Lilith: Traditions and History

Who or What Was Lilith?

Burney Relief
Burney Relief: Mesopotamian plaque, about 1800-1750 BCE, depicting Inanna or Ereshkigal, sometimes alleged to be depicting Lilith. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Lilith: a night demon threatening children, women in childbirth and sleeping men? Lilith: the Biblical first wife of Adam?

Lilith -- or, in Akkadian, Lilitu -- is a name that appears (as Lilitu) in ancient Sumerican and Babylonian sources as a demon or evil spirit. The name first appears in the Hebrew scriptures in Isaiah, part of a list of spirits and unclean animals. A Greek female demon, Lamia, has sometimes been identified with Lilith.

To the end of the ancient period, Lilith is described in Jewish sources as a long-haired demon who flies and who threatens children and also women in childbirth. Lilith is sometimes also connected with male nocturnal emissions. In this connection, the Talmud mentions Lilith with conceiving evil spirits with Adam during his nighttime dreams, during a time Adam separates from Eve after they are expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Medieval Sources About Lilith

Lilith, the flying evil demon of ancient sources, in medieval Jewish culture takes on a new meaning. Her story will continue to evolve in modern and then feminist art and writing.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira (or the Alphabet of Sirach)

The text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira explains an apparently common custom of inscribing the name of angels on protective amulets worn by newborn boys before they were circumcised, to protect them from Lilith.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira describes Lilith as Adam's first partner. The Alphabet brings together the idea of Lilith as Adam's first wife and Lilith the demon threatening newborns and women in childbirth.

This text is usually dated no earlier than 700 CE, and as late as 1000 CE, though it attributes the writings within it to a rabbi Shim`on ben Yeshu`a ben Sira who lived in the 2nd century BCE.

His authorship is also ascribed to the Wisdom of Sirach. The Alphabet includes proverbs and stories; many of the proverbs are clearly borrowings from the Talmud. The stories are supposed to have been told to the king, Nebuchadnezzar. Some have assumed that the Alphabet is an anti-Jewish writing, because the stories are so irreverent, including much about sex. It seems to have been widely read in rabbinical circles in medieval times, though considered more as entertainment than as authentic theological resource.

In the story about Lilith within the larger text, Ben Sira has made an amulet to protect the son of Nebuchadnezzar. The king asks how the three names on the amulet plus the figure of the demon Lilith would protect children. Ben Sira tells Nebuchadnezzar that it is to protect from Lilith, and then tells the story of how Lilith came to be a danger to children. Ben Sira explains that Lilith was Adam's first wife, created as the first helpmeet for Adam, created from the earth as was Adam. Adam and Lilith fought, because Lilith would not be in the bottom position, since they were created equal. Lilith pronounced the holy (and unutterable) name of God (which was also, according to legend, a way to gain great power), then flew off to live in the ocean.

The "flying" resonated with the legendary winged demon. When God sent angels to get her, she announced she would not go back. God threatened to kill one hundred of Lilith's demon offspring each day if she did not come back; Lilith announced that she was created to make newborns sick. Bargaining not to go back with the angels, she agreed not to bother infants who had amulets with her name or form on them. Thus, amulets with Lilith's figure and the three names would protect children from harm from Lilith.

Kabbalah

Early Kabbalistic writings that mention Lilith include a 10th century midrash which pairs Adam and Lilith; during the time Adam is separated from Eve he sleeps by himself and is visited by Lilith at night.

A 13th century text by Rabbi Isaac ha-Kohen mentions Lilith as originally created joined with Samael (identified with Satan) as Eve was created joined with Adam.

Lilith is mentioned eslewhere in the text as a wife of Samael and mother of many demons. In later texts, Lilith is identified as a female Leviathan.

The Zohar

Lilith is mentioned in the Zohar, the main text of Kabbalah, by name 27 times and 29 other times by reference. The Zohar, first published in the 13th century, is attributed to the rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (or Yohai), a figure from the 2nd century, and the claim within the tradition is that the Zohar was transmitted orally for those centuries. Most scholars attribute it, however, to Moses de Leon, a Jewish writer of the 13th century who lived in Spain. Gershom Scholem, the scholar of the Kabbalah, concluded that the Zohar's stories of Lilith were informed by the Alphabet of Ben Sira.

In Zohar one passage, Lilith is described as cast out when Eve was created, cast into the sea, and still having power over children who are deserving of punishment. She is described as pursuing Cain and bearing spirits and demons by him. Later she is said to have given birth to spirits by Ussa and Azael. She is said to mate with men sleeping, being responsible for nocturnal emissions and also giving the men diseases.

In another passage, Lilith is described as a spirit who was the first mate of Adam. When the Holy One created Eve from Adam (by sawing him in half), Lilith left. She is described as still intending harm to humanity.

In another passage, this one somewhat contradictory to the "first wife" stories, Lilith is seen as the slave girl who takes her place beside the King in place of the Matronit -- the king being metaphorically the Holy One and the Matronit being Israel.

Eventually, the story promises, the Matronit (Israel) will be brought back to the high position.\

In another passage, a riddle, two Lilith spirits are mentioned, cursing pregnant women and their children, but defeated by a woman who is innocent of wrong-doing. This reflects Numbers 5:10-31, a test using bitter waters for whether a wife is adulterous or innocent. The passage in the Zohar has Lilith spirits responsible for the curse in the bitter water that causes the adulterous wife to miscarry.

Lilith is also depicted as the partner of Samael (Satan), created by splitting form him in the same way Eve was split from Adam. She is named as the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Jutta

In 1565, a German play depicted Johanna as the only female Pope. Lilith was claimed as the grandmother of this Johanna, known in English as Pope Joan.

Renaissance

In the Renaissance, Michelangelo depicted Lilith as the serpent on the Tree of Knowledge. Lilith's story was a favorite of the Romantics and of the Pre-Raphaelites, and poets, artists and writers continue to use her story -- or some of her stories -- to this day.

19th Century

In 1808, Goethe includes a mention of Lilith as a temptress with long hair in Faust in connection with Walpurgis Night; he has Mephistopholes explain that she is the first wife of Adam. John Keats, using the name Lamia which was used in Latin for Lilith, writes of a mythical heroine trapped in a snake and freed, who tragically dies on her wedding day when Apollonius uses her name.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti depicts her in two paintings and several sonnetts. In 1883, Robert Browning published "Adam, Lilith and Eve," in which Eve and Lilith are friendly with each other. Victor Hugo, Anatole France, Remy de Gourmont, George McDonald and Henry Harland all feature Lilith in stories or novels.

20th Century

In the 20th century, still more writers and artists used Lilith, with stories usually based on the medieval myths of the sexual temptress and Adams' first wife. A number of science fiction and fantasy authors and filmmakers have used Lilith's name and story.  In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis has Lilith as an ancestor of Jadis the White Witch.

Modern Paganism

Aleister Crowley mentions Lilith in his work.  Gerald Gardner, in his assertion of the continuous worship of goddesses, includes the allegation that Lilith was worshipped from ancient times into the present as a goddess.  Others in modern paganism see Lilith as a childbirth or sexuality goddess.

In the 1970s, Jewish feminists retold the story again, making Lilith more representative of a woman refusing to submit to her husband and striking out on her own.

Because of that feminist connection, the name Lilith has also been used for:

  • Lilith Fair: a touring festival of female singer-songwriters
  • Lilith Magazine: a Jewish feminist quarterly magazine
  • Lilith: A Feminist History Journal: an academic journal of women's and feminist history