Adam, Eve and Lilith, 13th Century and is located at the entrance portal of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (pic)
For 4,000 years Lilith has been the subject of writers, artists and poets. Her origins lie in Babylonian demonology, where amulets and incantations were used to counter the powers Lilith who is a winged spirit who preys on pregnant women and infants. Lilith migrated to the ancient Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites and Greeks.
She makes a solitary appearance in the Bible, as a wilderness demon shunned by the prophet Isaiah. In the Middle Ages she reappears in Jewish sources as the first wife of Adam.
In most manifestations, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness.
The name “Lilith” derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits—the lilītu and the related ardat lilǐ.
The lilītu dwells in desert lands and open country spaces and is especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Her breasts are filled with poison, not milk. The ardat lilī is a sexually frustrated and infertile female who behaves aggressively toward young men.
The earliest surviving mention of Lilith’s name appears in Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, a Sumerian poem found on a tablet at Ur and dating from 2000 B.C.E. The ruler Gilgamesh is the world’s first literary hero; he boldly slays monsters and vainly searches for the secret to eternal life.
Isaiah 34. The Book of Isaiah is a compendium of Hebrew prophecy spanning many years; the book’s first 39 chapters, frequently referred to as “First Isaiah,” can be assigned to the time when the prophet lived (approximately 742–701 B.C.E.). Throughout the Book of Isaiah, the prophet encourages God’s people to avoid entanglements with foreigners who worship alien deities.
In Chapter 34, a sword-wielding Yahweh seeks vengeance on the infidel Edomites, perennial outsiders and foes of the ancient Israelites. According to this poem, Edom will become a chaotic, desert land where the soil is infertile and wild animals roam: “Wildcats shall meet hyenas, Goat-demons shall greet each other; There too the lilith shall repose and find herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34:14).
The Lilith demon was apparently so well known to Isaiah’s audience that no explanation of her identity was necessary.
The Isaiah passage lacks specifics in describing Lilith, but it locates her in desolate places. The Bible verse links Lilith directly to the demon of the Gilgamesh epic who flees “to the desert.” The wilderness traditionally symbolizes mental and physical barrenness; it is a place where creativity and life itself are easily extinguished. Lilith, the feminine opposite of masculine order, is banished from fertile territory and exiled to barren wasteland.
The King James Bible’s prose rendition of the poem translates “the lilith” as “the screech owl,” recalling the ominous bird-like qualities of the Babylonian she-demon. The Revised Standard Version picks up on her nocturnal habits and tags her “the night hag” instead of “the lilith,” while the 1917 Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures calls her “the night-monster.”
The Hebrew text and its best translations employ the word “lilith” in the Isaiah passage, but other versions are true to her ancient image as a bird, night creature and beldam (hag).
While Lilith is not mentioned again in the Bible, she does resurface in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. Lilith appears in the Song for a Sage, a hymn possibly used in exorcisms: “And I, the Sage, sound the majesty of His beauty to terrify and confound all the spirits of destroying angels and the bastard spirits, the demons, Lilith. . ., and those that strike suddenly, to lead astray the spirit of understanding, and to make desolate their heart.”
The Qumran community was familiar with the Isaiah passage, and the Bible’s sketchy characterization of Lilith is echoed by this liturgical Dead Sea Scroll.
Centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, Rabbis completed the Babylonian Talmud (final editing circa 500 to 600 C.E.), and female demons journeyed into scholarly Jewish inquiries. The Talmud (the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “study”) is a compendium of legal discussions, tales of great rabbis and meditations on Bible passages. Talmudic references to Lilith are few, but they provide a glimpse of what intellectuals thought about her. The Talmud’s Lilith recalls older Babylonian images, for she has “long hair” (Erubin 100b) and wings (Niddah 24b).
The Talmud’s image of Lilith also reinforces older impressions of her as a succubus, a demon in female form who had sex with men while the men were sleeping. Unwholesome sexual practices are linked to Lilith as she powerfully embodies the demon-lover myth.
One talmudic reference claims that people should not sleep alone at night, lest Lilith slay them (Shabbath 151b). During the 130-year period between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, the Talmud reports, a distraught Adam separates himself from Eve. During this time he becomes the father of “ghosts and male demons and female [or night] demons” (Erubin18b). And those who try to construct the Tower of Babel are turned into “apes, spirits, devils and night-demons” (Sanhedrin 109a). The female night demon is Lilith.
About the time the Talmud was completed, people living in the Jewish colony of Nippur, Babylonia, also knew of Lilith. Her image has been unearthed on numerous ceramic bowls known as incantation bowls for the Aramaic spells inscribed on them. If the Talmud demonstrates what scholars thought about Lilith, the incantation bowls, dating from approximately 600 C.E., show what average citizens believed. One bowl now on display at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum reads..
“Thou Lilith, Hag and Snatcher, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob to turn away from this Rashnoi and from Geyonai her husband. . .Your divorce and writ and letter of separation sent through holy angels. Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!”