Lilith is probably one of the better-known demons of Jewish lore. In fact, she is so well-known that many writers simply force their own interpretation on the mythical texts, making her to be a destructive femme-fatale or a demonic proto-feminist. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do the same. Before I force the texts to suit my personal views of Lilith, though, I will at least have the common courtesy of presenting the said texts.
Lilith’s first appearance is in the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, where the prophet mentions that name in a list of birds of prey who will haunt the ruins of Jerusalem. The name, which can be etymologically related to the words for night or screetch (but according to Gershom Scholem is likely related to neither of them), has been translated in the KJV as screeching owl.
Next we find Lilith in the Talmud, where Lilith is not a proper name but a female singular form of Lilin, a certain breed of demons. A particularly gruesome section in tractate Nidah (24a) deals with different types of miscarried foetuses. One such type is a Lilith-shaped foetus, which is said to look like a normal (?) miscarried foetus, but with a pair of wings. In tractate Shabbath (151b), Rabbi Hanina warns that “whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by a Lilith”.
Lilith as we know it gains its popularity only in post-Talmudic texts. The best known of these texts is the Alpha Beta DeBen Sira (“The ABCs of Sirach”), a Midrash written sometimes between the 8th-10th centuries CE. The Midrash follows the adventures of Ben Sira, who is both son and grandson of Jeremiah (don’t ask), during which he is brought before Nebuchadnezzar and joins his court as an advisor.
[Nebuchadnazar’s] youngest son took ill. The King said [to Ben Sira], Heal my son, and if you won’t do it, I will kill you. He sat down and wrote him a talisman called Purity, and on it he portrayed the angels in charge of the cure by their name, their image and the pattern of their wings, arms and legs. When Nebuchadnezzar looked at the talisman, he asked him, What are these? Ben Sirah replied, These are the angels in charge of the cure: Sanoy, Sansanoy and Samangalf.
The surprised King demands further explanation, and Ben Sira tells him of Lilith, the first woman, who was created from the dirt and not from Adam’s rib.
[He Explained:] When the Lord created Adam alone, He said, It is not good that the man should be alone . He created for him a woman from the dirt, just like he created Adam, and called her Lilith. They immediately began to quarrel with each other. She said, I will not lie down! And he said, I will not lie down either, I will be on top, because you are worthy of lying down, and I am worthy of being on top! She said, We are both equal, because both of us are made of the same dirt. They refused to listen to each other. Since Lilith saw this was the case, she said the explicit name of God and flew away in the air.
Horny and disappointed, Adam tells on Lilith.
Adam stood in prayer before his Master and said, Oh Lord! that woman you gave me has run away from me. The Lord called three angels to chase after her and return her. The Lord said, If she agrees to return, all will be well; if not, she must accept that a hundred of her sons will die each day. They went after Lilith and caught up with her within the [Red] Sea, in the strong currents where the Egyptian chariots were doomed to drown and told her the words of the Lord, and she would not return. They said to her, We will drown you in the sea! She said, Let me be, for I was only created to weaken the newborn babies. She swore to them: In the name of the Living God! Whenever I will see you or your names or your images on a talisman [next to a baby] I will not have dominion over that baby! And she accepted that a hundred of her sons will die each day, and therefore each day a hundred demons die. That is why we write the names [of the angels] on talismans we give to young children, since it reminds her of her oath, and she allows for the child to be cured.
“OMG”, the modern commentators say, “surely this must mean that Lilith is a feminist demon fighting for gender equality!”
Well, it depends. See, the problem with Alpha Beta DeBen Sira is that it is a half-satirical text. We are not quite sure which parts of the text are a jest and which of them are serious, but since the quoted paragraphs appear between a story on how Ben Sira poisoned Nebuchadnezzar for fun and a story about Ben Sira curing the king’s daughter of chronic farting, I would dare to guess the part about Adam and Lilith fight over sexual positions is also meant to be more funny than enlightening.
This is not to say, of course, that the entire Midrash has no basis in tradition. Incantations against Lilith abound in 9th century incantation bowls, and the talismans for protection from Lilith were popular nursery decorations in Jewish homes up until the 20th century. Even if the part about her being a risk to the Missionary Position is meant in jest, the part about her being a danger to newborn children is certainly not. The Midrash Rabbah also mentions Lilith as a particular child-killing demon, claiming that if she finds no human children to kill, she turns on her own sons and kills them instead.
The part about Lilith’s origin is also well-founded in tradition. In Luria‘s 16th century Kabbalistic teachings, Lilith is sometimes given the epitaph the first Eve.
The prominence of Lilith in Jewish folk-magic is perfectly understandable. Lilith smothering young children has been used to explain crib death, and Lilith stealing children left unattended was used to explain baby snatching or worse phenomena. When you’re a new parent, you take all threats to your son, substantiated or otherwise, very seriously. The most common formula for such talismans can be found in the book of Raziel, a collection of common household magic formulae and incantations made popular around the 16th or 17th centuries, which reflects some, but not all of the material in the Alpha Beta:
I force thee, oh First Eve, by the name of your creator and by the name of the three angels your creator sent for thee, and who found thee at the islands of the sea, and to whom you swore that wherever their names are found neither thou nor any of thy followers and servants will do harm to anyone who wears their names. Therefore I force thee by their names and signets here written, I force thee and thy followers and thy servants to do no harm to the mother of (Someone) son of (Someone) or to any of his household, or to the newborn child: neither by day nor by night, neither by food nor by drink, neither to their heads nor to their hearts, neither to their limbs nor to their tendons. By the power of these names and signets I force thee and thy followers and thy servants.
Adam and Eve and not Lilith,
Sanoy Sansanoy Samangalf
As you might have noticed, I’m not too keen on viewing Lilith as a feminist demon. I also don’t think she’s the sexy, seducing demon she’s often described as in modern accounts. I don’t think Lilith is all sexual prowess and sexual freedom . I do, however, think that the major female demons were meant to represent some frightening threats to the patriarchal order: Naamah is a seductress who will have your illegitimate children and set them against you; Agrat is a charismatic female authority figure, leading throngs of demons to battle. Lilith, though, is a single mother. She will raise her children without your help, and she will do what it takes to protect them from herself, even if it means killing your own.
In order to mitigate that grave threat, later Kabbalistic texts married her to some of the demon kings. The marriage of Lilith, Asmodeus, Samael and Taninor is a complex enough affair, deserving of its own separate post, hopefully next week.