Fatal Attraction: Lilith and her Sisters

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You can download a Fatal Attraction reading list here.

Watch videos with curator Dr Laura Eastlake here.

Fatal Attraction: Lilith and her Sisters

Lilith. Aphrodite. Medusa. Helen of Troy. Cleopatra.

Ancient cultures have bequeathed to us a legacy of female characters in art, history, and literature who have been described as ‘femme fatales’. The femme fatale is beautiful and dangerous in equal measure. Like the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, she tempts the hero of the story whilst endangering his heroic quest – and even his life.

Lilith. John Collier (1850–1934). Atkinson Art Gallery Collection.

It is a story of femininity that has been created and perpetuated by male artists and writers for much of history – from Homer to the Hollywood directors of the golden age of cinema. For thousands of years the femme fatale has been a figure to be admired for her beauty, but morally condemned for her vanity, criminality, or deviance.

John Collier’s ‘Lilith’ depicts Lilith – the first wife of Adam in the Jewish tradition – as a classic femme fatale. Lilith is shown nude, as an object of desire, but her figure is draped with a snake to signify temptation and sin.

“When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her Lilith, and brought her to Adam. The immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: ‘You lie beneath me’. And Lilith said: ‘You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the same earth’. And they would not listen to one another. As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled” (Genesis Rabbah, 300-500 CE)

This exhibition explores the long history of the femme fatale and her transformation from a symbol of patriarchal power to the hero of her own story.

Reading List

If you’ve enjoyed the Fatal Attraction exhibition, why not check out some of literature’s best-know and most powerful femme fatales? Download here.

Exhibition Partner

Dr Laura Eastlake, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Edge Hill University, has been awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship at The Atkinson to develop research into ancient worlds and nineteenth-century art.


Postcards, prints and posters of John Collier’s Lilith are available to purchase in The Atkinson’s shop.

You can purchase selected framed and un-framed print reproductions from our fine art collection via the Art UK Shop.

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