Lilith (?)

For information on Lilith check out my post Lilith: Adam’s first wife in Deleted Scenes, where I discuss her myth and the possibility of her portrayal in artwork throughout the centuries. Or click here to go to the bottom this page for just the latter.

Some, though often late sources, say say that Lilith returned to the garden after her fall in the guide of the serpent, causing Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. What’s quite interesting is that this tradition appears (at first) to be supported by renaissance  artwork of the Fall of Man in which the serpent is clearly depicted as a female. Upon investigation I was surprised just how many artists followed this convention, including Michelangelo; click the image to see an expanded gallery. While it is argued by some that these works are indeed of Lilith, I’m afraid to say that the evidence doesn’t hold up. The story of Lilith is a late Jewish tradition – where as nearly all of the works depicting a female serpent are by medieval Christians. There are no supplementary writings that I’m aware of to indicate that the Lilith story was widely known in Christian circles. It is the opinion of most art historians that artists depicted the serpent in female form to identify it with Eve, serving as a metaphor for woman’s sexuality and weakness. Artist Melissa Huang perhaps said it best in her article on the sexualization of Eve:

Renaissance artists, by depicting the serpent as a woman, were both revealing their opinions of female sexuality and decisively blaming womankind for the fall.  Women were perceived by Renaissance audiences to be weak, gullible, and inherently flawed; an ideal scapegoat. The only issue with casting Eve as a temptress is that she was originally tempted by the serpent. If Adam—a man—was tempted by Eve—a woman—who herself was tempted by the serpent—a man—then the blame ultimately falls upon the male sex. However, if the serpent becomes a woman, then woman is ultimately to blame.

The theory that the serpent was depicted as a woman so as to identify with Eve is confirmed simply by paying attention to the artwork itself, in which the female serpent looks exactly like Eve (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The last three pieces in the gallery above are the only ones which clearly are Lilith and are modern works. So as fun as it may be to imagine these works illustrating Lilith due to the remarkable coincidence, it would seem that her tradition stayed within the confines of Jewish mysticism. It’s worth speculating however as to whether it was the paintings which inspired the idea among later writers that Lilith did return to the garden as the serpent.

7 thoughts on “Lilith (?)

  1. Pingback: Genesis 1-2 Deleted Scenes #11: Lilith, Adam’s first wife |

  2. Pingback: An article about The Head of Medusa, which is part of Greek mythology

  3. I just was reading a scholarly article that stated what you mentioned here about the snake having the mirror image of Eve’s face, appealing to her vanity. The article mentioned that with Michelangelo’s painting, however, it does represent Lilith (he was familiar with the Kabbalah) and it was pointed out how in Michelangelos Lilith looks like Adam, rather than Eve, tied into a tradition they were twins, something like that.

  4. I’d need to read the article again, maybe I had misunderstood part or read into it what wasn’t there. I wonder if it was a different article. I know I had read the book Sistine Secrets, which goes at length in its claim of Michelangelo’s knowledge of the Kabbalah. Which seems to increase the possibility that he could have brushed across the legend. Though I have my questions about how historically grounded that book is.

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