PART FOUR: THE WITCH AND THE SERPENT
I'm the obeah woman
from beneath the sea
to get to Satan
you gotta pass through me...
Nina Simone, "Obeah Woman"
We have already discussed the myth of Eden in comparison with other tales of the Serpent, the Woman, and the Tree, already seen how the male protagonist's role is altered from a freeman who comes to test his mettle against the Dragon to that of a chattel punished for trying to rise above his appointed station. We talked of how Odin, Heracles, and Jason willfully face the Tree and are elevated; Adam unwillingly is tested and is cast down. Yet there is another difference in the Eden story from all the others, a critical one.
In Odin's tale, the Woman is represented by the Norns, powerful and shadowy beings that control the fates of all living beings. In the story of Heracles, the Woman appears as the three Hesperides, the daughters of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebus). These "Nymphs of the West" own the Tree of Immortality and the Dragon that guards it. In Jason's quest, the Woman is Medea, the granddaughter of the Sun, a princess and powerful sorceress. In the "Churning of the Ocean," the Woman is the goddess Sri, the embodiment of fortune, blessing, and kingship, connected to the cosmic center and the elixir of divinity.
In Eden, however, the Woman is Eve.
We can debate the original role of Eve in these scriptures; many scholars have. The majority opinion down through history has been that she was created as Adam's "helper," from one of his ribs;
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
The traditional conclusion drawn from this is that women, like Eve, and subservient to men. The second century rabbi, Joshua ben Hananiah, puts the matter succinctly;
"God deliberated from what member He would create woman, and He reasoned with Himself thus: I must not create her from Adam's head, for she would be a proud person, and hold her head high. If I create her from the eye, then she will wish to pry into all things; if from the ear, she will wish to hear all things; if from the mouth, she will talk much; if from the heart, she will envy people; if from the hand, she will desire to take all things; if from the feet, she will be a gadabout. Therefore I will create her from the member which is hid, that is the rib, which is not even seen when man is naked."
Modern scholarship questions just how subservient Eve was meant to be; the original Hebrew designation for "helper," for example, is ezer kenegdo, can also mean "opposite" and "counterpart," translations with a markedly different connotation than "helper." Likewise, the name Eve is derived from hawwah, which means "living" or "source of life" (importantly, it can also be translated as snake). This implies a more noble view of Eve as well. Regardless, the fact remains that historically Eve was made to serve man, just as man was made to serve God. She is the servant of a servant. A subordinate. Furthest removed from God, she is the first to surrender to the temptations of the Serpent.
This is clearly a very different role than that played by the Norns, the Hesperides, or Medea. They are all powerful, otherworldly beings connected to the Dragon and the Tree. We might even call them witches, if by this we mean a figure that appears human but is possessed of occult powers and properties. This cannot be said of Eve. Of course, there was a witch in the Garden, a being of secret knowledge and immense power...but by the time the temptation occurs she has already packed up and gone. In fact, she might even be the Serpent.
We are speaking of Lilith.
Fittingly, Lilith is a subject of great controversy. She appears explicitly only once in the scriptures. In Isaiah, the Lord will lay waste to the kingdom of Edom, turning its rivers to pitch, drenching the land in blood, and making it the habitation for all sorts of Hebrew demons and monsters. The name Lilith appears in Isaiah 34:14, where it is sometimes mistranslated as screech owl. This is, to put it bluntly, incorrect. Theologian Charles Ellicott wrote;
the “screech-owl” is the Lilith, the she-vampire, who appears in the legends of the Talmud as having been Adam’s first wife, who left him and was turned into a demon. With the later Jews, Lilith, as sucking the blood of children, was the bugbear of the nursery. Night-vampire would, perhaps, be the best rendering.
Albert Barnes agreed;
The screech-owl - Margin, 'Night-monster.' The word לילית lı̂ylı̂yt (from ליל layil, night) properly denotes a night-spectre - a creature of Jewish superstition. The rabbis describe it in the form of a female elegantly dressed that lay in wait for children at night - either to carry them off, or to murder them. The Greeks had a similar idea respecting the female ἔμπουτα empouta, and this idea corresponds to the Roman fables respecting the Lamice, and Striges, and to the Arabic notions of the Ghules, whom they described as female monsters that dwell in deserts, and tear men to pieces (see Gesenius, Com. in loc; and Bochart, Hieroz. ii. 831). The margin in our version expresses the correct idea. All this is descriptive of utter and perpetual desolation - of a land that should be full of old ruins, and inhabited by the animals that usually make such ruins their abode.
Most other scholars concur. The "Lilith" that finds her rest in the damned and ruined kingdom of Edom is a mythological being, a figure of terror, that may or may not have her origin in far more ancient stories from Sumer, Akkad, and Babylonia. And while Isaiah is her only explicit appearance, she is implicitly present in the very first chapter of Genesis...at least in the traditions of late Judaism.
The problem, of course, is what to do with the glaring inconsistency of Genesis. Genesis 1:27 states clearly that Man and Woman are created at the same time, from the same material, and both in the image of God. In the next chapter, as we have seen, the Woman is gone and Adam is alone. Eve is created from his rib. To reconcile this, a tradition emerges as early as the 3rd to 5th centuries of the Common Era, coming to fullness a few centuries later (circa 700-1000), that the scriptures are talking about two different women. The original woman, created co-equal with Adam, was Lilith. The second, made subservient, was Eve.
Lilith's tale is a striking one, and deserves to be quoted directly from The Alphabet of ben Sirach (Alphabetum Siracidis, Othijoth ben Sira);
While God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' He also created a woman, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.
Lilith flees the Garden for the Red Sea, where legends have her immediately begin mating with devils and demons and spawning a monstrous brood. God sends three angels to bring her back and she rebuffs them. When she is punished by having a hundred of her children killed every day, she vows to make herself a terror to the children of Adam. She becomes a sort of boogeyman, a night flying vampire that causes unmarried young men to have nocturnal emissions and kills infants in their sleep.
How far back exactly her story really goes is difficult to say. As we have noted, written sources carry her name as far back as the third century of the Common Era, but the Book of Isaiah dates back to at least the Babylonian Captivity, roughly 597 to 539 B.C.E. And if the Jewish Lilith is indeed a "borrowing" from earlier Mesopotamian stories, adopted during the Captivity, the essence of her story reaches back thousands of years before even this. Some have even argued she makes an appearance in the Gilgamesh cycle, in a way that it relevant to our study.
In this story, “after heaven and earth had separated and man had been created,” the goddess Inanna plants and lovingly tends a willow tree. Her plan is to build a throne for herself from its wood. But the Tree becomes possessed by three sinister forces, a zu bird, a Serpent, and "in its midst the demoness Lilith had built her house.” Gilgamesh slays the Serpent, frightens the bird off, and banishes Lilith to the wastes. The echoes here--the Woman, the Tree, the Serpent--are unmistakeable.
Regardless of her antiquity, it is in the early Middle Ages that Lilith takes on her present form, and it was in medieval Judaism that she became the very archetype of the Witch. Indeed, as the Middle Ages moved into the Renaissance, her tale only grew. In this period we find a Lilith who not only mates with demons but is the bride of Samael or Samyaza, chief of the Fallen Angels (the Christian Satan). Indeed, to some--such as Moses ben Solomon of Burgos, Samael and Lilith are a united pair, an androgyne;
Both Samael, king of the demons, and Lilith were born in a spiritual birth androgynously. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is an epithet for both Samael and Grandmother Lilith (e.g. the Northerner). As a result of Adam's sin, both of them came and confused the whole world, both the Upper one and the Nether one.
Given the association of the Serpent and the Tree with the constellation Draco and the Pole Star, it is significant here that Lilith is identified with the North as well. Also significant is that late Medieval tradition identifies Lilith with the Serpent of Eden itself. The Zohar tells us;
The secret of secrets:
Out of the scorching noon of Isaac,
out of the dregs of wine,
a fungus emerged, a cluster,
male and female together,
red as a rose,
expanding in many directions and paths.
The male is called Sama'el,
his female is always included within him.
Just as it is on the side of holiness,
so it is on the other side:
male and female embracing one another.
The female of Sama'el is called Serpent,
Woman of Whoredom,
End of All Flesh, End of Days.
Two evil spirits joined together:
the spirit of the male is subtle;
the spirit of the female is diffused in many ways and paths
but joined to the spirit of the male.
It is as the Serpent that Lilith appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel itself, painted by none other than Michelangelo, for by the Renaissance, Lilith now returns to the Garden to seduce both Adam and Eve;
And the Serpent, the Woman of Harlotry, incited and seduced Eve through the husks of Light which in itself is holiness. And the Serpent seduced Holy Eve, and enough said for him who understands. An all this ruination came about because Adam the first man coupled with Eve while she was in her menstrual impurity -- this is the filth and the impure seed of the Serpent who mounted Eve before Adam mounted her. Behold, here it is before you: because of the sins of Adam the first man all the things mentioned came into being. For Evil Lilith, when she saw the greatness of his corruption, became strong in her husks, and came to Adam against his will, and became hot from him and bore him many demons and spirits and Lilin.
She is then, here, both succubus and incubus, the Serpent, one and the same with Satan himself. Thus in the Jewish tradition, Lilith is--like the Norns or the Hesperides--bound to the Tree and the Serpent as one.
What are we to make of her, then...the Woman tied to Tree and Serpent?
If we recall our discussions of number symbolism and Qabalah, we are reminded that of the Decad the first three numbers describe Heaven, and the subsequent seven represent Earth. One is Unity, the Point. Two is Division and Opposition. In the northern hemisphere this is symbolized by the Pole Star and Draco, the axis mundi and the Dragon. On the Tree of Life, these would be Kether and Chokmah. Chokmah, as the Prime Masculine quality, has as his counterpart the sephira Binah, the Prime Feminine. These three are collectively known as the Supernal Triad, the three numbers that exist above the Abyss and define Heaven.
Binah, the Divine Feminine, is the Gateway to and from Heaven. Climbing the Tree of Life, you must first pass through Binah to reach Chokmah and Kether, the Dragon and the Tree. Aleister Crowley associated Binah with Babalon, whose "Whoredom" is in fact that she will receive anyone who comes to pass through her Gate. If the Circle is seen as the symbol of Heaven, then Binah is its circumference, with Chokmah as the radius--the Path leading from the threshold to the Center--and Kether being that Center, the Crossroads, the axis mundi itself. If we think of the Pole Star and Draco, Binah might be seen as Draco's orbit, or even the night sky itself.
It is the latter association that is most compelling. In Thelema, the Divine Feminine is embodied as Nuit, the starry night sky. The Hesperides, as we have said, were the daughters of Nyx and Erebus, night and darkness. And Lilith, who is called the Night Demon, derives her own name from a root cognate with the Hebrew layil and the Arabic layl, both meaning "night." Night--Lilith--is the Circle, and she must be penetrated to reach the Serpent at the Crossroads. As the song goes; "I'm the obeah woman from beneath the sea, to get to Satan, you gotta pass through me."
It is worth noting here the symbolism of Stanislas de Guaita's famous "sigil of Baphomet," later adopted by Anton LaVey as the official logo of the Church of Satan. Here, the names Samael and Lilith are surrounded by the Hebrew word Leviathan. Leviathan--related etymologically to Ladon, the Dragon guarded the Apples of Immortality--is the great cosmic Serpent, Draco, that the Hebrew god boasts of taming. Guaita's image references the Hebrew tradition that Samael and Lilith, as Serpents, are both manifestations of Leviathan. Moses Cordervo wrote;
And about this mystery it is written, And on that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the Slant Serpent, and Leviathan the Tortuous Serpent, and He will slay the Dragon that is in the sea (Isa. 27:1). Leviathan is the connection and the coupling between the two who have the likeness of serpents. Therefore it is doubled: the Slant Serpent corresponding to Samael, and the Tortuous Serpent corresponding to Lilith....
The symbolism in Guaita's image is unmistakable; a Dragon coiled around a Star and forming a Circle, the twin Serpent energies of Lilith and Samael present within. Even the pentagram itself suggests a sort of Crossroads.
We might regard then, Lilith and Samael, the Woman and the Serpent at the Crossroads, as the Gate and the Key respectively (with awareness of the sexual symbolism implied). Together they unlock the power of the Tree. We see here again Crowley's formula of 2 = 0, that the union of opposites results in the transcendent "nothingness" that is the source of all power and creation.
This is something we will examine more deeply later.
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