Lilith, Eve and Kundry

Who is Lilith?

Lilith is a figure in Jewish mythology and folklore. Her legend was developed in the Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 5th century CE). Lilith's story seems to have been invented to reconcile the different creation myths of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. According to the Talmud, Adam had a wife before Eve, whose name was Lilith. In Jewish folklore (at least from the Alphabet of Sirach onwards), it was Lilith who was created at the same time and from the same clay as Adam, as described in Genesis 1. Then Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs, as described in Genesis 2.

The rabbis began with the Biblical reference to man's first creation as a bisexual being: male and female He [God] created them [the first human]. Some of the rabbis found in this image something similar to what Aristophanes proposed in the Symposium: a dual-bodied being later divided into two who must thereafter seek each other out.

Lilith by John Collier
Right: Lilith, by John Collier.

Adam and Lilith

If woman was created from Adam, after his initial creation, than what happened to the female created at first? The answer, according to the Midrash, was that she was Lilith; created with Adam, she refused to comply with Adam's demand that she submit herself to him, and in the end fled from him by using the Ineffable Name. Adam then complained to God about his loneliness, and the creation of Eve followed, together with the Fall and the Expulsion from Eden. Adam, blaming this on Eve, separated from her, and for a time reunited with Lilith, before finally returning to Eve. The legend developed extensively during the Middle Ages, in the tradition of Aggadah, the Zohar, and Jewish mysticism. For example, in the 13th-century writings of Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become sexually subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she had coupled with the great demon Samael. In another account she becomes the consort of the demon Asmodeus (or perhaps there are two Liliths, one of whom is the respective consort of each of these demons).

Lilith Ur-teufelin

Lilith is often envisioned as a dangerous demon of the night, an incubus or a succubus, a sexual predator. She steals babies in the darkness and charms have to be used to keep her away from them. Lilith may be linked to a historically earlier class of female demons (lilitu) in ancient Mesopotamian religion, to whom references have been found in cuneiform texts of Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, and Babylonia. She is sometimes identified with the maiden who lived beside Inanna's huluppu tree.

Lady Lilith by D.G. Rossetti
Left: Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

R osmarie Klier, in her reflections on Parsifal, notes that Wagner's Kundry exhibits, in her respective personalities, two female archetypes: the serving, self-sacrificing wife (Eve) and the wild, man- dominating woman (Lilith). The connection with Eve and Lilith is supported by Wagner's letter to King Ludwig in which he suggests (but with considerable caution!) an analogy between Adam- Eve- Christ and Amfortas- Kundry- Parsifal; and by Klingsor's invocation of Kundry as Urteufelin (first she-devil)1.

Lilith in Kabbala

These opposed female archetypes are found in the Kabbala tradition and specifically in the Zohar. Here there is a very different Lilith from the one portrayed in the Alphabet. According to the Zohar, the divine feminine is divided into Shekhina — the virgin, the bride, the mother — and in opposition Lilith — the incubus, the whore, the baby-eating demon.

Faust and Lilith, a painting by Richard Westall.
Right: Faust and Lilith, by Richard Westall.

Lilith in Art and Literature

The first occurrence of Lilith as a literary character, rather than as a mythological figure, was in Goethe's Faust (1808). In the Walpurgisnacht scene, the "pretty witch" Lilith is introduced to Faust by Mephistopheles. Faust then dances with her. Then Lilith began to appear in English literature: John Keats refers to her in his poems La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Lamia (the Roman name for Lilith). Artists were inspired to paint Lilith. She appears with Faust in a painting by Richard Westall, then in various works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, such as Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which he accompanied with his sonnet Body's Beauty in which, as in Faust, the poet warns young men not to become entangled in her hair. Which in these paintings is either red or golden-red. Lilith also appeared in a poem by Robert Browning (Adam, Lilith and Eve, 1883) and in a novel by George Macdonald (Lilith, 1895).

Footnote 1: It appears that Richard Wagner invented the word Urteufelin. He would have found in the Deutsches Wörterbuch an entry for Urteufel.

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