NO SHE-DEMON has ever achieved as fantastic a career as Lilith, who started out from the lowliest of origins, was a failure as Adam’s intended wife, became the paramour of lascivious spirits, rose to be the bride of Samael the demon King, ruled as the Queen of Zemargad and Sheba, and finally ended up as the consort of God himself. The main features of Lilith’s mythical biography first appear in Sumerian culture about the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. What she meant for the Biblical Hebrews can only be surmised, but by the Talmudic period (second to fifth centuries A.D.) she was a fully developed evil she-demon, and during the Kabbalistic age (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) she rose to the high position of queenly consort at God’s side.
The earliest mention of a she-demon whose name is similar to that of Lilith is found in the Sumerian king list which dates from around 2400 B.C. It states that the father of the great hero Gilgamesh was a Lillu-demon. The Lillu was one of four demons belonging to a vampire or incubi-succubaeclass. The other three were Lilitu (Lilith), a she-demon; Ardat Lili (or Lilith’s handmaid), who visited men by night and bore them ghostly children; and Irdu Lili, who must have been her male
counterpartand used to visit women and beget children by them.’ Originally these were storm-demons,but, because of a mistaken etymology, they came to be regarded as night-demons.2
Lilith’s epithet was “the beautiful maiden,” but she was believed to have been a harlot and a vampire who, once she chose a lover, would never let him go, without ever giving him real satisfaction. She was unable to bear children and had no milk in her breasts.3According to the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree (dating from around 2000 B.C.) Lilith (Lillake) built her house in the midst of the Huluppu (willow) tree which had been planted on the bank of the Euphrates in the days of creation. A dragon set up its nest at the base of the tree, and the Zu-bird placed his young in its crown. Gilgamesh slays the dragon with his huge bronze axe, whereupon the Zu-bird flees with his young to the mountain, and Lilith, terror-strickent,earsdown her house and escapesto the desert.4
A Babylonian terracotta relief, roughly contemporary with the above poem, shows in what form Lilith was believed to appear to human eyes. She is slender, well shaped, beautiful, and nude, with wings and owl-feet. She stands erect on two reclining lions which are turned away from each other and are flanked by owls. On her head she wears a cap embellished by several pairs of horns. In her hand she holds a ring-and-rodcombination.5
Evidently, this is no longer a lowly she-demon, but a goddess who tames wild beasts and, as shown by the owls on the reliefs, rules by night.
In the course of the ensuing centuries Lilith’s shape changed again. A seventh- century B.C. tablet found at Arslan Tash in northern Syria shows her as a winged sphinx across whose body is written the following inscription in the Phoenician- Canaanite dialect:
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O, Flyer in a dark chamber, Go away at once, O Lili! 6
These lines are part of an incantation text used to help women in childbirth- one of many extant from the period of the Assyrian Empire and the new Babylonian Kingdom-and they show that by that time the myth of Lilith had all the major features which were elaborated to their fill two thousand years later by Kabbalistic Judaism.
One brief reference to Lilith, and a doubtful one at that, is all that is found in the entire Bible. Isaiah, in describing Yahweh’s day of vengeance, when the land will be turned into a desolate wilderness, says:
The wild-cat shall meet with the jackals
And the satyr shall cry to his fellow,
Yea,Lilith shall repose there
And find her a place of rest.7
The Mesopotamian and North Syrian material surveyed above supplies the background to this prophetic allusion. Evidently, Lilith was a well known she-demon in Israel of the eighth century B.C., whose name only had to be mentioned to conjure up the beliefs current about her. That she is said to find a place of rest in the desert seems to tie in with the episode recorded in the Sumerian Gilgamesh fragment- after Lilith the desert,she evidently found repose there.