Lilith / Eve, a Question of Translation

Has it been over a week since I’d last written?

Hi. It’s me. Are you still there? =P

I haven’t much time, unfortunately. But here’s an entry of what’s been on my mind, though hastily written. If you remember from this post, the creation of Hawwa (translated as Eve) and Adam in Islam differs from the one in Christian religious tradition, in that (1) Hawwa is not said in the Qur’an to have formed from Adam’s rib, (2) nor is woman said to have been created second after man (3) or even Adam disclosed to have been (for certain) the male variant in the couple. God addresses Adam, whose name is interchangeably synonymous with humankind, and tells Adam to live with Hawwa (spouse) in Paradise, but the sex of each respective figure is not revealed. Hawwa and Adam exist simultaneously, androgynous until they eat from the tree, with neither having been created from the other though both are made of the same earth (thus of equal purity), and it is both of them together who are tricked into disobeying God’s command. But Hawwa is often translated as Eve, though this story does not sound like Eve’s.

It sounds like Lilith’s.

If you don’t know the story of Lilith (except for this slight resemblance, it doesn’t exist in Islam by name or detail): she is rumored in Judaism and Christianity to have been Adam’s first wife, created not from his rib after he had already been formed, unlike their Eve, but as an original, from (impure) earth. However, “Adam and Lilith could find no happiness together, not even understanding. When Adam wished to lie with her, Lilith demurred: ‘Why should I lie beneath you,’ she asked, ‘when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?’ When Lilith saw that Adam was determined to overpower her, she uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air, and flew away to the Red Sea, a place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons.” (Patai, 1964)

The resemblance to Satan, who refused to bow to Adam, citing his fashion of creation as reason, is chillingly striking. But here it is Adam who commanded submission, not God. And it is through invoking the name of God that Lilith makes her escape to the Red Sea, uniting with demons, one of whom she becomes.

God then creates Eve from Adam’s rib, who naturally does not quarrel with him. In Talmudic tradition, Lilith commands ghostly she-demons that prevent childbirths in human women by causing miscarriages and barrenness: a class of succubae that leave men weak in nocturnal ejaculations. The story of Lilith is the story of a woman who is—quite literally—demonized. And for what? She would not submit to a patriarchal order established by men. Significantly, in these versions of the story, she returns as the serpent to tempt Eve, “corrupting” the “good woman” who does as she is told. Though she returns to God full-circle, Lilith is the first feminist recognized and defined by patriarchy—a seductress who disobeys men and kills infants as she leaves women barren. She is not only a woman, but a woman so beautiful and monstrous that even nature itself condemns her in this barrenness, an unnatural woman: “As Montgomery aptly put it over half a century ago, ‘the Liliths were the most developed products of the morbid imagination—of the barren or neurotic woman, the mother in the time of maternity, the sleepless child.’” (Patai, 1964)

But Hawwa is a Lilith who was never asked to submit to Adam. Hawwa is a Lilith who thus never felt any need to “abandon” him or to depart. Hawwa is a content Eve, fully and rightfully herself with all the powers to her own autonomy. With the heavy baggage that Lilith carries, even predating Abrahamic tradition, is it entirely understandable that Hawwa has been translated as Eve. She is Lilith’s beginning and Eve’s end. The truth is that Islam’s Hawwa, never asked to submit to Adam, is neither a Lilith nor an Eve. It is possible that both women erupted from the story of the First Woman with the gradual differences accumulated over the retelling of a story for centuries.

Lilith, not entirely human, makes strange and sudden appearances in Muslim theology long after she should have died, though never by that name. When I was young(er) my mother told me a story taking place during the time of Solomon (who had control over humans and jinn [other spirits])* in which two women fought over the possession of a child. To resolve the issue, the child was brought to King Solomon, who—with the intention of determining the true mother—commanded the child be cut in half. One of the women agreed; the other screamed in agony and exclaimed that she would give up the child so long as it lived. Solomon determined that this was the true mother.

As a girl the story had left me perplexed. Who was this other woman, and what did she want with the child, if she would only kill it? My mother wondered the same, but had no answers.

And then I read,

“While Lilith and Naamah thus have become unmistakably evil spirits, at least one other time in history they assumed human form—when, in order to try Solomon’s wisdom, they assumed the form of two prostitutes and went to Solomon asking for his judgment in their quarrel over the surviving child.” (Patai, 1964)

and felt my heart stop. The woman was Lilith!

In Islam she couldn’t have been the original Lilith, I don’t believe, but it makes sense that she was a jinn, not a human woman. There is also the charge that the Queen of Sheba was none other than Lilith, which is far-fetched, and doesn’t fit the Islamic tradition of the story. The Queen of Sheba is definitely a human woman, who ruled powerfully—and rightfully, without marrying Prophet Solomon (in the Qur’an), proof that women are entitled to such extraordinary positions.

All I can safely conclude is that Hawwa (or Lilith or Eve) was so torn apart over centuries of patriarchal retellings that she became multiple women with multiple stories, and slandered to have consorted with the devil, all until the introduction of the creation of a second woman out of Adam’s rib as an exemplar of the patriarchally preferred model of womanhood to replace her, or to convince human women that disobedience is demonic. Seeing that the purpose of the Qur’an was to restore truth to the revelations that were corrupted by men, it is likely that previously Eve was lessened and Lilith slandered, but these were naturally patriarchal fabrications. Hawwa was not made from Adam’s rib, and Lilith did not consort with the devil. Submission to Adam was demanded from neither.

Because woman will not submit to man,

I would not have bowed to Adam, either. Nor to Eve. (They were both the same.) How could I when I submit only to God? For Satan it was pride; for me, love. (Or, if it is not, then make it so.) And if this Divine Love is a sin, my Lord, then damn me to Hell! And let me burn with love so ardent that the Fire itself dies in shame!

And Eve says, “Never submit to anyone but God. I didn’t.” And Lilith says, “They will slander me. And they will slander you. But remember.”

*Classes of evil jinn (those who follow Satan) are called demons, but not all jinn are evil.

Patai, Raphael. “Lilith.” The Journal of American Folklore 77.306 (1964): 295-314. Print.

31 responses

  1. The women fighting over the baby is found in the bible (1st Kings 3:16-28). Both women had babies, but one died — and in her grief, the mother stole the other. It followed that one of the possible reasons why she agreed to cut the baby in half is simply that she’d then have a partner in her misery. A horrible act of self-pity (If I can’t be happy, then neither can she).

    If theologians repackaged this to suggest that the woman was Lilith, it would be pretty awesome. Demonizing yes… but the story itself is an exercise in showing the sublime judgement of King Solomon while illustrating the idealized woman (vs the jealous mother who should have just taken God’s will as is and not grieved to such an extent). And as you say, is a result of Abrahamic baggage.

    I had a love affair with Lillith once and devoured Patai. I especially love your reading of Hawwa as a Lillith who never bowed to Adam.

  2. I have always been fascinated by the idea of Lilith. As a Jew, and reading through the Chronicles of Narnia, a thinly veiled poster for Christianity, it always irked me that The White Witch (and all her incarnations from the earlier books) was the demon in the series, as she was considered genetically inhuman being descended from giants, demons and Lilith herself as compared to Aslan, Jesus the son of G-d, the male against female where the male always wins because the female ruler is so demonised because she is not a ‘natural’ woman who is submissive to man. Yes she is ruthless but then evil rulers always are and she is given the penalty for it more so than another because she is female. To this day, Orthadox Jews still follow the Talmudic superstition for their sons that they do not cut their hair until they are 3 to fool Lilith into thinking they are girls so no harm with befall them. Quite frankly, if you follow this superstition, then to believe that Lilith is a very stupid demon that is fooled by long hair, is quite insulting and quite ridiculous. This Christian and Talmudic (not early but later Judaism) rule that the perfect woman must be submissive is bullshit and only serves to enslave thousands of women across the world that this is right and letting these bastards rule in supposed superiority which they claim is given to them by G-d. I came up against a Christian man years ago who believes this rubbish and it took all of my will power not to punch him. But even worse are the women who willingly subjugate themselves to it and cite Lilith as a warning that the evil woman is an assertive and desisive woman which is ‘unnatural.’

    • Agreed. I absolutely devoured the Narnia books… and had lots of issues with them too! Especially in the way the White Witch was portrayed and whom she’s meant to represent! Villans who are 100% evil are nearly always flat and disastrous. (With the exception of Voldemort.)

      I just found your comment in the spam folder, btw. (WordPress…) That’s why it didn’t show up until now. =P

    • I loved the Narnia books when I was a boy, although they troubled me too. I didn’t become aware of the Christian propaganda until I was much older, but even back then there were two things that made me uncomfortable.

      Firstly, the Calormen, who are portrayed as a weird, exotic, backward race, are a kind of mishmash of foreign brown people like Turks, Arabs, Persians and Indians, in contrast to the Narnian humans who are all white Englishmen. Secondly, the evil false god of the Calormen, who is described as a blood-drinking demon and generally unpleasant character, has four arms and an animal head! It struck me as a six year old that the only four-armed animal-headed gods I knew were the Hindu gods my family prayed to in the temple… I didn’t like that very much!

      As for the sexism regarding the Witch, I can see it in retrospect, but at the time I didn’t notice. Although do I remember thinking it was very unfair when Santa Claus told Susan she couldn’t fight in the battle because “war is ugly when women fight” or something. That struck me as weird and stupid. War is about killing people – isn’t it always ugly? And Susan had a cool bow, she should have been allowed to fight.

    • Also interesting, on the Judaism front, is that the term that is so often translated as “rib” in the second creation story in the Hebrew Bible (remembering that in the first creation story, male and female were created together and equal), means something closer to “side” in Hebrew. There is a long Talmudic debate (I can get you the location if you want- it’s somewhere in the midst of Eiruvin, I think, of all places), which discusses whether Chava/Eve was created from Adam’s side, with the implications that the Adam-creature was split in half equally, or from a tail- more like the Christian reading of “rib”.

      Waiting for 3 for the first haircut is not a universal Orthodox practice in my experience, nor have I ever heard a Lilith-based explanation for the reason. Usually I hear the reason for upsherin/halakeh (the first name is the Ashkenazi/Eastern European name for the practice, the latter is the Sefardi/Western European and North African name) as relating to the transition from being totally unbound to the mitzvot (commandments) to beginning religious study towards one’s eventual obligation. It is thus paired with a shift from one’s hair being “wild and free” to cutting it away into a more orderly arrangement, with a demarcation of the pe’ot (sidelocks, which fulfill a particular mitzvah), for families that leave them long (usually the ultra-orthodox).

  3. How interesting! According to Wikipedia, in the Greek and Latin bibles, the word “lilith” appears in a list of animals and is translated as “Lamia”, a monster who kills children out of jealousy for her own lost children, who were killed by Hera. English translations include vampire and hag. In Jewish folklore, Lilith is a demon who tempts men and causes nocturnal emissions. From their seed, she bears hideous monsters, ghosts and demons.

    It seems that the story of the monstrous Lilith has been mixed with other folkloric female monsters like harpies, witches, lamias and succubi in various cultures. Some scholars propose that Hebrew Lilith might be related to Akkadian “lilitu,” a kind of female demon, which could stem from the Semitic root meaning “night”, (as in Arabic “Layla”) hence, a night monster. Other scholars reject this theory.

    Looks like the story of the first woman in Abrahamic cultures, whether Eve, Hawwa or Lilith, has been rewritten to serve various agendas and mixed up with various folk tales and different cultural influences over time.

    Your point about neither Adam nor Hawwa being gendered is very interesting. I’d never have know about it if not for you. I love how you suggest that Hawwa could be seen as an inspiration and strong female role model, uniting the best aspects of both Lilith and Eve’s stories.

  4. I was really curious about this too. If Hawwa was Adam’s first wife, and Lilith was Adam’s first wife, then wouldn’t the immediate translation of Hawwa be Lilith, not Eve? But I guess it’s Lilith’s baggage that turned translators off. Or maybe it’s not a translation issue as much as it is a cultural issue. You don’t hear as much about Lilith, so Muslims might have assumed that Hawwa’s Christian equivalent is Eve and just went with it.

    • “You don’t hear as much about Lilith, so Muslims might have assumed that Hawwa’s Christian equivalent is Eve and just went with it.” Exactly. I didn’t even knew there was a Lilith until this post. I’ve been brewing it and coming back to it for two days now.

      But I have to disagree with you on one point, Nahida, because in surat al baqarah, God asks Adam to live with his spouse in heaven. The pronoun used in that verse is masculine.

      I loved this post and I learned a lot from it. Thank you for sharing.

  5. A wonderful new way of seeing our first female ancestor/s.I agree too that’s one patriarchial fabrication.And I greatly admire your divine love,Nahida!

    “How could I when I submit only to God?” Yeah it made me think of Satan too.I was curious that I’ve read about a sect (forgot the name!) that follows Satan plus his angels, and other people living around them, refer to them as devil worshippers.But the thing is they are peaceful and loving people because they believed that they only love God just like how Satan approached it but not as pride but of love.It’s interesting how people interpret submission and surrender.

    And Zeina’s comment above about the pronoun being masculine is interesting.I wonder if she is refering to the wife?….

    • You are thinking of the very interesting Yazidis, whose religion is a mixture of old Indo-
      Iranian, Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic Sufi elements. They worship seven powers who were created from God’s light. The story of their chief angel is similar to that of Iblis. He was praised by God for refusing to bow to Adam, because he was ordered to only worship God’s light.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yazidi

      • Yes! that’s it.The Yazidis and another group called Alawis,I think which I came across while watching a documentary about less knowned and persecuted religions in the world.Thanks for sharing, Winterwind!

  6. “I would not have bowed to Adam, either. Nor to Eve. (They were both the same.) How could I when I submit only to God? For Satan it was pride; for me, love. (Or, if it is not, then make it so.) And if this Divine Love is a sin, my Lord, then damn me to Hell! And let me burn with love so ardent that the Fire itself dies in shame!”

    I ADORE this!

  7. Love it! I’ve always had issues with the way Eve is portrayed in Christianity…To me, Jewish/Christian story of the fall, Eve is no worse than Adam….they both eat the fruit they aren’t supposed to eat, whether its physical fruit or metaphorical fruit. But the Christian patriarchal types seem to have a desperate need to demonize Eve, because her part of the “curse” is what they base their shitty theology on in a big way. After reading this, I’m definitely a Hawwa fan. She seems like the way we should have been reading Eve all along.

  8. Very interesting. You continually intrigue me with your way of looking a things.

    I wonder what do you think of El-Elyon and Asherah?

    By the way this is an interesting read: “Recent Archaelogical Discoveries and Biblical Research” by William G. Dever.

    I

  9. if one only bows down to god… what would one say to the Angels whom were commanded by God to bow down to Adam…. after all one cannot reject the words of the Qur’an if one considers themselves to be a Muslim…. if Allah(God) had said bow it would have been within ones duty to obey i don’t see how disagreeing with this makes one more in love with God….??

    • The angels and jinn were asked to bow to Adam, not to submit to him;–in this context bowing does not necessarily signify submission; it could very well be merely a show of respect. But Iblis (the devil) was too arrogant to demonstrate even this. He did not say, “I refuse to bow, because if this submission I submit only to You.” Instead he said, “I am better than him because you made him from clay!” That is the sin, not the disobedience alone. It wasn’t the refusal that condemned him, it was the reason, or else this information would have been excluded from the Qur’an were it not of importance. That God asked Iblis why he would not bow compels us to examine what truly makes us sinners (intentions, arrogance, etc) and even hollow faith (ie obeying instructions for the sake of obeying not with any heart) is advised against as a sin.

      In any case, God commanded the angels and jinn to bow to Adam (or humankind), not women (or other human beings). If the statement itself (understandably) pushes your comfort level take it for what it is: a declaration of passion.

  10. I have read all the Adam and Eve creation stories I could find and some years ago I loved to compare between them in my free time :) I did that until I came to the conclusion that the story is most probably metaphorical. Anyway, I think I have told you before that in ancient oral Jewish traditions there is a creation story that matches with the account in the Quran – Adam and Eve both sinned. One was created first and the other from it, but it’s not clear who was created first. And then they reproduced. In the Jewish tradition too, Satan was asked to bow down and he refused.

    However, there is something that I don’t understand – if the message is egalitarian (whether literal or metaphorical), why does God (in both the Jewish tradition and Quran) ask Satan to bow down only to Adam? What does that signify?

  11. Nahida:

    Here are two articles that provide some excellent historical aspects in such a manner that is condensed and yet highly informative. I think you will find it most interesting .

    The first is one that speaks on Adam and Eve directly.

    http://arthuride.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/serpent-in-the-garden/

    Here is another one which is also extremely interesting.

    http://arthuride.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/apostolic-succession-and-the-papacy-separating-fact-from-fiction/

    Enjoy.

  12. This is FANTASTIC. If I could leave my two cents – Hawwa, in Hebrew (and I assume Arabic as well?) means “life.” As in, the first woman is the mother of us all. I am not sure how “Eve” means the same thing, but hey, I always chalked it up to hilarious mistranslation. As for creation out of a rib. the Torah has two creation stories. The first has the pair created simultaneously, and possibly as one, single united harmonious creature. So in the second story, when G-d says that it is not good for Man to be alone (Adam, in Hebrew, = both “person” and “earth,” which makes sense since he’s made from the dust of the earth), and then separates Hawwa from his side to be her own autonoomous human being, it can be read as the division of one being into two complementary ones, rather than the creation of a subordinate out of his rib, as it was purposely interpreted by the patriarchy later on.
    As for Lilith – according to my research, Lilith is the demonized version of an earlier Mesopotamian goddess, likely done over time as the various monotheistic faiths took over. This goes double to help twist the monotheistic societies towards patriarchy, since now there was a convenien evil female to make into a warning parable to enforce generations of desirable, submissive female behavior, when the source material (Torah, Quran) have nothing of the sort!
    Fun fact: Christianity blames Eve for the fall, but in Hebrew we refer to it as the sin of Adam. Hawwa was tricked; Adam fed Hawwa the wrong information (leading her to make untrue, if logical conjectures) and then blamed Hawwa when asked a simple Yes-or-No question by the Almighty. Judaism was definitely influenced by Christianity in its development of their own rather odious patriarchy, and has since absorbed a lot of not very nice elements thereof into society that persist to this day. (Ew.)

  13. This might be an ignorant question, if so please forgive me.And also a technical one, I tend to go there… But what do you mean by “translate”?

    Hawwa in Arabic and Hava/Chava in Hebrew are literally the same letters, there is no translation. In Greek and Latin the Hebrew/Aramaic letters were transliterated: E V A or H V A (where V and W are interchangeable, they did both exist. The English Eve (from Eva from Hawwa) is just a development over time.

    So I’m not sure what “being translated as” means.

    If the question is “who are the stories really about” I understand it better. I am learning a lot from this post, and it is truly fascinating. So I hope I’m not perceived as derailing it with technicalities, I’m really interested.

    • Not at all. =) I don’t mean “who” the stories are about as much as what happens (to the same woman [from an Islamic perspective]); so the creation story version where she is Lilith, she is made simultaneously as Adam, and there was no one after her… It’s the first creation story but in Islam there is no story after that. It makes more sense in communicating to “translate” Hawwa as Lilith, if it is a translation between stories. (Of course, as this post says, Hawwa also was not asked by Adam to submit, which makes her more like Eve… except in Judaism and Christianity, since Lilith left for the same reason and Eve stayed I think there is an assumption Eve was asked and did, because she was created for that purpose, which would make Hawwa even less like Eve.) That’s more what I mean: a translation between stories.

      If Muslims just used “Hawwa” all the time it would be fine, but they often say Eve to correlate with or relate to Christians and Jews… and they wouldn’t be thinking of the same person (the same story.) I mean, they wouldn’t be anyway, but Lilith’s story might be closer. Also, it’s a bit strange that in Islam it’s said to be Lilith’s story that doesn’t exist, when it’s more Eve’s that doesn’t exist… because there wasn’t a second creation. It’s a question of which is closer in content and context. If that makes sense. o.O Eep! =P

  14. Pingback: The Absence of Eve | the fatal feminist

  15. A very interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I have a couple of questions
    When Lilith took the name of God and went to the Red Sea, she in fact descended to Earth from the Garden of Eden, correct?
    So even though Adam was still in the Garden the world had been created. And the Red Sea was there as well.
    Who were the other deamons living there? And where did they come from?
    Offspring of Satan? Bcz Satan was the first one to disobey God and be cast out. Were there others? Or are demons a different breed altogether and Satan rules them bcz of his superiority to them?

  16. Pingback: When Justice Unravels | the fatal feminist

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