Lilith is a female Mesopotamian night demon believed to harm male children. In Isaiah 34:14, Lilith (לִּילִית, Standard Hebrew Lilit) is a kind of night-demon or animal, translated as onokentauros; in the Septuagint, as lamia; "witch" by Hieronymus of Cardia; and as screech owl in the King James Version of the Bible. In the Talmud and Midrash, Lilith appears as a night demon. She is often identified as the first wife of Adam, a legend that arose in the Middle Ages.
Hebrew לילית lilith, Akkadian līlītu are female Nisba adjectives from the Proto-Semitic root LYL "night", literally translating to nocturna "female night being/demon". Sayce (Hibbert Lectures, 145ff.), Fossey (La Magie Assyrienne, 37ff.) and others reject an etymology based on the root LYL and suggest the origin of Līlīt was as a storm demon; this view is supported by the cuneiform inscriptions quoted by these scholars. The association with "night" may still be due to early popular etymology. The corresponding Akkadian masculine Lilu or līlû shows no Nisba suffix and compares to Sumerian (kiskil-)lilla.
Lilith has been identified with ki-sikil-lil-la-ke4, a female demon in the Sumerian prologue to the Gilgamesh epic.
Wolkenstein translates the same passage:
The Burney relief
The Gilgamesh passage quoted above has in turn been applied by some to the Burney relief (Norman Colville collection), which dates to roughly 1950 BC and is a sculpture of a woman who has bird talons and is flanked by owls.
The key to this identification lies in the bird talons and the owls. While the relief may depict the demon Kisikil-lilla-ke of the Gilgamesh passage or another goddess, identification with Lilitu is more tenuous and likely influenced by the "screech owl" translation of the King James Version of the Bible. A very similar relief dating to roughly the same period is preserved in the Louvre (AO 6501).
After these reliefs, there is a gap of about a millennium, and it is only from circa the 9th century BC that vampire-like spirits called the Lilu are known from Babylonian demonology. These female demons roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. Akkadian Lilitu forms a triad with Ardat Lili and Idlu Lili. As stated above, they may have originated as storm demons (from the Sumerian "Lil" = Air or Wind), and the "night" association may be a Semitic popular etymology.
Earlier Sumerian myth tells the story of how Adapa came to break the wings of the South Wind, associated with the summer sand-storms which have always afflicted Iraq, after which she vowed enmity to humankind. This wind was associated with Ninlil ("Lady Wind", from Nin = Lady, Lil = Wind) the wife to Enlil (En = Lord, Lil = Wind), King of the Gods. A separate fragmentary myth describes how Enlil raped Ninlil, and as punishment he was sent to the underworld domain of Ereshkigal (Eresh = Under, Ki = Earth, Gal = Great). Ninlil, suffering the trauma of her rape, after roaming the world followed him to the underworld, vowing vengeance upon the male gender. Ninlil. )
In the transfer from Sumerian myth to Babylonian Akkadian, it is suggested that Ninlil became Lilitu (-*itu being an Akkadian feminine marker), with her two wild handmaidens Ardat Lili and Idlu Lili (mentioned above).
The "Lilith Prophylactic" of Arslan Tash Aleppo National Museum has been suspected a forgery, but if genuine it would be a 7th century BC plaque featuring a sphinx-like creature and a she-wolf devouring a child, with a Phoenician inscription addressing the sphinx creature as Lili.
The association with the owl is difficult to date, and may be due to the bird having been seen as a blood-sucking night spirit. Elements of the cult spread to Ancient Greece and can be traced in the Erinyes and Hecate.
Lilith in the Bible
Isaiah 34:14, describing the desolation of Edom, is the only occurrence of Lilith in the Hebrew Bible:
Schrader (Jahrbuch für Protestantische Theologie, 1. 128) and Levy (ZDMG 9. 470, 484) suggest that Lilith was a goddess of the night, known also by the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Evidence for Lilith being a goddess rather than a demon is lacking. Isaiah dates to the 6th century BC, and the presence of Jews in Babylon would coincide with the attested references to the Līlītu in Babylonian demonology.
The Septuagint translates onokentauros, apparently for lack of a better word, since also the "satyrs" earlier in the verse are translated with daimon onokentauros. The "wild beasts of the island and the desert" are omitted altogether, and the "crying to his fellow" is also done by the daimon onokentauros.
Hieronymus of Cardia translated Lilith with lamia, in Quintus Horace (De Arte Poetica liber, 340) a witch who steals children, similar to the Breton Korrigan, in Greek mythology described as a Libyan queen who mated with Zeus. After Zeus abandoned Lamia, Hera stole Lamia's children, and Lamia took revenge by stealing other women's children.
The screech owl translation of the KJV is without precedent, and apparently together with the "owl" (yanšup, probably a water bird) in 34:11, and the "great owl" (qippoz, properly a snake,) of 34:15 an attempt to render the eerie atmosphere of the passage by choosing suitable animals for difficult to translate Hebrew words.
Later translations include:
A Hebrew tradition exists in which an amulet is inscribed with the names of three angels and placed around the neck of newborn boys in order to protect them from the lilin until their circumcision. This practice lends weight to the argument that Lilith had existed in earlier Hebrew mythology and is not the creation of later medieval authors. There is also a Hebrew tradition to wait awhile before a boy's hair is cut so as to attempt to trick Lilith into thinking the child is a girl so that the boy's life may be spared.
Dead Sea scrolls
The appearance of Lilith in the Dead Sea Scrolls is somewhat more contentious, with one indisputable reference in the Song for a Sage (4Q510-511), and a promising additional allusion found by A. Baumgarten in The Seductress (4Q184). The first and irrefutable Lilith reference in the Song occurs in 4Q510, fragment 1:
"And I, the Instructor, proclaim His glorious splendor so as to frighten and to terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and desert dwellers… and those which fall upon men without warning to lead them astray from a spirit of understanding and to make their heart and their […] desolate during the present dominion of wickedness and predetermined time of humiliations for the sons of lig[ht], by the guilt of the ages of [those] smitten by iniquity – not for eternal destruction, [bu]t for an era of humiliation for transgression. "
Akin to Isaiah 34:14, 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 (4Q560) and Songs to Disperse Demons (11Q11) insomuch that it comprises of incantations – comparable to the Arslan Tash relief examined above – used to “help protect the faithful against the power of these spirits.” The text is thus, to a community “deeply involved in the realm of demonology,” an exorcism hymn.
Another text discovered at Qumran, conventionally associated with Book of Proverbs, credibly also appropriates the Lilith tradition in its description of precarious, winsome woman – The Seductress (4Q184). The ancient poem – dated to the first century BCE but plausibly much older – describes a dangerous woman and consequently warns against encounters with her. Customarily, the woman depicted in this text is equated to the “strange woman” of Proverbs 2 and 5, and for good reason; the parallels are instantly recognizable:
"Her house sinks down to death, And her course leads to the shades. All who go to her cannot return And find again the paths of life." (Proverbs 2:18-19)
"Her gates are gates of death, and from the entrance of the house she sets out towards Sheol. None of those who enter there will ever return, and all who possess her will descend to the Pit." (4Q184)
However, what this association does not take into account are additional descriptions of the “Seductress” from Qumran that cannot be found attributed to the “strange woman” of Proverbs; namely, her horns and her wings: “a multitude of sins is in her wings.” The woman illustrated in Proverbs is without question a prostitute, or at the very least the representation of one, and the sort of individual with whom that text’s community would have been familiar. The “Seductress” of the Qumran text, conversely, could not possibly have represented an existent social threat given the constraints of this particular ascetic community. Instead, the Qumran text utilizes the imagery of Proverbs to explicate a much broader, supernatural threat – the threat of the demoness Lilith.
Although the Talmudic references to Lilith are sparse, these passages provide the most comprehensive insight into the demoness yet seen in Judaic literature which both echo Lilith’s Mesopotamian origins and prefigure her future as the perceived exegetical enigma of the Genesis account. Recalling the Lilith we have seen, Talmudic allusions to Lilith illustrate her essential wings and long hair, dating back to her earliest extant mention in Gilgamesh:
"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." (Niddah 24b)
"[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." (‘Erubin 100b)
More unique to the Talmud with regard to Lilith is her insalubrious carnality, alluded to in The Seductress but expanded upon here sans unspecific metaphors as the demoness assuming the form of a woman in order to sexually take men by force while they sleep:
"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." (Shabbath 151b)
Yet the most innovative perception of Lilith offered by the Talmud appears earlier in ‘Erubin, and is more than likely inadvertently responsible for the fate of the Lilith myth for centuries to come:
"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." (‘Erubin 18b)
Comparing ‘Erubin 18b and Shabbath 151b with the later passage from the Zohar: “She wanders about a night night, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defiles themselves (19b),” it appears clear that this Talmudic passage indicates such an averse union between Adam and Lilith.
In some passages of the Kabbala, as well as in the 13th century Treatise on the Left Emanation , Lilith is the mate of Samael.
In others, probably informed by The Alphabet of Ben Sira, she is Adam's wife (Yalqut Reubeni, Zohar 1:34b, 3:19 )
Lilith as Adam's first wife
The passage in Genesis 1:27 — "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (before describing a mate being made of Adam's rib and being called Eve in Genesis 2:22) is sometimes believed to be an indication that Adam had a wife before Eve.
A medieval reference to Lilith as the first wife of Adam is the anonymous The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries. Lilith is described as refusing to assume a subservient role to Adam during sexual intercourse and so deserting him ("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 promptly uttered the name of God, took to the air, and left the Garden, settling on the Red Sea coast.
Lilith then went on to mate with Asmodeus and various other demons she found beside the Red Sea, creating countless lilin. Adam urged God to bring Lilith back, so three angels were dispatched after her. When the angels, Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, made threats to kill one hundred of Lilith's demonic children for each day she stayed away, she countered that she would prey eternally upon the descendants of Adam and Eve, who could be saved only by invoking the names of the three angels. She did not return to Adam.
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 folk-tales, a refutation of Christian, Karaite, 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.
The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is the earliest surviving source of the story, and the conception that Lilith was Adam's first wife became only widely known with the 17th century Lexicon Talmudicum of Johannes Buxtorf.
In the late 19th century, the Scottish Christian author George MacDonald incorporated the story of Lilith as Adam's first wife and predator of Eve's children into a mythopoeic fantasy novel in the Romantic style.
The role of Lilith as Adam's faithless wife has parallels with the ideas about Eve herself in the Unification theology of Sun Myung Moon.
An 18th or 19th century Persian amulet, a protective charm for a newborn boy, kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, depicts Lilith in chains, with "Bind Lilith in chains" written under each arm.
Lilith in popular culture