The name “Lilith” isn’t even in the Bible, but according to Jewish mythology, she was Adam’s first wife. This myth has intertwined ancient Mesopotamian and Jewish beliefs for thousands of years. The traditional description of Lilith blends ancient demonic lore with Biblical cosmology in a way that often defies gender norms, leading to her portrayal as a fearsome night hag.
The depiction of Lilith as an ungodly seductress fails to acknowledge her nuanced role in the Jewish faith and Mesopotamian traditions. To understand Lilith’s importance, it helps to know more about her origins and the role she has played throughout history.
She Was Adam’s First Wife
Lilith’s role as Adam’s first wife became part of the Jewish tradition when she was mentioned in a midrash, a text that interprets and explains Hebrew scriptures. The midrash elaborated on inconsistencies in the Book of Genesis: In Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, but then Genesis 2 establishes Eve as the product of Adam’s rib. To reconcile these diverging accounts, there must have been another woman in Adam’s life.
Enter: Lilith. She was depicted as Adam’s first wife in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work that became part of Jewish tradition sometime around the year 1000 CE. According to this interpretation, their marriage eventually failed and she left, prompting God to create Eve.
Her Origins Are In Mesopotamian Mythology
Lilith was likely derived from the ancient Sumerian myth of lilitu – the demon spirits of men and women who died young. Lilith’s more horrific aspects can be traced back to Lamashtu, the daughter of the Mesopotamian sky god Anu. Lamashtu was said to slay children and feast on men.
Lilith also appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh, on a tablet dated to roughly 2000 BCE. There she is a demon that Gilgamesh forces to flee and take refuge in a desolate area, an element that remains consistent in her tale over time.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Associate Her With Other Demons
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a group of some 800 texts discovered in the 1940s and 1950s on the West Bank near the Dead Sea, mention Lilith. The scrolls include Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek prayers, legal documents, biblical writings, and apocryphal works.
Lilith is referred to in the “Song for a Sage,” which was possibly a hymn used during 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.
During The Middle Ages, She Received A Backstory
The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a work produced sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries CE, offers a more in-depth explanation of what happened between Adam and Lilith. Other accounts describe Adam having a wife before Eve, but the Alphabet gives her a name and describes their falling-out.
By providing background on Lilith, Jewish scholars not only clarified the Book of Genesis, but also explained how and why Lilith had been the target of harsh treatment for centuries.
She Can Be Considered Adam’s Equal
If Lilith was Adam’s first wife as described in Genesis 1, she was created from the earth just as he was, ostensibly making them equals. According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, this equality was the problem that drove Lilith and Adam apart. When Adam insisted that Lilith perform her wifely duties and assume a submissive role, she responded that she would not.
Lilith insisted, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth,” and they ended up quarreling.
She Became The Scapegoat For Unexplainable Woes
Because Lilith refused to be subservient and abandoned Adam, she sealed her fate as the ultimate female villain. After three angels told Lilith that 100 of her children would die each day if she didn’t return to Adam, Lilith claimed she was “created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for 20 days.” But Lilith would spare children who had the names of certain angels – Sanoy, Sansenoy, and Samangelof – written on amulets to protect them.
Through this tale, Lilith’s role grew among the myths people used to explain pain, sorrow, and unfortunate events. Just like her Babylonian counterparts, Lilith became known as the perpetrator of child deaths.
The Talmud Presents Her As A Seductress
In keeping with Babylonian representations of Lilith, the Talmud builds on the tradition of her evil, seductive ways. Completed during the sixth and seventh centuries, the Talmud portrays Lilith as a long-haired, winged demon who assaults men while they sleep.
The Talmud even depicts Lilith vexing Adam during the years he spent separated from Eve – a time during which Adam became the father of “ghosts and male demons and female demons.”
Her Name Appeared On Incantation Bowls
Incantation bowls, designed to incapacitate demons, were popular throughout the ancient world, especially in Persia. Jews also used incantation bowls to exorcise demons, though not as often as their Mesopotamian neighbors. As a night demon – one that brought about death and temptation to children and men – Lilith appeared on numerous bowls.
The inscription on one incantation bowl describes Lilith as follows:
The evil Lilith,
who causes the hearts of men to go astray
and appears in the dream of the night
and in the vision of the day,
Who burns and casts down with nightmare,
attacks and kills children,
boys and girls.
On another bowl, the inscription reads: “Cut off the king of the demons… the great ruler of the liliths.”
In The Zohar, She Rules Alongside Satan
In the Zohar, the core book of Kabbalah, Lilith continues to be portrayed as a dark temptress. In addition to strangling children, she uses the “nocturnal emissions” of men to bear demonic children of her own.
The Zohar, a 13th-century text, draws heavily on earlier Talmudic works and asserts that Lilith even tried to seduce King Solomon by disguising herself as the Queen of Sheba. Her efforts are thwarted when she is discovered to be a hairy imposter.
In the Zohar, Lilith also becomes a fearsome queen alongside Satan.
Her Name Isn’t Mentioned Directly In The Bible
Lilith appears in the Bible only once, and it’s not even by name. In Isaiah 34:14, the author refers to the “night bird,” “night monster,” or “nocturnal creature,” depending on which translation of the Bible you’re reading.
When the Book of Isaiah mentions a nefarious night creature living among the ruins, Biblical scholars believe the passage is referring to Lilith.
She Is Identified As The Serpent In The Garden of Eden
Some historical texts and various works of art suggest that Lilith is the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel depicting “The Fall of Man,” for example, features a figure with the body of a woman and the tail of a serpent wrapped around a tree, which some suggest represents Lilith.
A Kabbalah text describes Lilith as the serpent:
And the Serpent, the Woman of Harlotry, incited and seduced Eve through the husks of Light which in itself is holiness… For Evil Lilith, when she saw the greatness of [Adam’s] corruption, became strong in her husks, and came to Adam against his will, and became hot from him and bore him many demons and spirits and Lilin.
She’s Been Called The First Feminist
Although Lilith has been identified as a demon, seductress, and scapegoat throughout history, in modern times, women’s movements starting in the 1970s have embraced her as a feminist and role model.
Proponents of this view see Lilith as an independent woman who makes her own choices – including selection of her sexual partners – and controls her own destiny.
Lilith Magazine, a Jewish feminist publication founded in 1976, was named after her.