Lilith: First Wife or Evil Spirit?

We sought to examine Lilith, a ravening brutality in the likeness of a winged spirit who preyed on pregnant women and infants.

By Balthazar Malevolent

Lilith: First Wife or Evil Spirit?

Lilith is first mentioned in Babylonian demonology found in the epic of Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, a Sumerian epic poem found on a tablet at Ur.

"The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there and find for herself a place of rest."

Isaiah 34:14

Triptych: Eve, Lilith, and Adam, Irving Amen, Woodcut, 1957

Lilith's appearance in the Bible is available anecdotally—as from ancient oral tradition had been already widely accessible—Lilith, a wilderness demon shunned by the prophet Isaiah. Contained in the words and prophecies of Isaiah, a critical prophet, written either by himself or his followers in Jerusalem during a period of great change for several historically significant civilizations—Rome is founded in 753 BC, and the Etruscan civilization expands in Italy.

In Chapter 34, a sword-wielding Yahweh seeks vengeance on the infidel Edomites, perennial outsiders, and foes of the ancient Israelites. According to this powerful apocalyptic poem, Edom will become a chaotic, desert land where the soil is infertile and wild animals roam. It ought to be noted the Lilith demon was so well known to Isaiah's audience as a dangerous embodiment of dark, feminine powers that no explanation of her identity was necessary.

Excavating the hidden mythological contortions over time and centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, female demons at once swept up in momentum of late antiquity while carrying recognizable artifacts and potentials of scholarly Jewish theoretical insights. During the 130 years between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, the Babylonian Talmud (final editing circa 500 to 600 BC) reports, a distraught Adam separates himself from Eve. During this time, he becomes the father of "ghosts and male demons and female demons" (Erubin 18b). And those who try to construct the Tower of Babel are turned into "apes, spirits, devils and night-demons" (Sanhedrin 109a). The female demon is Lilith.

The Talmud (Hebrew word meaning "study") is a compendium of legal discussions, tales of great rabbis who would, first of all, take advantage of Biblical passages, with the hope to propose to the individual and society through hearsay and readymade verdicts, therewith inadvertently confirming the thesis of its inaugural volume. Talmudic references to Lilith are few through its confluent series of registers, 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 vision 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. Therefore, men in Judaism are warned not to sleep alone in the house or with open windows. Unwholesome sexual practices are linked to Lilith as she powerfully embodies the demon-lover myth.

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. If the Talmud demonstrates what scholars thought about Lilith, the incantation bowls, dating from approximately 600 BC, show what average citizens believed, presenting difficulties for an illiterate society with imaginations haunted by old archetypes, remaining far behind the sophistication of Jewish scholarly influence.

The problem continued to be posed with many possibilities for altering its meaning. Amulets and incantations were used to counter her demonic powers. Her expression was a reorganization to such a degree might her audience expand if given rudimentary existence. Expediency became the order of the day for communicating anything whatsoever, titillating the spirit of the ancient Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, and through this foray even into the literate society of Mandaean Gnosticism.

In the Middle Ages, Lilith reappears in run-of-the-mill Jewish academicism as the dreadful first wife of Adam. However, the Babylonian she-demon took on new and even more malignant characteristics. In Medieval Midrash, she was popularized as Adam's first companion who refused to submit to him and so was replaced by Eve. Sometime before the year 1000 AD, we encounter the aporia of a text self-knowingly premised upon an illiterate society, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous text of 22 episodes, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth episode includes a familiar Lilith who tantalizes and terrifies the population for generations to come. She is destructive, she can fly, and she has a penchant for sex. Before Eve, she is Adam's first wife, who boldly leaves Eden because she is treated as man's inferior.

We are undoubtedly aware the imposition of The Alphabet of Ben Sira is a parody that dominated alongside a frugality of ideas, synchronizing with the expectant reader, to follow its tempo, twists, and turns—its language often coarse and its tone irreverent, exposing the hypocrisies of biblical heroes such as Jeremiah and offering "serious" discussions of vulgar matters such as masturbation, flatulence, and copulation by animals. Whether the writer of The Alphabet intended to produce earnest midrash or experimental burlesque, its endeavor procures Lilith unfit to serve as Adam's companion. Moreover, a male-dominated natural hierarchy snuffs out Lilith's desire for liberation. For this reason, of all the Lilith myths, her portrayal in The Alphabet of Ben Sira is today the most trumpeted, despite the distinct possibility that its author was spoofing sacred texts all along.

Today the tradition of Lilith has enjoyed a resurgence, due mainly to the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Willing to crack into a definitive niche, modern feminists celebrate a newfound togetherness in her bold struggle for emancipation from Adam. Renewed assimilation of the story has led contemporary writers to liquidate ever more deadening literacy. Ignoring or explaining away Lilith's surmisable traits, feminists displaced by repressive forces feel obliged instead to focus upon Lilith's independence and desire for autonomy with its own unique illiteracy and parochial outlook.

All in all, the movements illuminated by authoritarian personalities over millennia, we find the failure to examine the actual role of Lilith, which resultantly allows a myriad of psychoanalytic categories to be 'applied' wherever therapeutically convenient.

No results

Shop now