Saturday, March 13, 2010

Unfair Lilith (Supernatural)

In seasons three and four of Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester fight against a powerful female demon named Lilith. The character Lilith comes from a medieval Jewish legend, which brings together various other legends. In legend, Lilith is a succubus or vampire, originally a human woman but cursed by God after she refused to submit to her husband. Lilith is often used by feminist groups as a symbol of female subjugation. In Supernatural, Lilith remains a villain, yet the character is carefully altered to retain none of the misogynistic qualities of the original legend.
The legend is that the traditional story of Adam and Eve is incomplete. Instead of God making the first woman out of Adam’s rib, he first made Lilith out of the same earth that Adam was made to be Adam’s wife. But when they were to have sex, they fought over who should be on top. Adam insisted that he was the superior one, while Lilith claimed that they were equal. As the fight would not resolve, Lilith spoke the name of God, which allowed her to leave Eden. Adam prayed for God to return Lilith, and so he sent three angels to bring her back or kill her. Lilith, however, shacked up with the demon Asmodeus and made a deal with the angels that she would live as a malicious spirit to give birth to hundreds of demons and threaten newborn human babies, swearing an oath on the name of God that one hundred of her children would die every day and that she would back off on the human babies if people would hang amulets inscribed with the angels’ names. In absence of Lilith, God created Eve in her place, using Adam’s rib to ensure she would be subordinate to him.
That’s the legend. It doesn’t really make sense. For one thing, if the angels have Lilith at their mercy, why make the deal at all? Not to mention the way it completely ignores the Fall of Man. How does she know what’s coming with the serpent and everything, let alone what an amulet is? You take for granted the standards of fanfiction in 2010…

It is fanfiction more or less. Although the legend is Jewish in origin, neither it nor the character is present in the Bible. The name Lilith pops up in an early version of Isaiah 34:15, but this is generally considered to be a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for screech owl, and most modern translations simply say owl. The legend as it is commonly known did not turn up until around a thousand years CE with the publication of The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, a collection of proverbs most likely intended as a satirical commentary of Jewish law and culture. The book’s satirical nature wasn’t recognized by the Jewish mystics of the day, and Lilith became a part of Jewish mythology. Ironically, the author probably meant it in the same sort of spirit as the feminists who now hold up Lilith as an example of Jewish misogyny, which it eventually became through retelling. In addition to its nature as a commentary, the story served to explain why the Bible has two accounts of the creation of Adam and Eve by saying that one of them was actually Adam and Lilith, as well as bringing together a few other legends.
One of these involves the succubus of Sumerian legend, called lili (plural form lilitu) from the Sumerian word for air or spirit lil. The succubus functions as an explanation for both wet dreams and sleep paralysis, a condition where the person is immobilized upon entering or exiting sleep and suffers vivid hallucinations of a horrific nature. The lilitu take the form of beautiful women who rape men while they sleep, causing them to ejaculate while not in the service of reproduction, which was considered to potentially rob them of their future ability to produce children as ancient peoples thought men had a limited quantity of seed. The hallucinations of sleep paralysis draw from the person’s deepest fears, and if men truly believed they would be tormented by lilitu, then that’s what they would see. As Jewish law strictly forbade sexual activity or even sexual thoughts outside of certain condoned acts, the succubus was a nice culprit to blame in order to absolve men of guilt.
Jewish folklore uses the succubus to further explain why babies may die shortly after being born. The succubus steals seed from men, this representing life, to give birth to demon children, and she harms human babies. When it is understood that the succubus is Lilith of Ben-Sira, motive is attributed that she acts out of vengeance because so many of her own children must die every day. Other additions include that instead of producing milk in her breasts she produces blood, which represents death. Over the years, Lilith evolved to more of a vampire figure. Lilith is associated with female sexuality in the sense of being an evil seductress. Despite her origin as a sort of criticism of Jewish sexism, she evolved into an expression of such misogyny.
Additionally in Sumerian legend, there is the female demon that occupies goddess Inanna’s Tree of Life, damaging the tree as if a parasite to its host. The hero Gilgamesh forces the demon out and into the desert. As the demon’s name contains lil, the demon is sometimes interpreted as Lilith. Lilith’s connection with the screech owl of Isaiah 34:15 leads to depictions of her as a part-owl demon woman in the Tree of Life. As an evolution of this, Lilith is sometimes depicted as the serpent in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil who tricks Eve into eating the apple as an act of vengeance. When Lucifer is the serpent, Lilith may be Lucifer’s wife instead of Asmodeus.
In modern days, the figure of Lilith is largely used as a feminist icon based on her Ben-Sira story. Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan used her name for the Lilith Fair, an event featuring the work of female musicians. Similarly, Lilith’s name is used for other feminist entities, such as the title of a 1976 Jewish women’s magazine. The character is also rewritten for feminist fiction in which Lilith is cast as a heroine.
Lilith (as little girl): “Hi, I’m looking for two boys. One’s really tall, and one’s really cute.”
Nancy: (chuckles) “Well, what’s your name sweetie?”
Lilith: “Lilith.”
(Lilith raises hand as a blinding white light erupts, while people scream in the background)
Supernatural, episode “Jus In Bello”
In Supernatural, Lilith is a powerful demon, the first ever created by Lucifer. Although her origins are unknown, it could fit that she was the first woman. On the other hand, she could simply be one of the first women. The matter is left ambiguous.
Lilith is one of the few demons to have white eyes, indicating her power over other demons. She answers only to Lucifer, her eyes white perhaps as a reference to his light (Lucifer being the bringer of light in his role as an angel). While all demons have superior strength, she has an explosive power others do not possess. As a reference to the mythical figure’s role as a child killer, Lilith has a thing for drinking babies’ blood and possessing little girls as well as adult women. When she appears as an adult, she attempts to seduce Sam, a reference to her mythical figure’s role as a succubus. Corrupt through and through, she is sadistic to a degree not usually seen in demons and delights in terrifying and torturing victims.
Besides her rampant sadism, she is the last seal that must be broken to release Lucifer and start the apocalypse. Upon learning that releasing Lucifer would necessitate her death, however, she tries to get out of it. Lucifer’s servants and angelic sympathizers don’t let her, and she meets her end in battle with Sam, which releases the fallen angel from his prison. Lilith is now forgotten as one of Hell’s many fallen soldiers, while the story continues with the battle against Lucifer.
While Lilith of Supernatural is certainly not used in a feminist way, the character isn’t really used in a misogynist way either. Though Lilith does evil related to misogynistic concepts in that she preys on children and seduces men, she isn’t portrayed as representing evils of femininity, and in the end she’s just a stronger version of countless other monsters featured in Supernatural. It is true that the creators took various aspects of villainy from the Lilith legend, but they ultimately kept the battle of the sexes out of it.
So, there we are. Lilith has her origins in an anti-Semitic satire that was adopted by Jewish mystics as fact. Lilith entered into the realm of folklore, the character evolving over the years. In modern culture, the figure is commonly used for feminist purposes. Finally she became a character in Supernatural, in which her monstrous nature is emphasized and controversy carefully edited away.

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