Collier, John. Lilith, 1889, Oil on canvas, 194 x 104 cm., Southport, UK, The Atkinson Art Gallery, Creative Commons.

Lilith is the quintessential example of the demonization of female agency, divinity, and sexuality under patriarchal religions, institutions, and societies. Best known as Adam’s defiant first wife, Lilith has been vilified through Jewish folklore and rabbinic interpretation, a comparison with Eve and original sin, and Victorian sexualization. Over a tens of thousands of years, she has taken many forms: A nocturnal goddess, a vampiric demoness, a notorious succubus, both the mother and queen of demons, a witch, the snake that tempted Eve, and the first woman- to name a few. Lilith’s fall from her divine Mesopotamian origins says more about how patriarchal doctrines–in this case, the Abrahamic religions–decided to pick apart the prehistoric egalitarian view of femininity and female divinity (the “Great Mother” archetype) than Lilith herself. Patriarchal leaders and religious figures generally viewed female power and agency as a threat because they feared it was something they could not control. The characterization of the Jewish (and later Christian) Lilith became a projection of these insecurities. Over time, the bipolar Great Mother was split into the “Good Mother” (or “Light Feminine”), which included values of domesticity, purity, and service, and the “Bad Mother” (or “Dark Feminine”) which became a catch-all for feminine attributes that either threatened men or fell outside the realm of domestic subordination. Lilith was categorized as the latter.  

This exhibit examines the sporadic, yet chronological evolution of Lilith’s story and the ways she is depicted, beginning with popularly known Jewish adaptations (from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Kabbalah), then travelling back in time to examine her Mesopotamian roots, and finally finishing the journey with a Victorian Lilith. Along the way, material culture such as protective amulets, incantation bowls, clay tablets, a Mesopotamian pottery relief, Victorian paintings, and other artistic creations associated with Lilith and her divine predecessors are highlighted.