It’s human nature to blame others when something bad happens. As generally religious people, or let’s say creatures of faith, we tend to see God (no matter the tradition) as a benevolent force, except the cases where he/she/it deliberately decides to unleash their wrath on humanity. The thing is that most of the horrible things that happened to people had to be blamed on someone evil enough who wouldn’t flinch. The character we’re going to talk about today, as you might have gotten from the title, was none other than the woman who has been blamed for basically the most horrible atrocities of the world: the killing of children (both in the womb and born), the lust of men, and the torture of women. Why did she become this demonic and monstrous being? Because she dared to defy her husband and God by demanding an equal treatment. This is the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife before Eve.
Lilith by John Collier (1887)
The image of Lilith has been ingrained in our culture as this demonic woman who is both a monster and a gorgeous seductress. This image can be traced back to ancient times, when the character evolved and was adapted by the different religions and mythologies. More concrete images of her appear in carvings found in places like Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, and Greece. Appearing in the Babylonian Talmud, she’s an ancient goddess by the name of Lilitu. The word comes from the Hebrew word “Lila,” meaning “night.” So, with this comes the idea of Lilith being a night demon, and eventually, with all the cultural and historical load, she became some sort of vampiric blood-sucking demon of the night.
Lilith appears in several apocryphal texts that have been banned by the Church or that have disappeared over time, but she actually comes from the core traditions of Abrahamic religions. One of the first is the Hebrew Bible, but she also appears in several translations of the Old Testament, mainly in the book of Isaiah (34:14). This is interesting given that she doesn’t really appear before, suggesting that she was just removed from the scriptures and left only as a small mention in a list of ungodly characters with no apparent background. For a long time, rabbinical scholars of the ancient world took the time to find this character’s stories generally by associating them with other characters or by looking for clues or other references that could be pointing to this lost character. This tradition to fill in the gaps is known as Midrash, which means to root out or to investigate.
Lilith by Carl Poellath (1886)
According to Midrash, there are two different versions of God’s creation of women. The first, the one associated to Lilith, is the simultaneous formation of both man and woman, created in equal terms. Here “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The second one, only a few pages later, reads that “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs. Then the LORD God made a woman” (Gen 2:21-22). These two versions were interpreted as two different women created by God, so what happened to the first one? Following their investigation, they found it logical to link her to the demonic character that appeared in Isaiah, so they created a text to fully connect the dots.
In order for the story of her going from being Adam’s first wife to ungodly figure to make sense, the Midrash had to make her a rebellious and demonic creature who defied not only her partner but God himself. It’s from this tradition that later on in the Middle Ages two texts would expand Lilith’s story. The Zohar, or the book of splendor, thought to have been written in the thirteenth century, and The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a collection of writings. Both documents are said to be based on traditions that date back to Ancient times. In these texts, Lilith appears as Adam’s first wife, created from the same earth as Adam, before Eve. Both were created separately and equal. However, Adam didn’t see her as an equal and insisted that she be subservient to him and comply with his demands, including lying under him.
Faust and Lilith by Richard Westall (1831)
She didn’t only refuse, but also decided to pronounce the divine word in Hebrew for God, which was forbidden. Doing so gave her such a great power that she flew up into the heavens. According to Ben Sira’s text, three angels were sent to bring Lilith back to Adam, but she refused. So, God gave her an ultimatum: if she agreed to go back, she would be pardoned, if not, she would have to endure that one hundred of her children died every single day. In spite of this, she claimed she wasn’t returning to be Adam’s subservient helper. And that's when God gave Adam a second wife, Eve, and to ensure that the story wouldn’t repeat itself, this time he decided to create her out of his rib, as a symbol of inferiority.
Having infuriated God, Lilith was banned from the Garden of Eden and doomed to a life of misery with a hundred of her offspring dying every day as a punishment for her defiance. This is when Lilith becomes a demonic figure. Angry about the punishment, she decides to inflict equal pain on Adam’s progeny. It’s said that she decided to afflict pregnant women, newborn children, and even molest young men lying alone, all in order to spread a race of demonic children. It’s in these new versions, so to speak, that Lilith became even more evil than in the Midrash tradition. She became a succubus, a night seductress who would be forever blamed for the lust of men and women, the one held accountable for miscarriages and child mortality throughout the world.
Lamia and the Soldier by John William Waterhouse (1905)
Of course, she’s not the only female character to endure this treatment. We have characters like Lamia in the Greek and Roman traditions with similar features. The thing is that characters like her have always existed, as we saw in the ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Babylonians. Lilith is, let’s say, the formulaic character or icon of the evil woman in Abrahamic religions, but this space has been filled in basically every religion, mythology, or belief system, with their respective differences. The reason, quite simply, is that women have always been seen as inferior, and each culture or civilization has to have a cautionary tale for women to keep them subdued to their “original responsibility:” bearing children and obeying men. Demanding to be treated as equal and daring to enjoy the pleasures of life will make you suffer the same consequences as Lilith.
Here are other stories you might like if you love history:
Cover painting: Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866-88)