by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
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 web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in it`s hold.
The rose and poppy are her flower; 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.
Not just the first woman, but the first independent minded woman, and as such, a beacon of fierce burning light for the 20th century women`s lib movement. Of course, we can`t forget (even conveniently) the origins of this most ferocious, powerful, and original of all demons. The legend of the eater of the dead, murderer of children, seducer of men. Such a fearsome and potent image of dark, malevolent power; the dream team of extreme beauty, bitch, single minded individuality, and total freedom of self expression. No wonder the women`s libbers took a fancy to her; all starting with the feminist theologian, Judith Plaskow`s Midrash, which transformed Lilith`s poisonous reputation into the leading role model for independent minded women everywhere. From a dweller in waste places (Isaiah 34:14) to the feminist road map of the future, Lilith has certainly travelled a long and winding road since God gave her the first breath of life. So, what of Dante Gabriel Rossetti`s superbly evocative poem on the greatest of all femme fatales? First published in 1868 to accompany the painting Lady Lilith, Rossetti finally came to view it as the contrast between the beauty of the body, and of the soul. But in Lilith`s case, physical beauty came at a heavy price for those who yearned to possess it; if physically she was a beauty, her soul was a beast. But if the most aggressive and ravenous animal possesses it`s own particular, striking beauty, then Lilith`s soul was indeed a wondrous creation of beauty.
Rossetti gives us the sensuous wonders of physicality, and the blindness of sexual lust, contrasting it with the ultimate degradation of realization of ensnarement in Lilith`s voluptuous web of carnal deceit. She is seemingly the perfect woman; powerful, irresistible sexuality, whose strands of golden hair entwines and suffocates her prey like serpents. The snake imagery runs throughout the poem, as befits a woman expelled from Eden for attempting to charm and entangle the gullible Adam into her web of lies and deceit. Then again, most of the Bible was written by misogynists of the first order, who would have considered an independent minded female complete anathema; so, of course, she was presented as the great dissembler, moral vixen and apostate against God. Women must be shown their place in the pecking order, so she was made an example of, and expelled from paradise. For men it seems, paradise with the female under the male thumb, is indeed halfway to heaven. Rossetti uses the powerful snake imagery rather unsubtly it has to be said, but he is making a firm, almost viciously aggressive point about Lilith`s malign influence, and the consequences of male weakness for female sexuality. By refusing to lie beneath Adam, Lilith is castrating the male, by using her sexual power to suffocate, and emasculate; thus, turning symbolic death into actual death. Rossetti saw this, and turned the suggestion, into actuality. Symbolic castration leads to loss of power, and ultimately, death of the species. Lilith no longer dwells in waste places, but has found a comfortable place to reside in a 21st century more appreciative of her powerful charms. Lady Lilith is a lesson for us all.