Woman’s Lore: 4,000 Years of Sirens, Serpents and Succubi by Sarah Clegg - review by Diane Purkiss

Diane Purkiss

Liliths Who Lunch

Woman’s Lore: 4,000 Years of Sirens, Serpents and Succubi


Apollo 282pp £27.99

I’m already grateful to this book because it helped me realise for the first time that part of The Waste Land is about a mythic female demon, prone to killing babies and sucking the life force from male partners. To be sure, there are times when The Waste Land appears to be about everything, but I promise that this insight is real. I’m speaking about Lil, the one whose husband got demobbed, who spent the money given to her to fix her teeth on an abortion:

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to
    look so antique
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off,
    she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly
    died of young George.) 

Is this really a boring slice of social realism? No. In the light of Sarah Clegg’s remarkable work, it is one of those mythic moments that we in our industrial cities are no longer able to understand. Lil is indeed truly antique, and we do need help to decode her. Clegg provides it in extraordinary, meticulous detail. Have you heard of Lamashtu? Have you heard of Lilith and her numerous diabolical offspring? I’m betting that you have heard of Lamia, if only because of the poem by Keats, and I’m certain that you have heard of mermaids, if only because of Disney. In fact, all these mysterious and monstrous beings are related. This book introduces us to a 4,000-year-old heart of darkness within the human imagination.

These creatures are born of fear. Take Lamashtu, a Mesopotamian monster known from around 2000 BC, who specialised in choking a foetus on amniotic fluid and in inserting her terrifyingly long fingers into the womb in order to drag it out before it was ready to be born. There were

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