Dreams of Desire 44 (Lilith)

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John Collier-Lilith with a Snake 1892
Of the many femme fatales that haunted the imagination of the late 19th century, Lilith reigns supreme, the only other serious contestant being the murderous temptress Salome with her Dance of the Seven Veils (see Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition).

Lilith is a character from Jewish mythology, and like most mythological creatures the legends surrounding her are confusing and even contradictory. She is alternatively Adam’s first wife, a lustful female demon or the wife of Samael. She is barely mentioned in the Old Testament but she features more prominently in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works. In the Kabbalah she is a type of succubus who is responsible for nocturnal emissions and is associated with the Qlippoth. The one thing that all sources agree on however is that Lilith is supremely beautiful and deadly dangerous.

The above representation by the English Pre-Raphaelite John Collier follows the tradition of having Lilith enjoying the sensuous en-coiling of her naked body by a snake, presumably the same snake that would tempt Adam’s second wife Eve. Unlike Eve though, Lilith actively embraces the independence offered by the emissary of evil.

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28 thoughts on “Dreams of Desire 44 (Lilith)

    1. Isn’t it just, and strange. The roles of women were changing rapidly in this period, which led to increased male insecurity that resulted in the emergence of some of these views. A lot of writers and artists who were otherwise quite level headed or even forward thinking (for their culture and time, things have to be put into context) completely lost their heads concerning women.

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  1. That’s a lovely painting. I’ve often thought about the phallic nature of the serpent… It’s connection to the temptation. How interesting that someone so obscure has captured the imagination of so many. Ironic that this period of time was the Victorian Era – one of England’s longest and most successful monarchies. Ruled by a woman…

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    1. Lilith might have started out obscure but by that time she had become an archetype. Beauty can equal danger in the imagination of men. The whole symbolic role that serpents have played could easily fill a book. There is the phallic significance, their connection to medicine, the habits of sloughing their skin that can be interpreted as a rebirth, the worm ouroborus as a symbol of the eternal recurrence. Held in esteem by polytheistic religions (to an extent) despised by monotheistic religions. Just like the apple that isn’t mentioned in Genesis was a symbol of the druids, it is always wise to trash the symbols of what you wish to replace.

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      1. Don’t forget the copper serpent Moses made during the Hebrews trek in the wilderness … if one was been bitten by a serpent and they gazed at the copper serpent, they would not die. This always seemed strange to me since one of the 10 commandments was not to make idols…

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      2. Anyway, a fascinating character and a stunning painting. This Lilith is beautiful. What do you think about the political connection – Victoria? Anything? Mere coincidence? Lots of women being treated for ‘female hysteria’ at the time. I think you might have posted about it.

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      3. I wouldn’t read to much into Victoria, even though she was probably the last impressive Monarch and an impressive figure in her own right, her power was largely ceremonial and she was mainly a figurehead. Parliament wielded the real power. After the civil war and the French Revolution the Brits wisely curtailed the power of the monarchy, so she certainly didn’t wield power like that other glorious female monarch Elizabeth the first. I think the worry ( which was pronounced all over Europe, republics and monarchies like) was with industrialisation had come more women into the workforce and increased calls for suffrage. The nascent socialist movement had several leading female figures as well. Plus improvements in medicine had started to reduce the numbers of deaths in childbirth was meant women were starting to live longer. As for the hysteria craze, that was psychology trying to create the perfectly compliant female figure. I think changes on the ground always trump the macro picture.

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      4. But the Decadents who were all misogynists to a man were all ardent monarchists (with the exception of Octave Mirbeau) and would have supported Queen Vic, because she isn’t really a woman, she is a vessel for tradition, authority etc to flow. And that tradition etc is always male based. I have known men who loved Margaret Thatcher but wouldn’t tolerate a female boss. As to your last question, well that’s is a complete mystery.

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