Today, I was introduced to an individual I could not believe I had never before encountered: Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam in the Garden of Eden according to Jewish folklore. As in any case of mythology, the tales surrounding Lilith are both numerous and varied. Alan G. Hefner writes a summary of the stories for the Encyclopedia Mythica which can be found here. While she is largely a Jewish mythological being, Hefner states that “descriptions of the Lilith demon appear in Iranian, Babylonian, Mexican, Greek, Arab, English, German, Oriental and Native American legends.”
As the first wife of Adam, the earliest record of Lilith can be found in The Alphabet of Ben Sira which dates back to somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries. In the text, king Nebuchadnezzar questions the meaning of the angels depicted on an amulet created for his sick son and the following explanation is given:
“The angels who are in charge of medicine: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof. After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone‘ (Gen. 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘Sovereign of the universe!’ he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.
“Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, fine. If not she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’ The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’
“‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.’
“When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.’ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.”
And so Lilith left Adam. The legends state that God then created Eve from Adam, thus a submissive being. Meanwhile, Lilith stayed by the Red Sea and allegedly commingled with demons there, giving birth to a plethora of demonic children.
In the 10th century, the Midrash Abkir told the story of Adam and Lilith more completely. It states that when Adam realized his sin, he separated from Eve for 130 years during which time Lilith came and seduced him. Some versions say that when Lilith came back to him, she and Adam had children together, In the 17th century, the story of Lilith was spread through Johannes Buxtorf’s Lexicon Talmudicum. Throughout the Middle Ages, she was also seen as a queen of demons, associated both with Asmodeus, King of Demons, and with Satan himself. She is also said to have daughters, the lilim who are associated with men’s sexual desires.
While the legends surrounding Lilith are endlessly fascinating, what made me most surprised that I had never before encountered her was the magnitude of writers and artists who have depicted her in their various works spanning numerous time periods and artistic movements. To the right is Michelangelo’s depiction of Lilith from “The Temptation of Adam and Eve.” Lilith is frequently associated with serpents, as well as lions and owls (although the snake has particular relevance in the Garden of Eden). Above in this post is John Collier’s depiction of her, also involving a serpent. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother to Christina Rossetti, not only painted “Lady Lilith” (see image below) but wrote a sonnet to accompany the piece. Robert Browning also wrote a poem entitled “Adam, Lilith, and Eve.” (In the interest of space I have chosen not to include either of these works, but I recommend looking up both of these interesting poems.)
In recent history, Lilith has become important as an icon in feminist strains for her refusal to submit to Adam in the Garden. She has been claimed by some to be the original feminist, and has lent her name to various magazines and journals. Thus, although I had not heard of her until today, it appears that Lilith remains well known in some circles.
Regardless of her reality or renown, I believe that Lilith remains a fascinating figure of past mythology.
Sincerely, Abigail Quinnley