Replacing Lilith with a screech owl

Yesterday I visited not just one but two events to celebrate St Jerome, patron saint of translators, whose saint’s day is 30 September. We share him with librarians and encyclopedists, which seems not an unreasonable combination, although they don’t seem to make such a fuss of him as we do.

I don’t know when he picked up the name Hieronymus but I now know that it means a person blessed with a holy name from the Greek Hieros (holy), the nymus being derived from the Greek word for name (being called David, I think I should have a chance in the holy name stakes although I somehow doubt that my translations will be eagerly read in a thousand years’ time; I hope not…).

I caught sight of a reference to Jerome in a recent review in the London Review of Books of the British Museum’s Feminine Power exhibition. The article mentioned Lilith, called the first wife of Adam in the Jewish tradition, who was said to have fled Paradise when she refused to submit to Adam’s will and refused to return when God sent a troop of three angels to bring her back (this description is reminiscent of SL’s ticket inspection squads, cowing the ticketless by numbers…). She then lived in the Red Sea and gave birth to demons, and was thought to be a threat to pregnant women. There are connections from this myth back into classical times and it also reminds me of Kali in the Hindu tradition.

The Christian tradition seem to have decided that it was better to purge her from the pages of history rather than use her as an example of the fate that awaits what they regard as uppity ladies, And this is where Jerome comes in. According to the LRB article, Lilith appears once in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 34:14) in a section  describing the Day of Vengeance “when wild beasts will take over the earth). Lilith will meet with hyenas and wild goats in a landscape overrun by briars”. Translating from the Hebrew in the early fifth century, St Jerome apparently decided to replace “Lilith” with “lamia” meaning witch or sorceress in Latin, but which also meant a kind of flatfish and a species of owl. “Later translators followed his lead, so Lilith is “the lamia” in the Geneva Bible and a “screech owl” in the Kings James Version.

Exit the difficult lady in other words, replaced by a screech owl, which fitted in nicely with the hyenas and wild goats.

To start with, I thought that this was just an amusing infelicity in Jerome’s translation. However, Jerome was not just a translator but had also been an important figure in the papacy and continued to be very active in theological discussions. And, at this time, after Constantine had legalised Christianity, great efforts were being made to replace local theological deviations with a more centralised and approved message and Jerome was a key player in these efforts. The process described above may therefore not have been so simple but instead part of an ongoing endeavour to hone the message in the Bible in desired directions by the selection of texts and translation choices (I suspect there may be other places where young maidens have become virgins in the course of translation. When I get some time over, I shall learn Aramaic, Hebrew and Classical Greek and get to the bottom of this).

It’s all very fascinating and we must not either forget how Lilith as a woman who defended her integrity has attracted feminist attention and how that has affected the view of her and the use made and importance attached to various sources. The LRB does mention some sources but I’m going to be disciplined and not follow them up as I have more than enough rabbits to chase already, Despite being an atheist, I find the Bible fascinating as a work of literature . in fact it’s probably an advantage being an atheist when studying it as you don’t distracted by trying to defend the indefensible.


I’ve just checked Isaiah 34:13 and 14 and the text is as as follows:

“13. And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be an habitation of dragons and a court for owls. [Here there is a note “or night monster”].

14. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl shall also rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.

15. There shall the great owl make her nest and lay and hatch….”.

The plot thickens. It doesn’t seem to be an isolated reference to a screech owl but there are several references so any tweaking of the passage must have been more extensive than a single word. Are the screech owl and the great owl the same or different owls? The owl is anyway feminine so Lilith has a ghostly presence there (while the satyr appears to be male). And who wrote the note about the alternative translation of “night monster”.

I need to know more about Isaiah and the history of the anecdote about Jerome but perhaps I should finish my own translation first (without introducing any screech owls into the text).

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