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Where Does the Legend of Lilith Come From?

Lilith, Adam's First Wife

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Where Does the Legend of Lilith Come From?

Lilith

Artist: Sandra Stranton

According to Jewish folklore Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Though she is not mentioned in the Torah, over the centuries she became associated with Adam as a way to explain the fact that there are two contradictory versions of Creation in the book of Genesis.

Lilith and the Biblical Story of Creation

The biblical book of Genesis contains two contradictory accounts of humanity’s creation. The first account is known as the Priestly version and appears in Genesis 1:26-27. Here God fashions man and woman simultaneously when the text reads: “So God created mankind in the divine image, male and female God created them.”

The second account of Creation is known as the Yahwistic version and is found in Genesis 2. This is the version of Creation that most people are familiar with. God creates Adam, then places him in the Garden of Eden. Not long afterwards, God decides to make a companion for Adam and creates the animals of the land and sky to see if any of them are suitable partners for the man. God brings each animal to Adam, who names it before ultimately deciding that it is not a “suitable helper.” God then causes a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and while the man is sleeping God fashions Eve from his side. When Adam awakes he recognizes Eve as part of himself and accepts her as his companion.

Not surprisingly, the ancient rabbis noticed that two contradictory versions of Creation appear in the book of Genesis (which is called Bereisheet in Hebrew). They solved the discrepancy in two ways:

  • One was to explain 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.
  • Another interpretation is that the Priestly account describes the creation of an androgyne – a creature that was both male and female (Genesis Rabbah 8:1, Leviticus Rabbah 14:1). This creature was then split into a man and a woman in the Yahwistic account. Learn more about this explanation in: What Was the Androgyne?

Although the tradition of two wives – two Eves – appears early on, this interpretation of Creation’s timeline was not associated with the character of Lilith until the medieval period, as we shall see in the next section.

Lilith as Adam’s First Wife

Scholars are not certain where the character of Lilith comes from, though many believe she was inspired by Sumerian myths about female vampires called “Lillu” or Mesopotamian myths about succubae (female night demons) called “lilin.” Lilith is mentioned four times in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is not until the Alphabet of Ben Sira (c. 800s to 900s) that the character of Lilith is associated with the first version of Creation. In this medieval text, Ben Sira names Lilith as Adam’s first wife and presents a full account of her story.

According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith was Adam’s first wife but the couple fought all the time. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on matters of sex because Adam always wanted to be on top while Lilith also wanted a turn in the dominant sexual position. When they could not agree, Lilith decided to leave Adam. She uttered God’s name and flew into the air, leaving Adam alone in the Garden of Eden. God sent three angels after her and commanded them to bring her back to her husband by force if she would not come willingly. But when the angels found her by the Red Sea they were unable to convince her to return and could not force her to obey them.  Eventually a strange deal is struck, wherein Lilith promised not to harm newborn children if they are protected by an amulet with the names of the three angels written on it:

“The three angels caught up with her in the [Red] Sea…They seized her and told her: ‘If you agree to come with us, come, and if not, we shall drown you in the sea.’ She answered: ‘Darlings, I know myself that God created me only to afflict babies with fatal disease when they are eight days old; I shall have permission to harm them from their birth to the eighth day and no longer; when it is a male baby; but when it is a female baby, I shall have permission for twelve days.’ The angels would not leave her alone, until she swore by God’s name that wherever she would see them or their names in an amulet, she would not possess the baby [bearing it]. They then left her immediately. This is [the story of] Lilith who afflicts babies with disease.” (Alphabet of Ben Sira, from "Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender" pg. 204.)

The Alphabet of Ben Sira appears to combine legends of female demons with the idea of the 'first Eve.' What results is a story about Lilith, an assertive wife who rebelled against God and husband, was replaced by another woman, and was demonized in Jewish folklore as a dangerous killer of babies.

Later legends also characterize her as a beautiful woman who seduces men or copulates with them in their sleep (a succubus), then spawns demon children. According to some accounts, Lilith is the Queen of Demons.

References: Kvam, Krisen E. etal. "Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender." Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1999.

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