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LILITH: FROM POWERFUL GODDESS TO EVIL QUEEN

Maria Fernandes

And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him:
male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: increase and
multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and
the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.
(Gen 27-28)

The figure of Lilith has been object of innumerous representations since at least
the second millennium b.c.e., but mostly since the early Middle Ages. After being depicted in Jewish Medieval literature as the queen of Hell, wife of Samael,
she was used by both Jews and Christians to represent the incarnation of evil. For
Christians, she became temptation itself and was often represented, in painting
and in sculpture, as the serpent who led Eve into sin.
XIXth century Romantics also picked Lilith as a motive, in their paintings and
poems, and the XXth and XXIst centuries have revived her myths through occultists, writers, movie producers and musicians. She even gave the name to the first
Jewish feminist journal, founded in 1976, Lilith Magazine.
The unending fascination she seems to provide, even nowadays, in our secular, rational world, appears to be rather curious, hence I propose to revisit and
question her role and functions as the first woman ever created on earth and the
first human being who dared to overdo the purpose of her creation.
Lilith is first accounted for in Sumerian literature, where she was called Dimme. Several authors see a brief mention of her in the epic of Gilgamesh, in which
she was identified with the demon dwelling inside a willow (Graves and Patai 82).
She was later found in ancient Mesopotamia, as a wind spirit (Lilitu) or as one of
Anu’s daughters, called Lamashtu or Lamartu, who was said to be the most terrible of all female demons: she killed children, consumed human flesh and blood,
devastated plants and soiled rivers and streams, sent nightmares, caused miscarriages, and brought disease. In Babylonia, a special class of priests, the Ashipu, was
employed to defeat her harmful effects. This demon has also been said to corre*

University of Lisbon, Centre for Classical Studies and Centre of History.

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Nid. for he was to be the superior one. 734 . gave a story of Lilith. rather than to one specific demon. Shabbat and Erubin (2nd division) and Niddah (6th divison).or bird-headed female figure kneeling on an ass.p. a night spirit or a demon with long hair. Lilith did not accept such statement and reminded him that they both had been created at the same time.html>). her husband would not listen and insisted upon his superiority over her. probably explaining the widespread custom of using amulets in babies’ cradles for protection against her powers. in her rage. 2002). 24b. One of the treatises of the Mishnah)2 seems to have borrowed the image of the ancient dark goddess. 3 The works cited are treatises of the Mishnah: Berakhot (1st division). XVI 34b))3. 1 Ghuls (from which comes the modern word “ghoul”) were supernatural beings who were cannibals. attributed to Moses de Leon and considered by G. whose myth entered the Jewish folklore. wings and a human face. 4 The Alphabet of Sirach.wikipedia. as wind spirits or demons. A version may be found online at <http://www.com/jud/zdm/index. one of the ways to overcome their witchcraft being to grasp them by their tresses or their plaits. 100b. saying that she was only fit to be in the bottom position.]. Adam turned to God complaining of her behaviour and asked him to get her back to him. Er. However. Lilith was extremely angry.e. She was portrayed on amulets as a lion. known as the Alphabet of Ben Sira)4. created from the earth at the same time as him (Gn 1:27-28).com/ indexrst. waiting to lure and doom young men who travelled alone (Ber. The Zohar is a cabbalistic writing that became known in the late XIIIth century.]: <http://en. In old incantation formulae. [n. perhaps goat-suckers or similar. and the Lord complied. The female ghul opposed to travel and often appeared to men in the desert and occasionally prostituted herself to them (Sykes 84). holding a double-headed serpent in each hand and suckling dogs or pigs at her breasts (Ginzberg V.htm>. Zohar I. an anonymous writing dated of the Xth century (Le Zohar 667). sending three angels after her. 2 Hebrew compilation containing the Sages’ oral traditions about the Pentateuch’s normative rules. Scholem as one of the most notable productions of Jewish mystical literature (Les Grands Courants de la Mystique Juive 219-220). this position has been criticized under the argument that lilith in Isaiah refers to a kind of birds. [n. Like the terrible screech-owl of Is 34:14. They came to fight about the manner of their intercourse. 151b.org/wiki/Alphabet_of_Sirach> (accessed April. portraying her as a wind evil spirit. dated about 200 c. which probably justifies the later traditions claiming that Lilith was a vampire (Hoffeld 430-440). The story goes as follows: Lilith was Adam’s first wife. In the Middle Ages. of whom women must beware.sacred-texts.spond to the ghul)1 of pre-Islamic Arabian myths. However. she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew off into the air. Shab. reference is made to Lilith in the plural. They may be found on-line in the Reformatted Soncino Talmud version (<http:// halakhah. I used the edition by Mopsik (1981).d. from the same material. Lilith dwelt in the ruins or lurked in the deserts. because Adam refused to lie beneath her. 3a. dwelling in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. and none was to be superior to the other.88). Some authors see in the Lilith mentioned in the Bible (Is 34:14) the she-demon matched in Jewish literature to Samael.

and the balance there has to exist between them. and that she had been created to harm new-born infants. So the angels returned to God empty-handed. Lilith is conceived as the counter-image of the Shekinah.They caught up with her in Egypt. and God had to create another woman for Adam. certainly to avoid more misunderstandings or disputes. Lilith receives an influx of life in her stead (Scholem1 163-169). God’s feminine trait. in their husband. in which rigor prevails over mercy). but this time he made her from one of the man’s ribs. namely in the Treatise on the Left Emanation. Marriages were usually arranged between 735 . where Lilith became the wife of Samael. she made an oath in the Lord’s name. thus indulging with his sentiments of supremacy over his wife. Graves (82) suggests that this legend bears traces that Lilith was a former fertility goddess. those were lawful only under the blessing of marriage. and declared that she would rather have that punishment than go back to Adam. and Ginzberg (V. She refused to go back and the angels threatened her that if she did not return. the greatest power in the angelic world.65-68) comments that the Lilith of Ben Sira merges with the earlier accounts of her as an ancient demon. However. calling it the Shekinah. with some curious features that place her very close to God. this later version of the myth having many parallels in Christian literature from Byzantine and later periods. whereas the power of consent resided in their father and. she would lose her power over the infant. Even so. cabbalistic Judaism has turned Lilith into a powerful demon. which was later identified as Samael (Dan 17-40). the Shekinah falls to the Lord’s “other side” (his dark side. by R. that whenever she saw the image or the names of those three angels in an amulet. and whenever that happens. hence the Queen of Darkness. Sometimes. the angel of death. they would drown her. This could be explained by the existence of later revisions of that work. It is interesting to observe that. It is known. Since this myth was devised to underline the patriarch’s authority in Jewish culture. once married. an abode of demons. because of Israel’s sins. that in the biblical legal system women possessed almost no rights and. as far as sexual relationships are concerned. who killed infants and endangered women in childbirth. she stubbornly stuck to her decision. the angels threaten to kill one hundred of the demon children Lilith bore every day. I would now look briefly into the relations between men and women in biblical times. mother to winds and demons. Lilith is the mother of Samael’s demons. in the Red Sea. rigor and mercy. and urged her to return. after her flight from Paradise. while the latter is mother to Metatron. Developments of this legend are found in cabbalistic writings. Isacc ha-Kohen. and in the Zohar. Considering God’s two sides. In most authors who recount this tale. which were known in Europe in the eleventh century and included a description of a sexual relationship between Lilith and a “great demon”. as Kawashima (1-22) remarks (though underlining the complex different pictures given in the Bible of the status of women in the Israelite family). cabbalists hypostatized the Lord’s presence. unlike the Alphabet’s text publicly available.

Only when he insists most seriously does she understand that he really means it. a story is told of a couple who had lived together for ten years without having any children. the two spouses were so attached to each other that they could not separate. marital partnership and gives paramount importance to sexual relationship between married couples. it often proved to be capital. love was not an issue when it came to marriage. and this Jewish couple will come to this exact conclusion. it almost seemed to be an oddity. one of the two primary components of rabbinic tradition. presses his wife to answer his question. and love was clearly not a relevant motive for such an alliance to take place. dares to ask his middle-aged wife if she loves him. as if that statement could settle the matter. at a certain point. though. cooked your meals. The Halakhah ruled that intimate relationship between husband and wife 5 From the Hebrew root nagad. fought with him. even with that serious handicap that they did not know whether they would eventually overcome (Atzmon 23-24). the husband. sound. where the husband. accomplices and share an intimate bond of trust and respect. who is facing some hard decisions concerning his own daughter’s marriage. most definitely. Again.” “Then I suppose I love you too”. and she bursts out: “I’m your wife!”. the other being halakhah. Rabbinic haggadahR5 is full of stories and examples of couples who came to the rabbis asking for help and advice. Nonetheless. and starts to ponder the question. A very good example of this can be found in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. The Talmud actually enhances the wife’s role in a good. if that’s not love. for example. this time talking to herself: “For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him. or rather. which clearly was a major problem and usually led to a divorce. urges her to answer him. 736 . usually translated as “Jewish law” (Wald 454). Going back to our couple. the thought. when it came to practice. husband and wife were expected not only to share their lives in accordance with the Torah. 6 God’s commandment. “say”. She then makes a description of what their life had been for twenty-five years: “I’ve washed your clothes. The conclusion they both reach witnesses the little thought that was given to such apparent trifles. Instead.. what is?” and concludes. starved with him. and the story stresses the value of love between them and the actions they took in order to maintain their relationship. The question is so unusual that the wife simply dismisses it with “you’re a fool!”. why talk about love right now?” Therefore. musingly: “I suppose I do. the husband. showing that their concern in maintaining their marriage in good harmony went far beyond the mişwahR6 of procreation.. given you children…” and again shows her surprise at such an unprecedented inquiry: “After twenty-five years.” She then resumes her recollection. and again she has to make an effort to take it seriously: “Do I love him?. as well as of attention for each other’s needs and tastes. the idea of love was not present. cleaned your house. patiently. In the midrash Shir-Hashirim Rabbah. but they were bound to be friends. for twenty-five years my bed is his.the young couples’ parents. the husband finally states.

never to come back. being equally conceited. so that he could come to his senses. “Whosoever compels his wife to the [marital] obligation will have unworthy children” (Er. the Ineffable Name. So he seemed to be the one needing a reprimand. It is clear that we stand here before an issue of pride. when she feels it is not fair that he should impose as a rightful regulation the exact way they should enact when having sexual intercourse. the Lord had not given him permission to do so) and he was the one clearly trying to submit her to his will. This shows us that. she felt she could not live 737 . who enticed him to do so). his intolerance gave way to an evil plight with serious consequences for mankind. pride being the bait: the wish to be like God. In fact. Lilith was so angered by her thick-headed husband that she dared to speak the name of the Lord. One may then support Lilith’s contention in her famous argument with Adam. then as even today. 100b). as recorded in the tales that recount us the story. Adam stated bluntly that he was superior to Lilith and that she should submit to him. simply refused to abide by his laws. She was hurt by his arrogance and. The classical story told to children about the fall of humanity teaches that man was mad enough to try to equal his creator (although the greatest blame is put upon the woman. for obviously his love for her was not enough for him to understand that he was wronging her. at least in exceptional circumstances. since she could recognize him no authority that would justify his claims. This tenet. and brought her to the same level as himself. until he did? She probably felt he was being unfair and she was offended. as powerful and wise as he was. If one of the spouses felt any animosity against the other for whatever reason. stating his preferences and pleading with her to play along with his liking. This allows us to consider that the rabbis disavowed the idea shared by many men. It was the way to ensure that the wife would be given the same regard as her husband felt he deserved. for instance. When she realized that. Why did she not kick him out of Paradise. In the case of Lilith and Adam. in the beginning. for him to play or use at pleasure. at least in this specific matter. of men’s superiority over their wives. Had he been clever enough to ask her to humour him. he would perhaps have been able to keep her by his side.should happen only by mutual consent: “A man is forbidden to compel his wife to the [marital] obligation”. pride and self-appreciation led to chaos. Such as it was. so she chose to depart. the wife was asleep or drunk. it availed her no help from her creator. and the same should happen if. It is odd that she should have chosen such a path. now and then making allowance for what she was partial to. It was Adam who first asserted his superiority over her (now. for both were made the same way. dictated by simple common sense. they should restrain from having sexual intercourse. was certainly meant for those cases in which the husband might feel he could use his wife as an object of his own. However. by the same crafter. the Name could be pronounced. granting her the right to deny her caresses to a pressing husband who might not respect her particular mood at a particular time.

Why had he not gone to her defense. Instead. she must have felt that her creator had failed her. Apparently he could not. therefore. The fact that Adam required God’s intervention instead of chasing Lilith gives us. she flew away. we may ask why God accepted to bring Lilith back to Paradise. since the tale clearly shows that he wanted her back at all costs. Anyway. for he had been created for her. on the other hand. later on. then? We may infer that the uttering of the Ineffable Name gave Lilith the power she needed to do it. after she had fled so defiantly. Second. and Adam did not go to her pursuit. for the argu738 . he could not fly. and similarly we may conclude that the man could have done the same to go after her. so that none would even think of trying to best the other? How could the God of justice bear to watch her husband try to force and humiliate her. What made the difference. and not interfere on her behalf ? This was what triggered Lilith’s rebellion against the Lord and this was what made her decide to leave. Once again. First. Lilith cast herself away so far from God’s reach. However. We could ask why not. as he did when talking to Adam or. and as he should. This seems impossible. and that she crossed a boundary that she was not meant to – the same put into words in the second commandment given to Moses: “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. both in distance and by means of her deeds. or rather his bodymate? God’s first intention seemed to be the latter. and both were equals. the woman you gave me has run away”. perhaps she was so hurt by Adam’s attitude that she could not bear the idea of having him in his life after such display of disrespect towards her. but. but he sent three of his angels to bring her back. seeing him lost and lonely without his mate? Or was he just upset because his creation had proved more independent or self-assured than he had ever foreseen? And I have still another question: was Lilith Adam’s soulmate. according to Gn 2:24: “and they become one flesh”. Strangely enough. in such way Adam seems to have felt it. Why did she not ask the Lord to be the judge between them? There is more than one answer to this riddle. as she for him. making ill use of his Name. This means that Lilith’s action was bold and reckless. in the same way. an interesting piece of information: unlike Lilith. and she might have feared that he could take her man’s party. they stand for knowledge and moral elevation (Bitton 118). that he did not summon or address her directly. he did not. and this was perhaps the most important reason. the Lord is not a woman. we observe that she didn’t just leave. Lilith’s recklessness is twofold: her wings symbolize her animalism. Was he hoping she would repent of her sedition towards her God and longing to forgive her and have her back under his wing? Was he sorry for Adam. otherwise he would have. he turns to God and complains: “Sovereign of the universe!. Indeed. but disturbed God in his distress. to Eve.for eternity with someone who did not appreciate her as she deserved. Finally. for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex 20:7). since they had been made from the same dust. why had he not rebuked her smug husband for wanting to subdue her and had not established clear rules for both of them.

[7 We had to wait until the XIXth century. proud stubbornness and sent by him into a dark cloud of shadow and dream. as well as paintings by Rossetti and John Collier. with the virtuous aim of educating women. to look at a different image of Lilith. in which the angels threaten her with the death of her children. as an evil. There we may look at the close resemblance between the Lord and the woman he created. however. Samael.. et songez bien / à la sombre Lilith.ment was about the position he preferred when mating. She continues to be dark. / Lilith répudiée est un spectre de nuit. we consider the later versions of the myth. let alone her desolate husband. More than that. tremblez. Lilith was looked. Personifying a projection or reification of human fears and desires. indeed in his own image. A perfect example is found in one of Victor Hugo’s poems. we infer that she has already gone over to the accuser. she is already out of range. along with her webs of deceit. and that she bears the multitude of his children. rejected by Adam due to her quarrelsome. and in fact she so understands it. she dwelled in the collective imagery as the prototype of foulness and indecency (Bitton 114). wanton creature whose sole aim is terror and destruction. they would take her back with them: then it looks like she could still be restored to grace. and God would still be willing to pardon her. The fact is when the angels reach Lilith. as far as Paradise and heaven are concerned. she proclaims her freedom and states her newly acquired power of fright and destruction. / Lilith était l’orgueil.. She is beautiful beyond measure. It might be said that it was because her story was written by men. a power of the underworld. it is true. her long hair being one of her most sexy attributes. where she became a night wraith: Femmes! l’homme est le roi. and her sorrow and misery are chanted. 739 . it seemed unlikely they would dare to destroy God’s creation. / Adam la renvoya dans l’ombre et dans le rêve. She is pitiful. Even so. when emotions overpowered reason and the reasons of the heart were above every other reason. but she has new features that had been overlooked. Hetzel.] Elle roule à jamais dans la noire nuée. the winds and demons that haunt the world. Lilith persists with a downright refusal of his love and indulgence: rather than submitting or risking disappointment again. where the story we know comes to be reversed and Lilith is a somber outcast.[8 7 La Fin de Satan. Rossetti and R. Browning. she creeps into the minds and awakens deep sentiments of passion and even love. If. 1886. la querelle et le bruit. although she is forced to recognize her creator’s supremacy as she agrees to make the pact with his messengers. 8 Some examples are poems by D. The angels’ menace of drowning her is void. G. / [. In spite of God’s ever forgiving mercy. and only afterwards did he bring forth his superiority issue. God’s ultimate weapon. she is treacherous. née avant Ève. until very recently. then. not dreaming that she would one day taunt him and proclaim her boundless freedom.

her reason foundered. Samael . the angel of death granted her dominion over the whole land without hindrance. She was who exceeded his directions by far. and be happy among all the things he had given them. tiny exception of that old pact she had once made with God’s messengers. which she displayed and let loose. Unreciprocated love. between husband and wife.was that she was brave enough to use the full strength of the power bestowed on her. The force that drove her to such extremes was love. embodying the darkest feelings and emotions of men. She turned these attributes to raging hatred and destruction. but only bid Adam and Lilith to healthily breed.From an etiological goddess. that is. the Queen of Dread who spread terror and misery into the world. then as an independent being who dared to say “no” to her partner and to her creator. the same love quoted in the Bible in Song 8:6: “[. Her world was shattered. killing new-born babies and dooming the souls of careless men. thus wasting the harmony the Lord had devised for his creation. while keeping the beauty and power of the bright side – a whole God’s image on earth. above all. What distinguished Lilith from all the other beings created by God – with the one exception of her second husband. through pride and arrogance. a raging flame”. from both her husband and her creator. The Lord gave no special instructions about sentiment. and not only she brought on fright and chaos onto the world.] For love is strong as death. Thus she contained the beauty and power of creation.. Power is the key-word here: Lilith had indeed an unusual amount of power. but she also added new attributes to humanity. was what led Lilith to act as she did. symbolizing the violence of nature and of the elementary powers bringing forth draught. God had bestowed upon Lilith his double nature.. passion fierce as the grave. thus giving a new meaning to relations between men and. when she was not supposed to do so. She was the mistress of her own deeds and decisions with the one. and even test it beyond every reasonable prevision. and ultimately as the companion of God’s opponent. turned out to be the mother of demons instead. or feelings. Lilith became a pure spirit devised by God to be the mother of men who. she had to begin anew and forge herself a brand new way of life. first as the wife of man. the strength of bliss and the arcane knowledge and wisdom that came to be the motor of so many works produced by human creativity. Its flashes are flashes of fire. Lilith personifies the sitra ahra (“the other side”) inherited from the creator. a symbol of sexual perversion and a fearsome power of darkness. She is the first woman to have allowed her emotions to meddle with such a simple commandment as to “be fruitful and multiply. and the measure of her wickedness was only matched by the measure of her anguish when she felt that they had failed her. his bright side as his dark side. the emotions. 740 . disease and all kinds of evil that afflict humanity. in such a manner that she would never risk to be let down again. and fill the earth” (Gn 1:28). As long as she kept on sweeping away life.

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