Seductress, heroine or murderer?

Read Janet Howe Gaines’s article “Lilith” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, October 2001. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in September 2012.—Ed.


Winged spirits tumble across the night sky in New York artist Richard Callner’s “Lovers: Birth of Lilith” (1964), now in a private collection. According to medieval Jewish tradition, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, before Eve. When Adam insisted she play a subservient role, Lilith grew wings and flew away from Eden. Artist Callner identifies the large figure (right of center) as Lilith. Lilith’s character was not created out of whole cloth, however; the medieval authors drew on ancient legends of the winged lilītu—a seductive, murderous demoness known from Babylonian mythology. In recent years, Lilith has undergone another transformation as modern feminists retell her story. In the accompanying article, Janet Howe Gaines traces the evolution of Lilith. Image: Courtesy of Richard Callner, Latham, NY.

For 4,000 years Lilith has wandered the earth, figuring in the mythic imaginations of writers, artists and poets. Her dark origins lie in Babylonian demonology, where amulets and incantations were used to counter the sinister powers of this winged spirit who preyed on pregnant women and infants. Lilith next migrated to the world of the ancient Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites and Greeks. She makes a solitary appearance in the Bible, as a wilderness demon shunned by the prophet Isaiah. In the Middle Ages she reappears in Jewish sources as the dreadful first wife of Adam.

In the Renaissance, Michelangelo portrayed Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. Later, her beauty would captivate the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. “Her enchanted hair,” he wrote, “was the first gold.”1 Irish novelist James Joyce cast her as the “patron of abortions.”2 Modern feminists celebrate her bold struggle for independence from Adam. Her name appears as the title of a Jewish women’s magazine and a national literacy program. An annual music festival that donates its profits to battered women’s shelters and breast cancer research institutes is called the Lilith Fair.

In most manifestations of her myth, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness. Yet, in her every guise, Lilith has cast a spell on humankind.

The ancient name “Lilith” derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits—the lilītu and the related ardat lilǐ. The lilītu dwells in desert lands and open country spaces and is especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Her breasts are filled with poison, not milk. The ardat lilī is a sexually frustrated and infertile female who behaves aggressively toward young men.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

The earliest surviving mention of Lilith’s name appears in Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, a Sumerian epic poem found on a tablet at Ur and dating from approximately 2000 B.C.E. The mighty ruler Gilgamesh is the world’s first literary hero; he boldly slays monsters and vainly searches for the secret to eternal life.a In one episode, “after heaven and earth had separated and man had been created,”3 Gilgamesh rushes to assist Inanna, goddess of erotic love and war. In her garden near the Euphrates River, Inanna lovingly tends a willow (huluppu) tree, the wood of which she hopes to fashion into a throne and bed for herself. Inanna’s plans are nearly thwarted, however, when a dastardly triumvirate possesses the tree. One of the villains is Lilith: “Inanna, to her chagrin, found herself unable to realize her hopes. For in the meantime a dragon had set up its nest at the base of the tree, the Zu-bird had placed his young in its crown, and in its midst the demoness Lilith had built her house.” Wearing heavy armor, brave Gilgamesh kills the dragon, causing the Zu-bird to fly to the mountains and a terrified Lilith to flee “to the desert.”

Lilith? In the 1930s, scholars identified the voluptuous woman on this terracotta plaque (called the Burney Relief) as the Babylonian demoness Lilith. Today, the figure is generally identified as the goddess of love and war, known as Inanna to the Sumerians and Ishtar to the later Akkadians. (Both characters are featured in the poem Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree, quoted on this page.) The woman wears a horned crown and has the wings and feet of a bird. She is flanked by owls (associated with Lilith) and stands on the backs of two lions (symbols of Inanna). According to Mesopotamian myths, the demoness Lilith (lilītu or ardat lilǐ) flew at night, seducing men and killing pregnant women and babies. This night creature makes one appearance in the Bible, in Isaiah 34, which enumerates the fierce denizens of the desert wilderness: hyenas, goat-demons and “the lilith” (Isaiah 34:14). (In the King James Version, “lilith” is translated “screech owl”—apparently alluding to the demon’s night flights in search of prey.) Image: From The Great Mother.

Originating about the same time as the Gilgamesh epic is a terracotta plaque, known as the Burney Relief, that some scholars have identified as the first known pictorial representation of Lilith. (More recently, scholars have identified the figure as Inanna.) The Babylonian relief shows her as a beautiful, naked sylph with bird wings, taloned feet and hair contained under a cap decorated with several pairs of horns. She stands atop two lions and between two owls, apparently bending them to her will. Lilith’s association with the owl—a predatory and nocturnal bird—bespeaks a connection to flight and night terrors.

In early incantations against Lilith, she travels on demon wings, a conventional mode of transportation for underworld residents. Dating from the seventh or eighth century B.C.E. is a limestone wall plaque, discovered in Arslan Tash, Syria, in 1933, which contains a horrific mention of Lilith. The tablet probably hung in the house of a pregnant woman and served as an amulet against Lilith, who was believed to be lurking at the door and figuratively blocking the light. One translation reads: “O you who fly in (the) darkened room(s), / Be off with you this instant, this instant, Lilith. / Thief, breaker of bones.”4 Presumably, if Lilith saw her name written on the plaque, she would fear recognition and quickly depart. The plaque thus offered protection from Lilith’s evil intentions toward a mother or child. At critical junctures in a woman’s life—such as menarche, marriage, the loss of virginity or childbirth—ancient peoples thought supernatural forces were at work. To explain the high rate of infant mortality, for example, a demon goddess was held responsible. Lilith stories and amulets probably helped generations of people cope with their fear.

Over time, people throughout the Near East became increasingly familiar with the myth of Lilith. In the Bible, she is mentioned only once, in Isaiah 34. The Book of Isaiah is a compendium of Hebrew prophecy spanning many years; the book’s first 39 chapters, frequently referred to as “First Isaiah,” can be assigned to the time when the prophet lived (approximately 742–701 B.C.E.). Throughout the Book of Isaiah, the prophet encourages God’s people to avoid entanglements with foreigners who worship alien deities. In Chapter 34, a sword-wielding Yahweh seeks vengeance on the infidel Edomites, perennial outsiders and foes of the ancient Israelites. According to this powerful apocalyptic poem, Edom will become a chaotic, desert land where the soil is infertile and wild animals roam: “Wildcats shall meet hyenas, / Goat-demons shall greet each other; / There too the lilith shall repose / And find herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34:14).5 The Lilith demon was apparently so well known to Isaiah’s audience that no explanation of her identity was necessary.

The evil Lilith is depicted on this ceramic bowl from Mesopotamia. The Aramaic incantation inscribed on the bowl was intended to protect a man named Quqai and his family from assorted demons. The spell begins: “Removed and chased are the curses and incantations from Quqai son of Gushnai, and Abi daughter of Nanai and from their children.” Although Lilith’s name does not appear, she may be identified by comparison with images of her on other bowls, where she is shown with her arms raised aggressively and her skin spotted like a leopard’s. Dating to about 600 C.E., this bowl from Harvard University’s Semitic Museum attests to the longevity of Lilith’s reputation in Mesopotamia as a seducer of men and murderer of children. Image: Courtesy of the Semitic Musuem, Harvard University.

The Isaiah passage lacks specifics in describing Lilith, but it locates her in desolate places. The Bible verse thus links Lilith directly to the demon of the Gilgamesh epic who flees “to the desert.” The wilderness traditionally symbolizes mental and physical barrenness; it is a place where creativity and life itself are easily extinguished. Lilith, the feminine opposite of masculine order, is banished from fertile territory and exiled to barren wasteland.

English translators of Isaiah 34:14 sometimes lack confidence in their readers’ knowledge of Babylonian demonology. The King James Bible’s prose rendition of the poem translates “the lilith” as “the screech owl,” recalling the ominous bird-like qualities of the Babylonian she-demon. The Revised Standard Version picks up on her nocturnal habits and tags her “the night hag” instead of “the lilith,” while the 1917 Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures calls her “the night-monster.”6 The Hebrew text and its best translations employ the word “lilith” in the Isaiah passage, but other versions are true to her ancient image as a bird, night creature and beldam (hag).

While Lilith is not mentioned again in the Bible, she does resurface in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. The Qumran sect was engrossed with demonology, and Lilith appears in the Song for a Sage, a hymn possibly used in exorcisms: “And I, the Sage, sound the majesty of His beauty to terrify and confound all the spirits of destroying angels and the bastard spirits, the demons, Lilith. . ., and those that strike suddenly, to lead astray the spirit of understanding, and to make desolate their heart.”7 The Qumran community was surely familiar with the Isaiah passage, and the Bible’s sketchy characterization of Lilith is echoed by this liturgical Dead Sea Scroll. (Lilith may also appear in a second Dead Sea Scroll. See the following article in this issue.)

Centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, learned rabbis completed the Babylonian Talmud (final editing circa 500 to 600 C.E.), and female demons journeyed into scholarly Jewish inquiries. The Talmud (the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “study”) is a compendium of legal discussions, tales of great rabbis and meditations on Bible passages. Talmudic references to Lilith are few, but they provide a glimpse of what intellectuals thought about her. The Talmud’s Lilith recalls older Babylonian images, for she has “long hair” (Erubin 100b) and wings (Niddah 24b).8 The Talmud’s image of Lilith also reinforces older impressions of her as a succubus, a demon in female form who had sex with men while the men were sleeping. Unwholesome sexual practices are linked to Lilith as she powerfully embodies the demon-lover myth.

One talmudic reference claims that people should not sleep alone at night, lest Lilith slay them (Shabbath 151b). During the 130-year period between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, the Talmud reports, a distraught Adam separates himself from Eve. During this time he becomes the father of “ghosts and male demons and female [or night] demons” (Erubin 18b). And those who try to construct the Tower of Babel are turned into “apes, spirits, devils and night-demons” (Sanhedrin 109a). The female night demon is Lilith.

About the time the Talmud was completed, people living in the Jewish colony of Nippur, Babylonia, also knew of Lilith. Her image has been unearthed on numerous ceramic bowls known as incantation bowls for the Aramaic spells inscribed on them. If the Talmud demonstrates what scholars thought about Lilith, the incantation bowls, dating from approximately 600 C.E., show what average citizens believed. One bowl now on display at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum reads, “Thou Lilith. . .Hag and Snatcher, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob. . .to turn away from this Rashnoi. . .and from Geyonai her husband. . .Your divorce and writ and letter of separation. . .sent through holy angels. . .Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!”9 The inscription is meant to offer a woman named Rashnoi protection from Lilith. According to popular folklore, demons not only killed human infants, they would also produce depraved offspring by attaching themselves to human beings and copulating at night. Therefore, on this particular bowl a Jewish writ of divorce expels the demons from the home of Rashnoi.

Until the seventh century C.E., Lilith was known as a dangerous embodiment of dark, feminine powers. In the Middle Ages, however, the Babylonian she-demon took on new and even more sinister characteristics. Sometime prior to the year 1000, The Alphabet of Ben Sira was introduced to medieval Jewry. The Alphabet, an anonymous text, contains 22 episodes, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth episode includes a Lilith who was to tantalize and terrify the population for generations to come. To some extent, The Alphabet of Ben Sira shows a familiar Lilith: She is destructive, she can fly and she has a penchant for sex. Yet this tale adds a new twist: She is Adam’s first wife, before Eve, who boldly leaves Eden because she is treated as man’s inferior.

To learn more about Biblical women with slighted traditions, take a look at the Bible History Daily feature Scandalous Women in the Bible, which includes articles on Mary Magdalene and Jezebel.

The Alphabet’s narrative about Lilith is framed within a tale of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The king’s young son is ill, and a courtier named Ben Sira is commanded to cure the boy. Invoking the name of God, Ben Sira inscribes an amulet with the names of three healing angels. Then he relates a story of how these angels travel around the world to subdue evil spirits, such as Lilith, who cause illness and death. Ben Sira cites the Bible passage indicating that after creating Adam, God realizes that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). In Ben Sira’s fanciful additions to the biblical tale, the Almighty then fashions another person from the earth, a female called Lilith. Soon the human couple begins to fight, but neither one really hears the other. Lilith refuses to lie underneath Adam during sex, but he insists that the bottom is her rightful place. He apparently believes that Lilith should submissively perform wifely duties. Lilith, on the other hand, is attempting to rule over no one. She is simply asserting her personal freedom. Lilith states, “We are equal because we are both created from the earth.”10

The validity of Lilith’s argument is more apparent in Hebrew, where the words for man (Adam) and “earth” come from the same root, adm (nst) (adam [nst] = Adam; adamah [vnst] = earth). Since Lilith and Adam are formed of the same substance, they are alike in importance.

Eve, meet Lilith. Lilith—depicted with a woman’s face and a serpentine body—assaults Adam and Eve beneath the Tree of Knowledge in Hugo van der Goes’s “Fall of Adam and Eve” (c. 1470), from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in Vienna. According to medieval Jewish apocryphal tradition, which attempts to reconcile the two Creation stories presented in Genesis, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. In Genesis 1:27, God creates man and woman simultaneously from the earth. In Genesis 2:7, however, Adam is created by himself from the earth; Eve is produced later, from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21–22). In Jewish legend, the name Lilith was attached to the woman who was created at the same time as Adam. Image: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

The struggle continues until Lilith becomes so frustrated with Adam’s stubbornness and arrogance that she brazenly pronounces the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of the Lord. God’s name (YHWH), translated as “Lord God” in most Bibles and roughly equivalent to the term “Yahweh,” has long been considered so holy that it is unspeakable. During the days of the Jerusalem Temple, only the High Priest said the word out loud, and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. In Jewish theology and practice, there is still mystery and majesty attached to God’s special name. The Tetragrammaton is considered “the name that comprises all” (Zohar 19a).11 In the Bible’s burning bush episode of Exodus 3, God explains the meaning of the divine name as “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be,” a kind of formula for YHWH (vuvh), associated with the Hebrew root “to be.” The whole of the Torah is thought to be contained within the holy name. In The Alphabet, Lilith sins by impudently uttering the sacred syllables, thereby demonstrating to a medieval audience her unworthiness to reside in Paradise. So Lilith flies away, having gained power to do so by pronouncing God’s avowed name. Though made of the earth, she is not earthbound. Her dramatic departure reestablishes for a new generation Lilith’s supernatural character as a winged devil.

In the Gilgamesh and Isaiah episodes, Lilith flees to desert spaces. In The Alphabet of Ben Sira her destination is the Red Sea, site of historic and symbolic importance to the Jewish people. Just as the ancient Israelites achieve freedom from Pharaoh at the Red Sea, so Lilith gains independence from Adam by going there. But even though Lilith is the one who leaves, it is she who feels rejected and angry.

The Almighty tells Adam that if Lilith fails to return, 100 of her children must die each day. Apparently, Lilith is not only a child-murdering witch but also an amazingly fertile mother. In this way, she helps maintain the world’s balance between good and evil.

Three angels are sent in search of Lilith. When they find her at the Red Sea, she refuses to return to Eden, claiming that she was created to devour children. Ben Sira’s story suggests that Lilith is driven to kill babies in retaliation for Adam’s mistreatment and God’s insistence on slaying 100 of her progeny daily.

“Bind Lilith in chains!” reads a warning in Hebrew on this 18th- or 19th-century C.E. amulet from the Israel Museum intended to protect an infant from the demoness. The image of Lilith appears at center. The small circles that outline her body represent a chain. The divine name is written in code (called atbash) down her chest. (The letters yhwh appear instead as mzpz.) Beneath this is a prayer: “Protect this boy who is a newborn from all harm and evil. Amen.” Surrounding the central image are abbreviated quotations from Numbers 6:22–27 (“The Lord bless you and keep you. . .”) and Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills. . .”). According to the apocryphal Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith herself promised she would harm no child who wore an amulet bearing her name. Image: Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

To prevent the three angels from drowning her in the Red Sea, Lilith swears in the name of God that she will not harm any infant who wears an amulet bearing her name. Ironically, by forging an agreement with God and the angels, Lilith demonstrates that she is not totally separated from the divine.

Lilith’s relationship with Adam is a different matter. Their conflict is one of patriarchal authority versus matriarchal desire for emancipation, and the warring couple cannot reconcile. They represent the archetypal battle of the sexes. Neither attempts to solve their dispute or to reach some kind of compromise where they take turns being on top (literally and figuratively). Man cannot cope with woman’s desire for freedom, and woman will settle for nothing less. In the end, they both lose.

Why did the The Alphabet’s unnamed author produce this tragedy? What compelled the author to theorize that Adam had a mate before Eve? The answer may be found in the Bible’s two Creation stories. In Genesis 1 living things appear in a specific order; plants, then animals, then finally man and woman are made simultaneously on the sixth day: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). In this version of human origins, man and woman (“humankind” in the New Revised Standard Version) are created together and appear to be equal. In Genesis 2, however, man is created first, followed by plants, then animals and finally woman. She comes last because in the array of wild beasts and birds that God had created, “no fitting helper was found” (Genesis 2:20). The Lord therefore casts a deep sleep upon Adam and returns to work, forming woman from Adam’s rib. God presents woman to Adam, who approves of her and names her Eve. One traditional interpretation of this second Creation story (which scholars identify as the older of the two accounts) is that woman is made to please man and is subordinate to him.b

Considering every word of the Bible to be accurate and sacred, commentators needed a midrash or story to explain the disparity in the Creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. God creates woman twice—once with man, once from man’s rib—so there must have been two women. The Bible names the second woman Eve; Lilith was identified as the first in order to complete the story.

Another plausible theory about the creation of this Lilith story, however, is that Ben Sira’s tale is in its entirety a deliberately satiric piece that mocks the Bible, the Talmud and other rabbinic exegeses. Indeed, The Alphabet’s language is often coarse and its tone irreverent, exposing the hypocrisies of biblical heroes such as Jeremiah and offering “serious” discussions of vulgar matters such as masturbation, flatulence and copulation by animals.12 In this context, the story of Lilith might have been parody that never represented true rabbinic thought. It may have served as lewd entertainment for rabbinic students and the public, but it was largely unacknowledged by serious scholars of the time.

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Whether the writer of The Alphabet intended to produce earnest midrash or irreligious burlesque, the treatise proclaims Lilith unfit to serve as Adam’s helper. While medieval readers might have laughed at the story’s bawdiness, at the end of this risqué tale, Lilith’s desire for liberation is thwarted by male-dominated society. For this reason, of all the Lilith myths, her portrayal in The Alphabet of Ben Sira is today the most trumpeted, despite the distinct possibility that its author was spoofing sacred texts all along.

Dressed in a polka-dot bikini and high-heeled pumps, Lilith hurls lightning bolts at Adam, in Texas artist Allison Merriweather’s colorful “Lilith” (1999), from the artist’s collection. Today, feminists celebrate Lilith for insisting on being treated as Adam’s equal. In repicturing Lilith as a modern woman, they draw heavily on the medieval Alphabet of Ben Sira, where Lilith tells Adam: “We are equal because we are both created from the earth.” But the author of The Alphabet might actually have intended his tale to be interpreted as satire. Indeed, the book is rife with dirty jokes, praise for hypocrites and biting sarcasm. And the pious character Ben Sira, who retells Lilith’s story in The Alphabet, is identified as the product of an incestuous relationship between the prophet Jeremiah and his daughter. Image: Courtesy of Allison Merriweather.

The next milestone in Lilith’s journey lies in the Zohar, which elaborates on the earlier account of Lilith’s birth in Eden. The Zohar (meaning “Splendor”) is the Hebrew title for a fundamental kabbalistic tome, first compiled in Spain by Moses de Leon (1250–1305), using earlier sources. To the Kabbalists (members of the late medieval school of mystical thought), the Zohar’s mystical and allegorical interpretations of the Torah are considered sacred. The Lilith of the Zohar depends on a rereading of Genesis 1:27 (“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”), and the interpretation of this passage in the Talmud. Based on the shift of pronouns from “He created him” to the plural “He created them,” in Genesis 1:27, the Talmud suggests that the first human being was a single, androgynous creature, with two distinct halves: “At first it was the intention that two [male and female] should be created but ultimately only one was created” (Erubin 18a). Centuries later the Zohar elaborates that the male and female were soon separated. The female portion of the human being was attached on the side, so God placed Adam in a deep slumber and “sawed her off from him and adorned her like a bride and brought her to him.” This detached portion is “the original Lilith, who was with him [Adam] and who conceived from him” (Zohar 34b). Another passage indicates that as soon as Eve is created and Lilith sees her rival clinging to Adam, Lilith flies away.

The Zohar, like the earlier treatments of Lilith, sees her as a temptress of innocent men, breeder of evil spirits and carrier of disease: “She wanders about at night time, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves [emit seed]” (Zohar 19b). The passage goes on to say that she hovers over her unsuspecting victims, inspires their lust, conceives their children and then infects them with disease. Adam is one of her victims, for he fathers “many spirits and demons, through the force of the impurity which he had absorbed” from Lilith. The promiscuity of Lilith will continue until the day God destroys all evil spirits. Lilith even attempts to seduce
King Solomon
. She comes in the guise of the Queen of Sheba, but when the Israelite king spies her hairy legs, he realizes she is a beastly impostor.

At several points, the Zohar breaks away from the traditional presentation of the divine personality as exclusively male and discusses a female side to God, called the Shekhinah. (The Shekhinah, whose name means “the Divine Presence” in Hebrew, also appears in the Talmud.) In the Zohar, the lust that Lilith instills in men sends the Shekhinah into exile. If the Shekhinah is Israel’s mother, then Lilith is the mother of Israel’s apostasy. Lilith is even accused of tearing apart the Tetragrammaton, the sacred name of the Lord (YHWH).

The Zohar’s final innovation concerning the Lilith myth is to partner her with the male personification of evil, named either Samael or Asmodeus. He is associated with Satan, the serpent and the leader of fallen angels. Lilith and Samael form an unholy alliance (Zohar 23b, 55a) and embody the dark, negative sphere of the depraved. In one of the many stories of Samael and Lilith, God is concerned that the couple will produce a huge demonic brood and overwhelm the earth with evil. Samael is therefore castrated, and Lilith satisfies her passions by dallying with other men and causing their nocturnal emissions, which she then uses to become pregnant.13

While Lilith appears in the Zohar and many anonymous folktales throughout Europe, over the centuries she has attracted the attention of some of Europe’s best-known artists and writers. Germany’s Johann Goethe (1749–1832) refers to Lilith in Faust, and English Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812–1889) penned “Adam, Lilith and Eve,” another testament to the she-demon’s enduring power. The Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) imaginatively describes a pact between Lilith and the Bible’s serpent. A scheming and spiteful Lilith convinces her former lover, the snake, to loan her a reptilian shape. Disguised as a snake Lilith returns to Eden, convinces Eve and Adam to sin by eating the forbidden fruit, and causes God great sorrow.14 Rossetti maintains that “not a drop of her blood was human” but that Lilith nevertheless had the form of a beautiful woman, as can be seen in his painting entitled “Lady Lilith,” begun in 1864 (see the sidebar to this article).

In the 1950s C.S. Lewis invoked Lilith’s image in The Chronicles of Narnia by creating the White Witch, one of the most sinister characters in this imaginary world. As the daughter of Lilith, the White Witch is determined to kill the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. She imposes a perpetual freeze on Narnia so that it is always winter but never Christmas. In an apocalyptic tale of good overcoming evil, Aslan—creator and king of Narnia—kills the White Witch and ends her cruel reign.

Check out “Rare Magic Inscription on Human Skull” in the March/April 2009 issue of BAR for more information about magic in the ancient world.

Today the tradition of Lilith has enjoyed a resurgence, due mainly to the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Renewed interest in Lilith has led modern writers to invent ever more stories. Ignoring or explaining away Lilith’s unsavory traits, feminists have focused instead upon Lilith’s independence and desire for autonomy.

A feminist parable by Judith Plaskow Goldenberg typifies the new view of Lilith. At first Goldenberg’s fanciful tale follows the basic Ben Sira plot line: Lilith dislikes being subservient to Adam, so she flees Paradise and her absence inspires God to create Eve. But in Goldenberg’s retelling, the exiled Lilith is lonely and tries to re-enter the garden. Adam does everything he can to keep her out, inventing wildly untrue stories about how Lilith threatens pregnant women and newborns. One day Eve sees Lilith on the other side of the garden wall and realizes that Lilith is a woman like herself. Swinging on the branch of an apple tree, a curious Eve catapults herself over Eden’s walls where she finds Lilith waiting. As the two women talk, they realize they have much in common, “till the bond of sisterhood grew between them.”15 The budding friendship between Lilith and Eve puzzles and frightens both man and deity.

Soon after Goldenberg’s prose piece, Pamela Hadas produced a 12-part poem that examines Lilith’s dilemma from the female vantage point (see the sidebar to this article). Titled “The Passion of Lilith,” the poem explores the she-demon’s feelings in the first person by beginning with the question “What had the likes of me / to do with the likes of Adam?”16 The first two people are cast as opposites who do not understand one another and cannot learn to appreciate each other’s strengths. Lilith regards herself as an example of God’s “after-whim / or black humor.”

Hadas’s Lilith complains that she feels superfluous because she cannot yield to the dull, artless and monotonous restrictions of Paradise. The female misfit flees the scene and tries to satisfy her maternal instincts by approaching women in childbirth and newborn babies, to their detriment, of course. Hadas’s feminist perspective is most apparent at the poem’s conclusion, however, when Lilith sees her life of pain as qualifying her for sainthood. Having been created from God’s breath, Lilith asks “old bald God” to marry her, to breathe her in again. When the Lord refuses, she is hurt, angry and left with few options, except to travel the world alone.

Lilith’s peregrinations continue today. This winged night creature is, in effect, the only “surviving” she-demon from the Babylonian empire, for she is reborn each time her character is reinterpreted. The retellings of the myth of Lilith reflect each generation’s views of the feminine role. As we grow and change with the millennia, Lilith survives because she is the archetype for the changing role of woman.

“Lilith” by Janet Howe Gaines appeared in the October 2001 issue of Bible Review.

Janet Howe Gaines is a specialist in the Bible as literature in the Department of English at the University of New Mexico. She recently published Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages (Southern Illinois Univ. Press).



a. See Tzvi Abusch, “Gilgamesh: Hero, King, God and Striving Man,” AO 03:04.

b. But see David R. Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to Man,” BAR 09:01.

1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Body’s Beauty,” in The House of Life: A Sonnet-Sequence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1928), p. 183.

2. James Joyce, Ulysses, chap. 14, “Oxen of the Sun.”

3. All Gilgamesh quotations are from Samuel N. Kramer, Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-Tree: A Reconstructed Sumerian Text, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago Assyriological Studies 10 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1938).

4. Translated by Theodor H. Gaster in Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith—The First Eve (Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon, 1992), p. 66. Another translation does not mention Lilith’s name and reads, “Be off, terrifying ones, terrors of my night.”

5. Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotes are from TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).

6. These items may arise from Lilith’s association with darkness. Some translators and commentators have mistaken the etymology of Lilith’s name. Lilith, lylyt [tylyl], was not derived from the Hebrew word for night, lylh [hlyl], as they supposed. Instead, Lilith’s name originated in her depiction as a mythic Mesopotamian fiend and foe of Gilgamesh.

7. 4Q510. See Joseph M. Baumgarten, “On the Nature of the Seductress in 4Q184,” Revue de Qumran 15 (1991–1992), pp. 133–143.

8. All talmudic references are to The Babylonian Talmud, trans. Isidore Epstein, 17 vols. (London: Soncino, 1948).
9. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd enlarged ed. (Detroit: Wayne State, 1990), p. 226.

10. The translation is my own. The full Hebrew text of The Alphabet of Ben Sira is found in Ozar Midrashim: A Library of Two Hundred Minor Midrashim (New York: J.D. Eisenstein, 1915), vol. 1, pp. 35–49.

11. All references to the Zohar are to the edition translated by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, 2nd ed. (London: Soncino, 1984), vol. 1.

12. David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky, eds., Rabbinic Fantasies (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990).

13. Joseph Adler, “Lilith,” Midstream 45:5 (July/August 1999), p. 6.

14. Rossetti, “Eden Bower,” in Poems (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1873), pp. 31–41.

15. Judith Plaskow Goldenberg, “Epilogue: The Coming of Lilith,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 341–343.

16. Pamela White Hadas, “The Passion of Lilith,” in In Light of Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1980), pp. 2–19.

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  1. Hernan says

    What confusion – no wonder so many people feel they cannot understand the Bible, nor can they trust a God that is represented as unfair and out of touch. The Bible stands on its own and can be understood if one simply follows the admonition in Isaiah 66:1-2. The time is fast approaching when God will set His hand to free the world of all superstition and spiritual blindness.

  2. Dan says

    How did you get Lilith into Isaiah 34:14? Strong’s states the Hebrew word means bird and is translated vulture.

  3. Mark says

    Multiple translations of Is 34:14 make it night monster. The history of the tradition is interesting but much is being read into Isaiah both from details and sources that Isaiah is unlikely to be familiar with and from later material. Paul refers to Aratus in Acts 17:28 to make his point to a heathen population but surely does not endorse all his work. So here Isaiah simply describes in terms his listeners will understand a place so desolate that it is occupied by everything unclean.

  4. Susan says

    So, Lilith was demoonized because she wanted to be equal and independent. Like Vashti.

  5. Richard says

    ardat lilī … Great. Now I know the Sumerian for “cougar.”

  6. Porsha says

    Thought I’d share in return, my article on Lilith ( I believe she wasn’t evil, not in the traditional sense of the word. She simply chose her own path, one that most certainly was NOT appreciated by the scholarly men of ancient times — to say the very least.

  7. Darla says

    Could she not have been all three? I like this theory about her as a woman before she become the mother of the children of the night.

  8. says

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
    again. Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog!

  9. Salit says

    Villians…what people betray as evil are nothing but victims…..i read few other online stories of her….to me it seem like a respectful mother…however it can’t be her fault that she tries constantly but always led to more arguments with Adam. Basically story give a moral in main world of men…there no reason to live as a female. The illusion of love and equality never existed. How can a women only endure the suffering that a men gives if he cannot be a real adult and listen.

  10. Krzysztof says

    Professor G. R. Driver considers the Hebrew word (li·lith′) to derive from a root word denoting “every kind of twisting motion or twisted object,” even as the Hebrew word la′yil (or lai′lah), meaning “night,” suggests a “wrapping itself round or enfolding the earth.” Such derivation of li·lith′, he suggests, may likely point to the nightjar as both a nocturnal feeding bird and one noted for its rapid twisting and turning flight as it pursues moths, beetles, and other night-flying insects. As quoted by Driver, Tristram, the naturalist, described the nightjar as “becoming very active towards dusk, when they hawk about at great speed and with intricate turnings after their food.”—Palestine Exploration Quarterly, London, 1959, pp. 55, 56.

  11. DONALD says

    Babylon without doubt represents a usurper and illegal authority opposed to the standards God set for His creation.Lilith just as Gilgamesh are characters spawned from a Babylonian mind associated more with some primordial miasma than with our divine Creator intentions.In relation to man’s reality her story sounds possible but in God’s economy she is not plausible for this means that God made a mistake creating her which is in itself impossible.The scenario of her existence is meant to deceive the naive but only serves as entertainment to those who are grounded in God’s truth. I do admit that she is fascinating.

  12. Layla says

    Honestly, I can see why Lilith would want a little revenge on these people. (Figurativly speaking) I mean, with all the stuff they say about her, naming her a demoness and a hag, I get it. Not saying I agree with any methods she might have about punishing them, but still. She wanted to be treated as Adam’s equal, not his slave, and everyone decided to land her a place in Hell. And have you ever noticed that a story is always told in the “hero’s” point of view? Think about that.

  13. BENJAMIN says


  14. Sibanyoni says

    First time I learnt that Eve was not the wife of Adam, I could not believe my eyes.
    But I understand why God did not want to featcher her in the bible, she wanted to be equaly to Adam and God decided to Eve from the rib of Adam and He (God) had to make Adam sleep in order to create Eve

  15. diana says

    cane kill his brother he saw he wife it was Litith,,,,was his wife……

  16. diana says

    cane met his wife,,,,,Litith

  17. somebody says

    you know all my years and i mean many years i have never ever knew that this story about lilith actually exist i mean my grandmother took me to church and i read the bible or u know how the preachers would tell us the members of the church to read the bible line up on line preceps yet there were no mention of lilith this makes me wonder are these preacher actually hiding the info or maybe they themselves dont know uhh amazing isnt it

  18. Karen says

    All I want is to claim my place on the right hand side of God. But I have to admit, there are many things written in today’s version of the Bible that has perplexed me and I question the validity of, because after all, it was written by MAN. So I ask, why not the left hand side of God? For 57 years I have struggled with understanding many things written in the Bible, have ventured to learn about various spiritual faiths in my quest for truth and have gained enlightenment as to my own true nature as a spiritual being. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. Everything in life has been left open to individual interpretation and whether the existence of Lilith is fact or myth, in my opinion, is irrelevant in light of what is going on in this world today.

  19. Olawale says

    Lilith! I do not think she was really the first wife of Adam because the bible clearly state Eve to be his first wife. The whole story could just be mythical and not real. Prophet Isaiah only rebuked hew

  20. Jane says

    Yes! I like what Hernan says- first response in Sept 2012- (Isaiah 66:1-2) Spot on! To add to that Porsha’s comment of, “I believe she wasn’t evil, not in the traditional sense of the word. She simply chose her own path, one that most certainly was NOT appreciated by the scholarly men of ancient times — to say the very least.
    September 16, 2012, 1:03 am” This statement sounds palpable at first glance, but dig deeper people! That goes in the direct line of how Lucifer fell from heaven- Isaiah 14:12-14, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I WILL ascend to the heavens; I WILL raise my throne above the stars of God; WILL sit enthroned on the mount of the assembly on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I WILL ascend the tops of the clouds; I WILL make myself like the Most High.'” (my caps on ‘I WILL’ for emphasis) Isn’t that the epitamy of putting yourself up there with God? Choosing your OWN path over what God has intended for you? If indeed He is the Almighty, All-knowing- the -best -for -you -God? Do you indeed trust that- that is the question. That act of sin, putting our own wills over His and trusting in our own plan, is what puts sin in motion. Would you tell the potter how to make pot??? Lilith is a demonic spirit…why would you give her credence and make up and add to the Bible, that which is just not there. Satanic- taking a bit of truth and mixing in lies!! To the only wise and living GOD be all glory divine!!!!!

  21. Jane says

    Addendum: Lilith is not recorded in the Bible as Adam’s first wife! What hogwash!! Please be admonished- ” I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelations 22:18-20). And remember, “All scripture is God-breathed…” (2Timothy 2:15) Read the WORD and may you be truly blessed!!

  22. Kurt says

    li·lith′]. … (Isa 34:14) The Hebrew word has been variously translated as “screech owl” (KJ), “night-monster” (AS), “nightjar” (NE, NW), and “night hag” (RS), while The Jerusalem Bible prefers simply to transliterate the name as “Lilith.”
    Some scholars believe the term li·lith′, used at Isaiah 34:14 as among the creatures haunting Edom’s ruins, applies to some type of owl.
    li·lith′; likely a nocturnal bird.
    Isaiah 1:1-66:24 – Reference Bible
    Footnote Words Indexed
    LILITH (Heb.),
    Rbi8 pp. 1554-1559 – Reference Bible

  23. no says

    God is not a man that he should lie. the story of Lilith may be true after all, there are multiples demons on earth but point of correction,God did not create man before plants and animals. God created everything before he created man and woman. please, read ur bible properly and ask d Holy Spirit to explain it to u all before u draw God’s judgement on urself in d name of telling story. Please read Genesis 1 vs 1-29 again for more understanding. May God have Mercy upon u.

  24. Senona says

    I’m sorry to say, I will only go on from what is written in the word it’s self… So I don’t believe Lilith was the first wife and if she is a daemon I say in The lords name be gone!!!

  25. Veronica says

    There are alot of things out there that many people are ignorant of. The Bible has been re-written so many times, who knows how the truth has been translated? We all know how he said she said changes from a mole hill into a mountain. Yes, there must be a God because someone created us. And yes, there are aspects of the truth that has been omitted from the Bible to probably protect us. I was also very shocked to learn that Lilith was Adams first wife. My take on it is that at the end of the day, just do good and be good, continue with your faith that there is a higher power out there. I wish the Bible was simple. Too many contradictions have confused people who have walked away from Christianity. Would a loving God punish a good person just because he/she were not Christian? I dont think so. As for Lilith…she could very easily be the Jezebel, the seducer, the monster. Men are the weaker species after all.

  26. Tiger says

    I research Lilith so much.
    Its really common for a writer to portray her in that way.
    Who’s to say what is just or unjust?
    How do you measure perception?
    Evil is the same old copy cat writers same same same.
    Ankh loop sure makes life fucking boring.
    So do boring writers.

  27. Yonas says

    im sorry guys for what u guys read n believe unless what God says on his word but if this story take out from the bible it will be much from the rest of scripture. im write this message the one who believes by holy bible n getting confused,the bible said devil is a lair and there is a God above everything they both use human beings if i said that let me tells u a little story from the Bible —
    after God created everything adam n eve they were have Cains n abel caines killed abel with jealousy n hated adam and eve was having anather kids let me put it this way—–
    Genesis Chapter 5
    Viewing the Standard King James Version (Pure Cambridge). Click to switch to 1611 King James Version Genesis Chapter 5

    1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

    2 Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

    3 And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth:

    4 And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:

    32 And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

    let me tell u when u find nova seed on this chapter is from Seth
    follow me n u will know the truth
    Genesis Chapter 7
    4 For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.
    13 In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark
    so even Cains seed all r dead that’s why David when he pray he called his self Seth son n said help Seth son i wish i do speak english make this storey lie even the babillon start after all that not befor n there is different storey God is there seen u guys.u all thanks him he is the one makes u live till this time if ur not blieve with that then just stop talk about him dont lie about him he put it everything there may God bless u open ur mind guys in jesus name bless everyfollwer

  28. Yonas says


  29. Wes says

    Lilth is real! What you face in her is a Succubus the worst in leages with the devil! The devil is a Succubus the worst! They are #1 and # 2 In Hell! They are have weakness the ones man has the Devils- Pride Lilth- Lust What is the world controlled by right now! The earth she came from was not hallow Ground! She stayed in the garden to help with the fall of Adam and Eve! GOD he knew before it all happened why? So mankind was perfect in his creation? GOD Perfect! We took from the tree of wisdom of good and evil! Test of faith? Or for us to learn so we may come to place like earth and do for GOD what he can do for us? Save Souls!

  30. Wes says

    Correction the Devil is a incubus!

  31. Wes says

    I never could get anything from a book, I love everything Jesus Christ said but people inspired by demons tried to ruin that in me! So we demon I did run all for the sake of having fun, but demon just weren’t fun! So now I run for GOD and his SON now that’s FUN!

  32. Wes says

    The way for me to KNOW anything I would ever do, was find GOD by doing it all wrong first! He knew I would! GOD!

  33. Bryce says

    I feel that all the stories ( like most myths) are a version of the truth. Lilith in my opinion is nothing more than a scorned woman seeking retribution for the wrongs done to her. When she left the garden after speaking the true name of God, I believe she was merely using it as an expression of her frustration, much like we all do today. I’ll agree the whole killing and eating babies is a little far out there and holds no real grounds to the woman she was. Actually I agree with the opinion that she wants to help new mothers and fears being recognized and scolded because of the reputation she does not deserve. In fact I believe the reason that all her children she conceives from man come out as demons is because her body was not made to bear the children of man today but the children of Adam. This being said, I think all Lilith truly wants is to be reunited with her other half, Adam. Like many couples of today, who truly love each other but just can not agree, Lilith and Adam just clashed in the same way all couples do but they were perfect for each other because they were made together ( which ever version of their creation you choose is more accurate). So in conclusion Lilith is not some monster but a loving mother who wants nothing more than her husband, whom she loves, back and the children they never had the chance to have.

  34. k says

    How strong can a “succubus” get? For example; Psyche who dates back from Greek mythology to modern day psychology and psychiatry. Could she represent a succubus feeding off the living, and potentially becoming The Great Whore from Revelations?

  35. Shieldwolf says

    I’m 31yrs old, I have known about the story of Lilith since I was a child, not from going to church, nor from being taught about her. I remember her story, because of how I came across the information. I was at a doctors office with my mother. There, like many medical offices, were books for children to read. There happened to be a book there that was more pictorial than anything, but it was a children’s version of the bible, made to be easily understood. Just goes to show that you never know when nor where you will learn something new. Jane, you made a comment regarding “sin”….folks, let’s stop with religion for a second, and take a different approach. I do not mean any disrespect towards anyone individual or religion….what do we about “sin”? Absolutely nothing apparently. “Sin” is a word created by man to attempt to explain what the opposite of “just” is. For me, it is no different than that of the word “religion”, which is in my opinion, simply created to explain that which we do not yet understand. I am not Christian, Catholic, Baptist, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, etc etc etc, nor am I Atheist. I am Wiccan. However, my religious beliefs have nothing to do with my view. I am simply an individual attempting to take an intelligent and logical approach to this topic. I believe, that if any of thousands of people named in various books and religions ever existed, including Lilith, then in today’s society, more proof needs to be shed on their existence. Would any of you not agree? That even goes for the Wiccan community that I am proudly apart of. Other than that, this was a well researched topic, and found it to be very informative for those that just simply were not aware of a “dual” creation story. I applaud you.

  36. Rhonda says

    In ancient Babylonia, the spirits of those that suffered an untimely death were greatly feared and libations were placed on their grave in order to prevent them from haunting the living. Out of all these spirits, none was so feared as the the spirit of a woman that died in childbirth. It was believed that such spirits took the shape of an owl and sought revenge upon the living.

  37. tobi says

    Is lilith a demon or she was created the same time Adam was created as Adam wife.

  38. Katiehalida says

    Wow everyone I read is actually how I feel about everything so I mush have Lilith with me at least I know where I’m going in my after life

  39. joey says

    succubus really that i see in my dreams alot

  40. nickki says

    The answers lies within our hearts.One can never follow the Bible,it has so much twist and turns.What has religion got us into? Is there any upliftment for women? Every bad or sad story is always about women.Why whenever women tries to be strong they are always seen as demons.

  41. kyle says

    i had a Ouija tell me god was sending angels after me cause of Lilith? is this weird or can i just go on with my day cause till the Ouija board spelled her name ive never heard of her and im very sure my little brother has so..

  42. Arie says

    For a closer look at the meaning of the name Lilith, see:

  43. Marci says

    So my understanding if this is that in the talmudic reference Adam is a adulter and in Goldenberg’s story she and Eve become girlfriends .In The Zohar’s final innovation Saton her best friend and partner is castrated so he can not reproduce. So she reproduces from stolen nightly emissions from men. And to top it all off in Hadas’s Lilith she wants to marry God and be a saint. I am almost speechless … my mind is doing overtime with comments.

  44. Larry says

    Oh boy! What a compendium! I’ve researched the Lilith character for quite a while. Through every source I could find on the Internet and at a few libraries at women’s study departments at universities and this compendium of information is really the most complete.
    I have several translations of Innanna and the Huluppo Tree and I gathered that the “dragon” was a ‘snake that knows no charm’ and it was not killed but slithered off.

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  46. Edward says

    Lilith as to jahova did not live

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