Lilith – demon or heroine?

Lilith is a mythological figure that appears in the text of ancient cultures including Babylonian, Assyrian, Akkadian and Sumerian. She also appears in Jewish mythology. But who is Lilith? What does she represent?

Demonising Lilith

LilithGenerally Lilith is regarded as a female demon (or a type of demon), a night creature though the word lilith first appears in the Bible, Isaiah 34:11, as part of a list of animals. In most translations it refers to the owl of screech owl, but more importantly, in context the verse refers to judgment, confusion, chaos and the undoing of the work of creation. The Moffat Bible and the New American Bible are more specific.

Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (Isaiah 34:14 – NAB)
… wild cats hunt with hyenas, and demon calls to demons; there vampires settle, to make themselves a home. (Isaiah 34:14 – Moffatt)

In the “Songs of the Sage” from the Dead Sea Scrolls there is the first clear usage of lilith in reference to a supernatural creature. The “Songs of the Sage” speaks of demons which terrorised humanity after the Flood. It contains incantations for protection against these demons.

According to the “Book of Jubilees” (an ancient Jewish religious work) Noah prayed to God to rid the world of these creatures but God does a deal with Mastem, an angel who persecutes evil by testing the faith of humans and carrying out punishments on behalf of God. The result, 90 percent of the demons are banished and the remainder left to do Mastem’s work. Lilith survived the cull.

From the “Songs of Sage”:

And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendour so as to frighten and to terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers and desert dwellers…

Lilith began to appear as “magical” inscriptions on amulets and bowls in the 6th century BC and is identified as a female demon.

Lilith
Draper-Lamia

In Jewish folklore Lilith appears as Adam’s first wife in the book “Alphabet of Ben Sira” before she was “demonised”. She and Adam argued because he wanted her to be subservient while she wished to be treated as an equal. Adam refused and she fled.

Soon afterward the young son of the king took ill. Said Nebuchadnezzar, “Heal my son. If you don’t, I will kill you.” Ben Sira immediately sat down and wrote an amulet with the Holy Name, and he inscribed on it the angels in charge of medicine by their names, forms, and images, and by their wings, hands, and feet. Nebuchadnezzar looked at the amulet. “Who are these?”

“The angels who are in charge of medicine: Snvi, Snsnvi, and Semangelof. While God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’. He also created a woman, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith.

Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.’

Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.

Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘Sovereign of the universe!’ he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.

Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’

The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’

‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I 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 twenty days.’

When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.’ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day.

Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

 

 

Lilith
Lamia (second version) by John William Waterhouse (1909); note the snakeskin on her lap.

Interestingly, although “The Alphabet of Ben Sira” has been classified as satirical, it does address the two versions of Eve’s creation as told in the Bible. In Genesis 1, God made Adam and his mate at the same time, while in Genesis 2 woman was made from Adam’s rib and therefore after.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:26-27

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Genesis 2: 21-23

 

 

The Latin Bible, translated the word lilith as lamia. Lamia in Greek mythology was a beautiful queen of Libya who became a child-eating daemon. Other traditions refer to the plural lamiae – vampires and succubi that seduced young men and then fed on their blood.

Lilith today

Lilith
Demon Lilith from Marvel’s Ghost Rider 2.

Lilith is still being demonized today in movies, books, music and even comics. She’s been the mother of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the wife of Satan, the daughter of Dracula in the Marvel comics and a demon sorceress in Ghost Rider, another Marvel creation. Lilith was also a character in an episode of Scooby-Doo on television. Video games like Diablo and Final Fantasy too feature Lilith characters.

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, “Lady Lilith”, she represents the body’s beauty. A replica of the original, also painted by Rossetti, is displayed In New York’s Metropolitan Art Museum along with a verse from Faust, considered by many to be the greatest work in German literature.  It reads:

Beware of her fair hair, for she excels
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.
Lady Lilith
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 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.

Lilith is also popular as a hero today. Her refusal to accept Adam’s demand to be subjugated, and to defy God when she is ordered to return, to many, showed inner strength. Her beauty and ability to seduce is regarded in a positive light. Lilith was a victim but she’s also a survivor. She symbolises the courage to be forever cursed rather than live in an unjust domain.

Lilith is revered in neo-pagan religions like Wicca where she is considered a goddess rather than a demon. She is regarded as the mother goddess of childbirth, children, women, and sexuality who later became demonized due to the rise of patriarchy.

Lilith
Lamia (first version) by John William Waterhouse (1905); note the snakeskin wrapped around her arm and waist.

The modern feminist movement too has found inspiration in Lilith, rejecting her demonization. According to journalist and filmmaker Lilly Rivlin, she is seen as a symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one’s own destiny.

Ironically, it was traits of misogyny that led to the demonization of Lilith, making her not only a kidnapper and murderer of babies, but also a misandrist.

This was probably the greatest of the curses placed upon Lilith. Unlike Adam’s insistence he was greater than her, Lilith did not wish to be better than him. She wanted to be his equal.

Perhaps Lilith not only symbolises gender equality, but equality in all forms including race and religion.

 

Body’s Beauty
By Dante Gabriel Rossetti as an accompaniment to “Lady Lilith”

Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flower; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

 


 

Why are there five syllables in the word "monosyllabic"?”