To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Lilith, Adam’s first wife.

Day 1: The Myth of Lilith

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Lady Lilith” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lilith was Adam’s first wife. As you can guess, it wasn’t a long marriage. They argued a lot. Adam desired Lilith to lie beneath him, but Lilith refused and said, “No, Adam, you shall lie beneath me!” They argued and fought for a long while, until one day Lilith had had enough. She uttered God’s Name, which has great powers, and she flew off into the air. Adam grew upset and cried out to God, “Lord, the woman you gave me has just fled! What gives?” God, hearing Adam’s cry, called upon three angels, Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, and told them to bring Lilith back, whether by her own free will or by force. 

Lilith meanwhile had been living in a cave by the Red Sea, the same sea where Pharaoh’s army would drown centuries later. The angels found her and demanded she come back to Adam. “God commands you to go back to him! If you come with us, all will be swell. If not, we’ll drown a hundred of your demon offspring every day.”

And Lilith replied, “Do what you will. Did you know I already slept with the Great Demon, Samael? Also, don’t you know I was created to strangle newborn infants in the crib, boys before their eighth day and girls before their twentieth?” She made a pact with the angels: if in the future she ever saw the angels’ names on an amulet, she would have no power over the person near where the amulet hangs. The angels tried to bargain with her further, but this was the best they were going to get from her. And so they agreed, but with one addendum: one hundred of her demon children would have to perish every day. Lilith said, “No sweat!”

This is why one hundred of Lilith’s demon children die every day and why the names of the three angels, Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, written on an amulet, protect people from her evil influence.

The Myth’s Origins

In the book of Genesis 1:27 it says, “Male and female, He created them.” But to the ancient rabbis who interpreted this text, this passage seemed to contradict the sequential creation story of Adam and Eve later in Genesis 2:21-22. So in order to rectify this contradiction of two creations, the myth of Lilith arose. The name “Lilith” itself originates in Isaiah 34:14, where the passage reads, “Yea, Lilith shall repose there.” Lilith here is generally understood to be a reference to ancient and pre-existing Babylonian demons. The Babylonians feared “Lilitu,” a succubus who seduced men in their sleep. They also feared a demon called “Lamashtu” who slew newborns in their cradles. These singular demons in turn came from the myth of the “lilû,” a class of demons who were hungry for victims because they themselves were the spirits of young men and women who had died young. These demons snuck into people’s homes looking for victims to take the place of husbands and wives they never had. It’s also interesting to note that originally these “lilith” demons came in both male and female forms, and only later does “Lilith” become singular and female. It is likely that the demons Lilitu and Lamashtu were blurred together into one being, and the demon references in Isaiah and later in the rabbinical commentary came from these existing Babylonian sources.

However, another possible source of the myth comes from the first century text, The Testament of Solomon. The text recounts how King Solomon uses a magic ring to call demons before him in a quest to get them to aid on his construction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. One of the demons is called Obyzouth. She is a strangler of children, but she can be thwarted by the angel Raphael and by women who write her name on an amulet.

Scholars surmise that Lilith became such a large mythic figure that she absorbed the roles of many of these lesser-known demons. A full history of Lilith was eventually written out in the ninth-century text, Alpha Beta de-Ben.

Lilith was said to have long red hair, a face white and pink. In some depictions, she has wings. She adorns herself in all manner of decorations. Six pendants from Egypt hang from her ears, her neck is circled with all the ornaments of the East. Her words are smooth and seductive, causing a man to let down his guard. Only then will she reveal her true self, a fierce warrior, her garments flaming, her eyes burning and horrible. She slays men and casts them down into the lowest hell. 

People feared Lilith so much that men were advised not to sleep alone in a house, lest her spirit seize him. It is said she dangles her long hair in a man’s face, causing him to have lustful dreams. While asleep, she will steal his seed and use it to make cambion children (half demon, half human) who will be outcasts from both the human and demon worlds for being neither fully human nor fully demon. 

The Spell to Banish Lilith

The following text is found inside amulets or inscribed on their surface and then placed near pregnant mothers or newborns to protect them from Lilith’s influence.

“Out Lilith! I adjure you in the Name of God, and in the names of the three angels sent after you, Senoy, Sansenoy, and Samengelof, to remember the vow you made that when you find their names you will cause no harm, neither you nor your cohorts; and in their names and in the names of the seals set down here, I adjure you, Queen of Demons, and all your multitudes, to cause no harm to a woman while she carries a child nor when she gives birth, nor to the children born to her, neither during the day nor during the night, neither through their food nor through their drink, neither in their heads nor in their hearts. By the strength of these names and seals I so adjure you, Lilith, and all your offspring, to obey this command.”

An amulet to protect mothers from Lilith

An amulet to protect mothers from Lilith

Lilith and Feminism

Beginning in the 1960s with the rise of the feminist movement, women began to recognize Lilith as a model of a strong and independent woman. Lilith would not submit to Adam’s request for the missionary position and instead demanded Adam lie beneath her. When he refused, she said, “Pshaw! I don’t need you.” And she flew off, making a home by herself, sleeping with whomever she wanted, where she was perfectly happy to dwell without Adam or the patriarchal God. She didn’t need a man to complete her. Women recast Lilith not as a killer of children and night demoness, but as a symbol of feminine power and independence. 

In 1972, in the feminist magazine Ms., Lilly Rivlin published an article aiming to reclaim Lilith as a symbol for modern women, and the idea quickly spread. In a 1998 book, Whose Lilith?, Lilly Rivlin said, “In the late twentieth century, self-sufficient women, inspired by the women’s movement, have adopted the Lilith myth as their own. They have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one’s own destiny.”

Lilith continues to be a powerful symbol of feminism and the independent woman today, spreading far outside of her ancient Jewish origins.

Lilith Today

While Lilith continues to be a powerful symbol among feminists as a strong, independent female figure, among many ultra-Orthodox communities around the world, amulets protecting newborn children from evil Lilith are considered essential. The habit of tying a red ribbon around a child’s bed is also connected to the Lilith myth. One can, in certain sections of Jerusalem, purchase protective amulets against Lilith.

While one part of the globe fears her influence, another embraces her power. Her mythology is rich and long and diverse, and all because of one extra sentence in the bible!

Tomorrow’s myth: The Shamir Worm.