When we conjure witches to mind, we are filled with eerie discomfort.
You might envision a bleak Puritan landscape where rows of young women dressed in black sprout smug sneers as they hail curses at trembling villagers. Or maybe you see a musty cabin in a medieval forest, a hideous hag peering out through the shutters and gazing at you with a malevolent twinkle in her eye. Although to our oversaturated 21st century brains the witch is no more frightening than any other ghost or ghoul, deep down she persists as one of the most terrifying, and one of the most ancient, feminine archetypes. But the witch—the demon-woman—has a surprising and revealing history.
One of the oldest and most fascinating such archetypes comes from ancient Jewish and Babylonian mythology. The witch Lilith was considered one of the most haunting mythological figures at the time, but her story certainly did not start out that way. As the first wife of Adam, Lilith began her life as God’s own creation, made out of the same dirt and at the same time as her partner. But right away the match was not meant to be. As a man, obviously the very first thing on Adam’s mind upon his birth was to lay Lilith—literally—with her beneath him. But Lilith would not have it, insisting that if they were to do the deed she would not be below him because “we are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” After a long argument it was clear this was no heaven-made match, and Adam complained to God that the woman he’d made for him was not accepting her subordination. That was about all Lilith could take, and in a flash she shrieked out God’s secret name (that only she knew) and with classic witchy flair “flew away into the air.” The men, of course, were displeased, now with no woman to lay with, and God declared that he’d curse her if she didn’t return. But Lilith preferred the curse to a life of inferiority, and became the infamous baby-eater, a devourer who lived in the wild and was feared by all.
In her Sumerian incarnation, Lilith underwent a similar transformation. She was originally the “hand” of the goddess and sky-queen Inanna, and displayed her own genuine authority. She was also known as an empowered seductress who celebrated her own sexuality. But in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Lilith now appears as a witch invading Inanna’s precious Huluppu tree, and Inanna herself somehow cannot expel her. Only Gilgamesh (the great man warrior, the bringer of patriarchal dominion) can exorcise her from the tree, and she flees into the wilderness, screeching like an owl.
Both these stories are not only witch tales, but widely accepted as mythologies of patriarchy (which many believe was settling in at this time period). They show that maleness was valued over femaleness, but moreover femaleness was actively maligned in order to successfully establish the patriarchal paradigm. It is not surprising, therefore, that in both these stories Lilith transforms from woman of great power and authority to a animalistic demoness, and the men must drive her out like an infection. Essentially, Lilith became a witch because she refused to become a victim to patriarchy.
And indeed, Lilith never really lost her power, instead it corrupted with her into something nefarious. The same is true for all the witches that have appeared through the centuries. They remain, at their core, women with powerful abilities, genuine self-esteem, and a will to remain independent. But patriarchy insists there cannot be such a thing as a good woman with these attributes. Even through the 18th century, men were not only considered smarter and more even-tempered than women, but it was generally believed that women did not even possess the capacity to think critically at all, and were instead ruled by a hysteria devoid of reason. As men worked in the realms of science, technology, and progress, women were eternally ensnared by the dark forces of the earth: the moon, tides, and women’s own bleeding bodies.
Naturally, a woman who insisted on retaining some authority was debased into a master of these dark forces, reveling in her own hysteria and over-emotionality. That’s why witches are women of the earth, drawing their craft from herbs and animal parts, channeling power often through their eyes and mouths and hands. Witches worship the moon and the sea and the darkness because it is “theirs”, and patriarchy tells us good people should lean toward the light of maleness.
But even though patriarchy keeps sending the witch away, she always manages to come back. She hovers around us, noticing us, seeing through us, remembering how we have wronged her. She steals our babies and haunts us and eats us because, to the patriarchy, the idea of a powerful woman is simply that scary.
So this Halloween, if you happen to be dressing up as a witch, think about her real power. Wear the hat and the dark clothes and have a broom, but keep in mind the real reason witches are so damn terrifying. Thrive on your sexual force. Trust in your natural and incorruptible power. Be like Lilith, the first witch, and first badass feminist.
“Lilith.” New World Encyclopoedia, 23 July 2018, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lilith#Greek_Mythology.
Sauter, Megan. “Lilith in the Bible and Mythology.” Biblical Archaeology Society, 10 Mar. 2017, www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/lilith-in-the-bible-and-mythology/.
“The Story of Lilith.” Translated by Norman Bronznick, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, jewishchristianlit.com/Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html.