Lilith an intriguing figure who has taken on many shapes over the millennia

Lilith is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a class of winged female demons that attacks pregnant women and infants. From Babylonia, the legend of “the lilith” spread to ancient Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Greece. In this guise—as a wilderness demoness—she appears in Isaiah 34:14 among a list of nocturnal creatures who will haunt the destroyed Kingdom of Edom. This is her only mention in the Bible, but her legend continued to grow in ancient Judaism.

“ There shall meet also Ziim and Iim, and the Satire shall cry to his fellow, and the screech owl shall rest there, and shall find for herself a quiet dwelling.” (Isa 34:14 GenevaBible)

During the Middle Ages, Jewish sources began to claim her as Adam’s first—and terrifying—wife.

In the post-Biblical period, some ancient Jewish scholars took the stance that Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:21–22 must describe two separate events, since it appears that woman is created differently in these accounts.

“Thus God created the man in his image: in the image of God created he him: he created them male and female.” (Ge 1:27 GenevaBible)

“21  Therefore the Lord God caused an heavy sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. 22 And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her to the man.” (Ge 2:21-22 GenevaBible)

In her Bible Review article “Lilith” in the October 2001 issue, Professor Janet Howe Gaines explains this reasoning:

“Considering every word of the Bible to be accurate and sacred, commentators needed a midrash or story to explain the disparity in the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. God creates woman twice — once with man, once from man’s rib — so there must have been two women.
The Bible names the second woman Eve; Lilith was identified as the first in order to complete the story.”

Accordingly, Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of Adam and an unnamed woman (Lilith); Genesis 2:7 gives more details of Adam’s creation; and Genesis 2:21–22 describes the creation of Eve from Adam.

Lilith’s creation is recounted in The Tales of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work from the tenth century C.E. Dan Ben-Amos explains that although this is the first extant text that records the legend of Lilith, her story probably existed earlier.

The Tales of Ben Sira relates that God created Lilith from the earth, just as he had created Adam. They immediately began fighting because neither would submit to the other. Recognizing that Adam would not listen to her, Lilith

“pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air” (The Tales of Ben Sira).

The Qumran community was surely familiar with the Isaiah passage, because in the more recently found scrolls at Qumran she does resurface. Lilith appears in the Song for a Sage, a hymn possibly used in 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.” {4Q510. See Joseph M. Baumgarten, “On the Nature of the Seductress in 4Q184,” Revue de Qumran 15 (1991–1992), pp. 133–143.}

Centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, learned rabbis completed the Babylonian Talmud (final editing circa 500 to 600 C.E.), and female demons journeyed into scholarly Jewish inquiries. The Talmud (the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “study”) is a compendium of legal discussions, tales of great rabbis and meditations on Bible passages. Talmudic references to Lilith are few, 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).All talmudic references are to The Babylonian Talmud, trans. Isidore Epstein, 17 vols. (London: Soncino, 1948). The Talmud’s image 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. Unwholesome sexual practices are linked to Lilith as she powerfully embodies the demon-lover myth.

One talmudic reference claims that people should not sleep alone at night, lest Lilith slay them (Shabbath 151b). During the 130-year period between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, the Talmud reports, a distraught Adam separates himself from Eve. During this time he becomes the father of “ghosts and male demons and female [or night] 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 night demon is Lilith.

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 on them. If the Talmud demonstrates what scholars thought about Lilith, the incantation bowls, dating from approximately 600 C.E., show what average citizens believed. One bowl now on display at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum reads,

“Thou Lilith. . .Hag and Snatcher, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob. . .to turn away from this Rashnoi. . .and from Geyonai her husband. . .Your divorce and writ and letter of separation. . .sent through holy angels. . .Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!”Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd enlarged ed. (Detroit: Wayne State, 1990), p. 226.

The inscription is meant to offer a woman named Rashnoi protection from Lilith. According to popular folklore, demons not only killed human infants, they would also produce depraved offspring by attaching themselves to human beings and copulating at night. Therefore, on this particular bowl a Jewish writ of divorce expels the demons from the home of Rashnoi.

The Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) imaginatively describes a pact between Lilith and the Bible’s serpent.

File:Lady-Lilith.jpg

«Lilith, the subject of this painting, is described in Judaic literature as the first wife of Adam. She is associated with the seduction of men and the murder of children. The depiction of women as powerful and evil temptresses was prevalent in 19th-century painting, particularly among the Pre-Raphaelites. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) depicts Lilith as an iconic, Amazon-like female with long, flowing hair. Her languid nature is reiterated in the inclusion of the poppy in the lower right corner—the flower of opium-induced slumber.»

In the Renaissance, Michelangelo portrayed Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. Later, her beauty would captivate the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

“Her enchanted hair,” he wrote, “was the first gold.”{Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Body’s Beauty,” in The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1928), p. 183.} Irish novelist James Joyce cast her as the “patron of abortions.”{James Joyce, Ulysses, chap. 14, “Oxen of the Sun.”}

While Lilith appears in the Zohar and many anonymous folktales throughout Europe, over the centuries she has attracted the attention of some of Europe’s best-known artists and writers.

Modern feminists celebrate her bold struggle for independence from Adam. Her name appears as the title of a Jewish women’s magazine and a national literacy program. An annual music festival that donates its profits to battered women’s shelters and breast cancer research institutes is called the Lilith Fair.

In most manifestations of her myth, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness. Yet, in her every guise, Lilith has cast a spell on humankind.

The ancient name “Lilith” derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits — the lilītu and the related ardat lilǐ. The lilītu dwells in desert lands and open country spaces and is especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Her breasts are filled with poison, not milk. The ardat lilī is a sexually frustrated and infertile female who behaves aggressively toward young men.

This winged night creature has inspired Johann Goethe, Robert Browning, C.S. Lewis, Judith Plaskow Goldenberg, Pamela Hadas, a.o. and probably will bring others also to use her as an interesting character to retell the myth of Lilith, reflecting each generation’s views of the feminine role, she being the archetype for the changing role of woman.

+

Dutch version / Nederlandstalige versie: Lilith een intrigerende figuur die de afgelopen millennia vele vormen heeft aangenomen.

3 thoughts on “Lilith an intriguing figure who has taken on many shapes over the millennia

  1. Pingback: Lilith een intrigerende figuur die de afgelopen millennia vele vormen heeft aangenomen. | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.