nonfiction by Scott Alton-Thomas Burns
Christianity and WAY more flavors than you can get
at Baskin-Robbins even if you go there for decades and
they rotate out dumb flavors like “Superman Ice Cream”
I like to imagine that I know things, and when I find out that in fact I do not know things, then I like to imagine I learn things. For this reason I paid a little bit closer attention to American geography than the average guy and could probably manage a decent freehand sketch of the location of the actual states. (Pro-tip: Start with the four corners states and then construct the west coast. From there you at least have a prayer, whereas if you start in New England, well, that’s like an anatomy book drawn by Picasso.)
So I was more than somewhat surprised one day that I was using words about various flavors of Christianity that did not mean anything to me; I knew who they were, but… well, pop quiz for you: What does “Episcopalian” mean?
That’s another subject for a different day. But there are tons of these words and some of them are known to me because I spent 6 years in Catholic school winning “Catechism-downs” which are like spelling bees only WAY dweebier. The important epiphany here was that we say “Christian” like it’s a single group of people; as though Mormons and Baptists are just like Pennsylvanians saying “outen the light” and Kentucky people who say “trivet”. (Not when they mean outen the light, of course.)
The actual truth is Mormons and Baptists believe DEEPLY different things, and they’re not petty things like how many k’s to put in “Hanukkah” or whether to use a K at all. These differences raise passions in the two groups that suggest in a less civilized place without rule of law they’d try to make each other extinct.
So, my purpose here is to look into this subject. One big happy family is facetious; but how many flavors are there? And if happiness is a scale and not binary, how happy would a potluck picnic be if all the flavors were invited?
And just so you don’t lose any sleep over this hanging thread: Episcopalian refers to “bishop” apparently; the word “episcopo”. I have a vague sense of the origin, in that the early church was organized around bishops and all the bishops were more or less equal, so that Rome and Constantinople and Alexandria and so forth all got together and agreed on the word of God. And then one day the Bishop of Rome said, “All y’all bishops are representatives of the Lord but I am the one true infallible authority, prime among equals so to speak. God told me this.”
Episcopalians have decided in retrospect that they don’t buy any part of that for one second. (Those of you who ARE any of these things, forgive me. I’m not done looking into this.)
So, in the order they appear to me, anything that I don’t know that catches my attention, and often starting with a question about what you know.
Painting by Rosetti in the late 1800s. If I were going to use one word it would be “dispassionate”.
I knew about Lilith from her fair, mostly, and then from True Blood (an HBO vampire show based on the Sookie Stackhouse series). Vampire/supernatural series have a tendency to start out with a theme that’s interesting and strong, in this case a minority (vampires) trying to take advantage of a new technology (a manufactured drink called “True Blood” that they could live on instead of killing human prey) to integrate back into society and live a less warlike/underground existence.
Somewhere around season three though these storylines either start to run out of steam or the author can’t resist the urge to get weird now that they have enough cash to eat food occasionally. And slowly True Blood added Brujos and a Greek Goddess and were-panthers and well, anything they felt like adding. And it turned out Sookie was “faery” and near the end they introduced the Mother Of All Vampires: Lilith.
I subsequently tripped over Lilith in goth type art places, and various other references, and suddenly I got curious:
When someone came up with (dumbass) “Slenderman” they included bits in their campfire wooooscary story about how Slenderman has been with us since ancient times and appears on the walls of Egyptian tombs and such.
This is bullshit, of course, Slenderman is a recent invention and a painfully (dumbass) dumb invention at that, a good 9.2 on the Carolina Gullibility Index (in between “Iridology” and “Pet Psychic”).
So I wondered; is Lilith like that? Did we just make her up? It turns out, HELL no. She in fact does go way back, and this brings us to question one:
Have you ever heard of Lilith? What is your version of her story?
In doing a minimum of research (the amount you can expect for most of these topics, I’m not auditioning for tenure at major universities here) I found this.
Lilith was Adam’s first wife. That’s where her story starts; rabbis discussing Genesis. There are two quotes about the creation of woman in genesis; the first, 1:27 (? I’m not looking it up) says that God made man and woman from the clay. Side by side, equals… and no chloroform or rib removal. But then in 2:23 (extra ??????) there’s a different story, the one we all know as Eve.
Well, the rabbis concluded that there must have been a first wife. And following the law of Apocryphal Pooh (which is “You will embellish a story you really love and create fan fiction until it all makes sense and is completely unrecognizable”) (see for instance Superman or Harry Potter) they reasoned out what the story must have been.
Adam and Lilith did not get along. Women, amirite? Adam wanted to be on top during sex. Lilith also wanted to be on top sometimes. I am not kidding here. It will keep sounding like I’m kidding but I’m not.
Adam said “No! I am the big macho energy here and you shall assume the inferior position!”
So they fought and they fought all the time. And Lilith got fed up and walked out of Eden.
This is the part that interests me deeply; she was not chased out with flaming swords. She did not get cursed with a thousand boils for a thousand years. She was not banished. She just said, “This shit’s not worth living with YOU ya big stupid” and she walked away.
God does not like this much and sends three angels to bring her back. She basically laughs at them, “Begone! You have no power here!” like Billie Burke in Wizard Of Oz. And they follow her to the Red Sea and say “You must return with us or we’ll drown you in the Red Sea.” And she laughs at them AGAIN.
Long story short, the angels negotiate with her about murdering children. I am not sure where that part came from unless for some Hebraic reason it just follows what with wanting to be on top. She’s going to murder all the offspring of Adam’s new wife (foreshadowing alert!) and the angels won’t drown her if she abides by limitations. She is only allowed to murder male babies for eight days after they’re born; after that no. We said no. Female babies, you can have twelve days. (In some versions twenty.) AND (this is the kind of dazzling negotiating skill you can expect if you’re ever bargaining with an angel) she’s not allowed to touch them at all if they’re wearing an amulet with the names of the 3 angels who followed her to the Red Sea.
(This is very similar to the deal that BJ Liedermann has with NPR. He writes their theme music you know.)
Two of the angels I don’t remember at all, but one is fresh in my mind: Samael.
The reason I remember him is he then proceeds to have a moderately lengthy affair with Lilith. In some versions their offspring become incubi and succubi and they make quite a lot of them. I am not entirely sure why Samael is not “fallen”. I guess it’s okay as long as you’re not arrogant about it. (A lesson for us all.)
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Adam was lonely and we return to the story that we’re familiar with… except for the prologue (kind of). I wish to stress in advance I am not making this up.
Adam has a naming ceremony with the animals. This part I do remember; nothing about the first wife but this part was sort of a buddy movie in the aforementioned catechism-downs. God and Adam get together and Adam gives the beasts names, but the part we’re not told that the rabbis have put me onto is he’s also supposed to be assessing them as mates. Like,
“I name you, penguin, and no, I don’t want to fuck you. I name you marmot and, no, I don’t want to fuck you. I name you gazelle, and… hmm… no, I don’t want to fuck you.” (You’ll admit they have grace and beauty.)
Well, God gets tired of this and puts Adam to sleep (see aforementioned chloroform) and takes one of his ribs with which to create a mate who will be more subservient than the previous clay experiment.
We will not dwell on the thought that someone who is more easily given orders that she’ll obey might in fact take orders from someone other than Adam, and end up breaking a few laws forcing them to go on the lam. Or Lamb, so to speak.
If you want to say “Whew!” feel free. I’M saying it. So anyway, I was curious; how many cues exactly did I miss about this story? Is this only ever mentioned in an ancient scroll known only to scholars? Is the revival of Adam’s first wife Lilith a recent thing a la (dumbass) Slenderman?
No no no… there are a ton of forking stories (fractal sense, not euphemism sense) and explanations and derivations and changes. In some she’s associated with Lamias, a woman/snake combo chimera. In some she’s the mother of vampires, and that’s apparently by way of being the Mother Of Succubi. She’s a succubus; she’s a demon, one of the big four, and just the Succubus Supervisor so to speak. She’s a siren, with magic hair. (That one is mentioned in Faust. Also in later works such as this from Rosetti the painter of the title illustration:)
Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flower; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! As that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
My takeaway from looking into all this is even the Canon stories paint a very different picture from the civilized veneer that is the Christian specialty, the brushes full of BVDs to cover all the naked angels. And in the spirit of Apocryphal Pooh we find ourselves yet again doing this:
“I think the vampire stuff was old stuffy men needing to make her more evil so you wouldn’t hear ‘comes to you in your sleep and ravages you’ and think ‘where can I get some amulets to attract her?’. I bet what she was REALLY like was that part where she…”
We know it’s fiction, and still we need to incorporate it. ☺