The Dark Dawning

The Crone who became Virgin

The New Moon is at once death and preparation for rebirth. As the Moon begins a new cycle, our lady of the night suggests to us that our stories do not end in our times of darkness and perhaps they do not end with death.

The origins of Lilith’s story are not tied to the Abrahamic traditions which adopted her tale to warn men of the kind of female sexual expression they find unacceptable. The origins of her story begin when sexuality was made sacred by the worship of Goddess. Lilith was “the hand of Inanna”. Her role was to lead warriors who had returned from battle, from an intimate encounter with death, to the Goddess’ temples where they were guided through the sacred sex rites to be reborn and brought back to the world of the living. These same “virgins” took care of the dying to deliver them to death so that when they had a good death they could be reborn. What makes them virgins was not that they were untouched; what made them virgins was that they were not owned by any man.

The virgins so intimately aware of the ecstatic powers of sex were also intimately familiar with the final ecstasy. The one owed to us by the pain of being thrust into this world at birth, cold, bloody, and screaming; our eventual demise. Their duty to the dying was delivering them to death as we are greeted by our mother’s embrace. 

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Death is a Goddess, the Dark Goddess is our Mother

Goddess worship not only spoke to us of the animal in each of us, the part of us which bleeds, but also about the illusion that what we are witness to has an end. She speaks of an eternal spiral, our eventual return to that which gave us life so that life can begin again.

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Equipped with the wisdom of the night, Lilith is resurrected. Having gone through a disintegration, a time of darkness to shed the restraints of her former self, she is now whole- a Full Moon. She has sacrificed everything to know herself fully and by doing so has illumined a path which guides us through the dark.

The final tableau in this series depicts Lilith’s return to the world of the living in her magnificent fullness. The images in this post are direct scans of the negatives from the photo session for the final part of the series. The costume and makeup were made by Numi Empire inspired by the Burney Relief which depicts a Dark Goddess thought to be Lilith but may in fact be Inanna. The reference is appropriate as the Story of Lilith is one which would guide us to a time where the Goddess was worshiped and not repressed. Lilith is forever defiant of the powers which prefer our subservience and make us fearful of the hidden mysteries where Goddess is most resilient.

The Great Suffering: The Teachings of one Who Grew in Wilderness

Our third shoot is a depiction of Lilith's time of solitude and suffering.  This part of Lilith's journey places her in a chthonic wilderness untouched by man. It is a time of great suffering caused by her rebellion against the diminishment of her integrity.  We knew that this scene would have to show her fortitude as she struggles against her disintegration. This is also the time where, according to hebraic tradition, she gives birth to demons, only to then watch hundreds of them die as part of her curse for leaving Adam.

We knew we wanted to depict her as mother, though we do not believe that what she was giving birth to were literal demons.  Rather, she engendered inner knowledge; therefore, this isn’t human birth.  In many cultures, serpents are associated with knowledge, as well as with the moon and her cyclical nature.  We thought it fitting, then, that serpents represent the knowledge which Lilith brings into this world.

Below are images and footage from this shoot, as well as Luna's writing about this part of Lilith's journey.

When the Moon seems to disappear from the night sky the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. It is in darkness that we are most fearful of the things we cannot see. During her life in exile, Lilith steps into a wilderness untouched, unknown, and unobservable by man; her time of darkness. The new Moon.
Lilith has sacrificed the security of a life in the paradise that was the Garden of Eden. She must withstand the consequences of her resolve, the pain of suffering desolation in exile; a purposeful plunge into the depths of inner knowing impregnating her with greater longings. The darkness of the cave is also the darkness of fecundation. Seeds germinate in darkness. In our beginnings we are cradled in the darkness of the womb. 
Caves are often associated with the womb in different myths around the world. It’s not a coincidence that Lilith retreats into a cave during this time when she withdraws into the hidden precincts of her being. The ancients are clear in suggesting that she is entering the Earth’s womb to be reborn. The amnion protecting her is the wisdom of the dark, the light sparked by her intuition is that of inner knowledge. Her flight, the symbolic death or dissolution of her former self. The waning Moon. 
Lilith’s time in the cave is one of incubation and healing from the wounds resulting from her time with Adam and the experience of rebelling against divine law. When summoned by God she refused, accepting greater punishment by agreeing that hundreds of her children would die daily. It’s clear that she believes there is a purpose to her sacrifice. She is the first to assume intentional suffering as the vehicle to transformation, a rite of passage. Here she is an initiate to her new role, her true purpose. Her time of darkness being the trial of her becoming. 
This is a time of great suffering, fantastic suffering; prodigious in it’s purpose. As Lilith sheds her former self she is giving birth to intuitive wisdom, not that of logic or law but rather experience. This wisdom is an affront to a culture which would prefer that we accept “divine” mandates without question. 
This transformation is what makes her unable to return to the Garden of Eden, although stories do tell of her secret visits to Adam. Perhaps this suggests that her connection to Adam is not entirely severed. It is the wisdom of the night which allows her entrance. Once awakened to this wisdom she finds herself at the edge between civilization and wilderness. Her rightful place.

We open ourselves to your teachings. We break as you did allowing the light of inner wisdom through the cracks. With this work we call the voice of inner knowing; birthed and by pain inspired. For you Mother of all, we leave this body – we leave this body of work as an offering. 

Behind the scenes from the fifth tableau

A few weeks ago, we completed our final shoot for this project.  We collaborated with Numi Empire, who designed the costume and headpiece, as well as did hair and makeup for this shoot.  

This final shoot depicted Lilith’s emergence from her solitude, transformed by her suffering into a goddess.   We opted for a style which references Lilith’s relation to owls.  She has shed the skin of a serpent slithering in the dirt; she is no longer immersed in her grief.  Additionally, we wanted to visually reference back to the Burney Relief, which is an ancient Mesopotamian depiction of a dark goddess, possibly Lilith or Innana.  There too we see Lilith’s relation to owls.

We will go much further into the symbolism of this final tableau in future posts, but for now, here are a few behind-the-scenes photos from our shoot.  The 35mm photos have been developed.  Now begins the difficult process of deciding which photos from this whole series will be used in the final narrative.

The Screech-owl, Screeching Loudly

A behind the scenes account of the making of the fourth tableau…

When Gretchen and I were discussing how we would depict Lilith’s period of darkness, we realized that this particular phase provided us the most freedom to explore visually. Not much is written about this time, but, while accounts vary significantly, they agree that Lilith flees to her cave.  There she suffers alone for centuries before giving birth to her offspring, which are considered demons by patriarchal societies. We think this part of the story deserves more focus.

This period places Lilith in a chthonic wilderness untouched by man. It is a time of great suffering caused by her rebellion against the diminishment of her integrity.  We knew that this scene would have to show her fortitude as she struggles against her disintegration. This is also the time where, according to hebraic tradition, she gives birth to demons, only to then watch hundreds of them die as part of her curse for leaving Adam.

We knew we wanted to depict her as mother, though we do not believe that what she was giving birth to were literal demons.  Rather, she engendered inner knowledge; therefore, this isn’t human birth. 

We have already suggested her ties to serpentine imagery in the second tableau of this series, in which Lilith rejects Adam and begins her flight.  We wanted to reinforce her connection to serpentine symbolism by having her give birth to serpents. In some accounts, her time spent in suffering is also the time when Lilith couples with the “slant serpent’, Samael.  Beyond that, in many mythologies the serpent is a symbol for wisdom. In hinduism the “serpent power”, Kundalini, is the mothering of intelligence, an awakening to spiritual maturation symbolized by a coiled serpent.

From the outset of this project, we agreed that it was very important for us to forgo the use of digital manipulation in the final photographs. We would stay true to using analogue techniques for everything other than documentation. Because of this, the births could not be faked. We discussed several ways to do this and ultimately we were drawn to the image of snakes protruding from Lilith’s abdomen.  The imagery is similar to the live births of various viper species.

The best way we could do this was to temporarily place snake sculptures subdermally in the area. This is not a new concept, subdermal implants for embellishment have been in existence since the early 90s thanks to body modification pioneer, Steve Haworth. This is also not a new concept in the realm of performance art, as I was informed by body modification artist Samppa Von Cyborg. Although I have very little experience with this particular form of body art, I knew who I wanted to work with.  I approached Brian Decker, a body art pioneer in his own right and friend of several years. We discussed what we wanted to accomplish with the sculptures and he made suggestions based on being able to do this as safely as possible. Brian is highly regarded around the world for the quality of his work and his sterilization guidelines. There was no doubt that I was in good hands. Had he felt that the risk was too high, we would  not proceed.

We agreed on using pyrex glass sculptures. Pyrex is a very strong glass able to withstand high temperatures, which is necessary in order to sterilize them for implantation. The strength of the glass would also allow Brian to use them to elevate the skin for easier insertion.

I created a cast of my abdomen on which I drew the general shape that I wanted for the snakes. We wanted the snakes to look natural on the body, so the cast provided the sculptor with a way to mold the snakes to fit with the contours around my navel.  I took this cast to Sean of Duxglass, along with some specifications as to the size and colors to use. The snakes would be black with white eyes, 7mm-10mm thickness, and modeled after Vipera Aspis, an Asp/ Viper. Sean really brought the snakes to life.

The procedure of inserting the snakes under my skin was done in a controlled environment rather quickly; and immediately after Numi Empire finished makeup for the scene. The external part of the snakes was then glued onto the body for added security. We knew that we wanted to move quickly so that the wounds would not stay open for very long. Altogether, including implanting procedure, the photoshoot, the removal of the sculptures, and sutures, the whole process was under an hour. We are very pleased with the results.

The following video is a glimpse of the implantation procedure, as well documentation of the photo shoot itself. NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH!! This video is published for documentary purposes only. We do not recommend or suggest that anyone should attempt anything similar or related. This procedure was performed by a trained body artist with several decades of experience on a very informed woman with several years of experience in the body arts, over the age of legal consent.

Notes from the darkroom

I wanted to share a little bit about my (Gretchen) process in the darkrooom.  For this series, we have chosen to go with a “lith’ printing process.  A little bit about that process: it requires heavy over-exposure of the paper, followed by development in very diluted, lith-specific developer.

Unlike typical black and white developers, the lith-specific developers have a property known as “infectious development”.  What this means is that the darker tones on the paper will develop faster, which in turn means they become darker still, and develop even faster still.  The shadows develop far faster than the mid tones or highlights.  Because of this, it is exposure time which determines the mid- and high-tone values, while development time determines the dark-tones.

In addition to this consideration, the freshness or dilution of the developer also plays a role in how the final image image appears.  Fresh developer, as well as more concentrated/less diluted developer, yield less colorful tones.  The more used or diluted the developer is, the more colorful the prints become.

Then, beyond exposure, development time, and developer dilution, each paper seems to “lith” differently.  The way the shadows are rendered, the tones the paper takes on, all seem to vary depending on manufacturer.

Below are some examples to illustrate this process:

Above is the first print I made with the batch of developer I mixed.  I used Fomatone warmtone matte paper.  It was exposed for approximately 50 seconds; not quite long enough to bring in some of the lighter midtones.  Because of the dilution/freshness of the developer, as well as my exposure time, this print is high contrast and not very colorful.

The above was the second print made, also on Fomatone warmtone matte paper.  I knew I wanted to pull more color into the print, so I diluted my developer a little more.  I also exposed for a minute rather than 50 seconds.  Having more diluted developer gave me more control over the “infectious” development process, so I was able to pull some more mid-tones into the print without the shadow detail becoming all black.  Exposing for slightly longer probably also helped.

The above was printed on Slavich Unibrom.  This paper’s grain looks totally different when it is lithed, almost like streaks or lines rather than pointilism dots (which is the type I noticed with both Fomatone and Ilford Multigrade Warmtone).  I do quite like this grain, but perhaps for a much brighter image; the shadow detail seems to get more lost than with other papers.  A side-note: this paper also took by far the longest to develop, even at longer exposure times.

This last image was printed in nearly-exhausted developer towards the end of my darkroom session, on Fomatone.  Both this and the previous image from the same negative were exposed for the same amount of time (50 seconds), you can see how radically different the grain structure is, as well as the the details visible.

Anyway.  This whole photo series is an incredible learning opportunity for me, as it necessitates that I learn a completely new print developing skillset in order to print the images in the way I feel is most aesthetically in-line with our project.  This lith process will give me the flexibility to make my prints more harsh or soft, more colorful or colorless, more grainy or delicate, depending on the negative I’m printing and where it fits into our story.

The Maid of Desolation

As the story of Lilith continues we see her take flight. The progression from Lilith’s life in the Garden of Eden to her chosen life of solitude is depicted by a flesh hook suspension performance for this photographic series. The choice was not an arbitrary one, nor was it adopted merely for shock value. We needed a distinct progression between what was Lilith’s life with Adam, to the one she suffers alone. 

Lilith is no longer in bondage but this liberation comes at a great cost. Upon refusing to return when summoned by three angels, she finds herself an outcast and the origin of the deaths of hundreds of her children. She turns to an unknown wilderness. 

At this point in the story, it was important for us to show Lilith free of constraints; this was the reason I (Luna) risked performing this suspension without the use of a harness.  

The photographs from this scene of our series depict Lilith’s flight to the cave where she confronts her desolation. Lilith’s flight does not only represent the freedom to exercise her agency but also a very visceral acknowledgement to the unknown which lays ahead as she enters her period of darkness.

Digital scans of the negatives can be seen in a previous post. The following video is a behind the scenes look of the creation of these photos, the moment before coming down from the suspension. 

Lilith: Myth to Flesh is a collaborative project undertaken by performance artist Luna Duran and photographer Gretchen Heinel.  By undergoing ordeals of the flesh, we aim to understand and communicate the sacred and transformative pain which Lilith endured on her journey from human to goddess.