Zika/Lilith: Naming the Unspeakable


Lilith Notre Dame
13th-century carving of Lilith; Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

The act of naming is a primary human activity. In the first moments of Genesis, God creates, and Adam names: the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Even before the appearance of Eve, before humanity ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and, in so doing, became fully human, the Bible tells us we were engaged in the work of labeling, assigning, differentiating through sound, words. It is our version of creation, our way of separating water from land, light from darkness.

And like creation itself, the project of naming is never finished. We discover new things — species, heavenly bodies, phenomena around us, emotions in ourselves — and they demand new names. Equally, as humanity changes, our names must change, too. Light abides — but light becomes photons, yellow dwarfs, the dog star.

And darkness abides, as well.

* * *

It’s easy to dismiss the ghosts, the demons, the witches and curses and monsters that haunted the darkness of our forebears. From our position as enlightened moderns, such notions look quaint, silly, the product of ignorance and superstition. We can reinvent vampires as the objects of lust in YA fantasy, and that’s because we don’t believe in vampires anymore. Reason and science freed us from them, and from the whole motley supernatural crew, leviathan to leprechaun. There are no extrasensory terrors lurking in dark places, no malign forces threaten us in the night. We know that. Right?

Consider Zika. At first look, it seems to come at us new as a gleaming blade: new in our personal experience, new in the annals of medicine. Zika feels unprecedented in its cruelty, too, or at least its cruelty feels uniquely perverse: infecting women without their knowledge, manifesting itself in terrible harm to their newborns. Naturally, we make sense of Zika in modern language — that is, in the language of science: virus, infection, transmission, outbreak. Yet while the Zika virus may be new as an urgent threat to (American) public health, its appearance resonates with ancient fears — fears that were gathered and named and eased by previous generations in the terms they wielded to order the world as they knew it.

Aedes aegypti mosquito
Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus

Consider Lilith. Lilith is a figure of Jewish mythology, not spoken of directly in the Bible or in the Talmud, but her presence in Genesis is implied — as though she haunts the margins of the text itself. We are told in Genesis 1 that God created man and woman at the same time; Genesis 2, however, makes it clear that God created Adam and then created Eve. Lilith arises as an explanation for this: the woman created prior to Eve, who, as myth tells us, rejected her role as subservient to Adam, and left Paradise. In folk tales of the Medieval period, Lilith stands as a sort of anti-Eve: She was said to occupy the dark waters of the abyss, the impenetrable places, her role in the divine order to make infants sick.

A thousand years ago, then, our forebears feared a predatory entity, stretching from the unknown to disrupt the fundamental event of human existence: the birth of a child. They called that entity Lilith.

We call ours Zika.

* * *

The differences between our situation that of a shtetl on a moonless night are many and numerous — but they spring to mind perhaps a little too quickly for comfort. As educated people, we know that Zika exists, just as we know Lilith was a figment of legend and imagination. It’s worth noting, though, that while we can take a certain solace in considering ourselves “right” and our ancestors “wrong,” the strength of the conviction is equal: They believed as much in demons as we do in viruses. Further, while there are those among us with the scientific expertise to understand the operations of the Zika virus on the cellular level, the vast majority of us accept what we know about what it is and how it works for the same reason a Medieval Jew accepted the dangers of Lilith: because trusted sources (a rabbi, a relative, the CDC) said so.

None of this is to suggest that we have no more to fear from Zika than a Jew of the Middle Ages had to fear from Lilith; nor do I think humanity is trapped in a mire of permanent ignorance, shouting epithets at terrors we can’t escape or explain. With time has come progress. The advances of modern medicine will help us stifle Zika, and with time, God willing, eradicate it.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that our fears of Zika are so potent because the virus touches on such primordial — one could even say ingrained — anxieties: that invisible forces threaten the health of our children, the survival of our families, by extension the survival of our species. I’d also suggest that the fears of our ancestors deserve more respect. There were invisible forces threatening the well-being of their children, their families. That we can identify — that is, name — such threats with the benefit of advanced scientific understanding is really just an accident of when we were born. You can bet humans a thousand years from now will look back on us with a familiar mixture of pity and condescension at all we didn’t know: all the labels we misapplied, all the names we came up with for things that didn’t exist at all.

* * *

A thousand years ago, we mollified our fears by attaching them to a larger spiritual order: Lilith was evil, yes, but she was created by God, and if you hung a talisman on your crib inscribed with the names of angels, she might leave your baby alone. Today, we set our fears within the context of our rational, empirical outlook: talismans have given way to baby monitors and CO2 detectors. A thousand years hence, I’d expect our knowledge and our tools will be still further refined.

We’re safer now than we were, we’ll be safer still.

But will we ever feel safe?

Human history was inaugurated with the eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree — and in that act, we became not only self-aware, but mortal. Lilith has given way to Zika, the superstitions about demons to the certainties of virology. But the fundamentals of human existence remain fixed — birth at the start, death at some unknown but inevitable point at the end, and God-only-knows-what in between. Darkness will abide — and it will demand its names.

Joshua Max Feldman, a writer of fiction and plays, is a fellow at LABA.