First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-20
Lilith does not appear in Genesis, nor is she mentioned in the Bible or other major religious works. But the stories of her as Adam's first wife, and her subsequent "occupation" as a demoness, have existed for centuries.
Some say she was borrowed from the Assyrians, but others claim she was born out of a redundancy in Genesis. In Genesis 1:27, we read:
And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them.
But soon after, in Genesis 2:7, we read the familiar account of God creating man alone, out of the dust, and in 2:20-23, the well-known story of the creation of Eve from Adam's rib.
Why two accounts? And why is woman created with man in the first, but from man in the second? One answer proposed long ago was that we are reading about two women, formed in two different ways. But if that's the case, what happened to the first woman?
Why Lilith Left Adam
The first woman, it is said, was Lilith, created at the same time and in the same way as Adam, just as all the animals, male and female, were made at the same time and in the same way. But Lilith wasn't like Eve. She argued with Adam constantly (particularly over sexual position), claiming that they were equal in every respect, and he should make no claims to the contrary. Eventually, enraged, she uttered the Name of God, grew wings, and flew away from the Garden of Eden. She hid in a cave by (or under) the sea, where she had (presumably more liberated) relations with demons, and bore them children.
Lonely and angry, Adam complained to God. God sent three angels to bring Lilith back. These were SNVY, SNSNVY, and SMNGLF (which could be pronounced as Sanoi or Sanvi; Sanasanoi or Sanasanvi; and Smengelef or Samnaglof). They caught up to her, and threatened that her children would die if she didn't return. She fought them off, saying, "Don't you know I exist only to harm mothers and infants?" They agreed to let her go, but only if she agreed to forever after flee when presented with the three angels' names and images.
Why did she say, at least according to some versions of the stories, "Don't you know I exist only to harm mothers and infants?" It seems strange, since she was by then a mother herself. Perhaps by this time she felt ostracized and abandoned, that the angels' presence signified she was at fault. Now she would forever take revenge on those very women who found happiness in the ideal she had been punished for rejecting.
Adam and Lutins
Adam, by some accounts, wasn't a pillar of morality himself. In some stories, after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam separated himself from Eve for a time, and was had relations with Piznai, a daughter of Lilith. Their union produced a number of lesser demons, including one called Agrimas. These demons are called lutins. But as we know, Adam and Eve did ultimately manage to survive together, and they and their children went on to populate the earth.
And what about Lilith? She became known as the Queen of the Demons, and is described as having long, wild hair and wings. Sometimes she is presented as the consort of Ashmedai, king of the Jewish demons; other times, as the companion of Samael, the purely evil ruler of the godless demons.
Banim Shovavin and Lilot
Lilith and her children serve as incubi and succubi, mating with mortals in their dreams to produce various hybrid demons. Some of these are called banim shovavin, "mischievous sons" who try to claim a birthright from their human father and harm legitimate heirs. To this day Lilith and her daughters, the lilot, remain spiteful of the human children of Adam and Eve, and will attack mothers in labor and young children, unless repelled by the names and images of the three perusing angels. In centuries past women in labor would wear amulets to protect them from Lilith, and even hide iron knives under their pillows to ward her off.
A Kinder, Gentler Lilith? Not Exactly, But...
More recently, many people have been sympathetic toward Lilith, viewing her was a victim and an early feminist. It is argued that Lilith, like the wild women of Greek tragedy and mythology, was created to frighten woman into assuming a particular and subordinate role in society. The independent woman was a dangerous woman, a menace, a killer.
I won't argue that Lilith's actions of seduction and murder are justified, but I will put forth a new view to explain her behavior.
I've listed Lilith among the demons, because that is what she is generally considered to be. But I don't think she really is. If Lilith was created with Adam, then she is human (albeit one who has allegedly used the Holy Name to sprout wings). And if she fled the Garden without ever eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (and even which occurred after her departure), then she is still not only immortal, but amoral. In other words, she's like a malicious child, acting out of need, on impulse, and out of simple selfishness. Because she has not eaten of the Tree, she doesn't know her envy and jealousy are sins. She cavorts with demons because she doesn't know it's wrong. She kills because she doesn't know it's wrong. By setting herself apart from humankind and God, she has never had the opportunity to experience healthy relationships of any kind. Once identified as a demon, however, no one (certainly no mortal) would go near her, much less try to help her. Viewed from this angle, she comes across as something more like an abandoned child who has grown up without guidance than the Queen of the Demons. And perhaps that's what makes her so dangerous.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Stern and Mirsky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives From Classical Hebrew Literature. Jewish Publication Society, 1990. Full Listing »
Issacs, Ronald H. Ascending Jacob's Ladder: Jewish Views of Angels, Demons, and Evil Spirits. Jason Aronson, 1998. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974. Full Listing »
Budge, Sir E. A. Wallis. Amulets and Superstitions. Dover, 1978. Full Listing »
Naveh, Joseph and Shaked, Shaul. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985. Full Listing »
Schrire, T. Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966. Full Listing »
Nigal, Gedalyah. Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism. Jason Aronson, 1994. Full Listing »
Schwartz, Howard. Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural. Oxford University Press USA, 1991. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.