2) A Brief History of Lilith

Lilith’s legend is ancient.  It precedes Judaism by at least two millennia.  Her legend emerged in tandem with man’s first civilization in Mesopotamia.  Her legend then followed man’s burgeoning civilization into Arabia and the wider Middle East, where each local society cultivated its own variants of her story.  For this reason Lilith’s modern legend has many variations across cultures.  However, all variations are related and share many core similarities.  The book The Case for Lilith focuses on the Jewish version of Lilith’s legend.  Although the Jewish Lilith started with her Mesopotamian roots, the emerging details of her Jewish version were driven and shaped by evidences that the rabbis saw for her in the Bible.  Lilith’s Jewish legend has not been stationary or static over time.  Her rabbinic legend continues to spread and morph into modern culture.  Of all the ancient Jewish legends, Lilith’s has inspired more modern Western monster mythologies than any other.  Her tale was not only the original source material for medieval European beliefs in succubae and night-hags, but as the mother of estries, she also lies at the root of modern vampire lore.  Her creation story also fueled ancient Jewish notions about Golems, and has thus helped inspired the modern Western version of this myth, Frankenstein.  The roots behind these modern variations of Lilith’s legend will be discussed in detail in sections 3.16 and 3.22.

The first written mention of Lilith is found in a Sumerian king list (circa 2400 BCE).[1]  The list states that the father of the great hero Gilgamesh was a Lillu demon.  Lillu demons were one of four demon types thought to be descended from Lilith.  Today, historians categorize all four demon types as being in the vampire and succubae class.  The first substantial written record of Lilith comes in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree (circa 2000 BCE).  In that tale the goddess Inanna lovingly tends a Huluppu tree in the holy garden of the gods.  She does so in hope of making a throne and a bed made for herself from its wood.  However, to her dismay one day she discovered that she could no longer approach the tree because of three frightful creatures that inhabited it. The text says, “A serpent who could not be charmed made its nest in the roots of the tree.  The Anzu bird set his young in the branches of the tree, and the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk.”[2]  However, the great Sumerian hero Gilgamesh kills the serpent with his sword.  Thereafter, the frightened Lilith tore down her house and fled to the desert, and the Anzu bird flew with his young to the mountains.  It is clear from the tale that the maid Lilith, the serpent, and the Anzu bird are intimately linked.  I hold that they represent various aspects of a single creature.  The serpent represents this creature’s physical body, the dark maid Lilith represents its eternal spirit, and the Anzu bird and its young represent the creature’s reproductive capabilities and seed.  As we shall see, this symbolism is harmonious with Jewish teachings on Lilith.

Inanna And The Huluppu Tree

The popularity of Lilith’s legend in Mesopotamia in the following centuries is documented by numerous archaeological discoveries of Babylonian terra-cotta reliefs of her, which date from 1500 to 1750 BCE.  It was during this same era that Israel emerged from Egypt, and Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.  Moses apparently taps the same ancient root story of Lilith used in Gilgamesh.  He writes of a woman co-created with Adam, but who is animated by a defiling mist from the ground.  She becomes the Serpent of the Garden, who is associated with the Tree of Knowledge and who causes Adam and Eve to fall by eating of the Tree.  The similarities between Moses’ Genesis and the Gilgamesh tale are unmistakable.  There are at least seven core similarities.

  1. In Gilgamesh Lilith’s tale takes place in Inanna’s holy garden. This evokes the imagery of the Garden of Eden.
  2. The Huluppu tree of Gilgamesh mirrors the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis, in which Lilith is said to dwell in some later versions of her myth.
  3. Gilgamesh links Lilith (the spirit) to a great serpent (the body). This mirrors the Serpent of Genesis, who is Lilith.
  4. The Anzu bird of Gilgamesh is involved in the act of raising young in the Huluppu tree. This associates the Lilith of Gilgamesh with the raising of young.  The same is true of the Biblical Lilith.  Her rival seed to Eve is a central feature of the Bible.
  5. Gilgamesh associates Lilith with the Anzu bird, which flees the garden through flight. This is also an act which the Biblical Lilith is said to have done.
  6. In Gilgamesh the three creatures use the Huluppu tree to thwart Inanna from obtaining her glorious throne and bed of rest. It is likewise so in Genesis, if Eve is equated to Inanna.  The physical body of the Serpent, its eternal spirit Lilith, and its seed, use the Tree of Knowledge to thwart Eve in achieving her glorious throne with God and a place of rest and peace in heaven.
  7. In Gilgamesh a great hero slays the Serpent, thereby casting Lilith into the deserts and the Anzu bird into the mountains. This is precisely the scenario in Genesis.  God declares that Eve’s promised seed, the Messiah, would crush the head of the Serpent and its seed.  The prophet Isaiah expounds further upon this.  He relates that in the end-times, the slaying of the Serpent’s seed on Yom Kippur would cast the spirit of Lilith into the desert wilderness of Edom.

Throughout the Torah, Moses reuses the imagery of the Serpent Lilith and Eve that he first establishes in Genesis.  The cursing of the Serpent and Eve becomes the basis for the ceremony of the adulterous wife trial in Numbers 5.  It likewise is the basis for the cursing of Israel in the golden calf episode of Exodus.  Finally, the curse upon the Serpent and its seed is the basis of the symbolisms in the Yom Kippur ceremony in Leviticus.  That ceremony foretells God’s final judgment of mankind.

Moses was not the only author of the Bible to mention Lilith’s legend.  In Proverbs (circa 1000 BCE), Solomon refers to a female demon named Alukah in a clever riddle.  The riddle involves Alukah’s ability to curse a womb bearing seed.  Historically, Alukah was closely associated with Lilith, even being assumed to be a direct descendent of her.  However, the name Alukah may merely be another title for Lilith.  In Isaiah (circa 700 BCE), Lilith makes her only appearance by name in the Bible.  There Lilith plays a critical role in the end-times judgment of mankind.  According to the prophet Isaiah, Lilith is emblematic of all the damned who shall remain in hell, whereas another woman named Ishshah (the first name of Eve), represents all the righteous who shall be delivered into the Kingdom of God.  These two references to Lilith are be discussed in detail in sections 3.21 and 3.22 of The Case for Lilith.

The popularity of Lilith continued into the Common Era.  She appears in The Testament of Solomon, which was penned anywhere from 200 to 600 CE.  This book is doubtlessly apocryphal.  However, it serves to illustrate the common Lilith legends of the time.  The book portrays Lilith (who goes by the alias Obizuth) as a demon who strangles unprotected children in childbirth.  More importantly, Solomon strips away her power, at least in part, by forcibly binding her hair.  He then hangs her in front of the Temple for all to see and to be an abject lesson to the children of Israel.  This tale shares interesting facets with the Sotah’s bitter water trial.  It seems apparent that the writer of the Testament was using elements of the trial for his story.  In the Sotah trial, the hair of the woman was unloosed, the writer of Testament apparently saw this as unloosing of the adulterous spirit within her, so that if she were guilty the demonic Lilith spirit might take hold and work its curses.  In Solomon, Lilith was made a spectacle at the Temple in plain view of all the public, much like the defiled Sotah was made a public spectacle at the Temple.

Lilith’s popularly continued into the 6th century CE.  Numerous archaeological digs in Jewish communities of that time have discovered bowels inscribed with magical incantations as protection against her.  The purpose of these bowels was to protect the household’s mother and child during pregnancy.  The Talmud (circa 400-700 CE) also demonstrates her popularity in this era.  The purpose of the Talmud was to preserve rabbinic knowledge in the post Temple era after the scattering of the Jews.  There are five painfully brief references to Lilith in the Talmud.  All are incidental references that pop up during the discussion of other topics.  This implies that she was a well-known figure among the rabbis who needed no explanation.  The original Talmudic passages describe Lilith as existing at the time of Adam’s fall; as siring demon seed from Adam by stealing his semen at night while he slept; as having long hair; as having wings, and as bringing defilement upon women in childbirth.  Later rabbis added explanatory footnotes to the original passages.  These footnotes described who Lilith was.  They did this because with the loss of the Temple and the scattering of the Jews, knowledge of Lilith apparently decreased over time.  Ironically, it was the purpose of the Talmud to preserve ancient knowledge, yet some of the Talmud’s presumed knowledge on Lilith was being lost, and footnotes were later added to clarify her identity.  These footnotes described Lilith as a female night demon “reputed” to have wings and a human face.  It is clear from the footnotes that the later rabbis were not very familiar with Lilith.

All references to Lilith in the Talmud (and subsequently added footnotes) are listed below.
  • “One may not sleep in a house alone, and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.” (Shab. 151b — footnote “The night demon.”)
  • “Rabbi Jeremia ben Eleazar said, ‘During those years (after their expulsion from the Garden), in which Adam, the first man, was separated from Eve, he became the father of ghouls and demons and lilin.’ Rabbi Meir said, ‘Adam, the first man, being very pious and finding that he had caused death to come into the world, sat fasting for 130 years, and separated himself from his wife for 130 years, and wore fig vines for 130 years. His fathering of evil spirits, referred to here, came as a result of wet dreams.’” (Erubin 18b)
  • “She grows long hair like Lilith . . .” (‘Erubin 100b — footnote “A notorious female night demon.”]
  • “I saw how Hormin the son of Lilith was running on the parapet of the wall of Mahuza …” (Baba Bathra. 73a-b — footnote to Hormin “a demon;” to Lilith “a female night demon”)
  • “If an abortion had the likeness of Lilith its mother is unclean by reason of the birth, for it is a child, but it has wings. So it was also taught, R. Jose stated, that it once happened at Simoni that a woman aborted the likeness of Lilith, and when the case came up for a decision before the Sages they ruled that it was a child but that it also had wings. . . .” (Nidda 166: v6, 24b — footnote to Lilith “A female demon of the night, reputed to have wings and a human face.”)

The most important work on Lilith, outside of the Bible, is the Zohar of Kabbalah.  In this Jewish mystical work of the 11th century CE, Lilith plays a prominent role.  Remarkably, most of the details concerning Lilith derived through Biblical analysis in this book match tenets espoused by the Zohar concerning her.  The Zohar explains Lilith’s rebellious nature.  It states that the defective light of Lucifer animated Lilith; whereas the holy spark of God’s perfect light animated Adam.  According to the Zohar, Lilith later returned to the garden under the title of the Serpent.  The Zohar also suggests that Azazel is the seed of Lilith.  The entirety of chapter 5 is devoted to discussing what the Zohar says about Lilith.

Lilith in the Alphabet of Ben Sira

Unfortunately, a discussion on Lilith could not be complete with addressing the Alphabet of Ben Sira.  The Alphabet is an irreverent rabbinic book, anonymously written sometime around the ninth century CE.  This farcical book has done much to corrupt the common modern perceptions of Lilith.  The problem began when modern readers began to consider the irreverent Alphabet as a serious work.  Although it was written in the style of an aggadic Midrash (commentary on the Bible), the Alphabet was intended to be satirical in nature.  It made fun of various Biblical characters and rabbinic motifs, and its offered obvious parodies to specific Talmudic passages.  For example, the book begins with a group of men masturbating in a bathhouse.  It then proceeds to talk seriously about farts, urinating donkeys, and the copulation of ravens.  Norman Bronznick in his introduction to the Stern and Mirsky edition of The Alphabet of Ben Sira (1998) states, “The Alphabet may be one of the earliest literary parodies in Hebrew literature, a kind of academic burlesque — perhaps even entertainment for rabbinic scholars themselves — that included vulgarities, absurdities, and the irreverent treatment of acknowledged sancta.”  This belief is substantiated in that the Alphabet was known to have been read as popular entertainment in most rabbinic communities throughout the Middle Ages.

The Alphabet includes satirical passages on Lilith, and unfortunately, these have become the launching pad for a corrupted modern perception of her.  The Alphabet farcically paints Lilith as a quarrelling headstrong wife, unwilling to submit to her husband.  She refuses to lie beneath Adam during sexual intercourse, but demands to lie on top.  Eventually she flees Adam and the garden.  The dejected Adam complains to God that his wife has left him.  God thus sends three angels to bring the wayward wife back.  They fail, rather ineptly, against the headstrong woman.  After this God has no option but to make a new wife for Adam.  The entire tale has an irreverent tone, as does the entire book.  The rabbis saw Lilith’s refusal to “lie below” as sarcastic entertainment, something purely inconceivable and laughable.

Unfortunately, the Alphabet’s irreverent image of Lilith has been taken as serious in modern times.  Modern feminists quote it passages more than any other source in explaining their version of Lilith.  They promote Lilith as the proto-feminist, willing to sacrifice even the paradise of Eden as the necessary cost of freedom and equality.  The series of musical concerts called Lilith Fair founded by Sarah McLachlan in the late 1990s is perhaps the most brazen example.  Some neo-pagan groups have taken up her cause as well, either accepting her dark nature as sacred or finding in her an expression for the erotic goddess within them.

[1] The Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai, p.221.

[2] Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer; Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer; Harper Perennial; 1st edition, p. 8.