Figure of Lilith and the feminine demonic in early modern literature

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To mark its 250th anniversary in 2002, the British Museum decided to make one of the earliest existent depictions of Lilith, or Astarte, its chief acquisition. Called The Burney Relief —after Sidney Burney, who had purchased it in 1935— it was purchased in June 2003 from a Mr Sakamoto at the price of ₤1,500,000. To celebrate its entrance into the museum's collections, it was renamed the “Queen of the Night” by the British Museum (Collon 2005 511). It has been connected to feminine divine and demonic figures, such as Ishtar, Lilith, Astarte, and has been called “Queen of the Underworld” (Collon 2007 50). My thesis looks at these figures of the feminine demonic and the evolution of occult philosophy, and particularly demonology, within Early Modern England, and how demonological studies influenced and were influenced by current sociopolitical climates. Within much occult writing, nonChristian sources (including preChristian philosophy and Hebraic Cabala) were incorporated into the Christian world view, and affected Christian systems of angelic hierarchies and man's place within these hierarchies. English occult thought was influenced by continental writers and philosophers such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Leon Modena. One figure, in particular, featured strongly in many of the demonological writings which were making their way into English occultism: Lilith. When dealing with issues of political and sexual power, Lilith often appears as a focal point for philosophers as they attempt to discover links between gender, demons, and evil. This thesis examines the feminine demonic and the figure of Lilith in the art and literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, looking both at the occult practioners John Dee, Simon Forman, and Edward Kelley, and at the literary traditions that came out of that occult philosophy. It explores how Lilith manifests in literature which tries to address anxieties surrounding the feminine demonic and sexuality, and the implications of a demonic, political inversion. Lilith and the feminine demonic are seen to be relevant to the works of Ben Jonson, James VI and I, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Selden, with a final chapter examining the evidence of Lilith in Milton's poetry, and in particular, Milton's Paradise Lost.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalEdinburgh Research Archive
StatePublished - Jun 28 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Religion
  • History
  • Arts and Humanities

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