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. More specifically, with her novel, she constantly challenges the traditional perspective, reinterpreting evil into good, showing how mere association does not set morality in stone.
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 “She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.'” (Anonymous) Their fights escalated to the point where Lilith pronounced God’s true name, a terrible sin, and 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. In the Treatise on the Left Emanation, “...evil Samael and wicked Lilith are like a sexual pair who, by means of an intermediary, receive an evil and wicked emanation from one and emanate to the other.” (Ha-Kohen) 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 God, representative of the ultimate authority. Second, she symbolizes promiscuity and fertility, and couples with demons, birthing even 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, 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 deity, God isn’t symbolized by any single character, but a concept. In the original tale, God is merely represents 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, as the sanctity of humanity is the ultimate authority for the humans in the novel. “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 Oankali, fighting back in the name of preserving 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 above all else, even their own survival. 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 and authority. Similarly, even if Lilith from the novel “betrays” humanity, she is likewise not free from its influence, and still wishes to protect it. Seeing as how the humans view human purity 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, the ultimate purity and ultimate authority. On the contrary, the Oankali, as the threats to the idea of “humanity”, are the demons.
The difference, however, is that where the original myth portrays Lilith’s betrayal of humanity as negative, Butler’s portrays it as positive. Whereas Lilith’s original refusal to obey God was condemned, in the novel, it was the “right” choice. By positively portraying the novel’s Lilith’s actions in the novel, Butler makes a statement on the original myth, that the myth’s Lilith’s actions were right and justified, which is consistent on a feminist interpretation of the myth. As Lilith refuses to submit to Adam, insisting that they are equals, Lilith has become a symbol for modern Jewish feminists, to the point that one of the most prominent Jewish feminist magazines out there is named after her. Today, “Ignoring or explaining away Lilith’s unsavory traits, feminists have focused instead upon Lilith’s independence and desire for autonomy.” (Gaines) Butler takes a similar stance, where in the novel, Lilith does not submit to the other surviving men, despite multiple attempts to subdue her: rape attempts, demonization, and so on.
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. The fact that said “snakes” and “night crawlers” act as the medium with which the Oankali mate with the humans further reinforces the comparison with Lilith and Samael, equivalent to “the serpent who is in the image of an intermediary between Lilith and her mate.” (Ha-Kohen) 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)
Similarly to the previous example, the portrayals are reversed in the myth versus the novel. In the myth, her coupling with demons is the ultimate sign that Lilith has betrayed God. In the novel, her coupling with “demons” is not an act of betrayal, but loyalty, in that she does so to save humanity. “I don’t like what they’re doing, and I’ve never made any secret of it. But they’re in this with us.” (Butler 282) In both versions, the ultimate authority denounces Lilith’s actions and the coupling with demons, yet in the novel, the narration and general plot makes it clear that the coupling is not only justified, but the most optimal decision. This serves to further hammer in the theme of inverting traditional values established by religion and myth.
One of the most important aspects of Lilith’s character, and what this all leads up to in the end, is her association with serpents, and her nature as a temptress. While her relationship with the serpent that tempted Eve is not quite as widespread in the reinterpretations of her myth, it still exists, and fits in with her novel counterpart. The serpent tempted the pure humans into eating the fruit of knowledge, and as it turns out, “eating fruit in Genesis 3 is a simple metaphor for intercourse and, therefore, the biblical narrator wishes to tell the reader by means of this metaphor that Adam and Eve experienced sex for the ﬁrst time in the Garden” (Veenker 57), an interpretation that comes from how fruit is prevalently used in sexual metaphors, especially in Near Eastern and Mesopotamian literature. Similarly, in the novel, it’s thanks to Lilith’s influence that the humans mate with Oankali, a decision which they regret, because it stains their humanity. In the same way “eating the fruit of knowledge” causes God to banish Adam and Eve from Eden, mating with the Oankali causes the humans to fear for their humanity, and each time, Lilith is the “temptress” who causes, directly or indirectly, this “fall”.
Yet again, Butler’s portrayal challenges the original. Whereas in the original, this led to humanity’s fall from grace, in the novel, it’s a necessary evil, required for humanity to survive and progress. She was not the first to come up with the idea. If we are to take the eating of the fruit of knowledge as a sexual metaphor, then the banishment from Eden could easily represent growth, loss of innocence, and most importantly, maturity. “In Eden they were childlike and innocent, hardly ﬁt for the world outside paradise. Then they ate fruit, i.e., they “knew ” each other sexually, thus beginning the “ascent of knowledge” which led them to make clothes for themselves, a further sign of their civilization. Now they were ready for life in the world beyond Eden.” (Veenker 71) Similarly, mating with, or “knowing” the Oankali gives them the abilities they need to survive down in Earth, with improved bodies, minds, and hastened development. While the process is ugly, to the point where man humans refuse it and try to rebuild humanity while sterile and incapable of procreation, it’s presented as necessary for humanity to survive. The ideal of human purity demands that the humans refuse the Oankali’s help, because their ways taint them, stain their purity, and make them lose their humanity. Yet, in the same way Adam and Eve are not beyond all redemption for losing their innocence, Lilith believes that “some of what makes us Human will survive, just as some of what makes them Oankali will survive.” (Butler 282) Even if accepting the change means sacrificing their purity, it doesn’t mean sacrificing the entirety of their humanity.
A common theme among all of these reinterpretations of the myth is an inversion of good and evil, or more specifically, finding good in what was previously considered evil. By presenting alternative reinterpretations challenging the traditional ideas, Butler challenges its authority. Often, people will bring up religious anecdotes and excerpts to prove a point, as if being part of an established religion makes it valid or sound evidence, a practice that still goes on today. Some people will use it to justify sexism, citing Eve’s role in being the first to eat the fruit of knowledge, and to know sin. Others will use it to justify arguments against certain civil rights issues, the matter of same-sex marriage being one of the most prominent ones. Even today, we have people who will take the rules put forth by the religious texts as law. Butler’s reinterpretations neatly demonstrates that even when a situation mirrors those of the religious texts, that doesn’t set the morality in stone. Similarity to specific myths does not automatically set one side as good, one side as evil, simply because of the similarities in themes.
Because of the prevalence of religious texts in our moral values, specific themes are held sacred for the sake of holding them sacred, merely by association. We value purity and innocence, for example, yet staying pure prevents us from growing as people, or developing new morals or ideas. We get a choice of what we can put on a pedestal: staying forever pure and unchanged, or accepting the change, both good and bad. Yet simply because influential texts say that purity is the way to go, doesn’t mean that we have to accept that unquestioningly and unconditionally. If we want to change for the better, we will have to challenge the morals that have already been established, to determine if they are morals truly worth following.
Anonymous. "Alphabet of Ben Sira Question 5 (23a-b)." Trans. Bronznick, Norman. Jewish and Christian Literature. Alan Humm. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
The Bible, King James Version. Bible Resources. Web. 1 Dec 2014.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000. Print.
Gaines, Janet H. "Lilith - Seductress, Heroine, or Murderer?" Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society, 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Nov 2014.
Ha-Kohen, Isaac. "Treatise on the Left Emanation." Trans. Kiener, Ronald C. Jewish and Christian Literature. Alan Humm. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
Veenker, Ronald A. “Forbidden Fruit: Ancient Near Eastern Sexual Metaphors” Academia.edu. Academia, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.