Lilith. To some, she is the sperm-stealing, seductive demon who fled
from the Garden of Eden, taking up the practice of killing babies to
avenge the deaths of her own horrid demon-children. To others, Lilith
is the world's first feminist, made from the same earth as Adam; she
merely fled from the Garden of Eden when her patriarchal husband refused
to treat her fairly. She is the world's first woman, Adam's original
wife, the ultimate matriarch. A few scholars deny that Lilith existed
at all, in any context. To them, she is purely the result of the radical
feminist movement and the misinterpretation of a single primary source.
However, none of these three popular theories are viable; the historical
Lilith appears, with various names, in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hebrew
texts, and while she may not necessarily have been the baby-killing
demon seductress the Talmudic rabbis wrote about, it cannot be ignored
that in nearly every reference, she is associated with a dark energy.
She is a dark goddess, much like the revered dark mother-goddesses of
the ancient Near Eastern religions.
It would seem, then, that Lilith's utterance of the ineffable name
gives her not only power, but power over God; he cannot force her to
return to Eden, nor can he kill her. Instead, he has to send three angels
- Senoi, Sansenoi, and Semangelof - to reason with Lilith, who is at
this point a demon. They threaten her with the death of 100 of her babies
per day, and in retaliation - not out of cruelty - she declares that
she will in turn slay Adam's children.5
Rabbi Allen Maller explains that in addition to threatening her children,
the three angels tell Lilith that a replacement woman will be created
- one who will not refuse to be subordinate. Maller contends that Lilith's
violence against "such women" is not only out of revenge, but also out
of contempt and indignation for a woman who would put herself in such
a "position."6 In a rather un-demonic gesture
for such an allegedly murderous beast, though, Lilith agrees to leave
in peace any infant whose nursery bears an amulet inscribed with the
angels' names, although she remarks that baby girls belong to her during
their first twenty days, and that young boys belong to her during their
first eight days (perhaps it is not a coincidence that baby boys get
circumcised on their eighth day). Archeologists have unearthed a number
of amulets, bowls, and coins bearing the three names and the words,
"Lilith - begone!" In fact, as Nathan Ausubel remarks, some philologists
believe that the word "lullaby" is a corruption of the phrase, "Lilla
Patai also discusses briefly the story from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and he explains that according to her first reference - in the Sumerian king list of 2400 BCE - Lilith is a demon and is associated with Gilgamesh's father, a Lillu-demon. "Demon," however, is a difficult word to define for a given culture; while Zoroastrian and Christian demons are inherently evil, Judaism and the Semitic cultures, as usual, aren't quite as cut-and-dry. Nathan Ausubel writes:
In medieval times, the Jewish conception of demons differed in some respects from that held by Christians. Not all denizens of the spirit world were regarded as being necessarily evil. Some even were considered to be benevolent and helpful to the pious and deserving in times of need.11
Rabbi Maller goes on to explain that in Judaism, there isn't "a powerful and independent force" challenging the proverbial good guys. Rather, the Jewish concept of the demon is not one who creates evil, but one who "calls our attention to wrongdoing."12 Gilgamesh's father, who appears in the Sumerian King List, is described as "lillû," which, as N.K. Sandars concedes, may mean "fool" or "demon of the vampiric kind," but he is also a high priest.13 Furthermore, as in the Jewish tradition, Sumerian demons could be both beneficent and negative.
As Raphael Patai suggests, the Lilin were originally storm-deities, and it is only through a "mistaken etymology" that they became associated with the night, and, as Naomi Wolf suspects, with the screeching owl. The Sumerian word lil means "wind," while the Hebrew "lilah" means night.14 A wind deity wouldn't necessarily be viewed as an evil entity; the god Enlil shares the etymology, and he is one of the more powerful deities in the pantheon. If Lilith is a wind goddess, then it makes sense that she is associated with birds, which soar in the air. Not only is she associated with birds, but she is associated with the bird most often related to wisdom; she is frequently depicted with owls by her side. In many stories, she is described as an "irresistibly seductive woman with long hair" who "bore the human shape of a woman yet had the wings of an angel." Rather than associate Lilith with storms, then, one could suggest that maybe, like Inanna and Isis, she merely has "avian" attributes (she did, after all, "fly" from Eden), and was a "bird who flew to and from the heavens."15
Although one can argue the semantics of the matter, it cannot be denied that, at least in the epic, Lilith is demonized, and certainly Gilgamesh does slay the "dragon" residing in the tree, forcing Lillake to flee to the desert, but might this not be symbolic of the slaying of the goddess cultures by a patriarchal warrior society? In this scene we see Lilith making her home in a willow tree "planted on the bank of the Euphrates in the days of Creation," with a snake-like creature dwelling in its base and a bird in its crown. The images are familiar: sacred tree, sacred bird, sacred snake. The Babylonian Tiamat is another serpent goddess who meets her doom at the hands of the newer generation of male warrior gods. According to Greek legend, Medusa, too, seems to be a misunderstood snake goddess. However, she is demonized and is eventually slain by Perseus. With his bronze axe, a symbol of the newly developed system of weapons manufacturing, Gilgamesh destroys the tree, as Marduk destroyed Tiamat and Perseus destroyed Medusa.16 Lilith escapes to the desert, as refugees of cities probably did to escape from weapon-bearing intruders.
Patai introduces the Matronit, the goddess of the Kabala. As he states, "Lilith, of course, is the embodiment of everything that is evil and dangerous in the sexual realm, while the Matronit is her exact opposite: a good, even saintly figure." He describes their similarities as well; both of them are somewhat promiscuous, and both are represented in duality - i.e. the Upper and Lower Matronit and the Elder and Younger Liliths. It seems as though Patai's arguments will not be as patriarchal as they seemed - until he remarks that the duality explains how sex can, on different occasions, either "promote the blessed union between God and his Matronit," or result in a "strengthening of the powers of evil." He describes divinity: "God is one, but the Goddess, who is part of him, is two: the Matronit and Lilith."17
Patai does acknowledge Lilith as a goddess, rather than a demon, but he still clings to the demonization in calling her evil, and he seems unwilling to accept that a goddess could be anything independent. Furthermore, he completely ignores the seemingly obvious alternative conclusion - that perhaps this "duality" of Goddesses is one and the same, and it is only the Kabala, which systematically excludes women from its study, that insists upon separating the "good" and "evil" aspects of sexuality. Fred Gustafson discusses the duality of the maternal archetype, noting that the doting, nurturing half is represented by the popular image of the Madonna. He continues by describing the dark half of the duality, which, according to Karl Jung, constitutes "anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, that poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate."18 Jung goes on to explain that while the Eastern religions have retained their "paradoxical morality," the "development of the feeling function in Western man" forced him into the "moral splitting of the divinity into two halves." Certainly one can fit the Matronit and Lilith into this analysis.
Like Kali, the devouring goddess to whom 19th century Tantric philosopher Sri Ramakrishna refers as "Divine Mother," and Isis, who is "not only the creator mother and nurse of all, but also the destroyer,"19 the combined aspects of the Matronit and Lilith are representative of the original archetypal mother - the destructive and the regenerative. Furthermore, while the Mesopotamian Inanna certainly could be mentioned in such an example, it is her sister Ereshkegal who is the true Divine Mother; she, too, represents both death and rebirth, and although The Descent of Inanna chronicles Inanna's trip, we find that the poem, surprisingly, is a tribute to Ereshkegal.20 The Baltic Laumas, frequently represented as witches, could also be beneficent, as could demons in early Jewish mysticism, but if one angered them, they were "ready to persecute their victims. They "helped the infants of industrious mothers," but "ate the children of the lazy."20a Even the typically misogynistic Chinese recognize the balance of darkness and the light - hence the yin-yang image.21
The Kabala, in splitting the maternal archetype, also splits female sexuality into categories of purity and dirtiness. Certainly Lilith's allegedly evil seductive tendencies fit in with this view of sexuality. In the Bible, sexual intercourse exists for one purpose, and one purpose only: procreation. In the Old Testament it is forbidden to spill one's sperm, because it should go solely towards impregnation. Bodily issues are dirty; menstruating women are considered "unclean," and "if the flow of seed go out from a man," he is "defiled" and must immediately clean everything it touched, because all is "unclean until the even."22 In Genesis 38:9-10, "it came to pass, when [Onan] went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also." Any sexual act that isn't specifically designated for procreation is a sin. According to the legends in the Zohar, Lilith bore demon children by stealing Adam's nocturnal emissions - i.e. his spilled sperm.23 Sperm that goes unused is therefore fair game for Lilith's impregnation; she must have many babies if she is to lose one hundred per day, as many of the legends proclaim. Lilith's existence, then, supplies religious Jewish men with sufficient threat to avoid masturbation and non-heterosexual intercourse.
In Indic religions, Kali is the dark goddess who, among other things, drinks blood and kills whomever gets in her path. Kali is partially responsible for the death of the demon Raktabija. In the Devi Mahatmyam, we read about Raktabija, whose blood created new asuras with every drop spilled. According to the Cappeller Sanskrit-English Dictionary, rakta means "blood" in its noun form, while bija means "seed (of plants and animals), seedcorn, grain, germ, element, origin, beginning".24 Thus, Raktabija means "blood seed." In order to kill Raktabija, Kali takes possession of his seed by drinking all of his blood, thereby preventing the creation of new demons.25 The Talmudic tale, while similar, is a bit more twisted. When Adam spills his own "seed," i.e. his sperm, Lilith takes it, as Kali does, but in Kali's case new demons are prevented from springing up, while in Lilith's story new demons are born. This version is reminiscent of the similarities between the story of Ninhursag's garden and that of Eve in the Garden of Eden.26
Many of the Zoroastrian traditions and commandments are heavily influential to the Biblical religions. As E.O. James states, Zoroastrian doctrine "had far reaching effects on the apocalyptic speculations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."27 Furthermore, as Nathan Ausubel declares, the Jews were heavily influenced by the Persians and the Chaldeans during the Babylonian exile, and "their dualistic angel-demon conception was directly borrowed from Zoroastrianism."28 If, as we learned in class, the Zoroastrian faith explicitly demonizes what is sacred in the Vedic religions and sanctifies what is evil, then it makes sense that a story praising the Goddess for preventing the birth of asuras in the Devi Mahatmyam finds its parallel in the damning of Lilith for creating new demons with Adam's sperm in Talmudic teachings.
The Celtic Badb is a bird-like warrior goddess who "haunted battlefields and prophesied death." Like Kali, she is "blood-red-mouthed," and serves as a reminder of bloodshed and war. Despite her terrifying aspects, she is "an awesome and ominous deity."29 The Baltic bird-goddess Lauma, described as both a witch and a "sexually attractive, large breasted" witch/fairy," is said to have eaten the babies of her enemies.30 Kali, Badb, and Lauma are associated with the ingestion of blood and corpses - but isn't Lilith, as well? According to Patai, Lilith is related to the Lillu demon, which, as Sandars explains, is a demon with vampiric tendencies. In addition, much Jewish legend relates to Lilith as a vampire. However, what is a vampire? According to Merriam Webster, a vampire is, among other things, "one who lives by preying on others," or "a woman who exploits and ruins her lover."31 According to most of the negative legends, this certainly applies to Lilith. Naomi Wolf offers another interpretation of the "vampire" Lilith: Lilith is devouring.
Her appetites are immense. The hunger she manifests is for recognition or reverence, or in the distorted forms her story took in the misogynist Middle Ages, for other people's children or for illicit sexual gratification. However we read her story, she can remind us that it is human, even for women, to hunger. Considering that, if there is a disease of the spirit that could characterize modern women as a whole, it is the terror that one's appetites are excessive and must be controlled, she is a uniquely appropriate reminder for our time that it is only in denying our hungers that they become monstrous.32
Thus, it is only via the patriarchal Judeo-Christian interpretation that Lilith's lively appetite is construed as vampiric. She is one who devours life but also creates it,33 as are her sister goddesses in India and Europe. Although the patriarchal world would have us believe that the dark female is to be feared and reviled, ancient culture shows us that humans once recognized the necessity of balance and of celebrating femininity in its entirety. Lilith is a dark goddess, both a vengeful destroyer and a maternal figure, similar to so many other revered goddesses associated with death, blood, and the untamed female spirit. It is only via the passing down of a heritage from generation to male-dominated generation, and so on, that it becomes distorted into the version we read today.
Questions? Comments? Feedback? I'd love to hear from you! Also, if you plan to cite this paper in a report, please let me know. Thanks!
2 Ausubel, Nathan, ed. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, p. 603. New York: Crown Publishers, 1957. The creation of the Golem implies one's taking the role of Creator into one's own hands, thus usurping God's control over life, as Ausubel explains on page 603.
14 I learned the Sumerian word from Professor Englund, in the Near Eastern Studies Dept.; since I was already at his office hours, I decided I ought to just get it confirmed. I already knew the translation for lilah.
22 Leviticus 15:16-19, The Holy Scriptures, according to the Masoritic Text. I checked my copy of the Tanach, and the Hebrew word that resides where "the even" should be is: erev, which, from what little Hebrew I can muddle through, means "evening" (as opposed to lilah, which means "night"). Thus, what it means is that he shall be unclean until the evening. As for interpretive meaning, I'd be curious as to what others have suggested.
© March 2001 Lisa Concoff