Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lilith: The Original Vampire

By James Curcio

There is going to be a lot of information for you to delve into on Lilith in the forthcoming Immanence of Myth anthology, as well as a fictional portrayal of her - or someone who thinks she is the present incarnation of Lilith, anyway - in Party At The World's End. (To be released 2014)

Here is a little from the section on Lilith in Immanence of Myth, to get us started:
Lilith begins not as a Goddess, but as a demon, a malevolent force that you can hear when the wind howls in the desert, carrying with it the sharp sting of sand. The distinction between Demon and God is somewhat in the eye of the beholder; it isn't so much a matter of power as of function. Demons are that which is cast out, at the same time divine themselves. I'd like to point attention to the way that Lilith represents forces that are cast out of the social sphere, a force that must be banished to make domesticity possible, at least when conducted within the confines of the paradigm of marriage-as-ownership. From within that circle, she would certainly look frightful. Consider that, moving forward. 
     She appears in the screenplay I working on concurrently (and collaboratively) with this project. Or, at least, we find there a woman who believes she is the modern incarnation of Lilith. When she has led a number of would be initiates (nubile girls themselves) to a hot tub with her, she reveals this, explaining,
Women told tales of me...I would steal the men away from them. I would devour their children. I was an abomination. I lived inside mirrors to seduce the vanity of nubile girls. Can you imagine?
Lilith concept drawing for Party At The World's End
    Lilith, the first Eve, is first recognized by her defiant nature; she is another anti-patriarchal, anti-authoritative symbol. At least, this is the form we encounter her in as she left Babylon with the Jewish exile. 
     So on the one hand we have Lilith as a spirit of the desert, a creature that could slip into your house and devour your children. This is how she would be presented to women, a bogeyman to keep them in place. Of course, this fear tactic isn't often capitulated consciously; it is something that all the members of a cultural domain participate in unconsciously. 
    On the other, there is this idea of her as the seductress, luring men away from their societal commitment to the “good mother.” This is an element which some superficially similar symbols, such as Kali, lacks. Without needing to return to textual source, it's easy enough to typify “this sort” of woman. She has the audacity to do what she wants, and it very well might not be what you or the society wants. There is something impetuous and child-like about her, which can manifest as a resolute defiance when placed within the context of a system of rules. So long as she's cast in the role of villain, this arouses the suspicion and fear of the wives of men, and their shameful observance to whichever force is the stronger.
No, not quite. 

    This is an important point: Lilith often appears in a different guise to men than women. Of course, there are personal and cultural factors. To women, especially within sexually restrictive cultures, we see more of the “devourer of children,” aspect. To men, she appears as the seductress, the dark anima. The kind of girl that you don't take home to mother. But in either case she represents a direct threat to the established social order, especially the order of marriage and monogamy. She is an enemy of stasis, of duty and societal bonds. In modern contexts, the threat posed to women is re-enforced by the ad and fashion industries efforts to increases competition and insecurity, as well as the conflict of the myths of domesticity, “slut shaming,” and so on. In a softer, more romanticized form, it is not surprising that Lilith has re-appeared as a potent symbol in bi-, lesbian, and polyamorous communities, especially amongst those who might have some derision towards “breeders.” However, Lilith is not simply a symbol of liberation. She also represents a point of contention between personal senses of restriction and freedom.  
However, there is a thread I didn't have a chance to cover in either of those books, and I thought it would be interesting to delve into another element of this symbol. Despite many modern vampire myths fixating their origin story the idea of the Brother's myth, either Cain and Able or Osiris and Set, or some cases Judas being the first vampire (not the least of which being the White Wolf: Vampire / World of Darkness setting), it is actually more likely that we can find the very first origins of this story coming from two sources. And one of these, you guessed it, is from ancient Babylon and Sumeria, in the complex of demons called the Lilim, Lilitu, or Lilith, the queen of them all. Though we may not expect to see Lilith popping up in True Blood lore anytime soon--though I wouldn't rule it out--you can't really look at the romanticization of the vampire without her. (This is a process which we all pray can't be taken any further than the glittering-in-the-sun Twilight vampires.)

[Editors note: Season 5 of TrueBlood focused heavily on Lilith! Go figure.]

More Lilith...
Though historical records are scarce on this account, there is a fair amount of research, "Lilith: The First Eve" being a paramount source, that the succubi myth originated with Lilith as well, and in all of these complexes you have the core idea of vampirism: whether through blood, or another vital essence such as semen or breath itself, these beings, or this force, sustains itself through feeding off our own. Definitely check out that book if this is a subject that interest you ("Lilith: The First Eve.") 

Let's not forget, of course, that at the most basic level all life sustains itself off of other life, and the only way to cut yourself out of this web entirely is to slit your own throat here and now. 

But that's not what Lilith is really about, is it? That's not what the vampire myth is about, either. At least not since the 19th century. No, we don't actually care that vampires must "feed" off blood. The vampire myth transformed from fear to lust, from terror to sexual desire, because the feeding that we're actually talking about is sexual. When you tell a lover "I'm hungry for you," you aren't telling them that you plan on feasting on their flesh. (Unless you're from New Guinea.) And what you're talking about can't simply be reduced to carnal desire, although it certainly informs that. It has to do with that unnameable chemistry, that almost uncontrollable pull that attracts two (or more) people. Joseph Campbell recognized that demons, angels, gods and goddesses are all symbols referring to the forces that we experience. To a great extent, these are psychological forces. Then Lilith represents, among other things, that hunger, that attraction, which says, "to hell with the details. I want you now." 

[Take a Trip with us. Mythos Media.]


  1. I absolutely adore the picture of the naked women having a hair pulling fight!

  2. The first picture there (the relief) appears to be a depiction of Innana (or Ishtar, to the Babylonians) -- not of Lillith. Granted, there are claims that Lillith grew out of Ishtar, and if that relief is sourced as a picture of Lillith there's good evidence for that. The depiction of someone holding a ring and a rod is indicative of divinity in Sumerian and Babylonian art, and only Innana holds two (she has her own and through her superior cunning stole Enki's, after which he allowed her free reign of it).

    Now, most of the things you've said about Lillith are also true of the Sumerian demon Lamashtu: comes in female form, seduces men, steals and eats babies (mostly unborn babies).

    Ishtar is very much the Eris archetype -- complete with having among her domains that of war. (Her full set of domains are: war, peace, love, the future, fashion, and that which cannot be categorized.) It would not surprise me if Lillith were a hybrid of Lamashtu and Ishtar, since the transition to a less sexually open society (or rather, a society based on monogamy) would end up in reframing Ishtar's personality as a threatening one rather than a desirable one.

  3. Enki-

    Correct on all counts, though there is more confusion and interesting weirdness between these symbols than just that. But in a blog post- or even a book where the historical record is less important to me than the basic rendering of the thing- blurring is going to happen.

    And heaven help the person who tries to present a syncretic model of say a Hindu diety... Let alone a transcultural mythological idea.

    That said- if you'd like to contribute more than just in comments, let me know.

  4. It should be mentioned that along with agrarianism and monogamy comes accumulation and private property-ie class divisions. A cross referencing of Lilith mythology with Fredrick Engles' Private Property Family & the State would make a facinating text. @newarkitecture



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