In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert comments, “I can easily seek Eve, but I search for Lilith”, referencing the allure of the forbidden temptation with which Lilith is variously credited in Western literature, but Lilith’s ontological status has undergone drastic transformations throughout a symbolic history that spans the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia to the present day. The complicated early conceptions of the demon Lilith, the medieval horror called Lilith, the Renaissance – 18th Century mythological and mystic view of Lilith as an important, and not entirely malign figure in biblical theology, The 19th Century co-option of Lilith as an occult anti-hero and mother goddess figure and 20th Century repurposing of Lilith as an icon of women’s empowerment appears to be undergoing yet another puzzling metamorphosis in popular culture of the 21st Century, where Lilith has reassumed not just her ancient demonic status, but has been transformed into the ultimate, all-purpose, evil adversary, an association that one could argue is related to the fear of the advancing societal status of everyday women. Consider the hypothesis that the monstrous status of the Lilith symbol can be linked temporally to the nature of social relations between men and women, like a barometer of social confusion and dislocation.
Curiously, Scooby-Doo is a good measure of mainstream cultural symbolism. As a monster, once you make it on Scooby-Doo, you can make it anywhere. Scooby-Doo, Mystery Incorporated (Season 2, Episode 8, “Night on Haunted Mountain”, originally aired August 8, 2012) features the demonic “Dark Lilith” on Mount Diabla. HBO’s True Blood 5th Season features the blood-drenched, manipulative, mad vampire god Lilith as the powerful, destructive, and central antagonist. The CW’s Supernatural boasted a tween Lilith (see Humbert Humbert) as Lucifer’s awesome second in command and author of a horrific apocalypse. Numerous books, movies, comics, and other communicative forms of popular culture have included a demonic incarnation of Lilith from 1993 to 2012. The revival of Lilith as evil incarnate appears to have a great deal of traction, and is multiplying exponentially across the semiosphere. Is this suggestive of a new archetype populating the collective subconscious of America and our Western cultural analogues?
Women have only actually had the right to vote in the United States for 92 years, and obviously equality did not immediately ensue upon suffrage, particularly as we are still bemoaning in 2012 that women earn seventy-seven cents on the dollar compared to male counterparts, but clearly great strides in women’s opportunity, prominence, and power have been made. Historically, there is no shortage of examples of powerful and extraordinary women from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, to Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth, often respected, revered, and loved by many. The precedent for strong female leadership is well-established, but the emerging personification of the ultimate evil as female (in the form of Lilith) in popular culture would seem to be more closely related not to the increasing presence of women in positions of power (which is not unique in Western history), but rather resulting from the global ascendance of “ordinary” equality of women. It is far less cognitively dissonant to worship a Queen that it is to recognize the worldwide impact of increasingly successful female entrepreneurship, greatly expanded mid-level and corporate management opportunities for highly educated women (and women are quickly outpacing men in education – 58% of college students are women, women are much more likely to graduate, complete degrees faster, and get higher grades). To observe this we should take a closer look at the monstrous Lilith throughout history.
There is an academic dispute over whether the Sumerian class of female demons called Līlīṯu are direct etymological descendants of Lilith, but given the tendency of biblical sources to demonize the gods of their neighbors (the Canaanite deity Ba’al becomes the demon Belial; the Phoenician goddess Astarte becomes the abomination Ashteroth) this does not seem unlikely, since many shared characteristics are evident. Līlīṯu was originally regarded as an ancient fertility/agricultural goddess with a bit of a dark edge, and a Sumerian clay tablet c.a. 2500 B.C. (the first appearance of Lilith in literature) refers to her as “the dark maid” or “maiden of desolation”. In the first recorded reference to her in the Epic of Gilgamesh (at which point she is already identified as a demon) and Sumerian artwork is undeniable, depicted as a nude, bat-winged, bird-footed goddess, but the Akkadian “lilu” (shape-shifting demon) and Sumerian “lil” (wind, spriti, or demon) are likely loan words to the Classical Hebrew “lilith”.
Lilith’s first appearance would seem to be in the 5000 year old story from the Epic of Gilgamesh called “Inanna and The Huluppa Tree” as a Mesopatamian storm demon, credited with appearing to men in erotic dreams, and blamed as the bearer of diseases, illness, and death. The passage below is from the Sumerian Huluppa Tree myth and suggests that Innana planted a tree, representative of her womanhood, which was taken over by the lascivious Lilith. Gilgamesh drives Lilith away, a rather transparent metaphor for the dangers of sexual license and the value of virtuousness.
Inanna tended the tree carefully and lovingly
she hoped to have a throne and a bed
made for herself from its wood.
After ten years, the tree had matured.
But in the meantime, she found to her dismay
that her hopes could not be fulfilled.
because during that time
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.
But Gilgamesh, who had heard of Inanna’s plight,
came to her rescue.
He took his heavy shield
killed the dragon with his heavy bronze axe,
which weighed seven talents and seven minas.
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 (Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 12)
By the time that the Epic of Gilgamesh was written down, it appears that an oral tradition of Lilith as a demon already existed, as she is mentioned incidentally, as if the reader is already expected to understand who she is. “It would be beneficial to now acquaint oneself with some of the aspects of this text which will appear again in these ‘founding’ literatures. First, there is the association of Lilith with the snake, usually equated with evil. Second, there is the bird who flees, presumably through flight, something which Lilith will later do also. Third, the tree invokes an image of the Tree of Knowledge, in which Lilith is said to dwell in some later myths. Similarly, this tree is located in Inanna’s “holy garden,” again harking back to the image of the Garden of Eden. Finally, it is noteworthy that while Lilith and her bestial companions inspire fear in Inanna, they do not have any fear of her. It is Gilgamesh, the great male Sumerian hero, who kills the snake and frightens the other creatures out of the tree and garden” (Scerba, 1999, “Gilgamesh and the Hulupp-Tree“). This establishes the relative hierarchy of man and woman in the great chain of being, the subordination of woman to man being largely a fixture of the ancient Semitic culture from which these legends, myths, and theology derive. While we do not have documented evidence of earlier conceptions of Lilith, it seems clear that oral tradition had cast her in the role of usurper, attempting to corrupt the works of culture hero and supreme goddess Inanna who is saved by Gilgamesh.
Subsequent Sumerian conceptions subordinate Lilith to Inanna, referring to her as the “handmaiden of Inanna” (more aptly interpreted as “hand of Inanna”), tasked with guiding men to Inanna’s temple for sacred sex rituals. Sacred prostitution was arguably a common practice in the Ancient Near East, some scholars equating what little documentation there is as referencing something more along the lines off “sacred marriage” rituals practiced by the Kings of Sumer, but the ancient Greek historian Herodutus’ (484-425 B.C.) Histories disparagingly references Mesopotamian temple rites:
The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta” (that is the Assyrian name for Aphrodite). It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfill the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus (Herodotus, Histories).
Assyrian texts referring to the Lilitu, the Akkadian Ardat-Lili and the Assyrian La-bar-tu like Lilith came to be associated with disease and uncleanliness. Ardat is derived from “ardatu,” a title of prostitutes and young unmarried women, meaning “maiden.” Scholars argue whether there are true etymological connections between the Assyrian and Mesopotamian Liliths, but by the time Lilith emerges in ancient Judaic literature, Lilith is clearly identified as a demon with a particular interest in childbirth, harming pregnant women, killing unborn children, killing foliage, drinking blood, and causing disease. It is highly likely this an amalgam of several pre-biblical Semitic demons, with particular attention to the integration of those elements most closely associated with female sexuality and sexual power.
Prior to the rise of monotheistic religion, we might argue that the conception of monsters was somewhat ambiguous, as the world was seen to be populated by all manner of semi-divine heroes, fearsome beasts, spirits, devils, imps, and other supernatural creatures associated with natural phenomena, but divorced from the idea of moral culpability. With the emergence of monotheistic religions in the ancient Near East, we begin to see the emergence of the adversarial universe, an absolute good vs. an absolute evil, and the rise in the importance of what has been termed “sacred terror”. As observed by Kearney, “In short, if demonizing monsters (as impure) keeps God on our side (as pure), deifying them brings us into a zone of ‘religious horror’. We here enter that ambivalent world of the magico-mystical Holy which Rudolf Otto linked with the long tradition of sacred ‘terror and awe’ running from the Old Testament heirophanies and certain mystical notions of the mysterium tremendum right down to postmodern theories of the hysterical sublime” (Kearney, 2002, p.42).
Feminist theorists delight in pointing out that monotheistic religion has tended to support patriarchal social organization, but fail to recognize that monotheism precipitates a crisis in the symbol of masculinity, as it imagines the relationship of man to God as matrimonial, that is men are depicted in imagery and symbolism that reflects on them as “married to God”. As observed by Eilberg-Schwartz, “When male-female complementarity is the structure of religious imagery, human women are the natural partners of a divine male, but this connection also renders human males superfluous in the divine-human relationship…the potential superfluousness of human masculinity may offer additional insights into the misogynist tendencies of ancient Judaism: women were deemed impure and men were feminized in contradiction to what in this religious culture was a natural complementarity between the divine male and human females…still another set of dilemmas are generated by the monotheistic image of a sexless father God” (Eilberg-Schwartz, 1994, p.3-4). Thus, symbols of female sexual power would be specifically singled out for demonization, and in the foundational scriptures of Judaism, this is precisely how Lilith is treated. Female sexuality is regarded as animalistic, and associated with the hyena, the goat, jackals, owls, dragons, and demons, with which Lilith is specifically mentioned. Lilith is the killer of children, the seducer of men, the mother of bastard spirits, and the inhabitant of the wasteland.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
and find a place to rest
There shall the owl nest
and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow (Isaiah 34:14)
And I, the Sage,
declare the grandeur of his radiance
in order to frighten and terrify
all the spirits of the ravaging angels
and the bastard spirits,
demons, Liliths, owls and [jackals…]
and those who strike unexpectedly
to lead astray the spirit of knowledge…. (Dead Sea Scrolls, 11QPsAp)
But we, the living, woe to us,
because we have seen those afflictions of Zion
and that which has befallen Jerusalem.
I shall call the Sirens from the sea,
and you, Lilin, come from the desert,
and you, demons and dragons from the woods.
Awake and gird up your loins to mourn,
and raise lamentations with me,
and mourn with me. (Second Apocalypse of Baruch, 2 Baruch 10:7-8)
You are bound and sealed,
all you demons and devils and liliths,
by that hard and strong,
mighty and powerful bond with which are tied Sison and Sisin….
The evil Lilith,
who causes the hearts of men to go astray
and appears in the dream of the night
and in the vision of the day,
Who burns and casts down with nightmare,
attacks and kills children,
boys and girls.
She is conquered and sealed
away from the house
and from the threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp son of Ishtar-Nahid
by the talisman of Metatron,
the great prince
who is called the Great Healer of Mercy….
who vanquishes demons and devils,
black arts and mighty spells
and keeps them away from the house
and threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp, son of Ishtar-Nahid.
Amen, Amen, Selah. (Inscription Exorcising Lilith on a 6-8th Century A.D. Persian Incantation Bowl)
In the span of 2000 years, we see Lilith transformed from storm spirit, to handmaiden of the Queen of the Gods, to demon of death in childbirth, to the embodiment of demonized female sexuality in monotheism, but the history of the Lilith symbol was not to end with this characterization. The evolution of a more robust Judaic theology and Jewish mysticism changed the way in which Lilith was regarded.
Rabbi Jeremia ben Eleazar said, “During those years (after their expulsion from the Garden), in which Adam, the first man, was separated from Eve, he became the father of ghouls and demons and lilin.” Rabbi Meir said, “Adam, the first man, being very pious and finding that he had caused death to come into the world, sat fasting for 130 years, and separated himself from his wife for 130 years, and wore fig vines for 130 years. His fathering of evil spirits, referred to here, came as a result of erotic dreams. (Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 18b)
Lilith is a far more complicated entity in the Talmud and Kabbalistic writings such as the Zohar, deemed to be the original wife of Adam, preceding Eve. I have argued elsewhere that Kabbalistic interpretations of Judaism (which are various) tend to be designed to deal with a central problem of monotheism, that is, how to understand evil in relation to a deity conceived as infallible, all-powerful, and omniscient. This requires the elaboration of relationships within the mythology outside of the accepted canon. Much of the Kabbalistic literature is devoted to precisely this exercise, including a detailed account of the existence of Lilith. This serves as an intellectual interpretation of why Lilith (representative of female sexual power) is aligned with adversaries of God, but also addresses the symbolic disconnect with masculinity. Although a current of mysticism appeared in ancient Judaism, the Golden Age of Kabbalah began in the 12-13th Centuries in Southern France and Spain. Lilith is still regarded as demonic, but her relationship to Adam firmly establishes her estrangement from the divine as a result of believing she was Adam’s equal.
Come and see: There is a female, a spirit of all spirits, and her name is Lilith, and she was at first with Adam. And in the hour when Adam was created and his body became completed, a thousand spirits from the left [evil] side clung to that body until the Holy One, blessed be He, shouted at them and drove them away. And Adam was lying, a body without a spirit, and his appearance was green, and all those spirits surrounded him. In that hour a cloud descended and pushed away all those spirits. And when Adam stood up, his female was attached to his side. And that holy spirit which was in him spread out to this side and that side, and grew here and there, and thus became complete. Thereafter the Holy One, blessed be He, sawed Adam into two, and made the female. And He brought her to Adam in her perfection like a bride to the canopy. When Lilith saw this, she fled. And she is in the cities of the sea, and she is still trying to harm the sons of the world. (Zohar 3:19)
“The wife brought the mirror and all of the fine furnishings in the cellar to her own home and proudly displayed it. She hung the mirror in the room of their daughter, who was a dark-haired coquette. The girl glanced at herself in the mirror all the time, and in this way she was drawn into Lilith’s web….For that mirror had hung in the den of demons, and a daughter of Lilith had made her home there. And when the mirror was taken from the haunted house, the demonness came with it. For every mirror is a gateway to the Other World and leads directly to Lilith’s cave. That is the cave Lilith went to when she abandoned Adam and the Garden of Eden for all time, the cave where she sported with her demon lovers. From these unions multitudes of demons were born, who flocked from that cave and infiltrated the world. And when they want to return, they simply enter the nearest mirror. That is why it is said that Lilith makes her home in every mirror… (Jewish Folktale)
Ironically, the satirical Alphabet of Ben Sira, considered one of the earliest literary parodies in Hebrew literature (written in the 9th Century A.D.), mimicking midrashic commentaries unintentionally offers deep insight into the symbol of Lilith, characterizing Lilith as “a quarreling head-strong wife, unwilling to submit to her husband. She refuses to lie beneath Adam during sexual intercourse, but demands only to lie on top. Eventually she flees Adam and the garden. The dejected Adam complains to God that his wife has left him. God, then rather ineptly sends three angels to bring the wayward wife back. They fail against the head-strong woman. There is nothing left for God to do but make a new wife for Adam. The entire tale has an irreverent tone (as does the entire book), and it has inflammatory references to sex. Lilith’s refusal to ‘lie below’ was seen as sarcastic entertainment for the Rabbis, something purely inconceivable and laughable” (Biggs, 2010). Unfortunately, it is this particular view of Lilith with which we are most familiar and that emerged as a cultural icon, first for the suppression of the pagan mother goddess, and then for masculine oppression and the liberation of women.
Consider a modern revisionist reconceptualization of Lilith as a perversion of ancient mother goddesses, which is contradicted by more or less all early texts that mention her. One wonders how this conclusion was even reached. Early texts clearly identify Lilith as a destructive spirit, and latter monotheistic characterizations are unanimous in her demonization, but were it accurate, we can certainly see the appeal for feminist theory.
The myth of Lilith is a good example to show these contingent changes. Considering the various mythological features of this religious figure, ranging from the Mesopotamian religions to 18th century’s cabbalistic tractates, we recognize the changing social attitudes towards the feminine. Against this background it is not advisable to obtain the simple doctrine of the ‘genders’s battle’ and its psychological construction of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Lilith is not the dark half of the (masculine) self but an aspect of the Great Goddess worshipped in antiquity under many names. This can be proven through the study of the oldest documents relating to Lilith. Later texts, though, belong to a religious discourse that tends to conceal or even destroy the strong aspects of the goddess. To use these texts uncritically and to skip hundreds and even thousands of years in order to proof a preconceived interpretation establishes a circulus vitiosus that fits to patriarchal interpretation but fails to illuminate the many aspects of femininity. Pragmatic analysis, instead, uncovers the social and religious contexts of these documents that generate social meanings about femininity adopted by men and women alike. (Stuckrad, 1999, p.12)
The Victorian occult revival, which coincided with early Western women’s rights movements, reinvigorated the notion of women’s sexual power, and there was no finer exemplar of this than Lilith. Returning a maligned female goddess to her rightful place undoubtedly was in concert with the contemporary yearning for the emancipation of women. “This consonance of occultism with contemporary feminism had undoubtedly been prepared by the prominence women had already enjoyed in the spiritualist movement, where feminist ideas were widespread enough. However, it could be argued that occultism went even farther. After all, the role of women in spiritualism was often (but with some significant exceptions) reduced to that of passive mediums. In Anglo-American occultism, on the other hand, not only were women freely admitted as members in organizations such as the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn, but they very often held positions of responsibility, if not even leadership” (Pasi, 2009, p.64)
Now Lilith has returned to her original demoniacal status, at least with regard to the popular imagination, if we measure by appearance in contemporary fiction. Lilith has always represented the seductress, and that depiction has taken on a decidedly malevolent tone, where beyond demonic, Lilith is now commonly depicted as evil incarnate, the author of our doom – if that’s sounding familiar, it would be the familiar appellation of Satan, the ultimate adversary – power only matched by the divine. Beyond the femme fatale, the ingenue or temptress, Lilith is repeatedly used in current films, shows, and books as the vessel from which ‘sacred terror’ springs, possessing a boundless and fearsome power to destroy our reality. How did the symbol that not long ago gave rise to the Lilith Fair and a host of women’s empowerment magazines, books, and websites, emerge as the ultimate repository for evil? As far as I can determine, seismic shifts in our social organization with respect to the day to day role of women in society, that is the acceptance of “ordinary” equality as a functional reality – yes there are still fewer women in congress and fewer women CEO’s, but the assumption that women can do any job a man can, and often better, faster, and more intelligently is prevalent in fact, if not in actual thought. We have moved light years away from the notion of male and female specific jobs in Western society, a notion that was common only 50 years ago. Consequently, everyday masculinity and femininity are rapidly being redefined. Symbolic systems that have existed for millennia are being overturned, and perhaps this is a good thing, a sign of an evolving society, but we must watch the metamorphosis of our symbols closely. We may learn a thing or two both about our monsters and ourselves.
Biggs, Mark Wayne. The Case for Lilith: 23 Biblical Evidences Identifying the Serpent as Adam’s First Failed Wife in Genesis. Samson Books, 2010.
Eilberg-Schwartz: God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston: Beacon, 1994.
Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. London: Routledge, 2002.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. “Gilgamesh And The Huluppu-Tree: A Reconstructed Sumerian Text” Originally:Assyriological Studies of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago 10. Chicago: 1938.
Martinez, Florentino Garcia. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Leiden; New York : E.J. Brill ;Grand Rapids : W.B. Eerdmans, 1996.
Pasi, Marco. “The Modernity of Occultism” from Hermes in the Academy, Hanegraaff, W.J. & Pijnenburg, J. eds. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2009.
Scerba, Amy. “Gilgamesh and the Hulupp-Tree (2000 BC)” Changing Literary Representations of Lilith and the Evolution of a Mythical Heroine. 1999. Feminism and Women’s Studies Eserver. Downloaded from http://feminism.eserver.org/theory/papers/lilith/gilgamesh.html.
Herodotus, The Histories 1.199, tr A.D. Godley , 1920.
Stuckrad, Kocku von. Constructing Femininity: The Lilith Case. Paper (Universität Duisburg. Linguistic Agency): General & theoretical papers, 1999.