Lilith is mentioned only once in the Bible – in Isaiah 34:14, where the Hebrew word לִילִית (“lilit) is translated as the “screech owl”.
In the verse, Isaiah prophesizes that Lilith would be one of the demonic nocturnal creatures who would haunt the destroyed kingdom of Edom.
This Hebrew word for the demoness Lilith is thought to be from the root word לִילִ which stands for “night” or “gloom”. In Arabic and Akkadian, this word stands for “night” as well.
However, it is believed by some researchers that the name Lilith comes from the Sumerian lil which means “air”, and in some cuneiform inscriptions, the terms lilitu and lilit stand for the disease-bearing wind spirits (source).
According to the same source, the first time that we find this demon mentioned is at around 3,000 BC, as a class of Sumerian storm spirits called lilitu:
The Lilitu were said to prey upon children and women, and were described as associated with lions, storms, desert, and disease. Early portrayals of lilitu are known as having Zu bird talons for feet and wings. Later accounts depict lilitu as a name for one figure and several spirits. Similar demons from the same class are recorded around this time frame. Lilu, a succubus, Ardat lili (“Lilith’s handmaid”), who would come to men in their sleep and beget children from them, and Irdu lili, the succubus counterpart to Ardat lili.
Further quoting from the New World Encyclopedia:
Babylonian texts depict Lilith as the prostitute of the goddess Ishtar. Similarly, older Sumerian accounts state that Lilitu is called the handmaiden of Inanna or ‘hand of Inanna’. The texts say that “Inanna has sent the beautiful, unmarried, and seductive prostitute Lilitu out into the fields and streets in order to lead men astray.”
Identical to the Babylo-Sumerian Lilitu, the Akkadian Ardat-Lili and the Assyrian La-bar-tu presided over temple prostitution. Ardat is derived from “ardatu,” a title of prostitutes and young unmarried women, meaning “maiden”. Like Lilith, Ardat Lili was a figure of disease and uncleanliness.
Lilith in Gilgamesh prologue
In the Gilgamesh prologue, we find one of the earliest mentions of Lilith. In it she is identified as a demoness that has her nest in a tree. Inanna, who planted the tree, came back to it after ten years to look after it, to find out that three creatures have made the tree their habitation.
When Gilgamesh found out about this matter due to Inanna’s plight, he killed the dragon occupying the tree, and another inhabitant, the Zu bird, fled with its young to the mountains, and Lilith destroyed the nest and escaped to the wilderness (source).
Lilith as a disobedient woman
Although the myths about Lilith were present in many different cultures from ancient days, it was only in the middle ages that Jews began to claim her as Adam’s first terrifying wife who fled from him because she refused to submit to him.
The reason this story was invented (in the 8th – 10th century AD in the anonymous text Alphabet of Sirach) was in order to explain seemingly two different acts of creation of man and woman described in Genesis 1 and 2. Some started guessing that the reason these two acts of creation were described was that there actually were two of them.
It is told that at first man and woman were created at the same time. However, they started fighting for supremacy the moment they were given life. Lilith refused to submit to Adam and escaped the garden to become a child-harming demon. As a result, another woman had to be created for Adam.
Protection against Lilith
Medieval speculations about Lilith’s origins were in no way the first accounts which made the name of Lilith more known to the Hebrew people. She was well known in this culture maybe from the very beginning and was feared by them for the very same reason she was feared by other nations – for her ability to harm, kill and snatch infants.
Israelis eagerly waited for the eighth day of the birth of a baby boy, so that they would circumcise him and would remove the threat of Lilith. The baby girl was told to be no longer in danger of Lilith after twenty days of her birth. Sometimes infants would wear protective amulets until the days of harm would pass.
In the land of Israel as well as in many other places in the Near East there were found bowls with incantations written against this demoness.
On the incantation bowl, Lilith is drawn in the middle of it with bound hands or in chains, as it was believed that such a depiction of her would stop her from doing harm.
Around her picture, magical incantations were written in a spiral.
Such bowls, also known as “demon traps”, were buried upside down as it was believed that this would capture demons such as Lilith.
Such bowls were buried under the threshold, in cemeteries, or in the homes of recently deceased. Most of such bowls were made against three evils – the evil eye, Lilith, and the Bagdana demons which are sort of like Lilith demons but stronger and having authority over Liliths (source).
Such incantation bowls found in Israel were dated from the 6th century AD.
Succubus demon connection
Although this demoness was especially feared by new mothers, she was also identified with what we know today as the succubus demon who steals sperm of men sleeping alone and impregnates itself with it to give birth to hybrid offspring (source). This demon is believed to be the mother of hundreds of demons (source).
Liliths could be either male or female, according to the Jewish understanding. On one of the incantation bowls found in Nippur we read:
Thou liliths, male lili and female lilith, hag and ghool, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob, by Yah Ha-Shem by Yah his memorial, to turn away from this Rashnoi (…) and from Geyonai (…) her husband. [Here is] your divorce and writ and letter of separation, sent through holy angels. Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!
The male aspect of this demon is also found in Akkadian and Sumerian mythologies which identify “Lilu” as a masculine wind demon.
In one translation of the king list, Gilgamesh’s father is identified as a “phantom” (source).
Lilu was told to disturb women in their sleep and had the functions of an incubus (source). So maybe Gilgamesh was born from the union of a woman and a demonic entity.
On another incantation bowl we read:
Salvation from Heaven for Dadbeh the son of Asmanduch and for Sharkoi the daughter of Dada his wife, and for their sons and daughters and their house and their property, that they may have offspring and may live and be established and be preserved from demons, devils, plagues, satans, curses, liliths and tormentors, which may appear to them.
The tradition of making bowls with magic incantations against demons as well as wearing amulets for the same purpose probably came from Babylon, where such items were found as well (source).
In Babylonian myths, Lilith is depicted as a winged night demon preying on pregnant women and infants. She might be associated with the invention of abortions too, though there are no reliable sources mentioning this fact.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the words “lamashtu” and “lilitu” both signified the type of demons that snatch or harm babies. Lilith is known as a winged demoness that dwells in desolate places, and the verse mentioning her in Isaiah supports her affinity with such places of destruction as well.
Aramaic magic texts claim that Lilith could enter the room of a pregnant woman in the form of a fly (source). However, in the Aramaic tradition demons were not limited to being able to only shape-shift into one creature – they could take any form that they pleased, and even become humans if they wished (source).
Some early, as well as more recent writers, depict Lilith as a beautiful yet evil woman, whilst some depict her as a totally sinister creature. She is even portrayed by some as the serpent in the garden of Eden or having some kind of reptilian features.
Sometimes Lilith is depicted as a half-woman, half-snake being.
We see this kind of creature depicted in stone in many Indian villages.
In such places she is sometimes shown with many eggs, probably showing her high fertility.
I remember even taking pictures of the multiple eggs that were engrafted on a stone in Gokarna, one of the pilgrimage villages of India.
These half-snake, half-human beings are called “nagas” in India.
They were known through the Vedas since around 5,000 BC according to the dating of some Indians.
They were known to be half-divine beings that were extremely gifted and able to assume any shape they desired.
So since those beings were shape-shifters, they might be known in different cultures in different appearances. Therefore Lilith is likely to be the very snake-woman worshiped by Indians, or at least related to them.
In Mesopotamian myths, Lilith is said to seduce men, harm pregnant women, mothers, and new-born children, drink blood, and cause disease, sickness, and death (source).
In Greek mythology, a similar demoness is called Lamia.
She is told to devour children and seduce men and then drink their blood (source).
In fact, in the early fifth century, Latin Vulgate manuscript of the Bible “Lilith” is translated as “Lamia” (source).
The HBO series True Blood has a character named “Lilith” too, and she is told to be the progenitor of the vampire race.
The name Lilith is also found in the exorcism text of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q510-511).
I do believe this to be her image.
That’s because she is described in other sources as a winged woman who is also associated with lions, owls, and birds with which she is often portrayed.
However, due to her shape-shifting nature, not all her depictions would look similar, and that’s where confusion about her identity can arise. This changing identity can certainly be noticed among Hindu gods as well.
Beloved by feminists
Feminists tend to identify with Lilith because they associate her with freedom, unrestrained sexual activity, and independence from the male authority. This particular group of women tends to ignore the dark aspects of Lilith.
A Jewish feminist magazine is called by her name, and there is Lilith Fund run in Texas that supports abortion and even raised money for helping to terminate unwanted pregnancies of those women who could not afford them (source).
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this report on Lilith.
If you have more information about this particular spirit, please leave a comment below.