On the ceiling of the Sistine chapel we can see an atypical depiction of the serpent of Paradise. Michelangelo chose to portray the snake as a red-headed woman, undoubtedly Lilith. Why did Michelangelo decide to include Lilith in his biblical masterpiece, though she is mentioned only once in the Bible by name? Without a doubt, her fascinating and terrifying presence is palpable also in our times, as it was when Michelangelo engaged with the theme. As Siegmund Hurwitz puts it,
“Of all the motifs in Jewish mythology, none – other than that of the Messiah – remains so vivid to this day as the myth of Lilith.” (1)
Lilith made her first appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh:
“After heaven and earth had been separated and mankind had been created, …; on this day, a huluppu tree (probably a linden tree), which had been planted on the bank of the Euphrates and nourished by its waters, was uprooted by the south wind and carried away by the Euphrates. A goddess, who was wandering along the banks seized the swaying tree and – (…) – brought it to Inanna’s garden in Uruk. Inanna tended the tree carefully and lovingly; she hoped to have a throne and a bed made for herself from its wood. After ten years, the tree had matured. But in the meantime, she found to her dismay that her hopes could not be fulfilled. Because during that time, a dragon had built its nest at the foot of the tree, the Zu-bird was raising its young in the crown, and the demon Lilith had built her house in the middle. But Gilgamesh, who had heard of Inanna’s plight, came to her rescue. He took his heavy shield, killed the dragon with his gigantic bronze axe, (…). Then the Zu-bird flew into the mountains with its young, while Lilith, petrified with fear, tore down her house and fled into the wilderness.”
Here Inanna covets two symbols of worldly power and comfort – the throne and the bed. The inner wildness and freedom symbolized by the huluppu tree is destroyed with an axe by Gilgamesh at Inanna’s behest. Lilith flies away in a similar manner as she will flee Paradise when Adam refuses to recognize her as his equal.
The name Lilith comes from Sumerian and is connected to storm and wind. Endowed with a pair of wings, Lilith feels most comfortable in the element of air. Some researchers connect her name also with the Hebrew “laila,” the night, but Hurwitz rejects this etymology. Yet already in ancient Sumer Lilith seemed to represent the shadow of the great goddess and thus can be regarded as a hidden aspect of Inanna. The huluppu tree can be interpreted as a symbol of Inanna’s Self, which her ego seeks to suppress. Another Bybylonian goddess Lilith is derived from is Lamashtu. Hurwitz quotes from an ancient text regarding her nature:
“Her abode is on the mountains, or in the reedbeds. Dreadful is her appearance. Her head and her face are those of a fearsome lion, white as clay is her countenance, she has the form of an ass, from her lips pours spittle, she roars like a lion, she howls like a jackal. A whore is she. Fearsome and savage is her nature. Raging, furious, fearsome, terrifying, violent, rapacious, rampaging, evil, malicious, she overthrows and destroys all that she approaches. Terrible are her deeds. Wherever she comes, wherever she appears, she brings evil and destruction. Men, beasts, trees, rivers, roads, buildings, she brings harm to them all. A flesh-eating, bloodsucking monster is she.”
One of the most celebrated images, which possibly depict Lilith, is the so-called Burney Relief. Interestingly, up to this day scholars are debating whether it depicts Ishtar, Ereshkigal or Lilith. For Hurwitz, it is Lilith. He thus describes it:
“The relief shows the erect figure of a naked goddess of exceptional beauty. She has two huge wings and excessively long bird’s feet with the talons of a bird of prey. … She stands on two lions which face in opposite directions and is flanked by two realistic-looking night owls which have exactly the same wings and feet as the goddess herself. … There are no controversies as regards the age and origin of the relief. As has generally been accepted, it is of Sumerian origin and appears to date from the so-called Isin Larsa period, i.e., some time around 1950. For these reasons, we can almost certainly assume – along with Kraeling – that a pictorial representation of a winged Lilith is involved here.”
Fascinatingly, the original relief was painted red, as the approximate colour scheme reveals below. Red has always signified a fallen woman in the Bible; the most prominent example being the scarlet-clad Whore of Babylon from the Apocalypse. Red seems to be the colour frequently associated with Lilith also in the later Kabbalistic tradition.
Red is also a colour of seduction. This particular aspect of Lilith’s persona came strongly to light in the Talmud. As Hurwitz comments:
“That she was perceived as such a dangerous and demonic figure in the Talmudic-Rabbinic tradition has both historical and psychological bases. In the first place, it is connected with the patriarchal attitude of Talmudic-Rabbinic Judaism, in which the feminine was always perceived as something threatening. As a result, in Judaeo-Christian, Western cultural development, the feminine was not only devalued but also, in consequence of a marked defensive attitude, virtually demonized.”
One Talmudic text warns that whoever sleeps alone in a house will be attacked by Lilith.
Another important source of information about early Jewish beliefs concerning Lilith are the so called Aramaic magic texts, which were inscribed on the inside of bowls and buried in a magic ritual. The act of burying the vessel was destined to prevent the danger from escaping by containing it underground. This is connected with an important motif of banishment, directly related to Lilith:
“Psychologically speaking, banishing evil out of sight signifies nothing more nor less than a driving out, a wish-not-to-see, which for primitive people meant the same as not existing.”
Also Gnostic writing contains stories about Lilith, such as the one in which prophet Elijah cannot ascend into heaven because he had fornicated with Lilith unconsciously at night and as a consequence becomes trapped on the earth. The so called Mandaean Gnosis teaches about a figure called Lilith-Zahriel, who contrary to all other known myths about Lilith, is not a child-stealing demon but helps a pregnant woman and is concerned with the child’s well-being.
One of the most pivotal works on Lilith is undoubtedly The Alphabet of Ben Sira, one of the earliest and most sophisticated Hebrew stories written in the Middle Ages, which most probably was inspired by an earlier Hellenistic work. Hurwitz quotes the following passage from that work:
“When the Almighty – may His name be praised – created the first, solitary man, He said: It is not good for man to be alone. And He fashioned for man a woman from the earth, like him (Adam), and called her Lilith. Soon, they began to quarrel with each other. She said to him: I will not lie underneath, and he said: I will not lie underneath but above, for you are meant to lie underneath and I to lie above. She said to him: We are both equal, because we are both (created) from the earth. But they didn’t listen to each other. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced God’s avowed name and flew into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator and said: Lord of the World! The woman you have given me has gone away from me. Immediately, the Almighty – may His name be praised – sent three angels after her, to bring her back. The Almighty – may His name be praised – said to him (Adam): If she decides to return, it is good, but if not, then she must take it upon herself to ensure that a hundred of her children die each day. They went to her and found her in the middle of the sea, in the raging waters in which one day the Egyptians would be drowned. And they told her the word of God. But she refused to return. They said to her: We must drown you in the sea. She said to them: Leave me! I was created for no other purpose than to harm children, eight days (after birth) for boys and twenty for girls. When they heard what she said, they pressed her even more. She said: I swear by the name of the living God that I, when I see you or your image on an amulet, will have no power over that particular child. And she took it upon herself to ensure that, every day, a hundred of her children died. That is why we say that, every day, a hundred of her demons die. That is why we write her name on an amulet for small children. And when she (Lilith) sees it, she remembers her promise and the child is saved.”
Also the Kabbalah recognized the importance of Lilith. She is ever present in The Zohar, which is a key Kabbalistic work of Jewish mysticism, written in Spain in the 14th century. Here also, like in The Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith appears as the first wife of Adam, who flees from him. The Zohar takes a deeper look at the creation story from the Bible (Genesis, book 1, verse 27):
“So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
According to the Zohar, this verse describes the creation of the androgynous primordial man/woman – Adam Kadmon. His female part is Lilith. However, in Genesis 2 God creates Eve from the sleeping Adam’s rib. This subsequent creation of Eve seems to contradict the Genesis 1 story, unless it was Lilith who was the first woman ever created, not Eve.
In The Zohar Lilith is portrayed as a great seductress of men:
“She (Lilith) adorns herself with all kinds of decorations, like an amorous woman. She stands at the entrance to roads and paths, in order to seduce men.… Her adornments for seducing men are her beautifully-dressed hair, red as a rose, … her ears hung with chains from Egypt and her neck hung with all the jewels of the East.”
After she achieves her seductive aims she “kills him … and casts him into the very centre of hell.”
In The Zohar Lilith forms an “unholy pair” with Samael, the leader of the fallen angels. They are regarded as the shadow pair to the divine pair of the two Sefiroth (i.e. ten emanations, or powers, by which God the Creator was said to become manifest) – Tiferet and Malchut. Hurwitz explains:
“The Sefiroth are mostly grouped in opposing pairs: thus there are right and left, male and female, active and passive Sefiroth. Within the Sefirothic system, however, two Sefiroth occupy a quite exceptional position. The very first two emanated Sefiroth, Chochma (Wisdom) and Bina (Understanding), are portrayed as a male and female pair of opposites, in which Chochma is the father and Bina the mother.
However, this symbolism was applied in particular to the sixth Sefirah Tif’eret (Mercy) and the tenth Sefirah, which appears under different names. Sometimes it is referred to as Malchut, i.e., the Kingdom (of God), sometimes as Shekhinah…”
God having a female part – Shekhinah, the divine presence in the world – is a revolutionary idea in Judaism, proposed for the first time in the Kabbalah. Lilith and Samael are believed by some Kabbalists to constitute the “demonic, destructive side of the divine personality.” As such, they are also part of the divine plan.
In the last part of his book Hurwitz embarks on a psychological analysis of the myth of Lilith. He compares her to the dark goddess as well as to the Black Madonna, who epitomizes the nigredo of the alchemical process. As he puts it:
“The black of the prima materia of the alchemists is an expression of their unconsciousness. In addition, it is a dangerous state which must first of all be ‘washed’ in the course of a lengthy transformation process, to bring out the different colors of albedo, citrinitas and rubedo, which signify a stimulation of the unconscious. At the same time, the dangerous nigredo is eliminated.“
The lotus will not grow into the light of consciousness without being rooted in the muddy earth. Further, Lilith also personifies “the expression of unrestrained natural and physical desires.” Yet she is also an expression of the darkest feelings of despair, melancholy and loneliness, which need to be washed away so that “the inner gold may appear.”
Her refusal to be restrained in any way is also linked with the emancipation of women, who are still not treated as autonomous beings in many parts of the world. Hurwitz writes:
“The dominating attitude of patriarchal man towards the feminine is, at bottom, nothing more nor less than an expression of his deep-seated fears and his uncertainty of womankind. At the same time, behind these fears must also lie a certain fascination. … Fear of the alien unknown generally leads to quite specific defensive reactions, which first become apparent in an attempt to devalue it. This leads in turn to a tendency to dominate and repress the alien.”
Lilith flies into the air towards the desert and The Red Sea. These two places are highly significant symbolically. The miracle at the Red Sea, when God parted the waves, letting the Israelites pass while the Egyptians drowned, signifies being saved by divine intervention. The desert is where the Jewish tribes originated; it is their first home. The desert and the sea are both symbols of the unconscious, where the heart opens to the infinite in moments of solitude.
Looking at Michelangelo’s painting I was reminded of a Sabian Symbol visualized as “A Serpent Coiling Near a Man and a Woman.” The astrologer Dane Rudhyar had this to say about its meaning:
“We can understand this ‘triangular’ image — man, woman and the serpent — if we relate it to the preceding one in the series, the unexploded bomb of the anarchist or activist. The urge to blow up some structure which somehow has become in the activist’s mind a symbol of the Establishment — the ruling elite — is usually the protest of an alienated and often immature mind that refuses relationship, because in the relationship he would occupy a subservient position. In this symbol, the serpent represents the acceptance of relationship by the two polarized human beings.”
Dane Rudhyar, “An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and Its 360 Symbolic Phases”
Lilith’s escape may have been immature (I actually do not think so) but sometimes a seemingly hopeless protest sows the seeds for the future, when the time will become ripe for a change to occur.
(1) Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith – The First Eve: Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Dark Feminine, Kindle edition (all the subsequent quotes in the post come from this book)
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