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Lilith: Queen of the Night

Famous relief from the Old Babylonian period (now in the British museum) called the "Burney relief" or "Queen of the Night relief". The depicted figure could be an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war. However, her bird-feet and accompanying owls have suggested to some a connection with Lilitu (called Lilith in the Bible), though seemingly not the usual demonic Lilitu
Famous Burney relief

There are two creation stories in the Bible. In Genesis 1: 26 we read: 6 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

This was the 6th day.

Next, Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

2 And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

3 And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

But after this passage, he, or they go on to create Eve after female was already created.

In the Genesis and Leviticus Rabbah, which is a religious text from Judaism's classical period, the ancient rabbis noticed that two contradictory versions of Creation appear in the book of Genesis . They solved this by deciding that:

The first version of Creation actually referred to Adam’s first wife, a 'first Eve.' But Adam was displeased with her, so God replaced her with a 'second Eve' that met Adam's needs.

The Bible mentions Lilith only once (Isaiah 34:14). She makes a solitary appearance as a wilderness demon shunned by the prophet Isaiah. The verse reads: “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island and the satyr shall cry to his fellow, the screech owl, or lilin, shall also rest there and find herself a place of rest."

In the ninth or tenth century, the Alphabet of Ben Sira draws on earlier stories of Adam’s wife and introduces an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife:

"When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.

As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them: “Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.

The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us, well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”

Lilith said to them: ”My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”

They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them: ”In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men."

This version of the Lilith story in the Alphabet of Ben Sira was commonly known in Jewish life but some Rabbis chose to expand on it. The Zohar, which is a mystical work from 12th century Spain and is a commentary on the Hebrew and foundational work of the Kabbalah, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. Per the Zohar:

“In the beginning God created the Sun and Moon. They both ascended with equal dignity but the Moon did not feel right with the Sun, in fact, each mortified one another. The Moon asked where does thou pasture and the Sun asked the Moon where dose thou make thy flock rest at noon. Then the Sun asked how she as a little candle could so brightly shine in midday. God thus interceded to avoid strife between them and told the Moon to diminish itself. The Moon asked why she should be the one to veil herself, but God insisted, saying, ‘Go your way forth in the footsteps of the flock’ (Song of Songs 1:7). Although when connected with the Sun, the Moon was equally bright, but when departing she lost her light and assigned charge of her hosts, and shells were created for the covering of the brain, and for the benefit of the brain (Zohar I 20a).

After the primordial light was withdrawn there was created a ‘membrane for the marrow,’ a k’lifah husk or shell, and this k’lifah expanded and produced who was Lilith (Zohar I 19b).

He (God) summoned to issue from the side of Darkness a sort of a female Moon which rules the night, and is called night, and is associated with Adonai, Lord of the Earth (Zohar I 16b)…the Left, side of Darkness, flamed with its full power, producing at all points a kind of reflection, and from this fiery flame came a Moonlight essence…Just as it is the desire of Darkness to merge itself with Light, so it is the desire of night to merge itself with day (Zohar I 17a-b).

By causing a separation of the Sun and Moon God ended the discord between them. He caused the Moon to diminish herself and go forth in the footsteps of the flock, at the head of the lower ranks. In the Zohar the Sun was rightfully the higher dominion ruling the day, being male; and the Moon was rightfully the higher dominion ruling the night, being female. There are two kinds of luminaries: those descending from above called ‘luminaries of light’ and those ascending from below called ‘luminaries of fire’ (Zohar I 20b).

Although both luminaries continued reigning, the Moon felt slighted, her attachment for the Sun was severed and her self-diminishment was not of her choosing but commanded by God.

This diminishment caused a k’lifah (or husk of evil) the birth of Lilith. Lilith has a body of a beautiful woman from the head to the navel, but from the navel down she is a flame of fire.

This represents Lilith energy, according to Zoharic myths, from the resentment caused by the diminishment of the Moon as well as the dark and fiery side of night."

In "folk Judaism", the focal myths about Lilith brand her as a baby thief. "Amulets for pregnant women and babies from medieval times use the three names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward away Lilith" (Howe Gaines 2021). Some of these amulets contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve in the center of the circle and the name of Lilith on the outside. (Howe Gaines 2021). There was also a practice of hanging cards above the bed of a woman in childbirth with prayers written on them.

Amulet for mother and newborn with image of Lilith in the center. 19th Century. Courtesy of the Israel museum
Amulet for mother and newborn with image of Lilith

From the book of Kav-ha-Yashar, also called The Just Measure, which is a kabbalistic collection of stories, moral guidance, and customs, we find a number of stories about Lilith. This text was published in 1705. In this text, Lilith used to appear as a beautiful woman to attract men and "turn their heads."

She has also been equated with the legendary Queen of Sheba, who tried to seduce King Solomon. In this story, Solomon’s suspected who she was, so he had her believe the floor was covered in water and made her raise her skirts so she had no choice but to reveal her hairy legs.

Her image has been identified on various ceramic bowls known as incantation bowls due to the Aramaic spells inscribed on them (Howe Gaines 2021). The incantation bowls are from Sassanian and early Islamic Iraq and Iran (roughly 400–800 C.E.) (Lesses 2009). Many bowls have scriptural quotations, some of which are known from Jewish prayers and ancient amulets. A number of rabbis are mentioned by name in the incantation bowls. "Some of the rabbis show up as clients who commissioned the bowls, while others, who were considered to have supernatural powers, appear as exorcisers of demons." (Bamberger 2016). Per Bamberger (2016), "many Aramaic incantation bowls present themselves, in various ways, as a writ of divorce to the demons who had attached themselves to the clients or the clients’ households. Some contain longer formulae and begin with the phrase הדין גיטא “this divorce document” – apparently referring to the entire bowl itself as a kind of get, while others only mention the divorce in a sentence or phrase. The scribes transferred the divorce formulae from the world of divorce law to the world of magic." One bowl reads, “Thou Lilith. . .Hag and Snatcher, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob. . .to turn away from this Rashnoi. . .and from Geyonai her husband. . .Your divorce and writ and letter of separation. . .sent through holy angels. . .Amen, Amen, Selah, Halleluyah!” The inscription is meant protect Rashnoi from the evil Lilith.

Lilith is often depicted with a female face and serpent body; sometimes slithering about-she is often seen as the snake who tempted Eve to take from the tree of knowledge. We see this particularly in the Renaissance period where Michelangelo portrays Lilith as a half-woman, half-serpent, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge.

From Nippur, Mesopotamia 6th–7th ce. Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen
Aramaic Incantation bowl

She tends to be categorized as a dark goddess, but if you are struggling with feeling free or independent, connect with the energy of Lilith by calling her name and doing goddess devotional work.

For more information on Lilith, check out my podcast and check out the references and recommended reading below!

Sources for this episode + Recommended Reading:

Amulet for mother and newborn with the names of Lilith and the three angels. Germany 19th century Oil on parchment. Courtesy of Israel Museum
Amulet for mother and newborn with the names of Lilith and the three angels

1. The Goddess Pages by Laurie Sue Brockway

2. The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai

4. Lilith: Lady Flying in Darkness by Rabbi Jill Hammer

5. Lilith: Jewish Virtual Library Online

7. Lilith by Emil G. Hirsch, Solomon Schecther, Ludwig Blau

9. Lilith By Rebecca Lesses

10. “Lilith.” In Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem

From Demoness to God’s Partner: The Astonishing Career of the World’s First Feminist, Lilith by Felicia Waldman

12. Lilith Incantation Bowl (in the article)


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