Lilith

Lilith is a female demon in Jewish legends, found first in the Dead Sea scrolls (the earliest known copy of the old testament, discovered in 1947 and written between 408 BCE and 318 CE). The legend is related both to a Hebrew language term ‘lilith’ which appears in a list of wilderness animals and birds in the ‘Book of Isaiah,’ and also is linked to beliefs about demons called ‘lili’ (‘spirit,’ associated with the night, wind, and owls.) in ancient Babylon.

Evidence in later Jewish materials is plentiful, but little information has been found relating to the original Akkadian and Babylonian view of these demons. The relevance of two sources previously used to connect the Jewish ‘Lilith’ to an Akkadian ‘Lilitu’ – the ‘Gilgamesh’ appendix and the Arslan Tash amulets – are now both disputed by recent scholarship.

The Hebrew term ‘Lilith’ first occurs in ‘Isaiah 34:14,’ either singular or plural according to variations in the earliest manuscripts, though in a list of animals. In the Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Songs of the Sage’ (a fragmentary Hebrew language manuscript of a Jewish magical text of incantation and exorcism, specifically for protection against a list of demons) the term first occurs in a list of monsters. This liturgical text both cautions against the presence of supernatural malevolence and assumes familiarity with Lilith; distinct from the biblical text, however, this passage does not function under any socio-political agenda, but instead serves in the same capacity as ‘An Exorcism’ and ‘Songs to Disperse Demons.’ The text is thus, to a community ‘deeply involved in the realm of demonology,’ an exorcism hymn.

In Jewish magical inscriptions, on bowls and amulets from the 6th century CE onwards, Lilith is identified as a female demon and the first visual depictions appear. In Jewish folklore, from the 8th–10th centuries ‘Alphabet of Ben Sira’ (an anonymous medieval text) onwards, Lilith becomes Adam’s first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. This contrasts with Eve, who was created from one of Adam’s ribs. The legend was greatly developed during the Middle Ages, in the tradition of Aggadic midrashim (compendiums of rabbinic homilies that incorporates folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and practical advice in various spheres, from business to medicine), and the Zohar (a major text in Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah). In the 13th Century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, for example, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she mated with archangel Samael. The resulting Lilith legend is still commonly used as source material in modern Western culture, literature, occultism, fantasy, and horror.

There are three references to Lilith in the Babylonian Talmud in Gemara (Rabbinical analysis): ‘Rab Judah citing Samuel ruled: If an abortion had the likeness of Lilith its mother is unclean by reason of the birth, for it is a child but it has wings.’ / ‘[Expounding upon the curses of womanhood] In a Baraitha it was taught: She grows long hair like Lilith, sits when making water like a beast, and serves as a bolster for her husband.’ / ‘R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone [in a lonely house], and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.’

The statement by Hanina may be related to the belief that nocturnal emissions engendered the birth of demons: ‘R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar further stated: In all those years [130 years after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden] during which Adam was under the ban he begot ghosts and male demons and female demons [or night demons], for it is said in Scripture: And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years and begot a son in own likeness, after his own image, from which it follows that until that time he did not beget after his own image… When he saw that through him death was ordained as punishment he spent a hundred and thirty years in fasting, severed connection with his wife for a hundred and thirty years, and wore clothes of fig on his body for a hundred and thirty years. – That statement [of R. Jeremiah] was made in reference to the semen which he emitted accidentally.’

An individual Lilith, along with Bagdana ‘king of the lilits,’ is one of the demons to feature prominently in protective spells in the eighty surviving Jewish occult incantation bowls from Sassanid Empire Babylon (4th-6th Century CE). These bowls were buried upside down in houses to trap the demon, and almost every Jewish house in Nippur was found to have such protective bowls buried. One bowl contains the following inscription commissioned from a Jewish occultist to protect a woman called Rashnoi and her husband from Lilith: ‘Thou liliths, male lili and female lilith, hag and ghool, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob, by Yah Ha-Shem by Yah his memorial, to turn away from this Rashnoi b. M. and from Geyonai b. M. her husband. [Here is] your divorce and writ and letter of separation, sent through holy angels. Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!’

The pseudepigraphic (falsely attributed) ‘Alphabet of Ben Sira’ is considered to be the oldest form of the story of Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Whether this particular tradition is older is not known. Scholars tend to date the Alphabet between the 8th and 10th centuries. In the text an amulet is inscribed with the names of three angels (Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof) and placed around the neck of newborn boys in order to protect them from the lilin until their circumcision. The amulets used against Lilith that were thought to derive from this tradition are, in fact, dated as being much older. The concept of Eve having a predecessor is not exclusive to the ‘Alphabet,’ and is not a new concept, as it can be found in ‘Genesis Rabbah’ (a Rabbinical analysis of ‘Genesis’ written not long after the Talmud) However, the idea that Lilith was the predecessor is exclusive to the ‘Alphabet.’

The idea in the text that Adam had a wife prior to Eve may have developed from an interpretation of the ‘Book of Genesis’ and its dual creation accounts; while ‘Genesis 2:22’ describes God’s creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, an earlier passage, ‘1:27,’ already indicates that a woman had been made: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ ‘The Alphabet’ text places Lilith’s creation after God’s words in ‘Genesis 2:18’ that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’; in this text God forms Lilith out of the clay from which he made Adam but she and Adam bicker. Lilith claims that since she and Adam were created in the same way they were equal and she refuses to submit to him. The background and purpose of ‘The Alphabet of Ben-Sira’ is unclear. It is a collection of stories about heroes of the Bible and Talmud. It may have been a collection of folktales, a refutation of Christian, Karaite (a sect of Judaism that disavows the Talmud), or other separatist movements; its content seems so offensive to contemporary Jews that it was even suggested that it could be an anti-Jewish satire, although, in any case, the text was accepted by the Jewish mystics of medieval Germany.

In this folk tradition that arose in the early Middle Ages Lilith, a dominant female demon, became identified with Asmodeus, King of Demons, as his queen. Asmodeus was already well known by this time because of the legends about him in the Talmud. Thus, the merging of Lilith and Asmodeus was inevitable. The second myth of Lilith grew to include legends about another world and by some accounts this other world existed side by side with this one, ‘Yenne Velt’ is Yiddish for this described ‘Other World.’ In this case Asmodeus and Lilith were believed to procreate demonic offspring endlessly and spread chaos at every turn. Many disasters were blamed on both of them, causing wine to turn into vinegar, men to be impotent, women unable to give birth, and it was Lilith who was blamed for the loss of infant life. The presence of Lilith and her cohorts were considered very real at this time.

Two primary characteristics are seen in these legends about Lilith: Lilith as the incarnation of lust, causing men to be led astray, and Lilith as a child-killing witch, who strangles helpless neonates. Although these two aspects of the Lilith legend seemed to have evolved separately, there is hardly a tale where she encompasses both roles. But the aspect of the witch-like role that Lilith plays broadens her archetype of the destructive side of witchcraft. Such stories are commonly found among Jewish folklore.

Kabbalistic mysticism attempted to establish a more exact relationship between Lilith and the Deity. With her major characteristics having been well-developed by the end of the Talmudic period, after six centuries had elapsed between the Aramaic incantation texts found with the Dead Sea Scrolls that mention Lilith and the early Spanish Kabbalistic writings in the 13th century, she reappears, and her life history becomes known in greater mythological detail.

She is described in many alternative versions. One mentions her creation as being before Adam’s, on the fifth day, because the ‘living creatures’ with whose swarms God filled the waters included none other than Lilith. A similar version, related to the earlier Talmudic passages, recounts how Lilith was fashioned with the same substance as Adam was, shortly before. A third alternative version states that God originally created Adam and Lilith in a manner that the female creature was contained in the male. Lilith’s soul was lodged in the depths of the Great Abyss. When God called her, she joined Adam. After Adam’s body was created a thousand souls from the Left (evil) side attempted to attach themselves to him. However, God drove them off. Adam was left lying as a body without a soul. Then a cloud descended and God commanded the earth to produce a living soul. This God breathed into Adam, who began to spring to life and his female was attached to his side. God separated the female from Adam’s side. The female side was Lilith, whereupon she flew to the Cities of the Sea and attacks humankind. Yet another version claims that Lilith emerged as a divine entity that was born spontaneously, either out of the Great Supernal Abyss or out of the power of an aspect of God (the Gevurah of Din). This aspect of God, one of his ten attributes (Sefirot), at its lowest manifestation has an affinity with the realm of evil and it is out of this that Lilith merged with archangel Samael.

An alternative story links Lilith with the creation of luminaries. The ‘first light,’ which is the light of Mercy (one of the Sefirot), appeared on the first day of creation when God said ‘Let there be light.’ This light became hidden and the Holiness became surrounded by a husk of evil. ‘A husk (klippa) was created around the brain’ and this husk spread and brought out another husk, which was Lilith.

The first medieval source to depict Adam and Lilith in full was the ‘Midrash A.B.K.I.R.’ (ca. 10th century), which was followed by the Zohar and Kabbalistic writings. Adam is said to be perfect until he recognizes either his sin or Cain’s fratricide that is the cause of bringing death into the world. He then separates from holy Eve, sleeps alone, and fasts for 130 years. During this time Lilith, also known as Pizna, desired his beauty and came to him against his will.

The mystical writing of two brothers Jacob and Isaac Hacohen, which predates the ‘Zohar’ by a few decades, states that Samael and Lilith are in the shape of an androgynous being, double-faced, born out of the emanation of the Throne of Glory (Throne of God)) and corresponding in the spiritual realm to Adam and Eve, who were likewise born as a hermaphrodite. The two twin androgynous couples resembled each other and both ‘were like the image of Above’; that is, that they are reproduced in a visible form of an androgynous deity.

Another version that was also current among Kabbalistic circles in the Middle Ages establishes Lilith as the first of Samael’s four wives: Lilith, Naamah, Igrath, and Mahalath. Each of them are mothers of demons and have their own hosts and unclean spirits in no number. The marriage of archangel Samael and Lilith was arranged by ‘Blind Dragon,’ who is the counterpart of ‘the dragon that is in the sea.’ Blind Dragon acts as an intermediary between Lilith and Samael: ‘Blind Dragon rides Lilith the Sinful – may she be extirpated quickly in our days, Amen! – And this Blind Dragon brings about the union between Samael and Lilith. And just as the Dragon that is in the sea (Isa. 27:1) has no eyes, likewise Blind Dragon that is above, in the likeness of a spiritual form, is without eyes, that is to say, without colors…. (Patai81:458) Samael is called the Slant Serpent, and Lilith is called the Tortuous Serpent.’

The marriage of Samael and Lilith is known as the ‘Angel Satan’ or the ‘Other God,’ but it was not allowed to last. To prevent Lilith and Samael’s demonic children (Lilin) from filling the world, God castrated Samael. In many 17th century Kabbalistic books, this mythologem is based on the identification of ‘Leviathan the Slant Serpent and Leviathan the Torturous Serpent’ and a reinterpretation of an old Talmudic myth where God castrated the male Leviathan and slew the female Leviathan in order to prevent them from mating and thereby destroying the earth. After Samael became castrated and Lilith was unable to fornicate with him, she left him to couple with men who experience nocturnal emissions. A 15th or 16th century Kabbalah text states that God has ‘cooled’ the female Leviathan, meaning that he has made Lilith infertile and she is a mere fornication.

The ‘Treatise on the Left Emanation’ (a medieval, Spanish Kabbalah text) says that there are two Liliths, the lesser being married to the great demon Asmodeus. Another passage charges Lilith as being a tempting serpent of Eve. References to Lilith in the ‘Zohar’ include the following: ‘She wanders about at night, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves.’ This passage may be related to the mention of Lilith in the Babylonian Talmud, where nocturnal emissions beget demons. Jewish ethnographer Raphael Patai notes that older sources state clearly that after Lilith’s Red Sea sojourn she returned to Adam and begat children from him. In the ‘Zohar,’ however, Lilith is said to have succeeded in begetting offspring from Adam during their short-lived sexual experience. Lilith leaves Adam in Eden, as she is not a suitable helpmate for him. She returns, later, to force herself upon him. However, before doing so she attaches herself to Cain and bears him numerous spirits and demons.

According to Israeli historian Gershom Scholem, the author of the ‘Zohar,’ Rabbi Moses de Leon, was aware of the folk tradition of Lilith. He was also aware of another story, possibly older, that may be conflicting. According to the ‘Zohar,’ two female spirits, Lilith and Naamah — found Adam, desired his beauty which was like that of the sun disk, and lay with him. The issue of these unions were demons and spirits called ‘the plagues of humankind.’ The added explanation was that it was through Adam’s own sin that Lilith overcame him against his will.

A copy of Jean de Pauly’s translation of the ‘Zohar’ in the Ritman Library contains an inserted late 17th Century printed Hebrew sheet for use in magical amulets where the prophet Elijah confronts Lilith. In this encounter, she had come to feast on the flesh of the mother, with a host of demons, and take the newborn from her. She eventually reveals her secret names to Elijah in the conclusion. These names are said to cause Lilith to lose her power.

Lilith is listed as one of the Qliphoth (evil forces), corresponding to the Sephirah (emanation) Malkuth (an attribute of God which does not emanate from God directly — rather it emanates from God’s creation) in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (a classic descriptive term for the 10 central mystical symbols used in Kabbalah). The demon Lilith, the evil woman, is described as a beautiful woman, who transforms into a blue, butterfly-like demon, and it is associated with the power of seduction. The Qliphah is the unbalanced power of a Sephirah. Malkuth is the lowest Sephirah, the realm of the earth, into which all the divine energy flows, and in which the divine plan is worked out. However, its unbalanced form is as Lilith, the seductress. The material world, and all of its pleasures, is the ultimate seductress, and can lead to materialism unbalanced by the spirituality of the higher spheres. This ultimately leads to a descent into animal consciousness. The balance must therefore be found between Malkuth and Kether (the topmost Sephirah, the incomprehensible), to find order and harmony.

According to Swiss psychoanalyst Siegmund Hurwitz the Talmudic Lilith is connected with the Greek Lamia, who, according to Hurwitz, likewise governed a class of child stealing lamia-demons. Lamia bore the title ‘child killer’ and was feared for her malevolence, like Lilith. She has different conflicting origins and is described as having a human upper body from the waist up and a serpentine body from the waist down. One source states simply that she is a daughter of the goddess Hecate. Another, that Lamia was subsequently cursed by the goddess Hera to have stillborn children because of her association with Zeus; alternatively, Hera slew all of Lamia’s children (except Scylla) after Lamia slept with her husband, Zeus. The grief caused Lamia to turn into a monster that took revenge on mothers by stealing their children and devouring them.

Lamia had a vicious sexual appetite that matched her cannibalistic appetite for children. She was notorious for being a vampiric spirit and loved sucking men’s blood. Her gift was the ‘mark of a Sibyl,’ a gift of second sight. Zeus was said to have given her the gift of sight. However, she was ‘cursed’ to never be able to shut her eyes so that she would forever obsess over her dead children. Taking pity on Lamia, Zeus gave her the ability to remove and replace her eyes from their sockets. The Empusae were a class of supernatural demons that Lamia was said to have birthed. Hecate would often send them against travelers. They consumed or scared to death any of the people where they inhabited. They bare many similarities to lilim. It has been suggested that later medieval lore of the succubi or lilim is derived from this myth.

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