The bird-foot woman in the Burney Relief.
Originally seen as related to Lilith but now rejected by later sources as representing Ishtar.
1. Introduction and etymology
Lilith is described as a female nocturnal demon who, as an enemy of the newborn and children, flies abroad in order to kidnap and kill them. Therefore, in demonic terms, Lilith along with Lamashtu and Lamia and other female demons, has been associated with the destruction of newly born infants and other children. In addition Lilith was also seen as a succubus, a demon seductress and temptress who invaded the sleep of men abed in order to propagate her demon sons by sexual intercourse with mortals. As such Lilith is portrayed as a disobedient and wanton woman. Viewed as a demonstrable and energetic sexual woman she is deliberately described as a threat, a personification of the dangers inherent in female sexuality.
As the Sumerian goddess of desolation Lilith is a very ancient demonic figure who personifies unseen forces. To the Hebrews of antiquity Lilith was a demon of desolation, despondency and insanity for infertile wives. It appears therefore that the legends concerning Lilith were an invention, a concoction, to explain poorly understood phenomena that occurred in the real world. The legends surrounding Lilith serve the ancient patriarchal purpose of showing, and declaring, that uncontrolled female sexuality is a danger and a disruptive influence that ends in destruction.
The Burney Relief is a Babylonian terracotta sculpture from around 2000 BCE, and has been, though disputed by some scholars, identified with Lilith. The relief depicts a near naked female winged figure with bird taloned feet. The figure displayed wears a headdress consisting of four pairs of horns. In her hands she grasps a ring and rod wand that resembles the Egyptian Shen ring amulet. She stands upon a pair of reclining lions and flanked by owls. Lilith, as a Hebrew term is mentioned in Isaiah 34.14 and is listed as a monster in the Dead Sea scrolls, but in later Christian tradition she is sometimes identified as the serpent.
In Hebrew myth Lilit is an early Talmudic figure whose Semitic origins are from the Hebrew layil and the Arabic layl – both of which mean night. Etymologically the lili and lilitu were Akkadian spirits which implies a link, disputed by some scholars, between the lilitu of Akkad and the Jewish Lilith. It is accepted, in general, that Lilith originates partly from types of demonic females called lilitu mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria and Babylon. In later Jewish texts there are many references to Lilith but there is a paucity of information in original Akkadian or Babylonian materials.
2. Lilith and Eve and Biblical Mythology
During the 8th to 10th century, according to Jewish folklore, Lilith is described as the first wife of Adam. One version states that Lilith and Adam were created as back to back conjoined twins from the same soil as Adam. Contrast this with the later Biblical legend, developed in medieval times, where Eve was crated from one of Adam’s ribs. It is in rabbinical lore that Lilith is identified as Adam’s first spouse, and is a story found in the first account of genesis. As a result of demanding equality with Adam whereby Lilith effused to submit to lying beneath him during sexual intercourse. This act of refusing the first missionary demands of Adam, was her act of rebellion that led to be being ejected from the garden of Eden and journeying back to her home beside the Red Sea. In essence Lilith had rejected the pre-eminence of her patriarchal and male dominant husband.
According to Muslim legends Lilith left Adam and went and slept with Satan (Samael) and this union created the demonic Djinn. The conflict led Lilith to resist and flee from Adam’s authoritative sexual demands on the basis of her own perceptions and right to equality. One tradition has it that Lilith had intercourse with after Adam and Eve had argued about the temptation of the so-called forbidden fruit. It was this coupling that produced the race of demons called the Shedin.
Lilith tempting Adam and Eve in her Serpent guise (Michelangelo).
On Adam’s request God agreed to despatch three angels to retrieve Lilith and return her to Eden. These three emissaries were Seney (Sanvi), Sansensy (Sansanvi), and Semangelof, who found Lilith beside her home at the Red Sea. Lilith refused to repent and as a result of this refusal she was replaced by Eve. The demands of the angels were reinforced by the threat that 100 of he sons would die daily if she did not return. Again, she refused and rebuffed and cursed the angels. The docile Eve was gifted to by God to Adam and Lilith was punished with he children taken by God.
Jewish demonology transmuted Lilith to the so-called role as a temptress and seducer of vulnerable men and killer of infants. In another role she was castigated as the sexual partner of the devil as Samael or Satan. Lilith, as an evil antagonist and negative adversarial counterpart to the Shekmah – Divine Presence or Mother of the House of Israel. The creation of Lilith, according to the religious mysticism of the Kabbalah comes in many versions. Her main features were established within the tradition of the Talmud where she was listed as one of the Qliphoth or Separah Malkuth in the Tree of Life. As such she was also seen as an unbalanced demonic seductress in the form od a butterfly. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain a reference to Lilith as a desert dweller associated with Lilith howlers, spirits, illegitimate souls, destroying angels and demons.
In the second century the Midrash attempted to reconcile the obvious contradictions contained in the bible on a number of issues (Whitcombe, 2010). Subsequently the middle ages of the 13th century started to pay particular attention to such seeming inaccuracies and this in turn was taken into account by the Jewish Kabbalah mystics. In the 10th century the Midrash became the first source in the middle ages to attempt a resolution of the contradictions. Adam was assumed perfect until he accepted his own sins and that of his son Cain – in other words death made its appearance in what was assumed to have been a perfect world of paradise. Separated form his ‘holy’ Eve he was seduced by a visitation from Lilith in the form of Pizna, against his will.
Sources derived from legend and myth state that the attraction of Lilith is based on the belief that because God took her children from her, because she refused to return to Eden, she became very vengeful. Hence the claim she wreaked a terror campaign against new-born boy infants and women in labour. However, prophylactic amulets bearing the images of the three emissary angels would act as protective charms against the ministrations of Lilith. According to this view Lilith was in such a vein due to her insubordinate attitude to Adam, her subsequent intercourse with the devil and birth of 100 demonic offspring per day. From this myth was created the concept that Lilith was created to in order to bring harm to new-born children. It is at this juncture that the ‘First’ Eve’ as Lilith merges with the earlier Sumerian-Babylonian myth of around 3500 BCE.
Protective amulet against Lamashtu. Mesopotamia, 800 BC. British Museum.
Lilith was also depicted as a female winged demonic infant killer and ascribed the role therefore as one of a number of harmful spirits called mazakim. However, a more anthropological and archaeological explanation may clarify matters. The Hebrew patriarchal tribes of antiquity were hostile to and fulminated against the Great Mother because she had drunk the blood of the slain herdsman Abel following a Neolithic fertility ritual. Abel was killed by his brother Cain who was the local god of agriculture and smith-craft. It was the contemporary belief that “…Lilith’s fecundity and sexual preference showed she was a Great Mother of settled agricultural tribes who resisted the invasions of nomadic herdsmen represented by Adam.” (Hefner, 2008). This corresponds with the idea that The ‘Red Sea’ of Lilith corresponds with Kali Ma’s Ocean of Blood that represented a periodic and seasonal sacrifice to give birth to all things.
3. In Middle Eastern mythology
The first wife of Adam considering Rabbinical mythology can be related to Belit-ili or Belelili the Sumero-Babylonian goddess. She was the ‘Divine Lady’ or Baalat to the Canaanites and referred to as Lillalake on a clay tablet dated from around 2000 BCE from the city of Ur. She-demons from ancient Sumeria were the lili but without etymological connection to the liliu of Akkadian for ‘evening’. Both the Akkadian Lilitu and the Hebrew Lilit were proto-Semitic in origin (Sayce, 1882), which means in translation night demon. Another description says not night but wind, and other references aver that Lilit and Lilitu were also disease carrying spirits of the wind. Other comparisons emerge in this vein. The Akkadian Lil-itu was borrowed from the Lil (air) of Sumeria. From this is derived Ninlil or ‘Lady of the Air’, the goddess of the south wind, the wife of Enlil which meant itud or moon.
The Lilith was therefore based on an early Babylonian myth of a trio of demonesses – the lilitu. One called Utukku was the demon of the night found in the folklore of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Utukku was a spirit of desolation and a descendant of Lilit of Babylonian myth. Many of the legends concerning Lilith are found to have originated in Jewish folklore. Other references to her are found in Babylonian, Iranian, Arab, Greek, English, German, Oriental, Mexican and Native American legends. In other descriptions she has been equated with Helen of Troy and the Queen of Sheba. However, in Europe in the middle ages she was claimed to be the concubine, mistress or wife, even grandmother, of the Devil.
Islamic and Arabian myth claimed the Lilith gave birth to the devil termed Iblis which were called the Jinn. However, the Arabic Lilith does not occur in the Haddith or the Quran. A demoness is mentioned as a ‘mother of children’ by the Jewish writer Zohar in the 13th century. A version is found with Solomon’s encounter with the enormous female giant demon called Karina, another example of origins within Jewish myth. The demoness Karina was an Arabian also known as Ummu Sibyani who made women infertile and withered vegetation and crops as well as eating her own offspring to replenish her powers. She is said to have appeared naked before Solomon and had the ability to turn into a serpent.
Lilith was thus a female demon in certain appearances who was closely related to Lamashtu an evil demoness who also killed infants, drank vampirously the blood of sleeping men and consumed the flesh of men. Lamashtu also was the cause of miscarriage in pregnant women in whose sleep she appeared as nightmarish dreams. In this context Lamia, another female demon, also resembled Lamashtu. Originally Lamia was a serpent goddess from Libya and a likely variation of Lamashtu. Similarly – Lamia also slew
The Lamia (1909), garbed in her serpentine girdle. Herbert James Draper.
infants and children in the form of a beautiful woman who also seduced young men. Again – the succubus who seduced sleeping men on their own in order to conceive by nocturnal sexual relations more demons called lilin.
4. In the mythology of antiquity
The Lilith of the Talmud is connected to the Greek Lamia as a type of malevolent child killing demon. Human and serpentine in form from the wast down she was believed to be Hecate’s daughter. Hera killed Lamia’s offspring because she adulterously slept with Zeus. Again, the Greek Lamia was a succubus and vampiric upon men. Similarly the Empusae were supposedly demons given birth to by Lamia who were sent out to waylay and eat travellers. There existed a speculative connection between the Etruscan goddess Lenish and Lillith. Lenish was a faceless deity who waited at the entrance to the underworld and accompanied in the vigil by Persipenei and Eista (who were also Persephone and Hecate). For the ancient Greeks the lilim who they called the Empusae and Lamiae – were the daughters of Hecate who ‘forced in’ the dead into the after-world. In other words they wanted to welcome dead souls. Later Christians referred to them as succubi and ‘harlots of hell’ and the female counterpart to the male incubus. During the medieval Christian era sleeping celebrant monks slept with their hand on their genitals with a crucifix in their other hand to fend off the night-time visits of the succubus. The faceless Lenith was regarded as a lily, the gate of the underworld thought of as a yoni, in this way entry “…into the underworld was frequently mythologised as a sexual union. The lily or liliu (lotus) was the Great Mother’s flower yoni, whose title form Lilith’s name.” (Hefner, 2008).
5. In modern legend and belief
In the canonical bible the legend of Lilith disappeared, whereas in the Latin Vulgate bible Lamia became the translation for the Lilith of the Hebrews. Other translated attributes for Lamia were ‘night mother’ and ‘screech owl’. The cult of Lilith as a figure of superstition remained among Jews up until the 7th century AD. Medieval Jews carried protective amulets to ward off the sexual predation of the lilium, and passed into the folklore of the middle ages imbued with qualities of vampires and ogresses. Hence, Lilith came to be the personification of lust and licentiousness, her offspring still seen as lilium and castigated as succubi. These daughters of Lilith were to haunt sleeping men for a millennium.
The lilium, as sensual and predatory sexual demons were believed to copulate with men in their dreams – causing nocturnal emissions and blamed for ‘wet dreams’, a developmental feature of the years between the teens and twenties. Moreover, Lilith, Lamia were deemed thus accountable for the crib or cot deaths. In other words SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome was blamed for the most common cause of death on night demonesses. SIDS nearly always occurred during sleep at night. It is a moot point how much the belief was an invention to explain the SIDS phenomena and amulets bearing the names of the three angel emissaries to Lilith in Genesis were often worn to protect against Lilith.
As we have seen men experiencing nocturnal emissions thought they hade been seduced in their slumbers by Lilith. Not only were the methods used by monks resorted to but protective incantations were recited. The main fear was that any resulting children would become demons.
Again, it was a common practice as late as the 18th century to provide infants and nursing mothers with amulets to deter visitations by Lilith, even to inscribing a magic circle around the lying-in bed. Lilith was not alone in her night-time escapades. She was accompanied by other succubi. These demons clustered along with her near to the ‘mountains of darkness.’ At this gathering they frolicked and lusted with Lilith’s devil lover called Samael – whose name Sam-el – meant the ‘position of god’. Lilith’s powers were at their height at the waning of the moon. As has been noted the name Lilith has been translated to mean ‘night hag’, night mother’ screech owl, or night creature. It is thus suggested that her similarity with Lilitu, the demoness from Sumeria-Babylonia is a night association. A connection that alludes to laylah the Hebrew for ‘night’. It is in Genesis that the literal terms Eve is depicted “…not as some wicked femme fatale but as a naïve and largely sexless fool.” (Whitcome. 2010).
Early contributions to occult tracts attributed special respect for Lilith in Wicca. In this way Lilith became a goddess of embodiment, a personification of erotic dreams. Gerald Gardner postulated an historically based and continuous worship of Lilith from early times as a craft deity. In some beliefs she is equated with Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Anath, Isis and even a ‘dark moon’ goddess similar to Kali. Popular among Wicca is the representation of Lilith as a romanticised occult figure. A first mother in the arcane and occasionally involved in some cults for magical purposes. Later demonised by the male dominant patriarchy Lilith has her origins as a ‘mother’ in Sumerian-Babylonian times as a Hebrew mother deity of childbirth, sexuality, women and infants.
In English literature and painting the Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, painted their first Lilith, and proceeded to symbolise the ‘femme fatale’. Lilith therefore
Lilith (1892) by John Collier
became personified in paintings, sonnets and other allusions. Her Jewish concordance was seen as the serpentine temptress with lustrous hair seductively entwined with a snake – the image of the dangerous seductress derived from a Jewish myth. This was a diversion from her original demonic features, away from her egalitarian role in antiquity, into an obsession with her own attributes as modern seductress.
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Hefner, A. G. (2008). Encyclopaedia Mythica.
Patai. R. (1978). The Hebrew Goddess. 3rd edition. Discus Books.
Sayce, A. (1887). Hibbert Lectures on Babylonian religion.
Swartz, H. (1988). Lilith’s Cave. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
Whitcombe, C. (2010). Eve and the Identity of Women.