I was awed and enthralled by the complexity and the incredibly profound messages throughout. I Am Lilith is told in the honest and bold voice of Lilith, her story largely unknown...until now.
- Jenna Ryan, Perth, Western Australia
An epic re-imagining of the story of Lilith, this is a moving work with a profound message of acceptance and balance. Breathtaking and heartbreaking in equal measure, I Am Lilith will grip you until the last page and stay with you long after.
- Libby Turner, editor of authors including Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies)
‘Young daughter, I have said it—only women and girls can be taken in. The temple must prioritise for the good of all,’ I said, more for the sake of her tribe than for her. The girl looked confused. In her innocence, she wanted to trust my words as if they came from the Great Mother Inanna’s heavenly mouth, but how wrong they must feel in her heart.
I softened my voice. ‘I am sorry. I cannot help your brother.’
I looked to the boy. As I held his gaze, my mind’s eye began to swirl the way it did before a vision arose, and instead of willing it away, in my remorse I allowed it. The boy’s face morphed into that of my twin brother, Sabium, wrenched from my arms when he lost his first milk tooth when we were seven. At that point, he was considered a fully incarnated male, unfit to live among the purity of the daughters of Inanna. That we were two halves of a whole until his exile made the contrast of our fates all the crueller.
Pain clutched my heart and I squeezed my eyes shut to clear his image, crossing a forearm over my bosom to touch the snake-shaped cuff on my arm and rub a finger anxiously over its gems. I barely noticed when my attendant, Tadez, appeared at my side and called in his courteous tones, ‘High Priestess, an urgent matter calls you in the high temple now.’
I opened my eyes and nodded, grateful for his sensitivity in removing me from the situation. But when I tried to turn my back, I could not. Instead, I gathered my long linen skirt to crouch before the girl and boy, my throat as dry as if coated by the dust of their travelling shawls. Placing my hands on each child’s outer shoulder, I held them together in a private affirmation of their unity and equal worth.
Then I remembered my duty to Uruk, and beyond that, to my secret vow to uphold the superiority of the feminine at all costs.
I hardened my heart, stood, and strode away.
Seated at my dressing chamber table, I rummaged through pots of face colours and perfume flasks until I found the pouch. I’d kept it since Sabium was sent to the copper mines but had not touched it for many turns of the seasons. Now, I opened the yellowing linen to look at my brother’s hair and allowed rare sobs to rise and rack my body. Tadez had had to cut Sabium’s hair on the day of eviction, when my brother had become subject to the grooming and dietary protocols which aimed to keep males as pure as their inherent coarseness allowed. Sabium had stared ahead with tears rolling down his cheeks as Tadez and I sobbed, watching the rich brown hair, as dark and glossy as the river otters my brother and I so loved, fall to the floor.
Holding the pouch to my cheek and closing my eyes, I was transported back through the years to that day I’d made a promise to Sabium.
It had been a good time to slip away, the hot afternoon keeping most of the city’s women napping so no one significant would notice two children in the plaza gardens doing what they shouldn’t. I recalled how I’d waved my finger in the air as I bounded down the temple steps, tracing out the new cuneiform characters I’d learned that morning, excited to teach them to Sabium.
When I’d entered the gardens, I clapped my hands to scatter a couple of resident peacocks and ducked to crawl through a bank of pink frothy flowers and into the cavity of our secret meeting spot.
Sabium should have been waiting for me. I’d seen him slinking out through a servants’ stairway. As I’d tried to slip away, our mother had called out and asked me to recite two of the many incantations I was learning, refusing me dismissal until I was word perfect. So where was he? Perhaps he’d stopped by the kitchens to trick the cooks into giving him some peaches or honeycomb.
I heard girls laughing and water splashing on the other side of the great flowering bush. Peering through the foliage, I saw five girls quite a few springs older than me clustered around the flush edge of the purification pool in the middle of the gardens. They held a small child’s head under the water.
When they pulled the spluttering child up, I gasped. Sabium. The biggest girl, who wore a red skirt, laughed at him and asked, ‘Do you still think you’re smart, boy? Or must you follow the fate of the other braggarts drowned here?’
I scraped myself through the bushes. Time slowed and I recollected a healing lesson that claimed the back of the head held a sensitive spot. In mid-flight, I made a fist and slammed it into that place on the girl’s head. She collapsed into the pool face-first, her back arching upwards and legs flinging high behind her. The others turned to me, stunned. Freed of their grasps, Sabium made a funny sound as he lay on his stomach and gulped breaths.
I helped him to his feet, his thin little boy chest heaving, and passed him the linen kilt lying crumpled on the ground where the girls had dropped it.
‘What are your names? Who are your mothers?’ I demanded, my back straight and shoulders wide, the bearing of a priestess even if I was still many springs away from my first blood moon. ‘Do you know who you torment? This boy is the brother of I, Lilith, destined as your next high priestess.’ I glared extra hard at the red-skirted girl, on her knees coughing, her hands clasped to her bare chest.
They all stared, taking in the fine white shawl wrapped around my waist that marked me as a temple daughter. None dared to speak.
I willed my mind’s eye to send Sabium a message. Don’t worry about those horrid girls, I’ll see to them. He must have been the only boy in the world who knew how to use his mind’s eye, because I had secretly taught him. Everyone believed males were incapable of learning the Mes, the hundred topics of the mother-wisdom. But Sabium was special, and every bit as smart as me. It was worth risking the wrath of our mother to teach him all I knew.
A few of the older girls dared to meet my eye, emboldened because their nipples showed the first signs of swelling to womanhood. They thought this made them better than me.
‘Don’t think you got away with this,’ I said. ‘I will remember who you are for the rest of my life.’ I looked into their eyes one after another, each dropping their sneer under my frown. I sensed the one with the red skirt still had an air of contempt about her.
‘Girl! What is your name?’ I demanded. She had a strawberry-sized and -coloured mark across one cheek that would make it easy for me to recognise her in future, although I didn’t have much to do with city girls.
‘I am Semiramis,’ she said boldly.
‘Get out of here,’ I snarled at her. The girls skulked away.
‘Are you alright?’ I turned to Sabium as soon as they were out of hearing, reaching my arms to embrace him.
‘Get off me!’ he snapped, stepping out of my reach.
‘Why are you mad?’
‘Because boys don’t matter and that will never change,’ he said, his voice wobbly. He swiped at the tears sliding down his face, mingling with the water dripping from his mop of dark hair onto his naked body.
I clasped his shoulders, my own teary gaze meeting his at exactly the same level. ‘I’m going to be the ruler of this land one day, and I promise you—I will make things fair.’
I promise you…
The padding of Gemekala’s feet on my tiled floor brought me back to the present. She wrapped me in an embrace from behind, her juniper-scented hair falling past my cheeks like black curtains. Tadez must have told her of my upset with the refugee siblings.
‘Lilu, there was nothing you could have done differently,’ she said, squeezing my hand in her powerful grip. Without trying to engage my drooped gaze, she wiped my face and straightened my diadem, the lapis lazuli gem at its centre representing the energy of Ophiuchus, the thirteenth star sign, under which all high priestesses are born. My priestesses and I each represented one of the 13 constellations as defined by where the sun was at our birth, bringing the full spectrum of heavenly characteristics to our rulership.
Gemekala was my Virgo priestess, respected among the women of Uruk for her skill as a midwife and herbalist, roles she conducted with aloofness and fierce clarity. To me, she was far more precious. She was my cousin, my most trusted priestess, my proxy if I could not attend to my duties for any reason. And in the privacy of our temple enclave, she was the one who could make me roll about laughing with her riotous remarks, and the one who spoke the plain truth to me when others pandered.
‘I'll run the rivers for you,’ said Gemekala, lightly running a fingertip from each hand along several of the energy channels of my body, leaving a tingling trail as she cleared the blocked emotion in my systems. Immediately, I felt a little lighter, and met her eye to thank her.
‘Come,’ I said, standing and extending my hand. It was time to return to the reception terrace, where the people of Uruk came most days to see my novices for healing and advice. My 12 priestesses and I served there less often, but we did make ourselves available on the day of the full moon—today. We saw only to the more interesting cases or those brought by Uruk’s most illustrious women, though in recent months I’d been called there more frequently to deal with refugee matters.
Back on the reception terrace, I took in with relief that the refugees had gone. I surveyed my novices and priestesses dotted along the length of the shaded terrace, busily proffering astrological guidance, diagnosing and prescribing remedies for health issues, and reciting incantations for all manner of situations for the city women. At the latter end of the terrace, a few of the younger novices consulted with boys and men.
Tadez rushed to my side to escort me to my consulting area, his gaze concerned as he placed a cup of hyssop tea in my hands and encouraged me to drink. He understood how deeply affected I was by separating the refugee siblings. As a humble temple servant, Tadez had always shown Sabium and I great kindness when we were young children. I’d made him my prime attendant the day I was ordained high priestess, the first man ever to be given such a venerated role.
I signalled a novice to bring me a worthy patroness, and soon one of the city’s most esteemed artists was sitting in front of me.
‘I don’t want another child now, High Priestess,’ she said, a hand on her belly. ‘I’m working on new murals for the council chamber, so the Great Mother’s creative power is flowing strongly through me—it seems to have started forming a baby.’
‘And have you received a lover’s shaft milk of late?’ I asked.
‘I accepted some only to flourish my art, not a baby.’
‘Of course, his milk could not cause you to be with child, but it might have encouraged your creation.’ My eyes broke away from hers as I spoke, straining to watch the tip of my finger scratch my nose. I did not enjoy lying, but perpetuating the belief that women create babies as a tree bears fruit was necessary to deprive men of purpose. It kept them malleable to temple rule and so held the prophesied future at bay.
The woman nodded.
‘As such a creative woman, you should be very cautious about accepting men’s milk,’ I continued. ‘It could tip your potency so far that you begin forming a baby. Your lovers should use a sully cloth unless you want to foster a baby’s growth.’
The temple asserted that shaft milk was a poor and messy imitation of mother’s breast milk, offering minor nourishment via a woman’s gateway to a child she already grew. Generally, women had their male lovers use a sully cloth, but if a woman wanted a child, the temple’s creed had always been that she should receive the milk of a few men to encourage her dormant babe to flourish. We also recommended an increased intake of pomegranate juice.
The artist nodded ruefully.
‘Go to the dispensary and ask for a herbal tincture to make your womb inhospitable,’ I said. ‘Tell them to assign a novice to care for you the next few days with poultices to soothe your cramps.’
She gulped. ‘And what of the soul of this baby?’
I obliged her need to hear the words. ‘As the pomegranate tree rebirths her fallen fruits, so does a woman’s womb. That soul will come again, through you or another, when the time is right.’ I met her eyes warmly this time and grasped her hands to wish her well.
Tadez leaned in to whisper that one of Uruk’s district councillors awaited consultation with me. From the corner of my eye, I saw our councillor of education, Irkalla, approaching. She held responsibility for ensuring the girls of Uruk studied the Mes, although to a lesser depth and exactitude than we temple women.
Standing to my full height, I looked down into Irkalla’s face. I had seen her two days prior, when I had led the monthly council meeting. Encountering her again so soon was disheartening in my already low mood. The six councillors overseeing Uruk’s districts—copper, gems, agriculture, building, arts and education—were wily and arrogant women, and I had little time for any of them. But they ensured our city was the most advanced in all the lands, and it did not serve me to offend them unnecessarily.
‘What ails you, Councillor Irkalla?’ I asked as pleasantly as I could.
She complained that a demon was sapping her vigour and despite her incantations to evict it, she’d felt it re-enter her ear that morning as she lay in bed. What gall she had, blaming her laziness on a demon.
I recited an impressive incantation and, to sate my ire, slapped her back three times, calling sternly, ‘Be gone!’ with each strike. I caught Gemekala’s eye as she sat at her consulting area next to mine, examining a gouge on the thigh of a celebrated huntswoman. Our faces remained serene apart from the barest twitch of amusement at our mouths.
The throb of drums began echoing from across the ziggurat where our 50 or so novices resided and studied, providing me with a welcome reason to leave the reception terrace.
‘I must attend some Mes lessons now,’ I said to dismiss Irkalla. ‘A full moon day is always special for our newest novices.’
Turning my back on Irkalla’s grimaced smile, I ascended to the next tier of the ziggurat, towards the novices’ terrace, stopping behind a buttress to peer at the lesson in progress led by my Libran priestess, Tiamat.
Tiamat was directing seven junior novices in rolling their hips under a pergola of cascading jasmine, the perfume mingling with that of many other flowers in the ziggurat’s sky-high gardens. My heart swelled to watch Tiamat, her dark amber hair hanging straight as a reed down her back and swishing from side to side as she moved.
Two novices at the drums stopped when they saw me and a peaceful hush descended. The only sound was the tinkling of water into a nearby pond, part of a complex of channels and pools that overflowed from one to another on all four tiers of the ziggurat.
‘Look who is here—our High Priestess joins us,’ Tiamat said, meeting my gaze with her shining hazel eyes. The novices stilled to behold me, postures adjusting to stand a little prouder in my presence. They raised their hands in the Great Mother’s salute, thumb tips meeting and forefingers pointing down to make a triangle above their hearts, and I returned the acknowledgment.
‘Greetings, Priestess Tiamat, novices,’ I said with a smile. ‘Please, continue.’
Tiamat bowed her head to me, the V-shaped point in her hairline centre clearly defined beneath the pink tourmaline in her diadem.
‘Now you have opened the flow of your hips, place your hands upon your girdle of fire,’ she said to the young women, positioning her hands over her lower belly in demonstration. She stilled a moment, closing her eyes in devotion to the complex pathways of energy that ran from a woman’s lower spine and reached around to embrace and fill her belly with creativity, forming the girdle of fire. The novices followed suit, and they all began to roll their hips in sensuous circles.
‘Let yourself move like the ever-changing ocean, to the ebb and flow of your instinct, for in doing so you please our Great Mother Inanna and stoke the fire of creation,’ called Tiamat, a quaver of passion in her voice as she revolved her hips. Building the girdle of fire always drew forth a woman’s truest ardour.
My own hips began to move in effortless sympathy as I admired the women, eyeing their lush bellies framed by low-slung shawls tied about their hips, their bare bosoms a glorious array of sizes, shapes and nipple formations. Life-force pulsated among us, each moving uniquely yet somehow with a pleasing sense of shared precision.
Tiamat continued. ‘This practice helps you master the mesmerism.’ She referred to the technique of expanding one’s energy field to create a stronger presence, serving to enthral others. ‘It strengthens the command in your voice, and the ability of your mind’s eye to see beyond the superficiality of the manifest realms and into the mysteries from where you can direct creation. And of course it fuels your beauty, joy and ecstasy.’
Tiamat looked invitingly at me as she spoke, and I came to stand beside her as the drummers began a slow beat. We all moved as we would, the deeply felt emotion and fervour of our collective girdle of fire rising to fill my heart with love for my women.
‘You must not shrink in fear of the greatness you feel,’ Tiamat called. ‘You must practice your ability to hold the enormity of your fire, and only at the rightful moment may you release it. This requires discipline and strength to hold the power even as you surrender to it. Or you may hold the energy and direct it towards what you wish to create, or sometimes simply to magnify your bliss, a most worthy endeavour.’
She met my eyes in a smouldering gaze to welcome my comment.
‘Such is the power of the girdle of fire,’ I called over the sound of the drums. ‘You need nothing more to create as you so will—from a babe to a great invention or work of art. As incarnations of the Great Mother Inanna, women carry the girdle, and only we can create anything of significance.’
‘Let us chant,’ called Tiamat in breathy excitement as we continued to move, and we all began a creation prayer, our jaws light as the words flowed melodically from our lips. The moment was so beautiful I almost forgot I’d just affirmed the priestess’ great lie to my youngest novices, and although it was my duty to do so, heaviness began to creep into my heart.
They would probably never know the truth of procreation because none was likely to become a priestess—very rarely was one appointed, and only a novice who survived the rigours of initiation and had the correct star sign would do. If one of them did make it, she would vision with the Weird Sphere, an ancient crystal we kept secret in the high temple which offered many insights and showed the fated future. Only then would she learn the truth of a man’s role in creating children, and why we must keep it secret.