Few figures in the Bible are referenced so fleetingly and yet continue to inspire as much fascination and ambivalence as Lilith. Her name is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible only once, but her legacy in art and culture is far reaching. An ambiguous and mysterious figure, she has been imagined across time as terrifying and beautiful, a demoness and a goddess, a succubus and a feminist icon. Legends have identified her as everything from the first wife of Adam to the demon wife of the devil-like Samael, to the very serpent that handed Eve the fateful fruit. Transforming with changing cultures and being passed through many languages over thousands of years, the term Lilith has been used in feminine, masculine, and plural forms; over time and in different contexts, “the Lilith” has been understood as female, male, and androgynous, and as an individual being—human or otherwise—as well as an entire class of creatures (the way the term “the owl,” for example, may mean one owl or the species as a whole). Lilith’s changing identity and relationship to culture are represented in various forms of art throughout history, and loosely fall into three periods: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.
The Ancient Lilith
While Lilith is sometimes associated with other biblical characters, the word Lilith can be found in the Bible on a list of 8 unclean, possibly demonic animals living in the desolated land of Edom, in Isaiah 34:14 (New Revised Standard Version):
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
and find a place to rest.
Here Lilith may refer to an individual or a class of creatures, as the root layil in Hebrew simply means “night.” Lilith appears again in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the 1st century BCE in the Songs of the Sage, as liliyyot or liliyyoth—a plural form which is found among a list of evil spirits in an incantation for protection against demons. This is the first clear connection, in the Hebrew tradition, of “Lilith(s)” with supernatural beings. The Hebrew Lilith may be associated with earlier traditions of Mesopotamian night and air spirits, which can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, among other ancient texts. However, not all scholars agree with this connection.
Lilith in the Middle Ages
The story of Lilith saw a turning point in the Middle Ages. The Gemara of the Talmud, a collection of commentary on the Mishnah, the Oral Torah, had become a foundation of Rabbinic Judaism by the 6th century. In this text Lilith is identified as a female demoness and given physical characteristics: a human appearance, long hair, and wings. She is said to be a succubus, taking hold of anyone sleeping in a house alone, and procreating with men against their will while they sleep. Once she was associated with this threatening behavior and these physical traits, as both a distinct figure and a class of evil spirits, Lilith became recognizable on objects of protection throughout the Middle East. Incantation bowls or “demon traps” were placed upside down under floors and thresholds of houses, in order to trap evil spirits inside the bowl. These bowls typically featured spells and incantations against a specific demon, as well as a picture of its likeness. Here Lilith is drawn with her hands and feet bound, her chest bare and her long hair undone and flowing around her. She appears as promiscuous and adulterous, and some bowls even feature a symbolic “divorce” between Lilith and the household.
Amulets of protection against Lilith became widespread in Jewish communities in the Middle Ages. Sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, a text called The Alphabet of Ben-Sira attempted to explain this phenomena by expanding upon her story. It was common legend by this time that Adam had a wife before Eve, who was created as he was from the earth, instead of from Adam’s rib. The Alphabet identified this first wife as Lilith. In this version of her story, Lilith was created as a companion for Adam. When Adam challenges their equality, Lilith refuses to submit to him, speaking the unspeakable name of God and flying away from Eden. After much pleading from Adam, God sends three angels, Senoy, Sensenoy, and Semangolef, to bring her back. They find Lilith by the Red Sea, where they deliver a mandate from God that if she does not return, 100 of her children will die every day. Lilith refuses, saying that she will instead attack infants (possibly out of envy or grief at her own childrens’ deaths), but allows that any child guarded by an amulet with the names or images of the three angels will be protected from her curse. This story established Lilith not only as lustful and adulterous, but also as a witch and killer of children and pregnant women. Lilith was identified as the queen to the King of Demons, and as the mother of innumerable evil spirits. It was even said that she procreated with Adam, against his will, during a 130-year period of fasting and separation from Eve following their expulsion from the Garden—and that Adam fathered many demon children during this time. The tradition of amulets meant to protect newborns and childbearing mothers from Lilith continued well into modern times, as can be seen by this amulet from the 19th century.
Lilith also became associated in the Middle Ages with dragons and serpents. In the mystical text The Treatise on the Left Emanation, Lilith is named as the wife of Samael, as part of a couple corresponding in the spiritual realm to the earthly Adam and Eve, all of whom were characterized as androgynous. Lilith and Samael are identified as aspects of the great sea serpent Leviathan, whom God rendered unable to reproduce in order to prevent the destruction of the earth. This inability to reproduce with her partner was given as an explanation for why she preyed upon sleeping men. In this text she is identified also as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Becoming jealous of Eve’s relationship with Adam, she is said to have tempted Eve to eat the fruit as revenge, instigating the Fall. Since the Middle Ages, Lilith has been depicted in art as both intimate with snakes, such as in John Collier’s Lilith, and as a snake, or the very serpent of Eden, herself .
Lilith in the Modern World
Lilith remained a part of Jewish tradition but garnered attention in English literary and artistic circles when she appeared in Goethe’s Faust in the late 18th century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti soon brought her into the forefront of the artistic imagination of the time with his painting Lady Lilith. In this work, Lilith is depicted as beautiful and self-absorbed, a vain woman reclining in a room full of flowers, brushing her long hair and peering at herself in a mirror—an allusion to another Jewish folk tradition that posited that Lilith was able to possess women through mirrors. Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany the work titled Body’s Beauty, highlighting Lilith’s association with materiality and sensual preoccupations. This was both in line with many of the earlier Jewish folk stories of Lilith as lustful and wild, and in contradiction to Jewish mystical texts which held that Lilith was the spiritual counterpart to Eve’s material being. The image created of Lilith in the late 19th century drew primarily on that of Jewish folk traditions—Lilith as a sensual, feminine, embodied woman who wielded a dangerous power of temptation, much like the serpent of Eden.
Paradoxically, although these renderings of Lilith painted femininity and sensuality as dangerous and even evil, Lilith’s entrance into these modern artistic styles and sensibilities allowed her some agency, however limited—in Goethe’s Faust, she has a literal voice, and in Rossetti’s paintings she is at the center of her own world. She became an individual with whom one could empathize. This is reflected in translations of lilit in the Hebrew Bible; until the 20th century, lilit was translated by English Bibles, including the King James Bible, into a variety of creatures, including “night hag,” “screech owl,” “spirit,” and “vampire.” Only in 1966 did the Jerusalem Bible reincorporate “Lilith” into the text. This is the translation commonly used today, including in the New Revised Standard Version, which is the Bible most used by academic and inter-religious groups.
For many feminists, particularly since the second half of the 20th century, Lilith has become an icon of female independence and strength. They celebrate her sexual agency and refusal to submit to Adam, and have transformed her stories and legends from warnings into sources of affirmation and inspiration. In 1996, Sarah McLachlan and other musicians started an all-women’s music festival named Lilith Fair, which continues to this day. Kiki Smith’s sculpture Lilith perches upside down on the wall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, staring at visitors with a piercing and unsettling gaze. In MOBIA’s very own gallery, as part of our current exhibition, Back to Eden, Anonda Bell’s Neither Shall You Touch It portrays a conversation between Lilith, here rendered as a woman who is wild and close to nature, and Eve, the embodiment of traditional femininity. This piece may echo stories of Lilith and Eve as antagonistic, jealous adversaries, but might also recreate a modernly depicted narrative of Lilith and Eve as friends.
Many different ideas and beliefs about Lilith still abound. Images of the evil temptress and beliefs about the danger of female sexuality have not disappeared, even among changing ideas about gender roles and women. Stories of Lilith as a dark, isolated, and even dangerous being have also been interpreted by psychologists like Marie-Louise von Franz as narratives of humanity’s potential for darkness—of the “unbridled life-urge which refuses to be assimilated” that “lies behind depression” (Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith: The First Eve). Differing versions of Lilith appear throughout modern pop culture, appealing to storytellers as a multifaceted and intriguing character offering a multitude of possible narratives and meanings. Despite a fleeting presence in the Bible, the figure of Lilith has a rich history as a dynamic being continually translated, adapted, and reinterpreted across languages, traditions, and time.
- E. G. for MOBIA