views updated Jun 27 2018


LILITH , a female demon assigned a central position in Jewish demonology. She appears briefly in the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic and is found in Babylonian demonology, which identifies similar male and female spirits – Lilu and Lilitu respectively – which are etymologically unrelated to the Hebrew word laylah ("night"). These mazikim ("harmful spirits") have various roles: one of them – the Ardat-Lilith – preys on males, while others imperil women in childbirth and their children. An example of the latter kind is Lamashtu, against whom incantation formulas have been preserved in Assyrian. Winged female demons who strangle children are known from a Hebrew or Canaanite inscription found at Arslan-Tash in northern Syria and dating from about the seventh or eighth century b.c.e. Whether or not Lilith is mentioned in this incantation, which adjures the stranglers not to enter the house, is a moot point, depending on the addition of a missing letter: "To her that flies in rooms of darkness – pass quickly, quickly, Lil[ith]." In Scripture there is only one reference to Lilith (Isa. 34:14), among the beasts of prey and the spirits that will lay waste the land on the day of vengeance. In sources dating from earlier centuries, traditions concerning the female demon who endangers women in childbirth and who assumes many guises and names are distinct from the explicit tradition on Lilith recorded in the Talmud. Whereas the Babylonian Lilu is mentioned as some kind of male demon with no defined function, Lilith appears as a female demon with a woman's face, long hair, and wings (Er. 100b; Nid. 24b). A man sleeping in a house alone may be seized by Lilith (Shab. 151b); while the demon Hormiz, or Ormuzd, is mentioned as one of her sons (bb 73b). There is no foundation to the later commentaries that identify Lilith with the demon Agrath, daughter of Mahalath, who goes abroad at night with 180,000 pernicious angels (Pes. 112b). Nevertheless, a female demon who is known by tens of thousands of names and moves about the world at night, visiting women in childbirth and endeavoring to strangle their newborn babies, is mentioned in the Testament of Solomon, a Greek work of about the third century. Although preserved in a Christian version, this work is certainly based on Judeo-Hellenistic magic. Here the female demon is called Obizoth, and it is related that one of the mystical names of the angel Raphael inscribed on an amulet prevents her from inflicting injury. Lilith is identified as a demon in the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QpsAp). The name Lilith was also inscribed on incantation bowls of Sassanian Babylonia. Although such bowls were not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, some invoke rabbinic divorce formulas to exorcize demons.

Midrashic literature expands the legend that Adam, having parted from his wife after it had been ordained that they should die, begat demons from spirits that had attached themselves to him. It is said that "he was encountered by a Lilith named Piznai who, taken by his beauty, lay with him and bore male and female demons." The firstborn son of this demonic union was Agrimas (see the Midrash published in Ha-Goren, 9 (1914), 66–68; Dvir, 1 (1923), 138; and L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 5 (1925), 166). The offspring of this Lilith fill the world. A transmuted version of this legend appears in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a Midrash of the geonic period, which sets out to explain the already widespread custom of writing amulets against Lilith. Here she is identified with the "first Eve," who was created from the earth at the same time as Adam, and who, unwilling to forgo her equality, disputed with him the manner of their intercourse. Pronouncing the Ineffable Name, she flew off into the air. On Adam's request, the Almighty sent after her the three angels Snwy, Snsnwy, and Smnglf; finding her in the Red Sea, the angels threatened that if she did not return, 100 of her sons would die every day. She refused, claiming that she was expressly created to harm newborn infants. However, she had to swear that whenever she saw the image of those angels in an amulet, she would lose her power over the infant. Here the legend concerning the wife of Adam who preceded the creation of Eve (Gen. 2) merges with the earlier legend of Lilith as a demon who kills infants and endangers women in childbirth. This later version of the myth has many parallels in Christian literature from Byzantine (which probably preceded it) and later periods. The female demon is known by different names, many of which reappear in the same or in slightly altered forms in the literature of practical Kabbalah (as, for example, the name Obizoth from the Testament of Solomon), and the place of the angels is taken by three saints – Sines, Sisinnios, and Synodoros. The legend also found its way into Arabic demonology, where Lilith is known as Karina, Tabi'a, or "the mother of the infants." The personification of Lilith as a strangler of babies is already clear in Jewish incantations, written in Babylonian Aramaic, which predate the Alphabet of Ben Sira. A late Midrash (Ba-Midbar Rabbah, end of ch. 16) also mentions her in this respect: "When Lilith finds no children born, she turns on her own" – a motif which relates her to the Babylonian Lamashtu.

From these ancient traditions, the image of Lilith was fixed in kabbalistic demonology. Here, too, she has two primary roles: the strangler of children (sometimes replaced in the Zohar by Naamah), and the seducer of men, from whose nocturnal emissions she bears an infinite number of demonic sons. In this latter role she appears at the head of a vast host, who share in her activities. Belief in her erotic powers led some Jewish communities to adopt the custom of sons not accompanying their dead father's body to the cemetery because they would be shamed by the hovering presence of theirdemon step-siblings, born of their father's seduction by Lilith. In the Zohar, as in other sources, she is known by such appellations as Lilith, the harlot, the wicked, the false, or the black. (The above-mentioned combination of motifs appears in the Zohar i, 14b, 54b; ii, 96a, 111a; iii, 19a, 76b.) She is generally numbered among the four mothers of the demons, the others being Agrat, Mahalath, and Naamah. Wholly new in the kabbalistic concept of Lilith is her appearance as the permanent partner of Samael, queen of the realm of the forces of evil (the sitra ahra). In that world (the world of the kelippot) she fulfills a function parallel to that of the Shekhinah ("Divine Presence") in the world of sanctity: just as the Shekhinah is the mother of the House of Israel, so Lilith is the mother of the unholy folk who constituted the "mixed multitude" (the erev-rav) and ruled over all that is impure. This conception is first found in the sources used by Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen, and later in Ammud ha-Semali by his disciple, Moses b. Solomon b. Simeon of Burgos. Both here, and later in the Tikkunei Zohar, there crystallizes the conception of various degrees of Lilith, internal and external. Likewise we find Lilith the older, the wife of Samael, and Lilith the younger, the wife of Asmodeus (see Tarbiz, 4 (1932/33), 72) in the writings of Isaac ha-Kohen and thereafter in the writings of most kabbalists. Some of these identify the two harlots who appeared in judgment before Solomon with Lilith and Naamah or Lilith and Agrat, an idea which is already hinted at in the Zohar and in contemporary writings (see Tarbiz, 19 (1947/48), 172–5).

Widespread, too, is the identification of Lilith with the Queen of Sheba – a notion with many ramifications in Jewish folklore. It originates in the Targum to Job 1:15 based on a Jewish and Arab myth that the Queen of Sheba was actually a jinn, half human and half demon. This view was known to Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon and is also mentioned in the Zohar. In Livnat ba-Sappir Joseph Angelino maintains that the riddles which the Queen of Sheba posed to Solomon are a repetition of the words of seduction which the first Lilith spoke to Adam. In Ashkenazi folklore, this figure coalesced with the popular image of Helen of Troy or the Frau Venus of German mythology. Until recent generations the Queen of Sheba was popularly pictured as a snatcher of children and a demonic witch. It is probable that there is a residue of the image of Lilith as Satan's partner in popular late medieval European notions of Satan's concubine, or wife in English folklore – "the Devil's Dame" – and of Satan's grandmother in German folklore. In the German drama on the female pope Jutta (Johanna), which was printed in 1565 though according to its publisher it was written in 1480, the grandmother's name is Lilith. Here she is depicted as a seductive dancer, a motif commonly found in Ashkenazi Jewish incantations involving the Queen of Sheba. In the writings of Hayyim Vital (Sefer ha-Likkutim (1913), 6b), Lilith sometimes appears to people in the form of a cat, goose, or other creature, and she holds sway not for eight days alone in the case of a male infant and 20 for a female (as recorded in the Alphabet of Ben Sira), but for 40 and 60 days respectively. In the Kabbalah, influenced by astrology, Lilith is related to the planet Saturn, and all those of a melancholy disposition – of a "black humor" – are her sons (Zohar, Ra'aya Meheimnaiii, 227b). From the 16th century it was commonly believed that if an infant laughed in his sleep it was an indication that Lilith was playing with him, and it was therefore advisable to tap him on the nose to avert the danger (H. Vital, Sefer ha-Likkutim (1913), 78c; Emek ha-Melekh, 130b).

It was very common to protect women who were giving birth from the power of Lilith by affixing amulets over the bed or on all four walls of the room. The earliest forms of these, in Aramaic, are included in Montgomery's collection (see bibl.). The first Hebrew version appears in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, which states that the amulet should contain not only the names of the three angels who prevail over Lilith, but also "their form, wings, hands, and legs." This version gained wide acceptance, and amulets of this type were even printed by the 18th century. According to Shimmush Tehillim, a book dating from the geonic period, amulets written for women who used to lose their children customarily included Psalm 126 (later replaced by Ps. 121) and the names of these three angels. In the Orient, also amulets representing Lilith herself "bound in chains" were current. Many amulets include the story of the prophet Elijah meeting Lilith on her way to the house of a woman in childbirth "to give her the sleep of death, to take her son and drink his blood, to suck the marrow of his bones and to eat his flesh" (in other versions: "to leave his flesh"). Elijah excommunicated her, whereupon she undertook not to harm women in childbirth whenever she saw or heard her names. This version is doubtless taken from a Christian Byzantine formula against the female demon Gyllo, who was exorcised by the three saints mentioned above. The transfer from the Greek to the Hebrew version is clearly seen in the formula of the 15th-century Hebrew incantation from Candia (see Crete), which was published by Cassuto (rso, 15 (1935), 260), in which it is not Elijah but the archangel Michael who, coming from Sinai, encounters Lilith. Though the Greek names were progressively corrupted as time elapsed, by the 14th century new Greek names for "Lilith's entourage" appear in a manuscript of practical Kabbalah which includes material from a much earlier date (British Museum Add. Ms. 15299, fol. 84b). The story of Elijah and Lilith included in the second edition of David Lida's Sod ha-Shem (Berlin, 1710, p. 20a) is found in the majority of the later amulets against Lilith, one of her names being Striga – an enchantress, either woman or demon – or Astriga. In one of its mutations this name appears as the angel Astaribo, whom Elijah also encountered; in many incantations he takes the place of Lilith, a substitution found in a Yiddish version of the story dating from 1695. Also extant are versions of the incantation in which Lilith is replaced by the Evil Eye, the star Margalya, or the demon familiar in Jewish and Arab literature, Maimon the Black. In European belles lettres, the Lilith story in various versions has been a fruitful narrative theme.

[Gershom Scholem]

Lilith is identified as a demon in the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QpsAp). The name Lilith was also inscribed on incantation bowls of Sassanian Babylonia. Although such bowls were not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, some invoke rabbinic divorce formulas to exorcise demons. Belief in her erotic powers led some Jewish communities to adopt the custom of sons notaccompanying their dead father's body to the cemetery because they would be shamed by the hovering presence of their demon step-siblings, born of their father's seduction by Lilith.

Medieval Christian theology shows no explicit awareness of the Lilith of the Alphabet of Ben Sira, but its emphasis on female responsibility for the seduction and fall of Adam and Eve and the association of women with temptation and sin reflects a similar tradition. Christian literary texts allude to Lilith, usually in relation to Satan, but sometimes in relation to figures who are sexually miscast. For example, Lilith is the grandmother of the female pope described in a 15th-century German drama by Theodoricus Schernberg; she appears as Adam's first wife in poems and art by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; in Victor Hugo's La Fin de Satan; in a play by Achim von Arnim; and in Goethe's Faust.

In recent years, feminists have reconfigured the Lilith myth, claiming it reveals male anxiety about women who cannot be kept under patriarchal control. Lilith is admired as a woman who opposed Adam's attempts at hegemony over her, who had a firm will, and who possessed the power of secret knowledge to assert her autonomy. In feminist versions of the creation story, Lilith demands equality with Adam. Her expulsion from the Garden of Eden indicates not her evil, but the intolerance of male entities, Adam and God, who insist on defining and controlling women. Her independence and knowledge reveal not her demonic nature or sexual miscasting, but represent all women seeking liberation from the imposition of narrow gender roles. In a feminist Midrash, Judith Plaskow imagined Lilith returning to the Garden of Eden and forming a friendship with Eve, who now began to question her subservience to Adam. Plaskow's story concludes with God and Adam left in confusion, fearing "the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together."

Feminist reclamations of Lilith in the last quarter of the 20th century include the Lilith Fair, an annual summer women's music festival; Lilith Magazine, the first Jewish feminist periodical, founded in 1976; and a women's bookstore in Berlin named Lilith. Lilith is also the subject of art, poetry, and even new religious rituals designed to affirm women's strength and spirituality. [Susannah Heschel (2nd ed.)]


G. Scholem, in: ks, 10 (1934/35), 68–73; idem, in: Tarbiz, 19 (1947/48), 165–75; R. Margalioth, Malakhei Elyon (1945), 235–41; Y. Schachar, Osef FeuchtwangerMasoret-ve-Ommanut Yehudit (1971); H. Von der Hardt, Aenigmata Judaeorum religiosissima (Helmstedt, 1705), 7–21; J.A. Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judentum, 2 (1700), 413–21; J. Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts From Nippur (1913); R. Dow and A. Freidus, in: Bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society, 12 (1917), 1–12 (bibl. on Sammael and Lilith); I. Lévi, in: rej, 67 (1914), 15–21; D. Myhrmann, Die Labartu-Texte (1902); Ch. McCown, The Testament of Solomon (1922); M. Gaster, Studies and Texts, 2 (1925–28), 1005–38, 1252–65; F. Perles, in: Orientalistische Literaturzeitung, 18 (1925), 179–80; I. Zoller, Rivista di Antropologia, 27 (1926); Ginzberg, Legends, 5 (1955), 87f.; H. Winkler, Salomo und die Karina (1931); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939), 36f., 277f.; Th. Gaster, in: Orientalia, 12 (1942), 41–79; H. Torczyner (Tur-Sinai), in: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 6 (1947), 18–29; M. Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature (1931), 94–107; T. Schrire, Hebrew Amulets (1966); E. Yamauchi, Mandaic Incantation Texts (1967); A. Chastel, in: rhr, 119–20 (1939), 160–74; A.M. Killen, Revue de littérature comparée, 12 (1932), 277–311. Add. Bibliography: J.Dan, "Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil," in: Association for Jewish Studies Review, 5 (1980), 17–40; R. Lesses, "Exe(o)rcising Power: Women as Sorceresses, Exorcists, and Demonesses in Babylonian Jewish Society of Late Antiquity," in: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 69:2 (2001), 343–75; J. Plaskow and D. Berman, The Coming of Lilith (2005); E. Yassif, Sippurei Ben Sira (1984).


views updated May 29 2018


LILITH . In postbiblical Judaism, Lilith is a female demon who seduces men and kills unsuspecting children. Lilith (Hebrew, Lilit) became identified as Adam's first wife, created from dust to be her husband's equal. As the name of a demon, Lilit is etymologically related to the Sumerian lil ("wind") and not, as some once supposed, to the Hebrew laylah ("night"). Yet like the Sumerian wind demon and her later Babylonian counterpart, lilitu, a succuba who seduces men in their sleep, Lilith is active at night, seizing men and forcing them to copulate with her. In ancient Babylonian religion, the lilitu has a male counterpart, the ardat lili, who seduced women in their sleep. Both were once human, identified as women and men who died young and who after death sought the husbands and wives they had never enjoyed in life. The figure of the Babylonian demon Lamashtu, known as a child slayer, eventually converged with that of the lilitu demon to form the image of Lilith.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is only one clear reference to Lilith. Isaiah 34:14, describing the devastation of Edom, maintains that Lilith shall be at rest in the desert, among wild animals, screech owls, and satyrs. This reference to Lilith as demon is more fully developed in postbiblical Jewish literature, where Lilith is one of the lilin, a class of demons that includes both females and males. In the Babylonian Talmud Lilith is portrayed as having a woman's face, long hair ('Eruv. 100b), and wings (Nid. 24b). Her identity as demon is underscored in Bava' Batra' 73a, referring to the demon Hormiz or Ormuzd as Lilith's son, and in Shabbat 151b, where men are warned against sleeping alone lest they be seized by Lilith.

Pesahim 112b, warning men not to go out alone on Wednesday and Sabbath evenings because of the presence of "Agrat, the daughter of Mahalat," has been taken by some commentators as a further reference to Lilith. However, as Gershom Scholem maintains in his essay on Lilith in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), the identification of Lilith with Agrat, although both are night demons, seems to have no real foundation. In a midrashic commentary on the Bible (Nm. Rab. 16.25), Lilith is portrayed as a child killer, slaying her own children when no others are available to her.

The liliths, as a class of demons, appear many times on the Aramaic incantation bowls from Babylonia (Montgomery). These are earthenware bowls (400800 ce) inscribed with incantations to expel demons from the house or exorcise them from the body of the clients named on the bowls. The drawing of a fettered lilith with wings and wild, spiky hair often appears in the center of the bowl. The liliths appear in lists of evil spirits that refer to both the "male and female liliths," and one text denounces the liliths "who appear to human beings, to men in the likeness of women and to women in the likeness of men."

It is in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an often misogynist satirical Hebrew work from between the seventh and tenth centuries ce, that Lilith appears as a fully rounded individual character for the first time. Here, we find earlier descriptions of her as night demon and child killer combined with a number of rabbinic midrashim. According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, when God created Adam, he realized that it was not good for man to be alone, so he created a woman out of the earth, just as he had created Adam, and he called this woman Lilith. Immediately, Lilith and Adam began to quarrel. Insisting that they were equals, Lilith refused to lie beneath Adam, while he argued that it was proper for him, as a man, to lie on top. Uttering God's ineffable name, Lilith flew away. In response to Adam's complaints, God sent three angelsSanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelafto bring Lilith back, telling them that if she refused, one hundred of her demon children would die each day. The angels found Lilith at the Red Sea and implored her to return. She refused to do so. When informed of her impending punishment, she vowed to inflict harm on male infants up until the eighth day after birth, presumably until their circumcision, and on females up until the twelfth day. Lilith made one additional vow: if she saw an amulet bearing the name of the three angels, she would not harm the infant in any way.

Illustrations of such amulets can be found in the Sefer Razi'el, first printed in 1701 but largely based on the writings of El'azar of Worms, a mystic of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Describing certain mysteries supposedly revealed to Adam by the angel Razi'el, this work includes an incantation against Lilith that identifies her as Havvah ri'shonah (the "first Eve"), the one who seeks to harm newly born infants and women in childbirth. The iconography of the angels in Sefer Razi'el and the wording of the incantation against Lilith are still found in contemporary amulets printed to this day in Israel. In other medieval mystical works, Lilith becomes a figure of cosmic evil. In the thirteenth-century qabbalistic work by Rabbi Yitshaq ha-Cohen, Treatise on the Left Emanation, she appears for the first time as the female consort of the demon Sama'el, the chief of all the demons. This work speaks of two Liliths: Lilith the Elder, the wife of Sama'el, and Lilith the Younger, the wife of Asmodeus (Ashmed'ai), another demon king.

According to the late thirteen-century qabbalistic work the Zohar, Lilith and Sama'el emanated together from one of the divine powers, the sefirah of Gevurah (Strength). On the side of evil (the "other side") they correspond to the holy divine male and female. "Just as on the side of holiness so on 'the other side' there are male and female, included one with the other" (Tishby, 1989, II: 461). In the Zohar, Lilith's demonic sexuality comes to the fore. She is the seductive harlot who leads men astray, but when they turn to her, she transforms into the angel of death (Sama'el) and kills them. Lilith attempts to seduce men and use their seed to create bodies for her demonic children. The Zohar even recommends a special ritual to be performed before sexual intercourse between husband and wife in order to prevent Lilith from stealing the man's semen.

Other suggestions found in the Zohar are further developed in later qabbalistic texts. These include the view that Lilith, along with the demon Na'amah or Agrat, was one of two harlots who stood in judgment before Solomon and that the Queen of Sheba was actually Lilith, a claim first made in the Targum to Job 1:15. Belief in Lilith as child killer persisted in traditional European and Middle Eastern Jewish communities at least through the early twentieth century. According to Scholem (1971), protective amulets would be placed either above the bed of a woman about to give birth or on all four walls of the room in which she lay. As mentioned before, it is still possible to purchase amulets against Lilith to protect the mother and her newborn child.

The image of Lilith as it developed from antiquity through the early twentieth century represents an antitype of desired human sexuality and family life, a wild and unkempt woman whom Jewish society could not control. This image was demonic because Lilith represented everything that traditional Jews, both women and men, feared could go wrong in the arena of sexuality and childbearing: extramarital attractions and sexual intercourse, and the premature death of children.

Lilith's freedom from traditional constraints on Jewish women's lives has served, since the mid-1970s, as a model of female strength and independence for American Jewish women. A Jewish feminist magazine named Lilith has been published since 1976, and a number of Jewish feminist theologians, reexamining the accounts of creation in Genesis 1:27 ff., have worked to create midrashim of their own. In one such midrash, Judith Plaskow (in Koltun, 1976) restores Lilith's independence and belief in her equality with Adam, as portrayed in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, and replaces the myth of Lilith's supercession by Eve with an optimistic vision of the two first rejecting, then returning to, the garden of Eden to rebuild it together. Since the mid-1970s interest in Lilith has only grown among Jewish feminists, neopagans, musicians (the Lilith Fair), poets, and other writers. Whose Lilith? (1998) collects many articles and poems on Lilith, with a focus on her importance for Jewish women. These reclamations of Lilith can be seen as a part of a more general awakening of interest in female images and symbols within Jewish tradition.

See Also

Folk Religion, article on Folk Judaism; Women's Studies in Religion.


A good, brief account of Lilith in the Hebrew Bible and cognate ancient Near East literature can be found in M. Hutter, "Lilith," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden, 1995). Lilith in the Aramaic incantation bowls is evidenced in James Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur (Philadelphia, 1913); Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity, 2d ed. (Jerusalem, 1987); and Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae (Jerusalem, 1993). Lilith's role in the incantation bowls and rabbinic texts is discussed in Rebecca Lesses, "Exe(o)rcising Power: Women as Sorceresses, Exorcists, and Demonesses in Babylonian Jewish Society in Late Antiquity," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69 (2001): 343375. The story of Lilith in the Alphabet of Ben Sira can be found in Eli Yassif, Tales of Ben Sira in the Middle Ages (Jerusalem, 1984). There is a good English translation in David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky, eds., Rabbinic Fantasies (Philadelphia, 1990). Gershom Scholem published the Treatise on the Left Emanation in "The Kabbalah of R. Jacob and R. Isaac, the sons of R. Jacob ha-Kohen" (Hebrew; Madda'ei ha-Yahadut 2 [1927]: 244264), and discusses the development of Lilith extensively in his 1971 article in the Encyclopedia Judaica. The Wisdom of the Zohar by Isaiah Tishby, translated by David Goldstein (Oxford, 1989) publishes translations of many of the Zoharic passages dealing with Lilith and Sama'el. Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939; reprint, New York, 1982) discusses the appearance of Lilith in medieval incantations. Voices within the Ark, edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolph (New York, 1980), is an example of the resurgence of interest in Lilith, under various guises, in Jewish poetry and fiction. Judith Plaskow's midrash about Lilith and Eve is found in her essay "The Jewish Feminist: Conflict in Identities," in The Jewish Woman, edited by Elizabeth Koltun (New York, 1976). Enid Dame, Lilly Rivlin, and Henny Wenkart edited Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Re-create the World's First Woman (Northvale, N.J., 1998).

Rebecca M. Lesses (2005)


views updated May 18 2018


Lilith is the most infamous Jewish she-demon, a figure of considerable mythic power. She is likely of Babylonian origin, bearing characteristics of two Babylonian demonesses, Lilitu, a succubus, and Lamashtu, a child-strangling witch. The Jewish Lilith takes on characteristics of both—she serves as the incarnation of lust and as a mortal threat to newborn infants. The word Lilith appears only once in the Bible, in Isaiah 34:14, where it says, "Lilith shall repose there." But the major development in the Lilith myth is found in the rabbinic interpretations of the verse "Male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:27). This passage appeared to contradict the sequential creation of Adam and Eve, leading the rabbis to conclude that Adam had a wife before Eve, whom they identified as Lilith.

While there are a few scattered references to Lilith in the Talmud, alluding to her long hair and the danger she poses to men who sleep alone in a house, a comprehensive myth emerges in chapter 5 of The Alphabet of Ben Sira (c. eighth-tenth century). Here God is said to have created Lilith so that Adam would not be alone. Lilith and Adam fought over everything, including the missionary position, which Adam insisted on as his natural right. Finally Lilith pronounced the secret Name of God, the tetragrammaton, and flew out of the Garden of Eden to the Red Sea, where she encountered a great many male demons, took them all for lovers, and prolifically gave birth to baby demons. This serves to explain the proliferation of demons. God sent three angels to command her to return to Adam, but when she refused they agreed to use an amulet against her, with the words "Out, Lilith!" on it, which would protect women during pregnancy and children after birth. This amulet is still in use in some Orthodox Jewish circles.

In the Middle Ages Lilith took on the role of queen of demons, married to Ashmodai, the king of demons. A multitude of Jewish folktales recount her dangers as a seducer of men and as a child-strangling witch. At the same time, Lilith came to symbolize the feminine side of evil in kabbalistic texts. One shocking myth in the Zohar (thirteenth century), the central text of Jewish mysticism, describes how after God's bride, the Shekhinah, left God, Lilith took her place (Zohar 2:118a-118b).

In a strange twist, modern Jewish feminists chose Lilith as a role model in the 1960s and later (in 1976) founded the still-active Lilith magazine. Feminists admired Lilith's independence and especially her sexual independence and tended to ignore her dark baggage. This most recent evolution of the Lilith myth demonstrates Lilith's primary role in Jewish lore, which persists to this day.

see also Judaism.


Patai, Raphael. 1990. The Hebrew Goddess. 3rd edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Schwartz, Howard. 1988. Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Schwartz, Howard. 2004. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stern, David, and Mark Jay Mirsky, eds. 1990. Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

                                               Howard Schwartz


views updated May 17 2018






Alternate Names


Appears In

The Talmud, The Alphabet of Ben-Ska, Jewish legends


Created by God

Character Overview

In Jewish mythology Lilith was a female demon who killed newborn children in the night. She was associated with an ancient Babylonian (pronounced bab-uh-LOH-nee-uhn) demon called Lilitu, whose name often appeared in magical spells. According to a Jewish legend that appeared around the eighth century ce, Lilith was the original wife of Adam, the first man created by God. She often quarreled with Adam and eventually left him. God sent three angels—Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof—to find Lilith and bring her back. They found her at the Red Sea, where she was giving birth daily to numerous demons. When Lilith refused to return to Adam, God punished her by causing one hundred of her children to die each day. He then created Eve to be Adam's companion.

Furious at her punishment, Lilith began to kill the newborn babies of others. Parents could protect their children from her attacks by placing near the child an amulet, or charmed object, bearing the names of the three angels sent to find her. Through medieval times, Jewish people often kept amulets to ward off Lilith and her demon children, the lilim.

Lilith in Context

The myth of Lilith as Adam's first wife can be viewed as a cautionary tale to disobedient wives in ancient Jewish culture. Lilith is described as arguing with her husband and leaving him after he refuses to accept her as an equal. Lilith's negative qualities led to her giving birth to demons— a violation of all that is considered natural and right. This reflects the view that women were meant to obey their husbands, not try and function as their equals.

Key Themes and Symbols

In Jewish legend, the most well-known tale of Lilith paints her as a symbol of disobedience and conflict. She represents a violation of the natural and proper order of things, as shown by her abandonment of her husband and her delivery of demon children.

Lilith in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

In ancient times, Lilith was depicted as a wicked creature. In modern times, however, Lilith has become something of a symbol for feminists. Her insistence on equality with Adam, once viewed negatively, is now seen by many as a trait worthy of praise. It is in this spirit that Lilith's name has been used by an award-winning Jewish feminist magazine, as well as an annual musical fair focusing on women performers, which occurred in the late 1990s.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In recent decades, women's rights have become an important issue in many countries. It is only within the past century that American women were granted the right to vote. How do you think this relatively recent shift affects modern views of ancient mythologies? Do you think ancient myths should be adjusted for modern readers in order to offer a more balanced image of women in ancient cultures? Why or why not?

SEE ALSO Adam and Eve; Angels; Devils and Demons; Semitic Mythology


views updated Jun 08 2018


In Jewish mythology, Lilith was a female demon who killed newborn children in the night. She was associated with an ancient Babylonian demon called Lilitu, whose name often appeared in magical spells and incantations.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was the original wife of Adam, the first man created by God. She often quarreled with Adam and eventually left him. God sent three angelsSenoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelofto find Lilith and bring her back. They found her at the Red Sea, where she was giving birth daily to numerous demons. When Lilith refused to return to Adam, God punished her by causing 100 of her children to die each day. He then created Eve to be Adam's companion.

incantation chant, often part of a magical formula or spell

annulet small object thought to have supernatural or magical powers

medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about a.d. 500 to 1500

Furious at her punishment, Lilith began to kill the newborn babies of others. Parents could protect their children from her attacks by placing near the child an amulet bearing the names of the three angels sent to find her. Up to medieval times, Jewish people often kept amulets to ward off Lilith and her demon children, the lilim.

See also Adam and Eve; Angels; Devils and Demons; Semitic Mythology.


views updated May 09 2018

Lilith ★★★ 1964

Therapist-in-training Beatty falls in love with beautiful mental patient Seberg and approaches madness himself. A look at the doctor-patient relationship among the mentally ill and at the nature of madness and love. Doesn't always satisfy, but intrigues. Rossen's swan song. 114m/B VHS, DVD . Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman, Kim Hunter, Anne Meacham, Jessica Walter, Robert Reilly, Rene Auberjonois, Olympia Dukakis, James Patterson; D: Robert Rossen; W: Robert Rossen; C: Eugen Shufftan; M: Kenyon Hopkins.


views updated May 17 2018


LILITH , non-profit independent U.S. Jewish feminist quarterly directed at a popular female audience. Founded in 1976 by a group of women led by Susan Weidman Schneider, Lilith: The Independent Jewish Women's Magazine has been concerned with fostering discussion of Jewish women's issues and with putting them on the agenda of the Jewish community. The magazine, to quote its editors, "charts Jewish women's lives with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style." The magazine features award-winning investigative reports, new rituals and celebrations, contemporary and historical personal narratives, entertainment reviews, fiction and poetry, and art and photography.


A.L. Lerner, "Lilith," in: P.E. Hyman and D.D. Moore (eds.), Jewish Women in America, vol. 1 (1997), 854–56.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Lilith. A female demon in Jewish mythology. Isaiah lists Lilith among the beasts of prey which will devastate the land (34. 14). According to a midrash, Lilith was the first Eve who disputed with Adam because she was unwilling to forgo her equality.


views updated May 11 2018

Lilith a female demon of Jewish folklore, who tries to kill newborn children. In the Talmud she is the first wife of Adam, dispossessed by Eve.