree,
Two apples swayed upon a stem,
So tempting! I climbed up for them.

Ever since the days of Eden
Apples have been man's desire.
How overjoyed I am to think, sir,
Apples grow, too, in my garden.
(1992 Greenberg translation, lines 4216- 4223)

Goethe, here, continues to elaborate on the Eden theme, thereby focusing on Lilith's identity as the first wife of Adam rather than as a child-slaying witch.

This brief mention of Lilith, therefore, is important in that it marks her debut into modern literature. Additionally, the fact that she is an unnecessary character -- at least, according to the plot -- indicates that Goethe had other reasons for including her and invoking the associations of her image. It seems to suggest a certain familiarity with the figure of Lilith (on the part of Goethe and, possible also, his anticipated audience). This text is important in that it foreshadows how Lilith will be portrayed in the writings of a later Romantic, John Keats. As will be shown in the following chapter, Goethe's use of the figure of Lilith is also important in that it is likely the primary source from which Rossetti drew when painting and writing about Lilith.

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