Lilith, (What A) Archetypal Figure

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Jacobs leads you through an exploration of the genesis and roots of the patriarchy and how Lilith’s issues reflect the imbalance through which we have for so long lived. Jacobs takes apart the myth that we have been taught and cuts through the fog of negativity surrounding Lilith that has brought us to fear knowing her. . .    Tom Jacobs here provides tools to end the patriarchal war on the feminine through insight, acceptance, and compassion.

– Tom Jacobs, Lilith: Healing the Wild (2012)

Lady Lilith (cropped) (Source: Wikipedia)

Lady Lilith is an oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti first painted in 1866–1868 using his mistress Fanny Cornforth as the model, then altered in 1872–73 to show the face of Alexa Wilding. The subject is Lilith, who was, according to ancient Judaic myth, “the first wife of Adam” and is associated with the seduction of men and the murder of children. She is shown as a “powerful and evil temptress” and as “an iconic, Amazon-like female with long, flowing hair.”

Rossetti overpainted Cornforth’s face, perhaps at the suggestion of his client, shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland, who displayed the painting in his drawing room with five other Rossetti “stunners.”[After Leyland’s death, the painting was purchased by Samuel Bancroft and Bancroft’s estate donated it in 1935 to the Delaware Art Museum where it is now displayed.

The painting forms a pair with Sibylla Palmifera, painted 1866–70, also with Wilding as the model. Lady Lilith represents the body’s beauty, according to Rossetti’s sonnet inscribed on the frame. Sibylla Palmifera represents the soul’s beauty, according to the Rossetti sonnet on its frame.

A large 1867 replica of Lady Lilith, painted by Rossetti in watercolor, which shows the face of Cornforth, is now owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley on a label attached by Rossetti to its frame:

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

On 9 April 1866 Rossetti wrote to Frederick Leyland: As you continue to express a wish to have a good picture of mine, I write you word of another I have now begun, which will be one of my best. The picture represents a lady combing her hair. It is the same size as Palmifera – 36 x 31 inches, and will be full of material, – a landscape seen in the background. Its color chiefly white and silver, with a great mass of golden hair. Lady Lilith was commissioned by Leyland in early 1866 and delivered to him in early 1869 at a price of £472. 10 s. Two studies, dated to 1866, exist for the work, but two notebook sketches may be from an earlier date. The painting focuses on Lilith, but is meant to be a “Modern Lilith” rather than the mythological figure. She contemplates her own beauty in her hand-mirror. The painting is one of a series of Rossetti paintings of such “mirror pictures.” Other painters soon followed with their own mirror pictures with narcissistic female figures, but Lady Lilith has been considered “the epitome” of the type.

(Source: Wikipedia, Lady Lilith)

Lady Lilith, 1866, red chalk. Tel Aviv Museum of Art

“Until the late twentieth century the demon Lilith, Adam’s first wife, had a fearsome reputation as a kidnapper and murderer of children and seducer of men. Only with the advent of the feminist movement in the 1960s did she acquire her present high status as the model for independent women. The feminist theologian Judith Plaskow’s modern midrash on the story of Lilith played a key role in transforming Lilith from a demon to a role model. . . The Bible mentions the Lilith only once, as a dweller in waste places (Isaiah 34:14)” (Source Rebecca Lesses‘ article “Lilith”).

According to Theresa C. Dintino, in Welcoming Lilith: Awakening and Welcoming Pure Female Power (2017), Lilith is a Goddess and mythological figure who is misunderstood. She is reputed to be Adam’s first wife before Eve, and she represents the first powerful and liberated female in history. Then why was she banished? Through commentary and reflection on the multifaceted aspects of Lilith, Theresa C. Dintino guides the reader on an exciting inner journey to reclaim her own repressed parts. By examining how these Lilith energies may show up in her own life, the reader is encouraged to do the work to bring them back to life. Rituals included in the book offer the opportunity to explore these powerful but often feared aspects. Reclaiming the lost fragments—her power, her anger, her shadow, her sexuality, her creativity and her deep inner truth—returns the female psyche to a state of wholeness and integration.

Lilith appears in historiolas (incantations incorporating a short mythic story) in various concepts and localities that give partial descriptions of her. She is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 100b, Niddah 24b, Shabbat 151b, Baba Bathra 73a), in the Book of Adam and Eve as Adam‘s first wife, and in the ZoharLeviticus 19a as “a hot fiery female who first cohabited with man” (Source: Wikipedia).

George MacDonald was a spiritual and literary forbear of writers such as C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, G. K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. “Lilith” is the account of a man who has never thought much about the laws of nature or his place in the universe or much of anything for that matter. Then, while minding his own business in his own home and his own library, he suddenly finds himself face to face with another world. It is his own world, but he had never known there was more to it. Likewise, he discovers that there was more to himself. But first he must meet Lilith, and find his way, and himself, in the swirling relationship between her, Adam and Eve, and God himself. (Source: Amazon backmatter).

“Lady Lilith” Sonnet

by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

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 its 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.

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