Helpful Things to Know about Lilith
Helpful Things to Know about Lilith
- This unit focuses on Jewish traditions about Lilith. Lilith (“Lilit” in Hebrew) is a fringe entity who barely appears in Jewish texts. We include her not because she is central to Jewish canon - she isn’t - but because of her longevity and tenacity of her character, despite her absence from written texts. She played a powerful enough part in the imagination of diverse Jewish communities, as well as Christian and secular thinkers, that exploring her story is a fascinating lens on how differently one character can be viewed by different ages and societies.
- Lilith began as an ancient Near Eastern myth, and from there seems to have entered ancient Israelite culture. From the magazine Biblical Archaeology: “The ancient name ‘Lilith’ derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits—the lilītu...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.”
- In the Jewish tradition, a Lilith demon may appear in the book of Prophets (the translation is unclear). She comes up a few times in rabbinical literature; the Talmud references the danger the lilith poses for men sleeping in a house alone (BT Shabbat 151b) and the lilith’s wings (BT Niddah 24b).
- Next, mystical Judaism takes up her story; she becomes the first wife of Adam in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, is denounced as an evil killer of newborn children in medieval Kabbalah, and warned against in the Zohar, which recommends a special ritual before sexual intercourse to fend off Lilith’s sexual advances. For centuries, Jewish communities from widely varying times and continents feared Lilith, as did many of the neighboring non-Jewish communitie; this unit contains images of demon bowls in Babylonia and amulets from Iran, Persia, and India which were meant to protect households from Lilith’s destructive forces. She was seen as dangerous to marriages and lethal to pregnant and birthing women as well as newborn babies.
- Nineteenth-century (mostly non-Jewish) romantic painters and writers were fascinated by Lilith. Rather than a threatening demoness, these painters interpreted her as a beautiful romantic seductress (see the Rosetti image in the visual art section).
- In Jewish and Christian artwork, imagery traditionally associated with Lilith include the snake from Eden; long hair; wings; sexuality; demon babies; and killing human babies.
- In the 1970’s, Lilith was reclaimed by Jewish feminists, who see her fierce independence as cause for celebration, rather than fear. The first American-Jewish feminist magazine, Lilith, was founded in 1976 by Susan Weidman Schneider in order “to foster discussion of Jewish women’s issues and put them on the agenda of the Jewish community, with a view to giving women—who are more than fifty percent of the world’s Jews—greater choice in Jewish life." (See visual art section for the earliest cover!) Two decades later, in 1996, Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan and others founded a traveling music festival of women-led bands in reaction to concert promoters and radio stations that refused to feature two female musicians in a row. The Lilith Fair, which took place during the summers of 1997 to 1999 and was revived in the summer of 2010, took its name from the mythological first wife of Adam.
- Today, Lilith appears in pop culture, from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series to DC and Marvel comics, as well as television shows, movies, anime and manga, and video games.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Helpful Things to Know about Lilith." (Viewed on September 23, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/node/23209>.