Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
28 November 2014
The tale of Lilith had a profound effect on literature, art, and the lens with which we view and interpret religion. In Abrahamic lore, she was the first wife of Adam, a demon and succubus, a symbol of sin. Yet artists and writers developed a fascination for Lilith, portraying her in steadily more tragic and sympathetic lights. Her story has made her a symbol of modern feminism, yet her nature is that of a demon. Traditionally, Lilith symbolizes evil and sin, yet as time goes on, we interpret her story in more positive lights; where before we saw disobedience, we now see independence. Where before she was hated and fear, now her story is admired. Reinterpretation of the what we already know not only paints our previous views in new lights, but also challenges our original beliefs. This being so, it’s no surprise that the titular Lilith of Lilith’s Brood acts as the protagonist and hero of the story, as an allegory of the original Lilith’s tale. Her portrayal in the story makes a statement on the original tale and the values behind it.
Then the obvious question is: who symbolizes who? Lilith is Lilith, obviously, but everyone else is fair game. No one directly translates neatly and completely from one tale into the other; there is no one character that is definitely Adam, nor is there one character that is definitely Eve. Rather, it’s the sentiment and purpose of these characters and symbols that get translated over: God, Eden, the apples and demons, and so on. In order to understand the meanings of the characters in the novel, we first have to understand the meanings of the characters in the original tale.
To begin, a disclaimer: Lilith, despite her cultural impact and widespread popularity, did not appear in the original Bible, at least not enough to have a story. At best, something can could be interpreted as Lilith appears in one or two lines, yet it makes no mention of her as Adam’s first wife, or as the temptress who has Eve eat the forbidden fruit. Originally, she was merely a Babylonian demon, who preyed on infants and pregnant mothers, and she remained that way for quite a while. However, the Old Testament mentions God creating a woman even before he created Eve from Adam’s rib: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (KJV, Gen. 1.27) Therefore, some people theorized that another woman must have existed before Eve, and so Lilith’s story was born. She did not get her own story until the apocryphal Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous Jewish text that first establishes her tale, additions to the original texts. (Gaines)
It begins with Ben Sira’s account, when God creates Adam out of the earth, and decides to create another human from the earth: a female, Lilith. Contrast this with how Eve was said to be created from Adam’s rib: whereas there the female was derived from the male, here, the male and female were created side-by-side. Whereas Eve submitted, Lilith did not. This became a source of conflict, where Adam and Lilith fought over her refusal to submit and act “womanly”. Their fights cumulated to the point where Lilith pronounced God’s true name, a terrible sin. She then left the Garden, flying away as a winged demon. God further punished her by killing a hundred of her children, the Lilim, each passing day should she not return to the Garden, and she retaliates by killing babies. (Gaines) Her story only gets longer from here. The Zohar, an interpretation of various Hebrew texts, has her couple with Samael, the angel of death and a simultaneously good and evil force. God, fearing the onset of their demonic children, forbids them to procreate, and Lilith turns promiscuous in retaliation. More and more artists and writers added their interpretations and spins on her character. Some were sympathetic, like in Robert Browning’s “Adam, Lilith, and Eve”, where Lilith was the one who truly loved Adam. Others were not, where Lilith makes a deal with the devil to assume the shape of a serpent, to be the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The important parts to take away from this, however, is that first, Lilith gets banished from Eden for defying Adam and God. Second, she symbolizes promiscuity and fertility, and couples with demons, birthing more demons, the Lilim. Third, while it is a tentative point, Lilith is a temptress, often associated with the serpent that convinced Eve to eat the fruit, resulting in their banishment.
So again, who symbolizes who? As the main character, Lilith stands at the center of it all; who the others represent is mostly defined by their relationship with Lilith herself. But to begin, a fundamental question, who symbolizes God? In this case, it’s not a who, but a what. Seeing as how this story lacks any real characters on the level of a “force of nature”, God isn’t symbolized by any single character. In fact, it’s not symbolized by a character at all, but a concept. Consider how in the original tale, God is merely the authority Lilith defies. She refuses its values, defies its orders, and speaks its true name, causing it to banish her from Eden. However, she still makes a deal with God, promising not to kill any children that wear an amulet with her name on it, showing how she’s not completely free from its authority. (Gaines) Thus, in Lilith’s Brood, God is symbolized as the concept of humanity. “Humanity” is what literally every human in the novel holds as sacred, even Lilith. This becomes even more apparent as the Lilith awakens more humans, where they start to turn against Lilith, banding together, taking pride in their humanity. When they discover Joseph to be modified, and no longer “pure human”, they kill him. They refer to Lilith and the Oankali, the “inhuman”, as “...you and your animals.” (Butler 227) In all their scenes, they value their humanity the most. Even Lilith, the supposed betrayer of humanity, fears that their children “...won’t be human. That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters.” (Butler 248) This ties in to Lilith’s deal with God. Even if Lilith from the myth betrays God, she is not free from its influence. Similarly, even if Lilith from the novel “betrays” humanity, she is likewise not free from its influence. Seeing as how the humans view humanity as the ultimate “good” in this conflict, being the main idea to protect and obey, it stands to reason that the concept of humanity represents God. Likewise, the Oankali, as the threats to the idea of “humanity”, are the demons.
Lilith’s relationship with God and Adam as individuals isn’t quite as important here, seeing as how in the novel, there is no clear “Adam”. The sentiment is the same, in that they both defied “authority”, and what was perceived by humanity to be morally right, and were thus cast out for it. Admittedly, the exact motivations were different. In the myth, Lilith wanted to assert her independence. In the novel, independence, at least from the male gender, is almost a non-issue. Instead, Lilith believes her actions are the best for humanity, even if it sacrifices what makes them human, which causes her ostracization. The resemblance still holds, in which both Liliths abandon God for “demons”. In the case of the novel, the “demons” are both partially figurative, where they seek to destroy what makes humanity human, and partially literal, with “Medusa children. Snakes for hair. Nests of night crawlers for eyes and ears.” (Butler 43) This comparison with demons becomes even more important when the Lilith in the novel starts to “mate” with the Oankali, the demons, paralleling how the Lilith in the myth mates with Samael after her banishment. Similarly, mating with Samael causes Lilith to gain a reputation of promiscuity, while Lilith’s “mating” with the Oankali causes the other humans to react in the same way: “Strip and screw your Nikanj right here for everyone to see, why don’t you. We know you’re their whore! Everyone here knows!” (Butler 241)
(fruit of knowledge)
(WHAT DOES IT MEAN
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood (Dawn). New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000. Print.
"The Alphabet of Ben Sira Question 5 (23a-b)." Jewish and Christian Literature. Alan Humm. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. http://jewishchristianlit.com//Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html
The Bible, King James Version. Bible Resources. Web. 1 Dec 2014
Gaines, Janet H. "Lilith - Seductress, Heroine, or Murderer?" Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society, 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Nov 2014.
Veenker, Ronald A. “Forbidden Fruit: Ancient Near Eastern Sexual Metaphors” Academia.edu. Academia, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. http://www.academia.edu/5041322/Forbidden_Fruit_Ancient_Near_Eastern_Sexual_Metaphors