Book excerpt: Adam’s first wife wasn’t Eve, but Lilith. Here’s why they broke up
In Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet, author-scholar Mineke Schipper looks at the oral traditions behind gender stereotypes. In this excerpt from the book’s prologue, she discusses how men and women have been represented in various creation myths across cultures.
If we look back at how it all began, we find that, worldwide, sex and gender issues have been expressed in oral traditions such as myths and origin stories, fairytales, animal fables, love poems or cradle songs and proverbs. Such oral ‘wisdom’, transmitted from generation to generation, represents a fascinating cultural history. Proverbs, the world’s smallest literary genre, are a most telling part of that serial narrative about humankind. They are our main topic here, but a first brief look into how men and women came into being, as presented in creation myths is an illuminating point of entry.
The old wisdom that men and women are moulded from the same clay must have inspired the story about Adam’s first wife, created by God from the same dust as Adam. Her name was not Eve, but Lilith. Their having been created on an equal footing had terrible consequences, because Lilith wanted to have sex on top, and she insisted on her right to do so. According to some variants, Adam refused this, divorced her and sent her away, but in other versions she was the one who abandoned him. She pronounced the name of God, flew up out of Paradise into the air, and went off to the Red Sea. God sent angels to capture her and bring her back to Adam, threatening that if she didn’t come along, she would lose a hundred of her demon children daily, but she preferred even that to returning to Adam. Ever since, she has taken her revenge on Eve (her rival) by strangling babies, and swallowing the sperm of men who sleep alone at night.
Apparently, being on top during sexual intercourse is an enviable position of power. In Tanzania I recently attended a discussion about who was entitled to have the couple’s children after divorce, the husband or the wife. Most men insisted that it ought to be the husband, and one of their half-joking arguments was that ‘it is the man who is physically on top when the children are being made.’ The main conclusion of the Lilith story is that equality between men and women is not such a good idea.
Eve has inspired other origin stories, first in Jewish culture, but also in the Arab world, Africa and Europe. Some variants doubt Eve’s originating from Adam’s rib because of an incident that preceded her creation. Here is a version of that story I heard from a Sudanese refugee in Congo a number of years ago:
God sends the archangel Gabriel from heaven down to the earth to take the rib from sleeping Adam’s body. Flying back to heaven, Gabriel meets the Devil on his way. The Devil says: ‘Hi, Gabriel, how are you?’ Gabriel answers politely and hurries on to heaven. The Devil has not failed to notice the curious object in Gabriel’s hand: he gets closer and flies along with the archangel. ‘What’s that?’ he asks curiously. ‘None of your business,’ replies Gabriel curtly. The Devil insists, but the archangel keeps quiet. Then, with a sudden move, the Devil snatches the rib from Gabriel who immediately goes after the Devil. The Devil escapes from Gabriel’s grip and makes off as quickly as he can, but Gabriel does not want to return to God empty-handed, and resolutely holds onto his enemy. For a long time, they fly and wrestle, wrestle and fly, before the Devil succeeds in struggling free. On they fly, silently, one after the other. The Devil tries to give Gabriel the slip, but the archangel is determined not to let go. Finally, Gabriel catches up and succeeds in grabbing the Devil’s tail. Of course the Devil tries his best to struggle free again, but Gabriel holds no less firmly on, until, all of a sudden, the Devil’s tail breaks off. Since the archangel did not succeed in getting Adam’s rib back, it is this part of the Devil’s body he brought to God in heaven, and this is what the first woman has been made of …
Women have always visibly (pro-) created with their bodies, whereas, in the remote past, men may not have been so sure whether they contributed at all to this miracle of pregnancy and birth. In creation myths, strangely enough, women’s role in procreation has sometimes conspicuously been ignored. The creation of Adam and Eve in the Bible is a case in point: Eve originates from Adam’s body, not the other way round.
In many a myth, women’s involvement in birth is denied, and a male god or first ancestor is the potter, sculptor, or artisan fabricating human creatures. He shapes the human race with his own hands from mud or dust or gives birth to them in one way or another. The Egyptian God Atum, for example, vomits twins, or, in another variant, produces them by masturbating. An oral narrative from the Congolese Kuba people tells of how, in the beginning, God has a sick stomach. He feels so ill that his whole body aches and he begins to throw up. He creates everything from his insides, by vomiting all the plants, trees, animals, and human beings, one after the other onto the earth. In a Fang myth from Gabon, the mystery of human origin is explained by having the first woman come out of the first man’s toe or by having her manually created from a piece of wood by the first man. We do not know why such self-sufficient creators have been thought up: was it a ‘natural drive to compensate intellectually for what women produced physically?’
More down-to-earth than myths, proverbs wholeheartedly acknowledge procreation as an indispensable female quality, and motherhood as a crucial domain of life: ‘It is the woman who bears the man’, a Twi proverb from Ghana observes. Being able to give birth is apparently considered so unique that numerous proverbs express not only respect but also fear vis-à-vis this awesome creativity.
Myths are a powerful genre and the dogmas and statements they have given birth to are not supposed to be questioned by believers. Myths confirm and explain how ‘man’ created order out of chaos, and how, by means of culture, he succeeded in imposing his own will on nature. In oral traditions, women have often been associated with the uncontrollability of nature. There are many myths about how, in the beginning, women were in charge and men felt forced to rob them of their secrets, justifying the right to do so by arguing that the women were the ones who ‘had everything’. Having ‘everything’ meant being able to give birth, and have a clitoris (interpreted as having a small penis) as well as a vagina.
The story of Genesis and numerous other passages from the Bible have often been interpreted by Christian theology as a confirmation of the superiority of men over women. After Jesus’ death, the equality of women to men was already questioned by the apostle Paul who insisted that ‘man’ is the head of ‘woman’, a view eagerly taken up later by church fathers. This wishful belief gradually became more influential than Jesus’ own words, and has been echoed in many proverbs. The same holds for the interpretation of the Koran by later ulamas or Muslim interpreters, and it seems to be no less true for orthodox views on Hindu women derived from old religious Sanskrit texts. As for Buddhism, women’s position was upgraded in Buddha’s time, however since his death there has been a regression due to forces hostile to women. The policy of creation stories and proverbs about women is one of trying to find a ‘balance’ between the domain of birth and the other domains of life—possibly the same ‘balance’ strived for in men’s monopolizing of world religions.
Proverbs refer to stories, and stories to proverbs. Thus, womankind is rather reprovingly referred to as ‘Eve’ in Hebrew and European proverbs. The Genesis story from the Bible is regularly referred to in proverbs, for example in Russian: ‘We should not expect anything good from our rib’, or in Romanian: ‘Even the best of women still has a devil’s rib in her’. Even though, unlike Lilith, Eve was not created from the same clay, she still took undesirable initiatives instead of being humble and obedient. Here is a Russian proverbial example of her opinionatedness: ‘”I go by myself ”, Eve said, and with her elbow she pushed away the one showing her out of heaven’. In some proverbs originating from Europe, the ideal wife is compared to the Biblical Virgin Mary, who is presented as modest and submissive. Proverbs stress that such an ideal dream wife is extremely rare: ‘Not everyone has a wife like Maria, but him whom God gave’. Of course, Eve is presented as the antipode of Mary.
In other parts of the world there are also proverbial references to goddesses from myths and stories, such as the Sumerian grain goddess Ezinu-Kusu: ‘[As] a plant sweeter than a husband, a plant sweeter than a mother, may Ezinu-Kusu live with you in the house’; or the popular Chinese goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin: ‘Young, she’s a Kuan Yin; old, she’s a monkey’.
The legacy of oral traditions is a moral one: it teaches people what to do or what to think in a given situation. They formulate some part of common sense, values and ways of doing. Endowed with authority, proverbs, like other prestigious oral and written texts, present how things ought to be from certain perspectives. Such authoritative views have contributed to molding people’s roles and identities, and continue to have an impact in many ways. Although we hardly ever know whether the original creator of a particular proverb was male or female, we can consider the interests at stake. What these interests are and how they are expressed in particular cultures rhetorically and thematically are questions to be borne in mind when looking into proverbs about women, which is what this book is about.
– Excerpted with permission from Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs From Around the World, Mineke Schipper, Speaking Tiger, 2017.
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