My first memory of Lilith — known today as Adam’s first wife who fled into the wilderness to become a hypersexual baby-murdering demon — comes from my tween years when I went through my witchy phase. (I am currently twenty-one years, three cauldrons, and several dozen tarot decks into my witchy phase.) One of my aunts gifted me a couple sets of Goddess cards, little cards with illustrations of famous goddesses or folkloric figures and used in divination or devotion. Typically the art is wonderful but the research…well it runs a gauntlet. But I was a child and less than critical, so I ate this stuff up. From there I was taken.
My teenage poetry at the time was full of dramatic images of Lilith, all intensity and moodiness. It was like I was tracking her down, following what faint footsteps she left. I’m not quite sure what it was that drew me to this demon; I don’t think it was purely her strength.
It’s almost become a cliché amongst smarmy kids to bring up Lilith as a taboo part of the Bible (never mind that she only appears once in the actual Pentateuch and then only ambiguously). I certainly did when I was young. But then again, just look at Wicked or Maleficent; seems we all really like to learn about our villains. And given how society punishes those of us who break the constraints of acceptable femininity, I suppose it makes sense. We wonder what could drive a woman to give up what little regard and protection society deems to bestow upon her.
Like so many adolescents I felt powerless and like so many adolescent girls this powerlessness was just magnified by sexism. So I sort of threw myself head first into witchery, horror, and of course, Lilith. But I think there’s something more to her story than power. I think the most compelling part of her story is her sacrifice. Though interestingly enough, that sacrifice is a rather late addition to her mythos.
We first see her, or rather a type of demon with which she shares a name, as the Sumerian lili, lilu, or lilitu. There’s some uncertainty regarding the lilitu and their exact nature, but we know they were creatures of the wilderness, the night, and all things foul. They were very much tied to sexuality, appearing at night and seducing humans; they would later be connected with the Lamashtu demon, which would steal and murder newborns, thus tying the demons to both sex and infanticide. The first representations of Lilith were found in Mesopotamia around 300-600 CE on incantation bowls, ceramic bowls in which the client’s deity or deities are invoked as a form of protection. She appears on them as line drawings with wide staring eyes and long wild hair, her image used to keep both Lilith and the lilitu away.
Baby-stealing sex demons aren’t exactly uncommon. Like the vampire, the siren, or the restless dead, it seems that they represent universal human fears. Fears about loss, sexuality, about women who exist beyond acceptable frameworks as mothers or caretakers. And that was about all there was to Lilith for centuries. She didn’t have or need a backstory any more than any other generic demon. At least not until The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a medieval compilation of religious stories.
This weird little book contains a series of stories and aphorisms, but this isn’t some serious, scholarly work. Rather, The Alphabet of Ben Sira is blasphemous, misogynistic, and occasionally a little stomach churning. Large portions of the text are dedicated to dirty stories and fart jokes, and most regard it as satirical. But it’s in this text that we first see Lilith as Adam’s first wife.
According to The Alphabet of Ben Sira, God created Lilith to ease Adam’s loneliness. Here’s what happened when they met:
“[Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above.’ She said to him, ‘The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.’ And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God’s ineffable name and flew away into the air.”
From there Adam whines to God, who sends out his angels to go collect her. But even they could not bring her back to heel.
From then on, Lilith’s story entered established Jewish folklore. This strange, obscene little text also gives us some background for various amulets already used to protect children from Lilith and her demons. The Alphabet of Ben Sira moves her from run-of-the-mill demon to half of the first human, cementing Lilith in Jewish literary history, folklore, mysticism, and occultism.
Even for those who purely demonize her, Lilith remains appealing. Artists, especially goyishe men, loved painting Lilith in her guise as temptress, condemning her even as they sought to capture her beauty for their own consumption. She was further a fixation for European occultists. Charles Leland associated Lilith with his own Aradia from his Gospel of the Witches, Aleister Crowley named his daughter after her, and today she is honored if not outright worshipped in certain Pagan and feminist spiritual circles.
Somewhere along the line, Lilith started to seduce women. We’re drawn to her for the same reason we’re drawn to witches, to gorgons, to the Furies. So much of history, art, and religion are created by and for men; so many of our stories force us into such small spaces. But our monsters refuse. In a world that tries to make us believe we’re powerless and that we’re better off giving into their control, it’s only natural to sympathize with the demons.
In the 1970s, Lilith became known as a feminist icon with the help of feminist Jewish women, even lending her name to one of the most well known Jewish feminist magazines in 1976. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published an article by Lily Rivlin on Lilith as spirit, goddess, and heroine. That same year Judith Plaskow, feminist theologian and Religious Studies professor, wrote a beautiful midrash, “The Coming of Lilith.” The midrash re-imagines a version of the story where Eve escapes the garden as well, where she joins Lilith in the wilderness as a companion.
For Plaskow, Eve has heard of Lilith only as a demon, but when she sees she’s a woman, she’s suddenly drawn to her. Eve escapes Eden to find this other woman who welcomed her as a peer:
“And they sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future. They talked for many hours, not once, but many times. They taught each other many things, and told each other stories, and laughed together, and cried, over and over, till the bond of sisterhood grew between them.”
From there, Eve leaves permanently:
“And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”
It was fairly difficult for me to find images of Lilith as a child. I grew up in the early days of the internet and my family were late adapters. But it was while having a rare few weeks of internet access (thanks AOL CDs) that I came across these re-imaginings. Seeing Lilith not as a demon, but as a feminist icon gave me the images and language to think of mythological femininity in new ways. And in the case of Plaskow’s Lilith, in potentially queer ways. While her story doesn’t make it explicitly clear, there is obvious desire between the women, and that was enough for me to build upon.
Lilith as she appears now — shaped by centuries of cross-cultural folktales, jokes, and artistry — won her freedom, but in doing so she lost her home and everything she knew. While one assumes her relationship with Adam was less than perfect, she was still one of two people in paradise. Her world was so small, so soft; with every need met there was no reason to wonder about what lay beyond the garden walls and even less reason to wander.
I used to imagine the world outside Eden as something of God’s abandoned project. You know, like the spare room you just ignore and in which you let all sorts of weirdness pile up. Eden is ordered, perfect, and deliberate. But beyond the garden are deserts, winds, and wilderness. I imagined this world as a forgotten place, inhospitable and desolate. So what would drive someone to leave?
For Lilith, it was inequality, subjugation, and sexual control.
Around the same time that I first became aware of Lilith, I also began to realize that I might not exactly be heterosexual. As far as families go I was, and am, pretty fortunate. My family, my city, and my friends almost all reacted well when I came out. But of course I still think about where we are before I kiss my girlfriend, or even hold her hand. I consider how I refer to her amongst strangers. I am a skilled player at Hide-The-Pronoun. And there are still branches of my family with whom I am closeted. I become that child again, hiding myself away in order to maintain a peaceful illusion.
There was a time in my life where I thought it would be better if I never felt attraction, let alone love. As a poly bi woman, I thought of my sexuality as an embarrassment. And as a loud, fat, argumentative woman I worried that my sexuality made me a cliché, the angry slut of a feminist everyone imagined. It would be so much easier, I reasoned, if I could just ignore those parts of myself altogether.
A closeted life is far from Eden but it can feel safer. I sometimes think that is the greatest and most insidious aspect of heterosexism, the idea that hiding can protect you. Suffocation is no less deadly than exposure. Eventually claustrophobia will win out and you need to escape, or die.
I don’t know if it was my queerness that drew me first to Lilith, but I do know I was overly fond of creating maudlin poetry in which she is paired with Eve. As far as Samael Aun Weor was concerned, Lilith governs deviant sexualities, amongst them homosexuality, naturally. After all, Lilith has become a sign of every socially unacceptable aspect of women, including and especially our sexuality. I wonder now if on some level I understood and was drawn to that, even as a youth.
More than her power, her allure, her beauty, her freedom, the thing that stands out most for me is Lilith’s journey. She gives up paradise, gives up everything and everyone she knows, for her liberty. This is no simple thing, not merely as escape from external forces, but from the parts of herself that would see her small and safe and at home.
And so she becomes a demon.
How many of us have had to make the same choice? I suspect that this sacrifice, this escape, is a common experience for a lot of us. I suspect this shared experience is what draws so many of us to Lilith, and to each other. She knows what it is to choose liberty over home, family, and God. She knows what it is to choose exile. After all, there are plenty of lady-monsters, but only one who knew, and fled, Paradise.