Lilith

I recently read George MacDonald’s novel Lilith, which caused me to think about the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Legend holds that Lilith was God’s first, unsuccessful attempt at creating a female companion for Adam. This dreadful attempt resulted in a female demon who attempts to corrupt the human race through lust.

One of the best sources for the Lilith story is a medieval text called Alphabet of Ben-Sira (c. 10th century AD). According to this text, Lilith was made from the earth at the same time as Adam. Lilith was an independent woman. Since she and Adam were created the same way, Lilith refused to acknowledge Adam’s superiority (was she the first feminist? ha!). Eventually she left Eden to consort with demons that live in the Red Sea. When making a second female companion for Adam, God made Eve out of Adam’s rib so there would be no question of superiority.1 Some sources also refer to Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent. Filled with jealousy for Eve, Lilith reportedly took on the form of a serpent in order to provoke the Fall of Man (as recorded in Genesis).2 You can read a little more about the Lilith legend and history here.

The story of Lilith has inspired artists for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, many artists included a half-female serpent in depictions of the Temptation of Adam and Eve.3 One Renaissance example of the half-serpent Lilith is by Michelangelo, found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the late 19th century, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about Lilith and also painted a scene of the seductress combing her golden hair (Lady Lilith, painted 1868-69, shown to the left). Scholars agree that this painting was inspired by the description of Lilith in Goethe’s Faust (Walpurgisnacht scene).2

The most interesting article I’ve read about Lilith is by Virginia Tuttle. She argues that Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510, left panel of altarpiece shown below) actually includes a depiction of Adam and Lilith, not Adam and Eve. I have always wondered why there are demonic beasts in the foreground of this Garden of Eden scene (it doesn’t seem too paradisaical, does it? Although, one can’t take Bosch too seriously; this whole altarpiece is a little absurd.). However, if one considers this woman to be Lilith instead of Eve, the presence of demonic beasts makes sense.

Tuttle also convincingly argues that this left panel scene does not conform to the iconography of traditional Creation of Eve scenes. Traditionally, Adam is shown asleep or lying on his side, so that Eve easily can be created out of his rib. In other triptychs, Bosch follows this traditional iconographic format (see details in his Last Judgment triptych and Haywain triptych). However, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Tuttle argues that it appears Lilith has been “raised up from the earth, as if she were created independently and immediately following Adam’s creation.”2 I think this is a convincing argument and I recommend that people read Tuttle’s article (it can be found in JSTOR). My only reservation about this argument is that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted. This article was written almost twenty years ago, but recent art history texts continue to label this panel as Creation of Eve. Does anyone know of (or have) criticisms for this argument?

What do other people think?

1 To read a synopsis Lilith story in the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, see Virginia Tuttle, “Lilith in Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,” Simiolus 15, no. 2 (1985): 123.-24.

2 Jeffrey M. Hoffeld, “Adam’s Two Wives,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 26, no. 10 (June 1968): 434.

3 For Medieval examples, see Ibid., 430-40.
4 Virginia M. Allen, “‘One Strangling Golden Hair': Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 2 (June 1984): 286.

5 Tuttle, 123.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I had never heard of the legend of Lilith … sure makes a lot of things make sense now though, ha.

  • joolee says:

    Ditto! I had never heard the story/legend of Lilith. Wow – bizarre and hard to believe, that’s for sure. But Bosch either believed it or just wanted to horrify his viewers…his signature creatures are hideous.

  • Kiersten says:

    That is an interesting reading of that painting. I will have to look at the article. Perhaps art historians have continued to see the left panel as representing Adam and Eve because there is no precedent (that I am aware of) for including Lilith on an altarpiece (except in the serpent sense). However, Bosch didn’t really follow precedents anyway, so in his case it probably could be something new. I have always thought the creatures in his Garden of Eden scene were a bit out of context, but figured that it’s just Bosch’s Bosch-ness coming out.

  • M says:

    Isn’t the Lilith story fascinating? I was only aware of a little bit of the story before I began research for this post.

    Before reading Tuttle’s article, I wasn’t aware of any precedents for a Creation of Lilith scene in art. Tuttle mentions one other example, Paolo Uccello’s Creation scene in the Chiostro verde (Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

    I also think it’s interesting how the imagery and associations with Lilith can fit into the rest of the altarpiece. The main panel (“Garden of Earthly Delights”) shows depictions of lust and carnal passion. The right wing is dedicated to Hell and demons. Since Lilith is associated with lust and demons, Tuttle’s argument makes even more sense.

    Furthermore, the exterior of the closed altarpiece depicts the third day of the Creation. While this choice may seem rather arbitrary, it is interesting to think that medieval Christians believed that the Fall of the Rebel Angels occurred on the fourth Creation day. These demons would then become responsible for the temptation of mankind (such temptations are depicted inside the altarpiece). Tuttle points out that Bosch’s depiction of the third day shows the world in its uncorrupted state. This foreshadows and introduces the theme of demonic forces and temptation before the altarpiece is even opened. (See Tuttle, 127-128).

  • e says:

    I didn’t realize that Lilith was part of Jewish lore. Interesting.

    C.S. Lewis taps into the myth a bit (he loved MacDonald’s writings) and introduces Jadis, a rumored descendant of Lilith. Her story begins in “The Magician’s Nephew” and culminates in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”– she eventually becomes the White Witch. Lewis’ descriptions of Jadis’ thoughts, motivations, and actions are fascinating in the light of her ancestry.

  • M says:

    Did C.S. Lewis mention in the Narnia books that that Jadis was a descendant of Lilith? I didn’t know/remember that. Thanks for sharing, e. You’re right, Jadis’ thoughts and actions are interesting to think about in light of her ancestral background.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.