At a women’s event I attended a few years ago, a woman got up to speak about how men have oppressed women throughout history.
“I am going to talk to you all about the first woman men oppressed,” she said very boldly. “I am going to talk to you about Eve!”
There was a moment of silence as many women around the tent were stunned. And then from the back a voice shouted out,
“What about Lilith?!”
“Ah, yes,” the speaker on stage said, “I did think about Lilith, but I decided to ignore her and talk about Eve instead.”
I thought this really sums up Lilith quite well. The woman that the Abrahamic traditions forget while they are on their way to bash Eve around the head for being a weak female, but also, the woman that feminists forget about in favour of a better story. It is not just men who have erased these women from history, but women also have been selective at what they remember.
The Alphabet of Ben Sira is considered to be the oldest form of the story of Lilith as Adam's first wife. Whether this certain tradition is older is not known. Scholars tend to date Ben Sira between the 8th and 10th centuries. Its real author is anonymous, but it is falsely attributed to the sage Ben Sira. The amulets used against Lilith that were thought to derive from this tradition are in fact, dated as being much older. The concept of Eve having a predecessor is not exclusive to Ben Sira, and is not a new concept, as it can be found in Genesis Rabbah. However, the idea that Lilith was the predecessor is exclusive to Sira. According to Gershom Scholem, the author of the Zohar, R. Moses de Leon, was aware of the folk tradition of Lilith. He was also aware of another story, possibly older, that may be conflicting.
The idea that Adam had a wife prior to Eve may have developed from an interpretation of the Book of Genesis and its dual creation accounts; while Genesis 2:22 describes God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib, an earlier passage, 1:27, already indicates that a woman had been made: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." The text places Lilith's creation after God's words in Genesis 2:18 that "it is not good for man to be alone". He forms Lilith out of the clay from which he made Adam, but the two bicker. Lilith claims that since she and Adam were created in the same way, they were equal, and she refuses to submit to him:
After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: 'Sovereign of the universe!' he said, 'the woman you gave me has run away.' At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, to bring her back. Said the Holy One to Adam, 'If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.' The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God's word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, 'We shall drown you in the sea.’ 'Leave me!' she said. 'I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.’ When the angels heard Lilith's words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: 'Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.' She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels' names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.
The background and purpose of The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is unclear. It is a collection of stories about heroes of the Bible and Talmud, it may have been a collection of folk-tales, a refutation of Christian, Karaite, or other separatist movements; its content seems so offensive to contemporary Jews that it was even suggested that it could be an anti-Jewish satire, although, in any case, the text was accepted by the Jewish mystics of medieval Germany.
The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is the earliest surviving source of the story, and the conception that Lilith was Adam's first wife became only widely known with the 17th century ‘‘Lexicon Talmudicum of Johannes Buxtorf.
An Armenian writer Avetik Isahakyan describes Lilit as Adam's first wife. However, here God created Lilit from fire and Adam from soil. Lilit did not like how Adam smelled like soil. In the end, she escaped with Satan in the shape of a snake. Only after that did God create Eve from Adam's bone, so that she would always be with him. "But though Adam's lips said Eve, his soul always echoed Lilith."
In the folk tradition that arose in the early Middle Ages Lilith, a dominant female demon, became identified with Asmodeus, King of Demons, as his queen. Asmodeus was already well known by this time because of the legends about him in the Talmud. Thus, the merging of Lilith and Asmodeus was inevitable. The fecund myth of Lilith grew to include legends about another world and by some accounts this other world existed side by side with this one, Yenne Velt is Yiddish for this described "Other World". In this case Asmodeus and Lilith were believed to procreate demonic offspring endlessly and spread chaos at every turn. Many disasters were blamed on both of them, causing wine to turn into vinegar, men to be impotent, women unable to give birth, and it was Lilith who was blamed for the loss of infant life. The presence of Lilith and her cohorts were considered very real at this time.
Two primary characteristics are seen in these legends about Lilith: Lilith as the incarnation of lust, causing men to be led astray, and Lilith as a child-killing witch, who strangles helpless neonates. Although these two aspects of the Lilith legend seemed to have evolved separately, there is hardly a tale where she encompasses both roles. But the aspect of the witchlike role that Lilith plays broadens her archetype of the destructive side of witchcraft. Such stories are commonly found among Jewish folklore.
One story tells of how a daughter of Lilith dwelling in a mirror came to possess a narcissistic young girl. A wife had bought a mirror and hung it in a room of her daughter. The mirror had been hung in a den of demons and a daughter of Lilith resided in it. Whenever the mirror was moved from the haunted house, the demoness within went with it. The girl spent a lot of time gazing at herself in the mirror, each time drawing closer and closer into Lilith's web. The daughter of Lilith watched the young girl's every movement. Biding her time, one day Lilith's daughter slipped out and possessed the girl through the eyes. Seizing control of the girl, Lilith's daughter dominated the girl's every move. Driven by the evil wishes and desires of Lilith's daughter, the girl became promiscuous and ran around with many men.
It is said that every mirror is a passage into the Otherworld and leads to the cave that Lilith went to after she had abandoned Adam and Eden for all time. In this cave, Lilith takes up demon lovers, who father upon her multitudes of demons who flock from the cave and infest the world. When these demons want to return they simply enter the nearest mirror.
LILITH AND ISHTAR
Lilith is also identified with ki-sikil-lil-la-ke, a female being in the Sumerian prologue to the Gilgamesh epic. Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke is sometimes translated as Lila's maiden, companion, his beloved or maid, and she is described as the "gladdener of all hearts" and "maiden who screeches constantly". Another female being (or epithet for Lilith) is mentioned alongside Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke: Ki-sikil-ud-da-ka-ra or "the maiden who has stolen the light" or "the maiden who has seized the light" and identifies her with the moon.
Samuel N. Kramer has translated the relevant Gilgamesh passage as
a dragon had built its nest at the foot of the tree the Zu-bird was raising its young in the crown, and the demon Lilith had built her house in the middle. Then the Zu-bird flew into the mountains with its young, while Lilith, petrified with fear, tore down her house and fled into the wilderness.
Diane Wolkenstein translates the same passage as
a serpent who could not be charmed made its nest in the roots of the tree, The Anzu bird set his young in the branches of the tree, And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk.
The Gilgamesh passage quoted above has in turn been applied by some to the Burney relief (now at the British Museum), which dates to the Old Babylonian period (ca. the 20th century BC). It is a sculpture of a woman with bird talons and flanked by owls. It likely depicts Inanna or her underworld sister Ereshkigal and some scholars currently regard the connection with this relief and Lilitu/Lillake as dubious. The relief was purchased by the British Museum in London for its 250th anniversary celebrations. Since then it was renamed "Queen of the Night" and has toured museums around Britain. A similar relief dating to roughly the same period is preserved in the Louvre (AO 6501).
However, the Anchor Bible Dictionary disputes the identification of Lilith, the Gilgamesh passage and the relief:
Two sources of information previously used to define Lilith are both suspect. Kramer translated Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke as "Lilith", in a Sumerian Gilgamesh fragment. The text relates an incident where this female takes up lodging in a tree trunk which has a Zu-bird perched in the branches and a snake living in the roots. This text was used to interpret a sculpture of a woman with bird talons for feet as being a depiction of Lilith. From the beginning, this interpretation was questioned so that after some debate neither the female in the story, nor the figure is assumed to be Lilith.(Vol.4, p.324)
Image is of Lillith by Louisa Tebbut (https://www.hatchlimitededitions.com/collections/louisa-tebbutt)
Just a note on imagery - when searching for images of Lillith, I found most of the depictions were also demonstrating another form of deletion - whitewashing. Lillith was a favoured topic of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, as well as a number of other Victorian painters, but they all show Lillith with very white skin and red hair, which is unlikely at best. It is the same ideas that always show Jesus depicted with blonde hair and white skin. Therefore I have opted for a modern interpretation.