Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2


Kathryn Lee Seidel

The Lilith Figure in Toni Morrison's Sula and Alice Walker's The Color Purple1

Kathryn Lee Seidel (Ph.D., University of Maryland) is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Central Florida. She has published The Southern Belle in the American Novel (University Presses of Florida, 1985) and edited Zora in Florida (University Presses of Florida, 1991). Her other articles focus on Kate Chopin, Gail Godwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and William Faulkner.

The portrayal of the Lilith figure in contemporary fiction celebrates her sexuality, assertiveness, and angerqualities which caused concern for some of the ancient and medieval Jewish commentators of the Lilith legends. In particular, African-American women writers have reinterpreted the story of Lilith as a narrative of a woman who began her life with a confident sense of self identity, and who has equal status, rights, and privileges with men. In these interpretations, Lilith is the woman who possesses emotions that have traditionally been denied to women: a sense of adventurousness, a need for excitement, and a desire for achievement.

Toni Morrison's Sula and Alice Walker's The Color Purple retell the Lilith narrative by pairing her archetypal figure with a female opposite who can be called the Eve figure. The ostensible theme of the novels is the development of friendships between two sets of African American women. In both novels one of the friends is an introverted, self-effacing, domestic, married woman who represents the stabilizing elements of the community; this woman develops confidence and integrity because of the friendship. The other friend is an extroverted, charismatic, unrepressed, single woman who scandalizes her community but who also prevents the community from becoming sterile and dormant. These character pairs can easily be said to embody contemporary themes that emerge in the writings of African-American womenthe struggle of black women against societal oppression, the emergence of the assertive and self-defined woman, and the role of friendship in bringing about these changes.

In his work on the black aesthetic in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies the pan-African mythic figure of Esu as a prototype for understanding the friendship couples in several important novels by African-Americans, such as Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The Esu figure is essentially a trickster who is often depicted as sexually insatiable, bisexual and menacing to children, and who is characterized by outrageous speech-acts such as telling fantastic tales that assign meaning to experience, prophesying, or naming realities by new names (Gates 8-9). This figure may well be an African parallel to the Lilith figure whose early place in biblical texts bespeaks her ancient origin in oral tradition. The stories of this figure who speaks the unspeakable, demands the forbidden, and expects the impossible may have entered African lore very early as it did Hebrew lore. The commentaries, which state that Lilith flees from God and Adam (the white men) over the Red Sea to the safety (black) Africa, suggest the African connection with Lilith.

The Lilith narrative has provoked entirely different responses from its male and female tellers. The Hebrew Bible and the Talmud mention Lilith obliquely; Isaiah 34:14 refers to a screech owl, which is associated with her in legend narratives, through its deviation from the name of a Babylonian female demon. Lilith, however, is prominent in the Midrash exegesis, which are postbiblical collections of folklore, fables, and commentary on the Hebrew Bible by rabbinical sources, and in the Kabbala, which is a collection of Jewish mysticism and esoteric interpretations of biblical and talmudic texts. Lewis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews and Raphael Patai's Gates to the Old City: A Book of Jewish Legends offer English translations of several Lilith stories from the Kabbala and Midrash. Lilith also figures prominently in Eastern European Jewish folk tales, as Nehama Aschkenasy notes in Eve's Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition. The many variants of the narrative have several common elements. Lilith is the first wife of Adam, created from the dust at the same time as he. As his equal, she is outspoken, aggressive, and sexually assertive, preferring the female superior position during sexual intercourse. When Adam tries to force her to lie under him, she refuses and screams the ineffable name of God, a powerful taboo for pious Jews. Lilith turns into a screech owl and flies away over the Red Sea to Africa. Adam sends three angels to order her to return, with the threat that if she does not, they will destroy one hundred of her demon children. Apparently by this time, Lilith already has had relations with various demons, especially Satan. Lilith refuses to return and thus becomes associated with the death of children. God and Adam agree to allow her to live, and God promises to create a more docile mate for Adam. In the medieval Kabbalist commentaries, she is said to want to kill human children as revenge, so the Kabbala includes bedtime prayers to ward off the Liliths who afflict children, as well as prayers for husbands who are copulating with their wives to prevent Lilith from attempting to take their place (Patai 463, 467). The trend in these stories that were retold over centuries, as Nehama Aschkenasy points out, is that Lilith becomes less human in form and more destructive in temperament (50; 58-73).

As H.K. Hays and Dorothy Dinnerstein have shown, the female as demon has a long lineage in western culture. Her appearance in Renaissance literature is heralded in Michelangelo's visual allusion to her on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The painting of "The Fall of Adam and Eve" depicts the serpent as a beautiful, golden-haired female. This portrait of the arch tempter as an alluring female is also found in John Milton's Paradise Lost, where he portrays Sin as the female consort of Satan. Together with her son, Death, Sin is both Satan's mate and daughter. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, the Lilith figure begins to be used ubiquitously and more sympathetically in literature and painting. Goethe's Faust introduces Lilith as a participant in the Walpurgis Night scenes, where he emphasizes her long, alluring hair.

This reference, noted in 1831 by Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (37) influenced Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting, "Lady Lilith" in 1864 in which she appears with long, golden hair in pre-Raphaelite arrangement, a weary belle dame who holds a narcissistic mirror in her hand.2 Rossetti's accompanying poem, "Body's Beauty," laments that existing "ere the snake" Lilith's "sweet tongue could deceive"(134). For Rossetti, Lilith's voice was an instrument of seduction, yet he deemphasized her demonic qualities. Swinburne's Dolores (1866) alludes to Lilith as the queen of pain and delight. Robert Browning, in contrast, is somewhat approving of her in his poem, "Adam, Lilith, and Eve," published first in 1883 (421-422). In this poem, under a threat of death, Lilith confesses that she loved Adam but did not tell him, and Eve says she did not love Adam but had only said she did in order to marry. Adam foolishly chooses not to believe them. In this version none of Lilith's negative traits is manifested other than a motiveless duplicity. Even though Eve's lie is certainly as perverse as Lilith's, she is not faulted. What is more, both Eve and Lilith are paired and behave in a complicitous, friendly way toward each other.

In the 1890s, fin de siècle writers championed Lilith's rebellious and sensual nature. George MacDonald's fantasy novella, Lilith (1895), which critic William Raeper holds to be among MacDonald's best work, makes an explicit connection between Lilith as a demon and vampire. In this novel, Lilith rebels against human laws, rules an evil city, and regularly drinks the blood of the naive narrator. MacDonald probably draws on Rossetti's painting, for he emphasizes her long, seductive hair and uses Lilith's mirror as a gateway to other dimensions. Although destructive, Lilith has produced a daughter whom she loves so much that she finally sacrifices herself for her daughter's sake. Thus, she undergoes a Victorian religious transformation, as it were, and seeks salvation. She also makes an appearance in the inept but interesting play by Remy de Gourmont called Lilith (1892). In this play, Lilith is a consort of Satan. The play emphasizes the erotic components of this liaison; both are sexually insatiable. As a result, Lilith and Satan seek out Adam and Eve and succeed in a mutual seduction. Thus Gourmont elaborates Eve's sexuality as well as Lilith's. Fellow Frenchman Anatole France, in a short story called "The Daughter of Lilith," also emphasizes the envy and despair of Lilith, a "Pre-Adamite" who had escaped the curse of Eve, that is, death. "Exempt from" death and having no soul to be saved, Lilith becomes incapable of virtue or vice (191).

The twentieth century has also seen several Liliths in literature and painting by men. Amiri Baraka uses the image of Lilith in Dutchman (1960), as Maurice O'Sullivan has observed (4). In this play, the name of the destructive demon-woman Lula indicates Baraka's conscious awareness of the Lilith myth. She is used in the play as an emblem of black anger that white America has "preyed" upon the best of black men. Baraka's use of the Lilith archetype is essentially traditional and patriarchal, since she functions as an evil, man-seducing demon. Similarly, J. R. Salamanca's novel, Lilith (1962), places her in a mental hospital, a schizophrenic who seduces, then causes the increasing madness of the naive male narrator. Even as recently as 1990, paintings by Anselm Kiefer emphasize the destructive, chaotic elements of the Lilith narrative. As The New York Times critic John Russell asserts, in one of Kiefer's paintings "Lilith is seen to have given birth to military aircraft as part of her demonic activity" (25).


When we turn to the accounts of Lilith created by American women writers, however, an entirely different set of values emerges. An impor tant account of her by a woman author occurs in Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth's novel, Lilith: A Sequel to "The Unloved Wife" (1891). In this novel, Lilith is the seventeen-year-old bride of Tudor Hereward, a Congressman from West Virginia. Southworth presents Lilith as a paragon of Victorian virtues; her grace, meekness, and moral standards are beyond reproach. Nonetheless, she has beautiful long, lustrous hair, and she is associated in an early scene with her image in a mirror. The only character who does not realize instantly that this Lilith is a true Victorian angel of the house is her husband, who in a fit of completely mistaken jealousy, accuses her of "unspeakable . . . incomprehensible evil," and tells her she has "desecrated his patrimonial home" by her presence (63) . He thus assumes Lilith to be as evil as her namesake, and she becomes an outcast. The conventions of this post-bellum novel assert themselves at this point, and all future acquaintances admire her, take her in, befriend her, and give her vast sums of money. One of them, in fact, is Tudor's previous amour, Lena, who hears of the "death" of Tudor's wife and happily assumes that she will become his second wife. Bigamy is avoided by Lilith's anguished confession to Lena that she herself is Tudor's first wife. Far from envying one another, both women join in splendid dudgeon at the "arrogant recklessness and precipitation" of Tudor (193). Southworth, no feminist on the surface, nonetheless places the blame for Lilith's problems squarely at the feet of Tudor, the Adamic patriarch. At the novel's conclusion he and Lilith are joyfully reunited, and Southworth consoles Lena with a Florentine prince. Southworth incorporates these plot elements from the Lilith archetype, yet ingeniously reverses its inner moral condition. Here, it is Lilith's husband who is destructive. As he finally apologizes, "I do retract all the cruel charges that Satan and false shows ever goaded me to make. I believe you to be as pure in heart and life as any angel that stands before the throne" (294). This implicit reinterpretation of the Lilith legend that Southworth asserts begins a reassessment of Genesis from a female perspective which informs the next century.

Alice Walker and Toni Morrison depict Lilith as a woman who becomes a pariah because of her assertion of preference in her sexual expression, her desire for independence from men, and her attempts to define herself. Both writers emphasize that when the human community is cut off from Lilith, men are free to tyrannize women, women remain submissive, and sexual autonomy for women is forbidden. The energy, passion, and strength of women thus become unavailable to the human community, which is left with a compliant, unhappy Eve figure.

The connection between Lilith and Eve results from the double and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, which John A. Phillips and Christine Froula have described in their works. In Genesis 1:27, the creation of an equal male and female occurs simultaneously: "male and female he created them." In the second creation story in Genesis 2:15-25, however, Eve is created form Adam's rib, an act that has come to signify Eve's subordination to Adam. In this version Eve is obedient for a time until tempted by the snake when she exhibits an innately rebellious nature and a desire to be the equal of God. Thus Eve shares some of the traits of Lilith. The contrasts in the two versions are of interest: Lilith assumes that she is equal to man while Eve knows she is not created as Adam's equal. Eve's tempter is externalized by the male snake who contributes to her fate, while Lilith's nature in itself is the cause of her fate. Lilith is sexual in her prefallen state whereas Eve has no knowledge of sex. A modern reading of Eve's fortunate fall could be that her courage brings knowledge of all types, including sexual knowledge, and this circumstance results from the intercession of an entity who urges her to assert her right to equality. This entity, a demon-serpent, is most represented in Hebrew folklore, although not in Genesis, by a female demon, Lilith.

It is the first Eden creation story, with the characters of Eve, Adam and Lilith, that is retold in Sula as well as The Color Purple. In these novels, the two Eve figures are Nel and Celie, both victims of the patriarchal culture in which they live. The two Lilith figures are Sula and Shug; they are sexual, flamboyant in appearance, matriarchal, associated with evil, and tend, as many characters in the novels report, to behave like men.

Nel in Sula and Celie in The Color Purple are cowed and victimized by the conventions of patriarchy. Nel as a girl was so eager to fit the convention of what a pretty girl should look like that she wore a clothespin on her nose until she met Sula. As the narrator says, "Except for an occasional leadership role with Sula, she had no aggression; her parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had" (83). In the opening of The Color Purple Celie's life is far worse then Nel's. Celie is raped by the man she has always thought to be her father. He gives away the two children they conceived and then trades her in marriage to Albert, who marries her because he needs a cook and housekeeper. Albert shows his gratitude by beating her. Celie has been passed from father to husband like a piece of property; she is the epitome of the woman disenfranchised by society in which males are defined as superior to women. As in Genesis, Celie's father gives her to Albert much as God gave Eve to Adam.

Both Nel and Celie might live out their lives as subordinate and unhappy victims, were it not for the entry of two flamboyant, rebellious, and ultimately inspirational women, Sula and Shug. Both characters possess a number of the traditional traits of Lilith. As Barbara Hill Rigney points out, Sula comes of a matriarchy of generations of strong women who considered men to be mere amusements. Sula was born with a birthmark in the shape of a rose over one eye, a mark of Cain perhaps. (One account of Lilith establishes her as the consort of Cain [Patai 457].) At age twelve, she, along with Nel, entices a child to climb a tree, a tree of life and death indeed, for the little boy slips into the river below and drowns. While Sula is not actually his murderer on a literal level, for she did not intend that he should slip, she becomes associated with the death of a child and the fall of manin this case, the fall of a boy. Because the event occurs when the girls are twelve, Rigney asserts that it symbolizes a ritual bond between Nel and Sula, a rite of passage into adulthood, formalized by the sacrifice of a male child (63).

Sula's return to the town after an absence of ten years brings good changes both to Nel and to the Bottom, the section of town where African Americans live. Sula returns dressed in the seductive ornamentation associated with Lilithshe wears a black dress, fox tails, and a black hat with a veil over one eye. When she renews her friendship with Nel, Nel realizes that Sula "made her laugh . . . made me see old things with new eyes; in her presence she felt clever, gentle and a little raunchy" (95). Sula proceeds to bed all the husbands in the town of Medallion. She lives alone and doesn't want children or a husband. These traits seem bizarre to the townspeople; speaking together as if they were one character, they charge that Sula is "guilty of the unforgivable thing . . . the route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away. They said that Sula slept with white men" (112). Like Lilith, Sula is thought to be capable not only of sin, but of sin that God will not forgive. The town calls her a devil (117), an evil one, and says that her birthmark is not a rose at all but a snake (113). As a result the townsfolk place broomsticks across their doors at night and sprinkle salt on the steps to counteract her supposed evil. If Sula is fallen, as far as they are concerned, it is a fortunate fall. With evil present and palpable, the townspeople begin to "cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes . . . to protect and love one another" (117).

In the same way, Shug in The Color Purple becomes a catalyst of the good; she resembles Sula in appearance, personality, and meaning. She too dresses flamboyantly, again in black and sequined dresses like the glittering scales of a snake; in fact, when we first meet her, she is carrying a snakeskin bag and wearing snakeskin shoes (50). Shug is a nocturnal creature in that she sings at night. When Celie is forced to nurse Shug through a long illness, Shug takes on the educationperhaps we should call it the temptationof Celie thereby empowering her away from the degradations and restrictions of patriarchy. Shug instructs her regarding the anatomical facts of women's sexual pleasure, holding up a Lilithian mirror, so Celie can see her genitals. Shug demands that Albert stop beating Celie, and Shug reconnects Celie with her sister Nettie by discovering that Albert has hidden Nettie's letters. Shug's final rebellion against Albert's miniature patriarchy occurs when she makes love to Celie. Celie says of Shug, "she . . . evil . . . and that keep her alive" (51), and Shug says of herself, "I is a sinner. . . .Cause I was born" (176). But in spite of her apparent belief in original sin, Shug also believes that God wants her to have a good time and be happy. Like Sula, Shug is highly sexual, but she conducts her sex life according to the rules of her own desires, not those of her community. Shug's role in the story is succinctly defined by her real name, Lillie, a name quite close to Lilith.

It is clear that Sula and Shug help the Eve figures Nel and Celie change for the better, but the Lilith characters are also changed by their friendship with the domestic Eves. As Celie gets angry with Albert for the first time in her life, begins to wear pants, and then becomes an artist by sewing pants, Shug changes as well. She regrets hurting Annie, Albert's first wife. Shug begins to help other people by nurturing their creativity. For example, she helps Squeak/Mary Agnes become a singer, and she provides a home for Celie and encourages her to make beautiful clothing. Shug eventually becomes a sort of priestess-philosopher. She says, "Here's the thing . . . the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it find it inside" (177).

While Walker's novel is somewhat flawed by Shug's rapid transformation from a wild-living woman to philosopher, Morrison's Sula changes more slowly and convincingly. In fact, she becomes more like Nel: she begins to love one of her men possessively, a man who doesn't "baby or protect her," and who likes her to be on top during sex (128)in short, one who is not a patriarchal man, like Adam, the biblical patriarch. Here Sula's actions are remniniscent of the Lilith myth, both in her assumption of equality with her partner and her choice of position. When Sula begins to clean her kitchen and put a green ribbon in her hair, Ajax smells "the scent of nest" and takes off (133). Nel reproaches Sula for her behavior by saying, "You can't act like a man" (142), but she is wrong. Had Sula remained "like a man," she could possibly have kept her relationship.

Nel and Sula often state that they feel like two parts of the same self. In this way Morrison acknowledges that the domestic Eve and the rebellious Lilith are necessary aspects of one personality. When Sula dies, she reaffirms her bond with Nel: "[I]t didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel" (149). In the conclusions of both novels, the Eves and Liliths have come to possess parts of each other. Both Sula and Shug are calm and at peace. And Celie is making her way in life, surrounded by good work, warm friends, and her children and sister restored to her after thirty years. Of the four main characters, Nel is the most sad. She has lost her husband and her best friend; of these two, she misses Sula more because she has learned to be dependent on her. Without Sula she doesn't feel assertive and whole. Nel and Sula are truly a Janus-like, fused entity dependent on each other's presence. However, Celie and Shug in The Color Purple evolve as two independent, entire people who learn from each other but function independently as well.

The Lilith figure has become available to women writers as a signifier of the "bold new mode of a self-defined . . . notion of tradition" (Gates 168). When Shug tells Celie she needs to "git man off your eyeball . . . tell him to git lost, . . . conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock (179)," she is asking oppressed women to see beyond patriarchal constructs, to return indeed to the original relationship of woman and nature.

Both Toni Morrison and Alice Walker refer to this ancient myth as a corrective to stereotypical images of African American women as the domestic victims of men or as sensual libertines. Both Morrison and Walker show that neither stereotype leads to harmony, autonomy, and peace. Both do so by echoing the myth of Lilith to assert that society must reclaim its Liliths, the Outcasts, so that African-American women, indeed, all women, can realize their strength, and put their energy and passion to good use.


1 I am grateful to Dr. Moshe Pelli, Director of Judaic States at the University of Central Florida, for suggestions regarding sources of the Lilith legend.

2 Rossetti's painting, "Lady Lilith," appears facing p. 134, which features the poem "Body's Beauty," in The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Boston: Little, Brown, 1904).


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