WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 3, 2016)—From demoness to Biblical Adam’s first wife, the mythological figure of Lilith has taken on many shapes over the millennia. In the new May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dan Ben-Amos, Professor of Folklore and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, explores in his article “From Eden to Ednah—Lilith in the Garden” the figure of Lilith in the Bible and mythology.
Lilith is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a class of winged female demons that attacks pregnant women and infants. From Babylonia, the legend of “the lilith” spread to ancient Anatolia, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Greece. In this guise—as a wilderness demoness—she appears in Isaiah 34:14 among a list of nocturnal creatures who will haunt the destroyed Kingdom of Edom. This is her only mention in the Bible, but her legend continued to grow in ancient Judaism. During the Middle Ages, Jewish sources began to claim her as Adam’s first—and terrifying—wife.
The creation of humans is described in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2. In the post-Biblical period, some ancient Jewish scholars took the stance that Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of Adam and an unnamed woman (Lilith); Genesis 2:7 gives more details of Adam’s creation; and Genesis 2:21–22 describes the creation of Eve from Adam.
Lilith’s creation is recounted in The Tales of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work from the tenth century C.E. This text relates that God created Lilith from the earth, just as he had created Adam. And with no submission to one another, they began fighting. Recognizing Adam would not listen to her, Lilith “pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air” (The Tales of Ben Sira). Three angels sought and found Lilith, but she refused to return with them to the Garden of Eden. “‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants.’” (The Tales of Ben Sira). As a compromise, Lilith promised to leave certain children alone and agreed that 100 of her children—demons—would die every day.
The Lilith legend continued morphing for centuries and is reflected in various artistic depictions of her. While some portrayed Lilith as a beautiful woman, others showed her in a more sinister light. Some even depicted her as the serpent in the Garden of Eden who convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.