Of Adam`s first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake`s , her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright net she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in it`s hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth`s eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent,
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
~~ Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lilith ( also titled Body`s Beauty) ~~
The legend of Lilith is one of the more enduring, and intriguing ones in circulation: the medieval Alphabet of Ben Sirah provides us with the more familiar legend in which God sees that Adam is showing signs of wanting company, and so He creates Lilith from the same elements from which Adam was moulded. The inevitable happens, and Adam and Lilith quarrel over Lilith`s perception that Adam is attempting to impose himself as the dominant personality in the relationship. Considering that she was created from the same dust as Adam by God, she considers that she stands as an equal to Adam, and decides to up-sticks and flees the Garden. God ordered three angels to pursue her and bring her back, but she refuses point blank and vows to take out her spite against God and Adam by consuming the souls of little children, infants and babes: when the angels overpower her, she promises that if the children`s parents hang an amulet displaying the names of the angels over the children, she would not harm them, and so they let her go and report back to God, who creates Eve from Adam`s rib, so that she couldn`t claim equality. Is something telling me that God is showing Himself up to be a bit of a misogynist here?
Meanwhile, Lilith is free to cruise around, howling her hatred of humanity because of the slip-shod treatment handed out to her by God and Adam: because of this, she is also known as “The Howling One.”
You can take the legend of Lilith more than one way: she was showing ingratitude and a misguided attitude problem, by turning her back on her creator; or, she was a feisty, proto-feminist struggling against sexual discrimination. Either way, the legend is born, and Lilith is transformed into the Queen of Hell: Lilith as a demon goes back to at least Assyrian times ( 700 B.C.), and like so much of ancient Mesopotamian folklore, was incorporated into Biblical texts such as Issiah 34:14; here we are confronted with a blasted, apocalyptic landscape of destruction and desolation, of jackals, ravens and carrion birds among tangled brier and nettles: “Goat demons shall greet each other; there too the Lilith will repose.”
Because the Assyrians had three demons called Lilit, Lilu, and Ardat Lilit, there isn`t much room for doubt that the Lilith mentioned in Issiah was a Hebrew adaption of Assyrian demonic folklore. There is a great deal in the old Hebrew scriptures which can be traced way back to Mesopotamian sources long before a Hebrew identity ever existed. Such dark legends are almost as old as time itself, and show us how primeval the mindset of ancient peoples really were, as they sought to make meaning of their environment and lives.
Dante`s Lilith is a very physical being, as she uses her charms to entice, bewitch and ensnare her prey in the web of her beauty: her love of the rose and the poppy shows us that although she is attractive and desirable, her love and physical charms are barbed and torpid; as the object of her desire is entwined in the strands of her golden hair, it penetrates, emasculates, and finally kills the youth of the poem. It is fetishism in over-drive, as the “first gold” insidiously entwines and chokes it`s captive prey like a Satanic serpent. The snake imagery throughout the poem conveys to us the powerful sexuality of Lilith which overlays the Freudian subtext bubbling along nicely just under the poem`s surface. Lilith`s serpentine form inhabits every line of the poem, as she crushes the life force out of God`s male children for forcing her to leave Eden.