She bedecks herself with all kinds of jewelry
Like an abhorrent prostitute posing on the corner to seduce men.
The fool who approaches her,
She grabs him and kisses him,
Pours him wine from the dregs, from the venom of vipers
— Zohar Sitrei Torah 1:147
The fearsome powers women hold over life and desire seem to have captivated yet terrified men since the earliest days of recorded history. Although speculative anthropologists like Merlin Stone and Margaret Murray proposed a golden age of Goddess-worship in books like When God Was a Woman and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the earliest folklore we possess contains brutal avatars of feminine malice, characters not unlike the tabloid portraits of Ms. Jolie herself.
In the Babylonian Epic of Creation, the primordial dragon Tiamat emerged as salty dark oceans of chaos. Mingling her waters with the fresh-water spirit of Apsu, she gave birth to the gods, who – in what would become a familiar parricidal pattern – eventually killed her, too. Like so many of her descendants, Tiamat supposedly deserved such treatment; disgusted by her offspring (who had already killed her mate Apsu), she consorted with the god Quingu to sire a brood of monsters. The god Marduk killed them all, giving special treatment to Tiamat and Quingu. Ripping Mama Dragon apart “like a dried fish,” Marduk built the heavens, earth and seas with the remains, then had Quingu executed; from the latter’s blood, Marduk made human beings… as a slave race created to raise Babylon to the glory of the gods. Nice guy, that Marduk.
A similar divine sundering occurs in Hebrew lore. After the Lord created human beings as eight-limbed hermaphrodites, he passed his hand between them, creating male and female. We know the first man as Adam; his mate, however, was not Eve. According to the Midrash of Ben-Sirah, that original partner was the true “first woman”: the archetypal Temptress Lilith.
Like so many of her daughters, Lilith refuses to behave as the boys think she should. Although her “sin” is said to have been pride rather than lust (she demanded to mount Adam herself, rather submit to being mounted by him), she became that lethal Temptress in revenge. Fleeing Eden, Lilith protested Adam’s treatment to God himself; in some heretical tales, she even became Yahweh’s lover for a time. Yet her desire to be her own creature drove Lilith to the wastelands, where she supposedly mated with demons, birthed monstrosities, and eventually took up with Samael, Asmodeus, or perhaps Lucifer himself. (The “Demon of Wrath” (Aeshma-Deva), Asmodeus is sometimes translated as “Destroyer of God.” Asmodeus was also considered the Demon Prince of Lust, literally a Demon Lover who was frequently blamed for cases of erotic demon possession like those at Loudin, France, in the 1630s.)
Three angels are said to have been sent to bring Lilith home to Eden, but she was having none of it. Those angels – Sanvi, Sansanvi and Semangelaf – then slaughtered her demon children. Swearing vengeance upon the children of Adam and his new partner Eve, Lilith was barred from the act by the infanticidal angels. For millennia afterward, Jewish parents protected their offspring with magic circles around their cradles and amulets inscribed with the names of those angelic partisans, along with the words “barring Lilith” or “protect this child from all harm.”
(Eve was not the second woman, either. According to rabbinical tradition – cited by Robert Graves and Raphael Patai in The Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis – God crafted a woman while Adam watched. Adam was so revolted by the sight that he refused to name the poor creature, much less take her as his mate. God obligingly dispersed the second woman into dust, sent Adam off to nap, and performed the fabled ribontectomy. We all know what happened after that…)
Lilithian legends predate the Jewish texts, influencing those later tales in both form and substance. Akkadian texts mention male lilû and female lil-tu, malignant spirits who haunted the open wastes and presented grave danger to young women, men and infants. The ardat-lilī (“maiden lilû”) acted more like a sexually frustrated bride than a demonic seducer, but her fury focused itself on virile young men. “She is not a wife, a mother,” reads a cuneiform passage cited in Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, “she has not known happiness, has not undressed in front of her husband, has no milk in her breasts.” This Temptress had sex out of spite, poisoning her lovers and perhaps their children as well.
Lilith’s oldest extant adventure mingles her with another Temptress figure: the goddess Inanna. According to the epic poem Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree (approximately 2000 B.C.E), the Sumerian Superman rushes off to save Inanna’s garden from a lethal threesome nesting in the willow tree. These unwanted guests include a dragon, a Zu-bird and Lilith herself. Gilgamesh does what heroes often do to dragons, sending Lilith fleeing “to the desert” in whose wastes she is so often found.
Judging by her own legends, though, Inanna probably didn’t need his help. Under her many names, this goddess was presented as a ferocious patron of war, sexuality and deceit. Inanna won many of her divine purviews from Enki, God of Wisdom, in a drinking game; later, she descended into the Underworld to confront her dark sister Ereshkigal, “Queen of the Great Below,” and then rose again to life, bearing somber gifts of wisdom. Although most surviving tales remain sympathetic to her adventures, the Goddess’ Akkadian nameIshtar was later corrupted by demonologists into the sinisterAshtoreth (occasional patron of Solomon the Wise) and the sometimes-masculine Astaroth. While early divisions between “good” and “evil” were not as codified then as they eventually would become, these primal figures all embody the human ambivalence about sex.
And she shall wander in the witchwood under the Night of Pan, and know the mysteries of Goat and the Serpent, and of the children that are hidden away…
— John Whiteside Parsons, The Book of Babalon
Where ambivalence hovers, wisdom often waits. The Kabbalistic book ‘Emeq haMelekh (“Valley of the Kings”) invokes an alchemical Lilith who seduces not only Adam and Yahweh but Eve as well: “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.” ”Enough said,” indeed, although the significance of that passage goes beyond sex. The reference to “husks” suggests a connection to the Qlippoth, “shells” or “husks” of Creation forsaken by the Lord, that provide a shadow of Divinity itself. Related lore in the Treatise of the Left Emanation of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Kohen describes “…the Secret Knowledge of the Lesser Palaces which is… a ladder by which one ascends to the prophetic levels.” The Treatise describes Lilith as a “serpent,” a “blind dragon,” and “a beautiful woman… from the waist down she is burning fire.” This infernal twin sister to Eve, “born in the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve,” was created “intertwined (with Samael) in one another” as an intentional divine parody of the first people. These images suggest Jung’s concepts of the shadow and anima: forbidden elements of suppressed psyche that must be recognized and embraced before a person can become whole.
These esoteric portraits of the Temptress provide another role for her. Despite her literally sinister  aspect, she’s also an initiator to sacred mysteries – a shadow of both humanity and God. Michelangelo captures this conceit with a Lilithian serpent coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. His Sistine Chapel fresco features a clearly female Serpent reaching out – with her left hand – to Eve in subtle reflection of Yehweh’s right hand reaching out toward Adam within the same piece of work. Talk about subversive! This Gnostic interpretation may suggest the Temptress is an agent of deeper secrets, bound to mortality but offering wisdom amidst apparent damnation.
The real-life Demon Lover magician Aleister Crowley had his own take on the Scarlet Woman. Taking a cue from Revelations 7:4-5 – “I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet beast, arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls… And upon her head was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATION OF THE EARTH” – Crowley conceived a mystic ideal he christened “Babalon.” A counterpart to the raging nature of masculine force, Babalon embodies “love, understanding, and Dionysian freedom.” Incarnated as a mortal sex partner, Babalon was described by Crowley as “robust, vigorous, eager, sensible, hot and healthy; flesh, nerve and blood being tense, quick and lively, easily enflamed, and nigh inextinguishable.” A master of inversion, Crowley took the Scarlet Woman from her parade of shame and elevated her to carnal godhood. Decades later, Roman Polanski made her the guardian of his film The Ninth Gate; portrayed by Emmanuelle Siegner (and adapted from The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte), this nameless and beautiful “girl” helps Johnny Depp’s bewildered seeker complete his quest and then leads him through the gate toward a bright, if sinister, wisdom.
(To be Continued…)
This entry, along with its related parts, was the first of a three-article series originally published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine between 2009 and 2010. All rights are reserved by the author. Permission granted for linking or re-posting with attribution, but explicitly denied for publication without prior arrangements with the author.
 Middle English sinistre, from Anglo-French senestre: “on the left,” from Latin sinistr-, sinister, “on the left side.” Webster’s. See also, “the left-hand path.”