This article will first investigate the historical roots of the Jewish myth of Lilith. Next, by giving a chronological account of the sacred literature surrounding Lilith, I will detail how she went from an enigmatic figure in the Book of Genesis to a wicked one in Isaiah. Finally, I will suggest, Lilith, by being equal in time of creation to Adam was not at fault for her alleged misbehavior, and thus, one should view her more positively.
As understood by Jewish mystics and folklorists Lilith was the first woman and wife of Adam, who appeared in Genesis before the creation of Eve, when God formed man and woman simultaneously, so they can be fruitful and multiply. At the same time, if one refers to the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, he alludes to Lilith and claims she is a night bird who associates with various monsters and is ultimately nefarious. One question resulting from the dissimilarities between the more neutral view of Lilith in Genesis, and the more negative opinion of her in Isaiah, is how did she go from being vaguely referred to in the former to being utterly evil in the latter? Moreover, is Isaiah’s negative treatment of Lilith justifiable, or is it truer to believe she is innocent of wrongdoing, and therefore mischaracterized?
The Origins of Lilith
Per E.R. Vernor’s Lilith: The Mother of all Dark Creatures, Lilith’s saga originated in the ancient mythological stories of Sumer, Babylon, and Syria. In Sumerian folklore, Lilith was the goddess Inanna’s servant, and her purpose was to seduce and defile men’s righteousness. Likewise, in Babylonian mythology, Lilith was the goddess Ishtar’s concubine, and the role she played was like that found in Sumerian texts. Lastly, Lilith made an appearance as Lilitu in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and though hardly mentioned, she was still depicted as demonic.
Also, in Syrian mythology, Lilith was an evil temptress who was smitten with men’s transgressions since her hate for them derived from a minor god disowning her. Evidence supporting this Syrian interpretation of Lilith is discoverable in tomb carvings which warn men not to interact with her since she finds pleasure in humiliating them through seduction. Also, Syrian folklore understood men who fell into Lilith’s trap as being morally inept, and their punishment was never to see the light of God again. Finally, ancient Syrian scrolls and poems further warn against encounters with Lilith, since she is the cause of infertility, children’s deaths, and infantile diseases.
The Myth of Lilith in Judaism
In Jewish rabbinical literature, Lilith’s story appears most formulated in the Alphabet of Ben Sira. In it, Lilith came to be alongside Adam in Genesis 1:27 so God’s intent to have man and woman exist equally, to inhabit and domesticate the earth, would come to fruition. Evidence to support this interpretation derives from Genesis 2:18 where it states that man existing alone is deleterious for him. Accordingly, since Genesis 2:18 implies men are incomplete without women, it is inferable that the Alphabet of Ben Sira initially understood Lilith as necessary for God’s intent to have an inhabited planet.
Furthermore, the Alphabet of Ben Sira describes Lilith’s fall from grace as resulting from her pride in being Adam’s equal. Fittingly, it is Lilith’s refusal to submit to Adam’s sexual desires which ultimately led her to flee Eden. Accordingly, God commands Lilith to return to the Garden, so she can bear Adam’s children, and assist him in making earth livable. In scorn and rage, Lilith refuses, and cries out an oath to plague infants and arouse in men their darkest desires for all eternity. Consequently, to replace Lilith, God, in Genesis 2:22, shaped another woman, Eve, out of Adam’s rib as he slept. Finally, Eve, by deriving from Adam was to obey him, so God’s plan for a populated earth would now manifest uninterrupted.
Another take on the story of Lilith comes from the Jewish Talmud. Like the Alphabet of Ben Sira, the Talmud embraces a malevolent view of Lilith but adds that she has long hair, wings, talons, and innate impurities. Moreover, the Talmud elaborates Lilith’s myth through its legal discourses which attribute her to be the cause of men’s night terrors. Accordingly, the Talmud continues to warn men to control their sexual desires, especially at night, since Lilith entices during sleep. Lastly, this text also includes instructions for women to avoid Lilith’s wrath by remaining vigilant during childbearing and childrearing due to Lilith’s power to harm babies.
Also, the Jewish text known as the Zohar mentions Lilith. In this Kabbalistic text, Lilith is still a seductress, but now also a degrader of one’s awareness of the divine. That is, Jewish mystical literature attributes Lilith as she who leads men astray from their understanding of God to a base animal consciousness. Accordingly, to Kabbalists, Lilith is the personification of lustful ignorance because they believe she uses her beauty to block men from a higher spiritual understanding.
Another facet of the Zohar addressing Lilith involves how she is what modernity would refer to as the Id. That is, ancient Jewish mystics ascribed Lilith as being the unconscious itself, or the mind’s deepest and most untapped region. Accordingly, since Lilith is the opposite of what modern psychoanalysis would refer to as the Ego, mystics believed she had the power to bring forth inclinations, desires, and the hidden thoughts of unmindful men. Fittingly, the Zohar warns against ignorance and recommends men to be diligent in knowing themselves, to curb those desires which Lilith uses to turn them away from God.
Moreover, the Book of Isaiah describes Lilith as a night bird who keeps company with beasts and finds refuge in an evil lover. One rabbinical commentary on this passage claims after Lilith fled from the Garden of Eden in Genesis, and refused God’s commands, she found refuge in the desert near what is today the Red Sea. There Satan approached her, enraptured her, and took Lilith as his mate. Together they swore to torment humanity through tempting all individuals to stray from loving God. Finally, it is this rabbinical extension of Lilith’s storywhich bridges the gap between Genesis and Isaiah’s treatment of her.
Lilith’s Misrepresentation, Innocence, and Equality to Adam
One may interpret Lilith as Adam’s equal, and therefore without fault since both derived from God at the same time. That is Genesis 1:27 explicitly reads man and woman came into being together to populate the earth. By God creating both sexes to equally fulfill his/her plan for an inhabited planet, the Talmud and the Zohar’s folkloric bridge which gave birth to Lilith as an evil force may be unjustifiable. Instead, one should interpret Lilith as flawless for two reasons. First, Lilith must be without sin since she predates Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden, which Judeo-Christian traditions attribute as humanity’s first transgression against God. Second, Lilith, by refusing Adam’s sexual demands, is without fault because she genuinely understood herself to be his equal. Therefore, she did not maliciously go against Adam, rather she believed in her autonomy as the woman who came into being alongside him.
Credence for my view of Lilith comes from Goethe’s work Faust which depicts her in a more positive light. Though Lilith is a seductress in Goethe’s work, she is now also a tragic heroine. One instance of her melancholy heroinism is when Lilith tells Dr. Faust she longs to return to Adam’s side since it was God’s original intent. Hence, one may infer Lilith’s love of God and Adam, which spurs her to seduce unknowing men is an attempt to reunite with those she adores.
Other evidence for my stance on Lilith derives from John Keats’ poem “Lamia”. Like Goethe’s Faust, Keats’ work describes Lamia, or Lilith as a temptress as well as a lonely soul. Yeats attributes Lilith’s lonesomeness to Adam who rejected her due to her alleged insolence. Fittingly, Keats’ poem conveys Lilith’s pain by addressing her story from her point of view. To Lilith, it is Adam who is the cause of her sorrows since he disobeyed God by trying to force her, his equal, to submit to his desires.
On the one hand, Keats’ poem implies Lilith has a great love for God, and by refusing to submit to Adam, she was preventing the defilement of her sex. On the other, it implies Adam was at fault since it was he who tried toforce his carnal passions onto Lilith by behaving inappropriately without the authority to do so. Thus, Lilith as a solely evil spirit may not be as fitting as believed, due to this incredibly different understanding of her altercation with Adam.
Furthermore, Lilith’s innocence is also maintainable if one refers to the Kabbalistic text the Treatise on the Left Emanation. In this work, Lilith appears as she who Adam longs to reunite with since he never loved Eve. Moreover, though this text characterizes Lilith as a temptress, it also states Adam had many children with her without Eve’s knowing, implying he recognizes Lilith to be greater than Eve. Thus, the teachings of Adam being superior to Lilith are not exact since if he did not recognize her as his equal, he would not hold her in higher esteem than Eve. Finally, by being equal to Adam, Lilith did nothing wrong by refusing his desires which further allows one to interpret her story more heartfully.
This article’s purpose was to convey a general overview of the Jewish myth of Lilith. Accordingly, by providing readers with a history of this folktale, I have intended to demonstrate how Lilith’s story went from a somewhat neutral tale deriving from Genesis to a horrific description in Isaiah. Finally, by arguing for a more compassionate view of Lilith, I have hoped to shed new light on this old account despite the persistent stories concerning her malevolence.
- Vernor, E.R.Lilith: The Mother of all Dark Creatures (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015). 1-110.
About the Writer
Rocco A. Astore is a graduate alumnus of CUNY: College of State Island’s MA in Liberal Studies Program. He is also a columnist for the University of Edinburgh’s classics journal, the Retrospect. His philosophical interests are in the metaphysics and ontologies of Neoplatonism, with a focus on Plotinus, and the Early-Modern Period, with a focus on Spinoza. Other philosophical traditions that fascinate him include the political philosophies of the Renaissance, especially that of Machiavelli, as well as Eastern Traditions, such as Madhyamika Buddhism, and its most famous theorist, Nagarjuna.