The Liberation of Lilith
Remembered as Adam’s first wife, a child-killing demon and a feminist hero, who was Lilith?
The Jewish demoness Lilith is well known in the present day. A seductive, child-killing monster, she appears in everything from video games and television programmes to novels and even the names of charities (including The Lilith Fund, which helps women in Texas find access to abortions). Much of her popularity rests on a legend told about Lilith’s time in the Garden of Eden, where she was created from the same clay as Adam to be Adam’s wife. When he demanded she lie below him during sex, Lilith refused, insisting that they were equals since they were both made from the same substance. When Adam refused to accept this, Lilith fled the Garden, never to return.
It is easy to see why this story struck such a chord in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially with feminists, who have found within it lessons about the inherent equality of women, the right to reject a husband and the joy of sexual liberation. But where does it come from? And was it ever interpreted as a story about women’s equality when it was originally told?
Any understanding of the legend is hampered by the fact that it was first attested in a satirical text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira. The Alphabet tells the story of Ben Sira being called to the court of Nebuchadnezzar II and solving problems for the king of Babylon. These problems, their solutions and the stories that Ben Sira tells to the king about them are odd, to say the least, and make any legend appearing in the Alphabet difficult to interpret.
Ben Sira, for example, gets Nebuchadnezzar’s flatulent daughter to stop farting, answers the mystery of why donkeys urinate in the urine of other donkeys and claims to be the son and grandson of the prophet Jeremiah, conceived when his mother – who was also Jeremiah’s daughter – bathed in the same fountain where Jeremiah had recently masturbated.
What does it mean that the Lilith story first appeared in a text like this? Was it invented for the Alphabet? Was it entirely a joke? Was there a more ‘official’ version that the Alphabet was playing with, just as there were more official legends about Jeremiah?
In fact, the key to the story’s origins is present in the text itself – mostly in parts that are left out in modern retellings. In the Alphabet, after Lilith has left the Garden, God sends three angels to bring her back. These angels, (delightfully) called Snvi, Snsvi and Smnglof, find Lilith has fled to sea and follow her there. Once they reach her, she tells them that she plans to murder babies, but promises that wherever the names of the angels are invoked, she will not be able to do harm.
This turns this story into a charm. If a child is sick and the demoness Lilith is thought to be the cause, the story itself will act as a spell to drive her off, since it contains both the names of the angels and a reminder to Lilith of her promise to keep away. In fact, this is the context in which the story appears in the Alphabet, where Ben Sira recites it over Nebuchadnezzar’s sick child.
This charm story was broadly known in the medieval world, albeit often involving different child-killing demonesses. It is attested in the Greek tradition from Late Antiquity, where three brothers called Sisinis, Sines and Sisynodoros chase the child-killing demoness Gello to the sea and extract the same promise from her; it appears in early medieval Palestine and Mesopotamia, where the child-murdering Sideros is defeated by men called Swny, Swswny and Snyngly. In Sasanian Iran, a demon is chased away by a demon called Sesen and in Central Asia, Turkmenistan and southern parts of Russia another child-killing monster is defeated by a St Sisianos as she runs to the sea. Plenty of these stories predate the Alphabet, demonstrating that the Lilith story which appears there was clearly not invented for the Alphabet itself. Given the Alphabet’s tendency to dirty-up stories, it is very possible that the specific, sexual nature of Adam and Lilith’s argument was added, but the bulk of the story was part of an ancient and incredibly far-reaching tradition of spells that were used to keep infants and pregnant women safe from demonic forces that might attack them.
This, in itself, is interesting enough – a contextualising of a very familiar legend. However, it also has implications for the message of gender equality that modern readers see in the text. Although in the Alphabet the charm-story is recited by Ben Sira himself, in most cases these stories were part of women’s lore. They were frequently dismissed by (male) religious authorities as old wives’ tales, with claims from the Byzantine period on that only ‘foolish old women’ would believe in them. In the one case where we know the name of the person using these charms – in ritual items called Incantation Bowls that were used to drive away demons in the sixth to eighth centuries in Mesopotamia – they are written and enacted by a woman. These charm stories were still being used to protect infants as late as the 1980s in Greece, where it was once again women who were reciting them, and passing them on to their daughters and granddaughters.
For a story told predominately by women, Lilith’s insistence of her equality – and the fact that, by the logic of the story, she was correct – becomes significantly more interesting. That this is not purely a modern interpretation is evidenced in later retellings of the legend by men (especially in Kabbalistic lore), where Lilith was formed not of the same clay but from scum and waste left over after Adam was created – an obvious effort to undermine the story’s ‘proof’ of equality between husband and wife.
Lilith was undoubtedly viewed as a monster, and that would have been at its clearest to women trying desperately to prevent her from killing their children. However, it is possible that this story was not just an inspiration for women in the modern day, but that the message of equality contained within it has been heard and repeated by women for centuries.
Sarah Clegg is the author of Woman’s Lore: 4,000 Years of Sirens, Serpents and Succubi (Head of Zeus, 2023).