Study of the Goddess: Lilith
An Introduction to Lilith
By Alan Humm
Lilith is the most important of a small collection of named female demons in Jewish legend. Historically, she is actually older than Judaism (at least Judaism as defined as a post-restoration phenomenon). Her earliest appearance is probably in ancient Sumer. Although it is far from certain, she may be a minor character in a prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the ancient world she also sometimes appears in magical texts, amulets, etc., intended to thwart her activities. She appears once in the Bible (Isaiah), in a context that associates her with demons of the desert, and again in some Dead Sea Scroll passages clearly based on the Isaiah reference.
We see somewhat more of her in late Roman/early medieval Judaism. She appears frequently on prophylactic magical bowls. In this context, she is clearly associated with childbirth (e.g. as a threat), and perhaps also as a succubus against which men need protection. In these bowls she is often countered by invoking the powers of her nemesis angels: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof (we don’t know what vowels to use with these names, but presumably they were intended to be pronounceable). She also shows up in the Talmud, and is clearly linked with the demonic world. Here also, her role as succubus begins to take clear shape.
Somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries, CE, she makes an appearance in a satirical work entitled the Alphabet of Ben Sira. It is here that she is first given what has become her most famous persona: the first wife of Adam (before Eve). In this story, she is created at more or less the same time as Adam, and, as was Adam, out of the ground. Because of this she tries to assert her equality — an assertion which Adam rejects. Refusing to conform to Adam’s desires, she escapes from Eden, and is subsequently replaced by the more subservient Eve (who has less claim to equality, since she was made out of Adam’s side). Having escaped Eden, Lilith takes on her renowned role as baby-stealer and mother of demons. She also promises to leave babies alone who are protected by amulets with the names of the three angels mentioned above.
While it is true that there was a rabbinic tradition that Adam briefly had another wife before the creation of Eve (Genesis Rabbah), there is a great deal of doubt as to whether Lilith had any connection at all to this first wife of Adam story prior the publication of the Alphabet. The satirical nature of the Alphabet casts further doubt on the authenticity of this Lilith connection. But whatever its origins, the connection between Lilith and the first Eve seems to have struck a chord with Jewish folk imagination and it is now an inexorable part of those traditions. It has been able to function both as a ‘woman’s story’ (in which Lilith is a role model for uppity women), and as a patriarchal story (in which we see the dire consequences of being an uppity woman). As a midrash, it also helps to solve a problem that arises from the fact that Genesis 1 has mankind created “male and female,” but when we get to Genesis 2, Adam seems to be alone and in need of a partner.
Kabbalistic literature is occasionally aware of the Alphabet story, but more frequently not. Here Lilith usually appears as a partner for Samael (=Satan), and as the chief feminine expression of the Left (evil) Emanation. In some passages, she participates in the temptation of Eve/Adam, and, after the expulsion, she serves as succubus to Adam, generating hoards of demons from his seed. She is also the personification of temptation, and is for all intents and purposes identified with the woman Folly from the early chapters of Proverbs. In one story, she actually serves as consort to the Holy One.
She also appears in Christian iconography. Most late medieval and renaissance paintings of the temptation of Adam and Eve have portrayed the serpent as having a woman’s head and often torso as well. This is usually referred to by art historians as ‘Lilith,’ but there is no Jewish story which easily corresponds to the pictorial representations (the one exception is Bacharach, ‘Emeq haMelekh 23c-d, but it is confusing, and problematic at best). I am led to presume that there were Christian versions of the Lilith myth in which the identification between her and the Serpent were made explicit. Unfortunately, none of these versions have survived in either text or known folklore.
Lilith enjoyed something of a revival in literature beginning in the mid 19th century. Usually she represents the feminine dark side (the part that men subliminally fear). Carl Jung made use of her as prime expression of the anima in men (the suppressed feme within), and the best monograph on her still belongs to one of Jung’s disciples (Siegmund Hurwitz).
She has also been embraced by many modern, particularly Jewish, feminists. Based mainly, or entirely, on the Alphabet, she is presented as the proto-feminist, willing to sacrifice even the paradise of Eden as the necessary cost of freedom and equality. Of course, her role as baby-stealer is usually down-played (or assigned to a patriarchal layer of the tradition). Some neo-pagan groups have taken up her cause as well, either accepting her dark nature as part of larger sacred reality, or finding the erotic goddess within after removing the clutter of what they argue are patriarchal and monotheistic condemnations.
Finally, she has a place in vampire lore either as the first and most powerful of the vampires, or at least as their queen. She is sometimes presented as either the daughter or the consort of Dracula. In her role as succubus, she has, of course, particular control of nightmares and erotic dreams. She also rules a horde of other succuba and incubi.