Isis, Lilith, Gello: Three Ladies of Darkness

Alejandro Arturo Gonzalez Terriza

Lilith

The aim of this paper is to take a look into the darkness: a darkness, as we'll see at the end, probably biased, which wraps the apparent firmness and transparency of some religious concepts about authority, and from which we'd like to retrieve three almost clandestine stories; or maybe, as we'll propose, three versions or stages of the same story. As the title goes: Isis, Lilith, Gello are the names of three women of very similar background, which oppose the divine Law, and make firm against it a will and a magical power of their own.
In a famous passage from Psalms (90: 5-6), the Bible talks about "that which moves in the darkness", negotium perambulans in tenebris. Certainly, any God creature feels that out of reach from divine light, from the Light which emanate from the Creator, and that (according to some theologies) is His very nature, there move and act some things: some shape-shifting and name-shifting creatures, which have been used to frighten man, but which have also expressed his eagerness for freedom and independence from the authoritarian and vigilant god.
Opposing to the autonomic, fatherly and fighting God, the image of a most beautiful woman, goddess of lust and magic, of the power words which submit and force the very power of God. Amongst the exiles from Heaven, she's the one, which most persistently has passed through the darkness, getting near to human ear (and bed); and, though hidden or censored, her memory remains in our mythical heritage.
In Hebrew mythology, the name this Goddess receives is that of Lilith (related by Creuzer 1841: II, 524-5 with Greek Eileíthyia, Ilithya, the birth goddess), first Adam wife, pursuer of children who have not been circumcised yet, and seductress of men which sleep with no women and/or with no moral principles. Excluded from Genesis, the tales about Lilith have survived to us mainly in late sources: e.g. midrash compiled in the XIIth century (Numbers Rabba) or even kabbalistic comments on Pentateuch compiled in the XVIIth century (Yalqut Reubeni).
Nevertheless, those who hasten to say, perhaps in consideration of monotheistic dogma, that Lilith is a folk, almost decadent, late creation, should remember that her name already appears in the second millenium before Christ. As it's known, it is in a Sumerian tablet, which is part of the Gilgamesh cycle: the story of Gilgamesh and the willow. There, Lilith appears as one of the evil spirits which squatter the tree of the love goddess, Inanna, and which the hero must eject. It's also a star actress, of first rate, in the corpus of Babylonian spells: there, Lilitu appears as a lust demons. The incurable patients, which get wasted with no remedy, are called in these spells the bridegrooms of Lilitu, and they recall to us the victims of vampyrism, which, under the stress of her parasitic kisses, languish slowly, until they join their lover in the bosom of death.
This Babylonian Lilith goes soon to the Hebrews, which made her their own enthusiastically: in fact, she appears in the Bible. Not in Genesis, but in just one passage of prophetic literature: inside Isaiah visions of Edom (Is. 34, 14), country punished by God, Lilith appears as one of the many evil demons which take their place in the desert countryside cursed by God: there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest.
As may be seen, the passage is parallel (not to say: it follows closely) the alluded description in Sumerian tablet: "In its midst (of the Inanna tree) the maid Lilith built her house". In both cases, Lilith is a nefarious squatter; and, in spite of the chronological distance (Isaiah text is roughly contemporary of Homer, VIIIth century before Christ), both verses seems to belong to poetical traditions very close in their formulae.
Having established the noble background of Lilith, let'slet's stop to consider the tale of her stay in Paradise, as it's preserved in late: According to one of the versions of Creation, in the Sixth Day God made Adam, but Eve did not yet exist. God made Adam, and then set him to name every animal, and when they passed before him in pairs, male and female, he felt jealous of their loves, and tried to get satisfaction himself, coupling with each female creature (interesting passage which, in some way, gives reason to the birth of those fantastical creatures which Borges was fond of: hybrid with human torso, but ass or horse or goat legs). Such experience, anyway, didn't satisfy him; and so he went to the Creator, claiming: Every creature but I has a proper mate!». God heard Adam's claim, and formed then Lilith, the first woman, following the procedure already tested with the first man: but, instead of pure dust, he used this time sediment and filth.
Adam and Lilith were not a happy couple. When he wished to lie with her, Lilith alleged that the recumbent position he wanted was denigrating to her. Why must I lay beneath you?» -she asked-, I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal». As Adam tried to force her, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magical name of God, rose into the air and left him. (Theatrical and magnificent fleeing which recalls the end of Euripides' Medea).
Adam complained to God: "I have been deserted by my helpmeet". God made at once a command, formed by angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangeloph, and sent them with the order of bringing Lilith back. The angels toured the orb, and found her at last beside the Red Sea, a region plentiful of lascivious demons: Lilith matched them happily, and gave birth to lilim (children made in her image) at a more than hundred per day ratio. Come back to Adam without delay» - the angels told her- or else we'll drown you!». Lilith asked: How can I come back to Adam and live like an honest housewife after my stay beside the Red Sea». You'll die if you refuse!», replied they. And how can I die» -asked Lilith again- when God has ordered me to take charge of every newborn children: boys up to the eight day, that of circumcision, and girls up to the twentieth day? None the less, if I ever see your names or likeness displayed in an amulet above a newborn child, I promise to spare it».
Undoubtedly surprised with this agreement with God, which they knew not, he angels agreed with Lilith's conditions and, without achieving their mission, came back to Empireum. As the only reprisal, to please the unsatisfied Adam, God punished Lilith by making one hundred of her demon children perish daily; and it's said that, if she could not destroy a human infant, because
of the angelic amulet, she would spitefully turn against her.
Lilith story is specially appealing, as it's something like "the Black Book of Genesis", the true story of what happened to first man and woman at the beginning of time. While Eve admits that she's inferior to man and submit her fate to him, Lilith considers herself superior, and distances herself from his authority, fleeing from Paradise, and getting so free also of the terrible curse of Fall. While Adams gets mortal and perish, Lilith remains inmortal for ever; and, unlike Eve, which obeys the double male authority of her husband and her Father, and which has been made secondarily from male flesh, Lilith, which is as ancient (or more) than Adam, refuses to accept machismo (or phalocratism, as they say in Greek) in any way: not only the missionary position that her husband applies for, but even the commands of God through his angels. In spite of the boasts of these, she stands still, and, though with statutory restraints, keeps on with her temptation job. Anyway, leaving aside the feminine and even feminist value of this indomitable woman, the most fascinating trait of this story is, as far as I can see, just what it doesn't say: the secret that allows Lilith flee from Paradise and, later on, to even disobey the divine commands. The question is: how did Lilith know the hidden name of God, that name which God didn't want to reveal to Moses, shielding himself with paraphrases (Ex. 3, 14), and which is so important in Kabbalah: the name of infinite power which was written in Solomon's Seal, according to the Talmud, and which gave him power above all the demons? Isis Nothing in Hebrew texts lets guess the answer to this question: and so it seems to me that we must move some centuries back, to move some pages back, in the great Book of Stories which is Comparative Mythology, to find the answer to this question: how did the magician Goddess, the one who moves through the darkness, manage to get the Great God name, and gain so power and independence from Him? And that kind of story is the one that provides us a curious Egyptian text: a hieratic papyrus from the period of Ramses III (c. 1200 B.C). It's the text know as The secret name of Ra: The text is also usually titled as The legend of Ra and Isis, but its Egyptian name, long and euphonic, is the one that you can read: "Formula of the divine God, the being that creates himself, who made heaven and earth, and the breath of life, the fire, the Gods, the men, the beasts, the cattle, the serpents, the birds, the fishes. The king of men and gods at equal, that the eternal cycles
(he has them) for years, the one with many names, so that he is
not known: the gods don't know him".
In this text Ra, the supreme god, is a venerable god, the Lord of the Universe: and he extends his authority above all beings created by him just by the power of his name, that even gods ignore. But he's also a venerable old man: as the Egyptian text says, not without humor: The divine being (Ra) had gone old, he wrinkled his mouth, threw his spittle over the earth, and his spittle fell down on earth. As for Isis, she was a woman versed in words, a powerful magician which preferred the company of gods to that of humans. Isis retrieves the decadent spittle of Ra, which soaks the earth, and, taking dust in her hand, she makes with it a magical serpent, which she puts on the route that Ra (the Sun God) makes every day and every night, from dawn to sunset, and from sunset to dawn. When he passed through that way, the serpent bites him, and, receiving the serpent bite, the god is victims of the most terrible anxiety: his limbs shake, the flame of life flees from them, and the inoculated poison makes him sweat copiously. The gods asked Ra which is it, what has happened, and he says he finds no words to answer about it: A deadly thing has bitten me. My hearts knows it, but my eyes haven't seen it. My hand has made it not. I never felt such a pain. There is no pain greater than this, (nor I know) who has made this to me. ...It isn't fire, it isn't water, but I'm colder than water, hotter than fire. In that time of sorrow for Ra, most opportune (and whistling, we are tempted
to say), came Isis with her power, with her breath of life and her magical
formulae, which drive away the illness, her words that make live again the
throats of those who languish. And she said: "What is it, oh my divine
father? What's up? A serpent has inoculated the sickness in you. One of your
creatures has raised its head against you. I'll knock it down with my
efficient spells.
In return, of course, Isis demands to know His Name. Ra tries in vain to
resist: the poison doesn't leave its way, and Ra's heart is about to leave
him. At the very doors of death, he gives up: "I do consent to be
investigated by Isis, and that my name passes from my body to her body". In
a extreme of cunning, worthy of the worst femme fatale, Isis takes advantage
of the situation and manages that Ra promise to give his two eyes to her son
Horus; and only after taking away from him his two greatest treasures (his
name and his eyes), she recites then her spell and save the God Father of
everything from death. "Certainly, the great god has got his name taken away. Ra lives, the poison
dies, and vice-versa. A man son of woman lives and the poison dies". This is
what Isis said, the Great, Lady of the Gods, who knows Ra by his own name.
The remarkable thing of the text is its practical, magical and ritual,
nature: just as Ra gets cured by Isis, so any man bitten by a serpent will
get healed after this text has been recited. The text is itself a magical
formula of proven effectiveness. To be absolutely satisfactory, the spell
must be recited over the images of the protagonist gods: Isis, Tum (the
evening sun, which is the old Ra) and Horus.
Let's pick up the epithet: "She who knows God by his name". Isis... and also
Lilith. Taking the Lilith story from this approach, we understand better the
nature of the secret agreement of the demoness with YHVH, the influenceon
Him provided by her knowledge of His true name. And, as we compared the
fleeing of Lilith with the one of Medea, it will not be out of point to
recall how Medea flees also with the help of her relative, the Sun God,
which is the grandfather of the great lineage of witches (Medea, Circe)
which brighten up the life of Greek heroes.
Gello/Gylú

But there are still more stories, at least one more. If, in some ways, the
story of Isis and Ra provides the prologue that explains the triangle
Lilith-YHVH-Adam, the third story we're going to consider, the one of the
demoness Gello and her fight against the saints Sinisius, Sines and
Sinodorus, is its natural continuation. Having been made the Lady of
Darkness into a destroyer spirit of non- catalogued children, it takes the
authority of three saints (tracings, even in their names, of the three
talmudic angels) to defeat her provisionally.
Gello's name and character is pretty ancient. She was mentioned by Greek
poetess Sappho, who commented on one of her rivals that she was more fond of
children (lit. more pedophilic) than Gello (fr. 168A Voigt). Indeed Gello
was a maiden from Lesbos who died leaving no descendants, and who came back
every night from death to play with the children she had not brought up, and
taking them in her arms into the darkness.
The belief in this child-stealing maiden lives on in Byzantine period, with
some morphological transformations: Gello becomes Gylú, and becomes a
demoness instead of a ghost. There is a whole literary genre of plegaries or
legends of Saint Sinisius, which tell how this saint defeats and destroys
this enemy of children: the most interesting one is the Byzantine text known
as Apostrofh thj miaraj kai akazartu Gulluj: "Averting of the wicked and
impure Gylú". It was edited in the Greek Library of Sathas (Sathas 1876:
573-5). The contents are, again, a story and a spell at the same time.
We are told that, in times of emperor Trajan there lived a woman, named
Meletine, whose six children were robbed by the wicked and impure Gylú. When
she gets pregnant for the seventh time, she builds a fortified tower, and,
locked up there with twelve damsels, she gives birth to her child.
One of those days the saints Sinisius, Sines and Sinodorus, brothers of
Meletine, get by to pay her a visit. Meletine refuses to open the door,
fearing Gylú, but she ends giving in to fraternal love and give them free
way. Never had her done so! Just as the saint knights cross the ditch, the
wicked Gylú, having taken the form of a little mouse, takes the chance to
jump in, and, that very night, already inside the fortress, annihilates the
seventh child.
There follows, as we may well expect, a scene of family reproaches. Didn't I
tell you that I had bred a child and feared to open? The saints, a bit
ashamed, pray to God Father, and He sends them an angel, ordering them to
pursue Gylú as far as Lybanum (all this scene recalls closely the analogous
mission commanded by YHVH to the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangeloph).
The knights leave in search of Gylú, and this, when she sees them, throws
herself into the sea (remember the Red Sea). Saint Sinisius captures her on
time and, torturing her, demands her to confess which God she adores, which
power she has and, above all, to return alive the seven children of
Meletine. That -replies Gylú- it's impossible, unless I drink from
Meletine's breasts. St. Sinodorus leaves at once for his sister's tower, and
comes back with the requested nectar. The demoness drinks then, and she
brings up each of the seven children, with their vital constants perfect
[1].
Gylú words sound then familiar for us: Saints of God, do not stone me and I
swear, by the circle of Sun and the horns of the Moon, that wherever your
name should be written and your command be read, and my twelve and a half
names, I will not dare to approach that house, but I will flee three
thousand miles away from there.
It's in this point that the parallelism with Lilith story gets extreme: the
points of contact between the three mythical sequences (Egyptian, Hebrew and
Byzantine) are much too solid to be rated as chance.
Analysis

In all three cases, we have texts which tell a story, set in illo tempore,
but which have also a practical aim: magical texts which are used to prevent
the attack of evil, or to get free from its effects: the attack of Lilith or
Gylú, the bite of the serpent made by Isis. And in all three it plays a
fundamental role the magic name, though with an remarkable evolution.
In Hebrew and Egyptian cases (which have the most ancient version), it's the
magical name stolen from God that has the main value: Isis gets by a trick
the magical name of God; Lilith's got it (we don't know how) and uses it to
flee from Paradise. Knowledge of divine name serves so as a guarantee of
independence from male authority.
As regards the duality of good/evil, Isis' case is ambivalent: she's the one
who sends evil, but she's also the one who cures from it, just as the
medieval witches did evil, but also undid it. This ambivalent quality of the
Goddess tends to disappear as a more misogynist scheme gets imposed.
In Lilith's story, the magical name theme already works both ways: we still
have (unexplained) the fact that Lilith knows God's name, but as a
counterbalance it appears the element of the three angels' names, which has
power to keep her away. Wherever a talisman with these names appears, she
will respect it and keep the distance. The power of God commands respect,
and in the end it wins over female magic; but this keeps its defiant
independence.
In the Byzantine text (the most recent one), this evolution has reached its
peak: the theme of the demoness knowing the name of God has disappeared
completely. On the other hand, the prophylactic value of the talismans with
the three angels (made into saints) does remain. And it's added that the
talismans need, to be effective, to have also the twelve and a half secret
names of Gylú , that she confesses, under torture, to the saints[2]. So,
it's now the Goddess who, by losing her name, becomes defenseless before the
Male Enemy, and must move back under his authority.
Many more things could be told. But I think it's enough with this glance
into the darkness to show that there are paradigms, not much known, that
reveal a autonomous and fascinating view of womanhood. Enemies of socially
established female status, of matrimony and motherhood, grandmothers in the
end of Romantic vamps (of Carmila, or Dracula brides), Isis, Lilith, Gello,
the tree ladies of the darkness, counterbalance and complete the usual
scheme of Eve and Pandora, providing us a less radically biased image.
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Notes
[1] Cf. Horatius, Ars Poetica, 340, where we are told how the children eaten
by Lamia were extracted alive from their bellies. [2] Ironically, some etymologists say that Sinisius means exactly 'son of
Isis'. So, the vanquisher of the demoness turns out to be her own offspring. [----------]
Written by Alejandro Arturo Gonzalez Terriza
[Return to Lilith Page] Prepared by Alan Humm.
humm@ccat.sas.upenn.edu. [Image]