Lilith Sternin, one of my favorite sitcom characters, is the significant ex-other of Frasier, the pompous but lovable celebrity psychologist. Lilith, a psychologist herself, is a self-controlled, cold woman with dark sexual energies she works hard to repress. True to her name, she is a modern, sophisticated version of the Jewish demon Lilith, one of the most fascinating figures in Jewish demonology.
Lilith, the demon, originated from Babylonian mythology that featured male and female spirits called Lilin or Lilith. Whereas the male spirits had no specific role, the female Lilith were considered harmful to babies, and already an old Hebrew amulet from the eighth century BCE from north Syria contains a spell to ward her off.
In the ancient Akkadian culture (around 2000 BCE) she appeared as Lilitho, a nocturnal winged being that accompanied Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, sex, and war. Lilith was the shadowy aspect of sex, the dark side of lovemaking. The Akkadians believed she lurked awaiting sleeping men, tempted them, and bore them demon offspring.
Lilith the ensnaring demon found her way into most ancient cultures and later to the three monotheistic religions, including Judaism which omitted the “o” from her name. The Bible mentions her in the Book of Isaiah in a passage that describes the devastation of the land in the Day of God; Lilith is a winged creature that dwells in desolate places.
Although she appears only once in the Bible, she became “popular” in the Talmud and its legends as Adam’s first wife. Her figure helped the commentators to account for the two biblical versions of
creation; the first version says “…man and female created he them”
(Genesis, 1:27). Hence the commentators concluded that like Adam, she was formed from dust. (In the second version God created man first, and when he complained of his loneliness, God created Eva from Adam’s rib. Genesis 2:21-23).
The Talmud says that Lilith was a sturdy woman who stood up for her rights in all matters, including sex. When Adam refused to allow her the missionary position, she furiously uttered God’s forbidden name and flew away.
Per Adam’s request, God sent after her three angels, Snwy, Snsnwy and Smnglf, who found her in the Red Sea. The angels threatened to kill each day 100 of her demon sons unless she returned. Lilith refused, claiming she was destined by God to weaken and control human babies after their birth. To maintain her freedom, she swore to spare a baby whenever she’d see an amulet bearing the angels’ forms.
This legend reappeared in slightly different versions in Christian literature. Lilith was given different names and the angels became three saints (Sines, Sisinnios, Synodoros). Lilith was adopted also by Islam as Karina or Tabi’a. A Jewish Muslim legend claimed Lilith was half-human half-jinn. In a late translation of the Book of Job from the fifth century, Lilith appears as the Queen of Sheba, the very symbol of the foreign temptress.
In the Kabbalah Lilith gained further reputation as nocturnal creature that lures men and bears them numerous demons. She became the head of a demonic flock, one of the four matriarchs of the Sitra Achra, the “other” evil parallel world. Lilith, who was also the spouse of Samael, ruler the evil other side, was the “mother” of every defilement. Christian demonology adopted Lilith as queen of witches who had nightly orgies with Satan and other demons.
Her role as babies’ killer and demonic temptress lasted through the centuries, and from the 18th century onward we find amulets featuring the three angels’ names and their forms, and at times even Lilith’s own image locked in chains.
Lilith, the lustful demon of monotheistic religions and the pedagogic counter-example of proper sexuality, made it to our times and figures in popular culture, where she continues to haunt men with new tactics.
However, next week I will bring a new interpretation of Kabbalistic texts that sheds a whole new and surprising light on this all too feminine figure.