In Jewish mythology and folklore, Lilith is a raven-haired demon who preys on helpless newborn infants and seduces unsuspecting men, using their "wasted seed" to spawn hordes of demon babies. Although her name only appears once in the Hebrew Bible, over the centuries Lilith has been cast as Adam's rebellious first wife, the soul mate of Samael the demon king, and more recently as a feminist icon. So, which is the real Lilith?
Long before Judaism claimed her, Lilith-like demons were haunting the nightmares of ancient Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians. Male and female demons called lilu and lilitu respectively appeared in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Mesopotamian goddess Lamashtu was a winged demon that tormented women during childbirth, caused miscarriages and stole breastfeeding infants.
What these various "L"-named spirits had in common was a sinister desire to strike at humans when they were most vulnerable, particularly pregnant women and newborns, in a pre-scientific age when infant and maternal mortality rates were wrenchingly high.
"To me, these ancient stories recognize the limits of our ability to control the world and reflect a desire to make these awful events seem less random," says Laura Lieber, a professor of religious studies at Duke University. "The pandemic is a reminder that there are certain things – illness in particular – that are a mystery, why certain people are afflicted and why others are spared."
One ancient tablet recovered in Syria and dated to the seventh century B.C.E. includes a chilling plea to be spared the wrath of the black-winged demon: "O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!"
Lilith as Adam's First Wife
The Canaanites, Hebrews and Israelites undoubtedly absorbed some of the lilitu/Lamashtu demonology, although the only mention of a "lilith" in the Hebrew Bible (known as the Old Testament in Christianity) appears in Isaiah 34:14, in which the prophet describes a barren wilderness laid waste by God's final judgment:
"The word 'lilith' is sometimes translated as a screech owl," says Lieber, "which is connected to the fact that in Ancient Near Eastern mythology, demon goddesses often had wings and bird feet."
Some early rabbinic commentators on the Hebrew Bible wondered, however, if Lilith hadn't made a secret appearance in the Book of Genesis. Upon close reading, there appear to be two separate accounts of how God created the first man and woman. In Genesis 1, God created both man and woman at the same time – "male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:27). In Genesis 2, however, God first created Adam "from the dust of the earth" and then removed one of Adam's ribs to form Eve (Gen. 2: 21-22).
Was the unnamed woman created in Genesis 1 someone other than Eve? And was it Lilith? This intriguing question likely circulated in Jewish mythology and folklore for centuries. Then, in the ninth century C.E., we got the first full-blown treatment of Lilith as Adam's disobedient first wife.
The infamous account appears in "The Alphabet of Ben Sira," a satirical and borderline heretical Jewish text from the Middle Ages that poked fun at biblical figures and incorporated elements of popular folklore.
According to Ben Sira, the first woman created alongside Adam in Genesis 1 was indeed Lilith, and she and Adam "immediately began to quarrel." When Adam insisted that Lilith "lie beneath" him during sex, she wasn't having it, replying, "You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth."
Lilith stormed off, pronouncing the "ineffable name of God" and flying away. God sent three angels after Lilith named Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof, who demanded that she return. By that point, she had already slept with Samael, chief among the demons, and vowed that she would not harm the human offspring of Adam and Eve if they wrote her name on a protective amulet during childbirth. Otherwise, she'd have dominion over newborn human babies during the first weeks of their life.
"What we get from Ben Sira is a desire to pull together different threads of all of the extant traditions surrounding Lilith," says Lieber, and also an explanation for a childbirth ritual to protect against sudden infant death that had already been in practice for centuries.
Anti-Lilith Amulets and Incantation Bowls
Long before "The Alphabet of Ben Sira" was in circulation, Jewish households were using protective amulets to ward off Liliths and other demonic baby-stealers. Between the fifth to eighth centuries C.E., the most popular form of anti-demonic protection was something called an incantation bowl.
These ceramic bowls were fashioned by "Jewish wizards" in Babylon to trap a specific demon associated with a specific illness or condition. Like the traditional biblical practice of fastening a mezuzah on the doorposts of a house, Jewish families expecting a baby would bury one of these magic incantation bowls under their front door to block entry by otherworldly baby snatchers.
"These magic bowls were a cross between a mezuzah and Aladdin's lamp," says Lieber, adding that they were used by non-Jews as well.
As incantation bowls fell out of favor, Jewish families purchased metal or paper amulets inscribed with the image of a bound Lilith and prayers for divine protection, including to Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof. Lieber says that you can still buy anti-Lilith amulets in some Jewish communities.
From Outcast to Feminist Icon
The Rabbinical commentaries and Jewish folktales surrounding Lilith all portrayed her as a wild, fallen woman cursed for her sin of rebelliousness. Since Lilith was unable to have her own human children, she not only stole unprotected infants, but seduced men in their sleep and took their semen (an ancient explanation of "nocturnal emissions").
The Babylonian Talmud, an ancient source of Jewish law, states: "It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him." It's believed that Lilith uses the stolen "seed" to impregnate herself with countless demon babies. Lieber says that some Hasidic folktales tell of court fights between human and demon offspring over an inheritance.
It wasn't until the late 20th century that feminist writers and activists began to reinterpret the Lilith myth, not as a warning against becoming an uncontrollable, "wanton" woman like Adam's first wife, but as a role model for a different kind of female existence. In 1972, the writer and filmmaker Lilly Rivlin published a groundbreaking article about Lilith in Ms. magazine, and the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith launched in 1976.
"[S]elf-sufficient women, inspired by the women's movement, have adopted the Lilith myth as their own," wrote Rivlin in the 1998 book "Which Lilith?" "They have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one's own destiny."
"Lilith is a powerful female, Aviva Cantor Zuckoff wrote, in the first issue of Lilith magazine. "She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimization. By acknowledging Lilith's revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith's power."
Lilith has also shown up in TV shows as diverse as "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," "Frasier" and "Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated," as well as lent her name to the Lilith Fair, a hugely successful all-female music festival co-founded by Sarah McLachlan. It toured America for three summers, 1997 to 1999 and was briefly revived in 2010.