As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man will be closing on 21 July, to return in spring 2014. Before we begin packing things away, Charlie Morgan takes a look at the history and meaning of one particular amulet in the collection.
Most people know the Abrahamic story of creation quite well. God made Adam out of dust and Eve from one of his ribs. She would later succumb to the temptations of a snake, eat from the forbidden tree, and damn humanity to a life of toil and sin.
Except that’s not the only story.
If you delve into Jewish tradition and mysticism there emerges a woman prior to Eve, and things start to get a lot more complicated. This woman was Lilith, the first wife of Adam, and in our Medicine Man gallery you’ll find the 18th-century ‘Amulet to Protect against Lilith’, which was made to guard children from her demon.
The story of Lilith first came together somewhere in the 8th to 10th century CE in a selection of satirical proverbs entitled The Alphabet of Ben Sirach. It’s been messed about with since but broadly follows the same story. Like Adam, Lilith was created from dust, but their relationship was turbulent from the start because Lilith considered herself equal to Adam. He thought differently and tried to assert his dominance when they had sex, by insisting she lie beneath him. Lilith was outraged at this suggestion and refused to do as she was instructed. Blaspheming, she turned into a demon and flew out of the Garden of Eden. At the request of Adam, God sent three angels – Senoy, Sansenoy and Samlegot – to retrieve Lilith and they found her at the Red Sea giving birth to a host of demonic offspring. The angels threatened to slaughter her children but she retorted: she was created only to harm the young and would kill any descendants of Adam. Eventually a compromise was met whereby one hundred of Lilith’s children would perish each day but she would be powerless to touch any children protected by the names of those three angels. You can see their names written in Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text on Henry Wellcome’s amulet.
The story of Lilith and her threat to unborn or newborn children gained special traction in the Jewish communities of medieval Europe, not least because it built upon pre-existing mythology of similarly named demons. The influence of Babylonian ideas had begun long before the start of the Common Era and specifically Jews had begun to speak of ‘Lilins’ or ‘Liliths’ – types of demons explicitly borrowed from Mesopotamia. One such example of this was in the use of incantation bowls. These were cylindrical structures that were buried underground and branded with the names of various creatures of the occult, the idea being that they would catch the monsters before they could do any damage. Considering how popular these bowls were, it is entirely possible that the story of Lilith as the first wife of Adam was created as an attempt to give religious legitimacy to this and similar practices. If this was the idea, it was extremely successful, and the result was an essential ‘boom’ in protective charms.
Amulets like the one in Medicine Man would have been worn around the necks of pregnant women or hung in the four corners of rooms where newborn babies slept. Other sources indicate that the text was written upon bedchamber walls; the ink would have been mixed with holy incense and written by a respected religious figure. These traditions continued for quite some time: the amulet in Medicine Man, for example, dates from the 18th century.
As with all forms of faith healing, it is quite easy to look at the tradition of Lilith amulets and dismiss it as mere superstition. In many ways it is, but as with similar amulets in various other cultures, they are best understood as a way of making sense of the unexplainable. Eighteenth-century Europeans would not have had any understanding of what we now call sudden infant death syndrome, or ‘cot death’, and so the idea that young children were being slain by a vengeful demon could have made sense. In another example of Lilith being used to explain confusing biology, when the idea crossed over into Christianity, monks would sleep with crucifixes across their genitalia to prevent Lilith from taking their semen and using it to bear children. However, unlike these fearful monks, we now know that they were probably having unconscious emissions, or ‘wet dreams’.
If the story of Lilith was on one hand a way to legitimise pre-existing superstitions, on the other it was also a tool to justify existing social roles. Lilith turned into a feared demon because she rebelled against Adam, and it is impossible to see the re-telling of this tale outside of the context of gendered relationships. If Lilith turned evil when she refused to submit to her husband’s rule, did it not then follow that the same fate awaited all women who did the same?
For centuries, Lilith cropped up in art and literature as the archetypal rebellious woman. Although her character changed over time, one thing that stayed the same was her hair, which is always described as long, unkempt and messy. This is significant because of the way that hair has long been tied to the history of gender roles and representations of women.
By the Middle Ages hair covering had become an accepted practice for married Jewish women, not least because it was also commonplace in Christian and Muslim communities. Maimonides, a definitive source on Jewish law, wrote on the importance of married women hiding their hair, and more radical scholars such as Moses Sofer even suggested shaving the hair of married women. In Eruvin 100 of the Babylonian Talmud, a series of rabbis discuss the curses inflicted upon Chavah, the Hebrew name for Eve, and hence the rest of womankind. One of these is that “her head is covered like a mourner” and that “a married woman is ashamed to go outside with her head uncovered”. Hair in this context, and specifically long hair, was seen as both shameful and sexual, and for Lilith to be depicted as uncovered and untamed was for her to embrace both of these sins. Any woman that acted in the same way would have been equally suspect.
In the 19th century Lilith is reinvented as a type of siren, who is beautiful and enchanting but who makes use of her beauty to lure men to danger. This duality can be seen in Goethe’s Faust Part 1, from 1808:
Adam’s wife, his first. Beware of her.
Her beauty’s one boast is her dangerous hair.
When Lilith winds it tight around young men
She doesn’t soon let go of them again.
Yet it is Rossetti’s 1863 painting Lady Lilith and its accompanying sonnet that really epitomises Lilith’s new emergence as a cultural symbol of a dangerous temptress. Rossetti depicts Lilith alongside white roses and poppies, both signs of death and sterility, all the while absent-mindedly combing her long red hair. In an accompanying sonnet, Rossetti clearly borrows from Goethe, and Lilith is described as “The witch he loved before the gift of Eve” whose “enchanted hair was the first gold”. Notably, the sonnet ends with the following lines:
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.
Despite placing added emphasis on her enchanting nature, Goethe and Rossetti were in many ways merely following in the footsteps of the previous tellers of the Lilith tale. For all of them there was an implicit danger in Lilith’s sexuality and a fear that the same desires were latent in all women and could emerge if female behaviour was left unchecked.
In the late 20th century a whole new interpretation of Lilith arrived: a feminist reclamation. Most famously, the singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan organised Lilith Fair between 1997 and 1999, an all-female series of concerts that took place across the USA and raised more than $10 million for women’s charities. Twenty years before MacLachlan’s fair came Lilith magazine, a Jewish feminist publication that took its namesake as a source of strength and inspiration and is still publishing today. In the first issue, Aviva Cantor took a sledgehammer to centuries of anti-Lilith sentiment, and explained the editors’ choice of using her name for their title:
“Her strength of character and commitment of self is inspiring…Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization. According to feminist readers Lilith is a role model for sexual and personal independence.”
I doubt Jesus ben Sirach – author of The Alphabet – would have been impressed.
Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.