It should not be surprising that Lilith, the demoness from medieval Jewish folklore and mysticism and with earlier roots in rabbinic texts and near eastern mythology, would come into wide circulation in nineteenth century European art and literature. Her oriental ambience, occult cachet, and symbolic relevance for modernity’s anxious grappling with the nature and shifting social roles of women made her a figure to cite and reimagine in a variety of contexts, from Pre-Raphaelite painting to French Decadent drama.
By the end of the century, Lilith was one of a host of menacing femme fatales, vampires, ice queens, sorceresses, lamias, dark muses, belles dames sans merci, medusae, and demonic sluts on page and canvas. (See the striking 1891 painting of Lilith as serpent lover, above, by American artist Kenyon Cox, above his 1892 painting of the Fall of Man in which Eden’s serpent morphs into a temptress Lilith.) She became for a time almost a cliché in French literature, as freely admitted in these lines by the Symbolist poet Adolphe Retté:
My soul’s a parchment page, a font
Of characters, a motley crew:
Melusine, Aude, Violante,
And Mab with starry laughter too.
And still more phantoms fill my leaves:
A Cupid with a goatherd’s crook,
Some Liliths, half a dozen Eves.
I am a little copy book.
Most of the nineteenth-century literary Liliths are not very memorable, and despite her embrace by the French it was the Scotsman George MacDonald who wrote the indisputable classic of nineteenth-century literary works about the figure: the 1895 novel Lilith, which I will discuss in a future post. But before we get to MacDonald, it is worth lingering over an 1889 story by Anatole France, “Lilith’s Daughter,” particularly as it bears some relation to MacDonald’s vision.
France’s story tells of a young Frenchman who becomes desperately enamored of a woman he meets in the Orient, and steals away from his best friend who had intended to marry her. Leila is beautiful, mysterious, sensual (“she had poured into my being all the poisons of pleasure”), and morally and spiritually. . . different:
Leila was absolutely devoid of what we call the moral sense. You mustn’t believe that she was wicked or cruel. She was, on the contrary, gentle and full of pity. She was not unintelligent either, but her intelligence was not of the same nature as ours.
Shattered by his own lurid behavior in this mad affair, the man goes for moral advice to his old teacher, a rather heterodox priest named Safrac. Safrac’s researches, of a piece with the fascinations of the late ninteenth-century occult, have enabled him to reconstruct an esoteric ur-tradition that underlies and precedes the Bible.
With the help of geology, prehistoric archaeology, oriental cosmogonies, Hittite and Sumerian monuments, Chaldean and Babylonian traditions, ancient legends preserved in the Talmud, I affirmed the existence of the pre-Adamites, of whom the inspired author of Genesis does not speak for the sole reason that their existence did not concern the eternal salvation of the children of Adam.
Reconstructing this pre-Adamite tradition, Safrac arrives at the conclusion that Adam indeed had two wives, his co-equal Lilith who was like the first man formed from red clay, and secondly Eve.
But here, Safrac’s theories go further, and wind up bearing directly on the former student and his mysterious lover. Safrac deduces that, since Lilith left Eden prior to the Fall, she “was not stained with original sin” and “escaped the curse pronounced against Eve and her posterity.” Lilith is immortal, unable to experience pain or death or sin:
having no soul to be saved, she is incapable of virtue or vice. Whatever she does, she accomplishes neither good nor evil. The daughters that were born to her of some mysterious wedlock are immortal as she is, and free as she is both in their deeds and thoughts, seeing that they can neither gain nor lose in the sight of God.
From his former student’s suggestive account, Safrac realizes that Leila is one of these daughters of Lilith. The young man even recalls that she had worn a little amulet containing some red earth and that she claimed was a memento of “her love for her mother.” Safrac is therefore able to reassure the young man that his uncharacteristically immoral behavior, absconding with his friend’s fiancée, was something he had no power to resist.
Yet there is more. At the end of the story the young man produces “a kind of amulet” left behind by Leila, consisting of strange characters etched on a cypress leaf, and which he asks Safrac to decipher. It’s not clear to me how one would write on a cypress leaf, but the polymathic priest easily translates what he says is Persian and reads as follows:
The Prayer of Leila, Daughter of Lilith
My God, promise me death, so that I may taste of life. My God, give me remorse, so that I may at last find happiness. My God, make me the equal of the daughters of Eve.
In this postscript we see the terrible despair of the immortal, cursed not only with deathlessness but with the inability either to sin or to be forgiven. Lilith and her daughters are connected here with the cursed immortals of nineteenth-century romanticism, who have been ejected from the continuum of biblical history and morality—harbingers or stand-ins, therefore, for a humanity that has also slipped the moral yoke. And like Frankenstein, Melmoth, Prometheus, and any number of Wandering Jews, they find this condition terrible. Unshackled from Christian structures of life and death, sin and remorse, Leila can only wish for the mortal, fallen soul that human women possess—can only wish for a death that would let her experience a life.