Lilith Now

Lilith takes something of a hiatus from fiction for several decades after her appearance in Charles Williams’s Descent Into Hell. (See previous post.) There are exceptions, such as “Fruit of Knowledge,” a 1940 story by C. L. Moore first published in the pulp magazine Unknown.[1] Moore retells the biblical story of Eden and the Fall, with Lilith as the main character. A powerful spirit and rival of God, Lilith is drawn to Adam, whose prelapsarian creative power allows her to take on flesh. Embodied, she falls in love with Adam but, when she briefly leaves her body to re-experience her immaterial state, she discovers on her return that God has used the body Adam created for her in order to make Eve. (In case you ever wondered how a single rib provided enough material for the job.)

C. L. Moore’s pulp fiction midrash

Wracked with jealousy, and pining for her stolen flesh, Lilith effectively becomes a dybbuk—though Moore does not use the term—haunting both Adam and her former body which is now Eve. Moore seems to gloss the Hebrew of the text: in the statement that “a man. . .shall cleave unto his wife” (Gen. 2:24), davak (cleave) is the root of the word dybbuk. There is not much more than this to the story, but Moore’s parable of yearning is more than a merely ironic take on the biblical narrative.

Lilith makes her comeback in the 1970s and her popularity has never waned since. Her reappearance is partly due to her adoption as an icon by Jewish feminists, signalled in the title of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, founded in 1976. The role of Jewish women in second-wave American feminism cannot be overstated and so even a relatively niche publication such as this reflects a much wider influence, as would be seen in the 1990s when Sarah McLachlan named the all-female music concert series she spearheaded Lilith Fair. Indeed, by the 1980s this feminist incarnation of Lilith would be treated comically in the naming of Lilith Sternin, the character from Cheers (played by Bebe Neuwirth) who is presented as a cold, Jewish, highly credentialled, and humorless woman, the antithesis of the boys’ club at TV’s best-loved bar, and who marries and then divorces its spin-off character Frazier.

The launch of Lilith.

But Lilith was never entirely gone in the interim. She continued to be an object of scholarly study by Jewish historians such as Gershom Scholem. And before her reinvention as a second-wave feminist, she had a longstanding role in the occasionally related yet quite distinct phenomenon of modern occult, neo-pagan and New Age spiritual movements that focus on witchcraft. Indeed, the same year that the magazine bearing her name was launched as a vehicle for American Jewish feminism, the British writer and Wiccan coven-leader Stewart Farrar published the occult thriller The Serpent of Lilith (1976).

A former Communist, Farrar had a spiritual awakening while visiting the Golan Heights in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade he found his way to Wiccan neo-paganism, and to his sixth wife, thirty-four years his junior. One of a dozen works of fiction he published, The Serpent of Lilith (originally published under the pen name Margot Villiers) is set in a nineteenth-century Norfolk village, and tells of the initiation of beautiful, nineteen year old Jessica into a sinister cult of Lilith-worshippers. Though she is the daughter of an Anglican priest, Jessica is already predisposed to Goddess-worship, gravitating toward the adoration of Mary, which as a girl she conceives of as “the Lady”:

She had never told her father that for her the Lady was so much more than Mary—that she stirred in the dark bitter sea, arched her starry body across the night sky, thrust upwards through the soil, coursed in the blood, changed her aspect with the moon. . . . She knew that whatever God, man, or Devil might do, the Lady would not desert her forever.

The local Lilith cult recognizes Jessica’s innate magical power, linked to her awakening sexuality and capacity for cruelty. They make her their high priestess, drawing on her connection with the Goddess in order to advance their power-seeking plots. Fortunately, she is rescued by a kindly doctor and good occultist by the name of Stephen King, whom she falls in love with and who teaches her that Lilith is only the “dark aspect” of the Goddess they both worship, whose positive side he identifies as Isis. “Lilith derives from Isis,” he explains, “but is no longer Isis; being unbalanced, Lilith becomes a destructive monster.”[2]

As a novel, Farrar’s book is a mix of mawkish romance and pornographic kitsch, with portentously goofy rituals involving nudity, Hebrew letters, and wands; a particular relish for the sexual grooming of teenagers; and a scene of child sacrifice involving a two year old. Farrar’s aesthetic here, exemplified by careful description of Jessica’s breast-exposing fishnet priestess outfit with metal serpents to accentuate certain body parts, is the stuff of third-tier heavy metal album covers. The novel’s conceit that its sordid content is only meant to warn about the “dark aspect” of the occult in contrast to the good occult of light, is familiar from precursor novels by Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune, and even less convincing in this case.

Farrar’s book is a mix of mawkish romance and pornographic kitsch.

In popular culture since the 1970s, Lilith most commonly functions as a name with little complexity or content, yet that suggests something female, demonic, sexually alluring, with a hint of the “ancient” and “occult.” In a culture such as ours, where the knowledge of Judeo-Christian tradition is extremely attenuated and the stance toward it usually hostile, popular narratives do not require (and generally do not support) more than a name to establish these traits. The Lilith of Marvel Comics and the television series Supernatural fits this profile, and is similar to the golem, which today is often more of a pop culture trope than a figure requiring much cultural context.[3] 

In fantasy literature, she has appeared in Piers Anthony’s 1988 novel For Love of Evil, in this case decidedly not in her feminist incarnation but rather as a Playboy magazine style fantasy of the buxom, perpetually available woman that Anthony has been known to deploy in his fictions. Anthony’s Lilith is still Adam’s demonic first wife, but her function throughout is only to satisfy the carnal desires of the protagonist, Satan. Satan, in this book and the eight book series it belongs to, is an office, held over time by various individuals, one of a number of cosmic offices including Time, Death, Nature, Night, War, and others. Satan, the current officeholder of Evil, is, it turns out, really a well-meaning French priest who inadvertently landed the job.

Marvel’s Lilith, again with the fishnets.

Anthony’s cycle is one of many contemporary fantasies that replace metaphysics with pop culture mythology, in which divinities (and divinity itself) are human inventions, avatars of our imaginations rather than transcendent realities. (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a current, and better written, paradigm.) In For Love of Evil, for instance, we meet Jahweh, the “Hebrew Deity” and a minor god (because of the smaller number of believers) in comparison with the Christian God who is Satan’s main opponent. In fact, Satan and Jahweh hit it off so well that, at Jahweh’s request, Satan enlists the incarnation of Time to alter history so that the Holocaust vanishes from the timeline.

Satan and Jahweh hit it off so well that, at Jahweh’s request, Satan enlists the incarnation of Time to alter history so that the Holocaust vanishes from the timeline.

Lilith has not gained much luster in recent fantasy. In Wayne Barlowe’s God’s Demon (2007) she is the vaguely conceived former consort of Lucifer, banished with the rebel angels to a Hell of no particular moral significance. In my review of Gavriel Savit’s 2016 YA fantasy The Way Back, I noted that the Lilith of the novel appears “mainly in her twentieth-century feminist incarnation” and not uncritically so either. One female character warns that “Lilith isn’t interested in anything but herself. . . . There is no Sisterhood, really—it’s all just different phases of Lilith.”

Israeli fantasy has turned to Lilith in a couple of cases that are of a piece with today’s television-and-superhero entertainment culture. Asaf Ashery’s Simantov (2008, English translation 2020) keeps the character’s feminist associations. In this potboiler, Mazzy Simantov is a precocious Israeli police detective who heads the secretive “Soothsayer” unit that uses divination techniques to help with difficult cases. Working for her are the kabbalist Elisha, whose speciality is gematria; the hardbitten Russian Larissa, Tarot card expert; and New Age Izzy with her crystals and chakras. Brought in to assist with a series of abductions of women across Israel, the Soothsayers learn that the missing are all descendants of Lilith. Their captors are the biblical Nephilim, here a group of fallen angels who fell in love aeons ago with Adam’s first wife and followed her into exile from the Garden of Eden, and so gave up their share in heaven.

In Ashery’s mythology of sexual politics, the descendants of Lilith are overrepresented today among the accomplished, assertive women in our society. (In an evident update in the translation, it is asked if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among their number.) Yet the (male) Nephilim no longer discern the image of their beloved Lilith in her overly careerist descendants today. Now regretting their exile from heaven, they have decided—in cahoots with Elijah the Prophet—to sacrifice seven of these women in a ritual that will allow them to return to paradise, and possibly destroy the world.

Simantov reminds one of a range of anti-eschatological pop culture fare, such as Good Omens, the 1990 comedic novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (and later a television series) about an angel and a demon who work together to avert the End of Days. There are similarities as well to Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s Jacob Lev mysteries in which the Nephilim comprise a unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Simantov’s war in heaven isn’t exactly Milton:

When [Mazzy] managed to pick herself up she was facing a resplendant Naphil, with shining black wings looking down at her like an aardvark surveying a nest of termites. . . .The condescending grin on Adriel’s face prompted her to whip out her backup gun and empty the cartridge with maximum rapid fire.

But the pages turn and some of the allusions Ashery lays onto the loud gun battles and louder Israeli stereotypes are funny. Elijah, riding in his chariot, sings Naomi Shemer and Shaul Tchernikhovsky’s patriotic “Omrim yeshna erets,” and the book’s chapters follow the counting of the Omer. I like that the new espresso machine in the police department comes with “a golden plaque extolling the generosity of a Jewish American donor.”

Still, this kind of comic-book style name-dropping suffers from the law of diminishing returns, as we see in Yehuda Agus’s 2011 novel Midrash Lilit (The Book of Lilith). This sci-fi/fantasy mash-up describes a latter-day revolt against God led by Lilith, and sweeps up a range of characters, human and supernatural, from Jewish history and folklore, from the archangel Michael to the seventeenth-century messiah Sabbetai Zvi. We also get Astarte, Ba’al, Metatron, Nostradamus, Lavrenty Beria, vampires, golems, and more.

Yehuda Agus’s Midrash Lilit.

Lilith represents the familiar romantic rebellion against an oppressive God. “They were all angry,” we read of her followers, “and they all wanted to kick God in the ass, smash the law, and change heaven.” Along the way, though, we learn that Lilith is just as bad as God. God wants to rule tyrannically, Lilith wants to burn down the whole universe. As the story gets more gonzo, God wipes out Lilith’s army with a tactical nuke provided by France, the messiah goes into hiding, and Lilith (in a nod to Dune) is joined by a tribe of sand-warriors.

Unfortunately, the book’s characters are flat and interchangeable, contemporary action-movie knock-offs with kabbalistic names attached. Chapters are built by accretion, new characters and plot developments added without developing the extant ones. Lilith, the most intriguing of the characters, is absent for most of the book. The hero is a character introduced ex machina in the final pages, a poor Jerusalem Arab who discovers he has the ability to control dragons that are more powerful than the rulers of both heaven and hell. The novel ends with trite speechifying about the need to make our own destiny rather than waiting for heroes or saviors, and a sense that Agus may have written the book, as a lark, in a single sitting.

Lilith in Disney’s Owl House.

So Lilith is more popular than ever today, but largely as stock figure, superhero, sex fantasy, or anti-patriarchy crusader. What she is not is counter-cultural. One of Lilith’s more recent manifestations is in Disney’s animated children’s television series Owl House, in which a character with her name is one of the ensemble of girl sorcerers, including its bisexual lead character. The series has won accolades and awards for “pushing queer representation in kid’s animation forward,” evidently in keeping with Disney’s current determination to include more sexual orientation and gender content in its children’s programming. This Lilith is in some ways (clothes, for instance) a decided improvement on most of those discussed above. Yet her inclusion in the show’s winsome covens is hardly a mark of her outsiderness, but rather of the happy marriage of corporate power and gender ideology, with kids as the focus.

[1] Moore was the foremost female talent in pulp sci-fi and fantasy writing. Her sword-and-sorcery tales from the 1930s starring the adventuress Jirel of Joiry stand alongside Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories as key contributions to the genre, with a distinctive mystical weirdness in their vision and a persuasively realized femininity in their protagonist. 1940, the year her Lilith tale appeared, was also the year she married her first husband and frequent collaborator, the Jewish American sci-fi and fantasy writer Henry Kuttner who, like his wife, published in Weird Tales and corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft.

[2] While the American horror writer Stephen King is not referenced in this book—the nod might be to Farrar’s friend, the novelist Francis King—other names of characters are shared with prominent neo-pagans, occultists, and writers associated with the occult, e.g., Gerald (Gerald Gardner was an influential Wiccan), Waite, and Nesbitt.

[3] The 2014 article “Vampires and Witches and Commandos, Oy Vey: Comic Book Appropriations of Lilith” by Geoffrey Dennis and Avi S. Dennis makes an interesting case for seeing more content in the earlier, 1970s iterations of Marvel’s two Lilith characters, but I think the authors are more persuasive when they explain that the comic book Lilith is finally “so far removed from her ethnic and religious origins that she” becomes “an almost generic stock figure for any author desiring a vampiric-demonic female character.”

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