Praise Lilith, a Chill Demon Cast from Eden for Refusing Missionary Position

According to legend, Lilith was Adam's first wife. Exiled from Eden for her refusal to submit to him, she was known for centuries as a baby-snatching sex demon. But contemporary feminists and religious scholars insist there's more to the story.

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Aug 25 2017, 5:04pm

Schilderij van Dante Gabriel Rossetti via Wikimedia Commons 

I should have known from the first chapter that Bible study wasn't going to be much fun. You know the deal: Snake tempts Eve, Eve tempts Adam, they both eat an apple and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden and into the world of sin and death. Thanks, womankind.

I was frustrated with the Bible from an early age—as the child of a Catholic mother and someone who has always felt drawn to spirituality, I tried to embrace Catholicism, but I never really felt like it embraced me. Most disappointing was the fact that there were very few female characters in the Bible that I felt I could look up to; I remember running a Google search one day when I was around 13 to see if there were any strong, scriptural female role models to whom I could relate, which is how I found Lilith.

Lilith has a curious and complicated history, even as spiritual beings go. If you search her name today, you'll come up with hundreds of images of scantily clad demon women. She's been a subject of debate for centuries, and of appreciation and homage in recent years—but to quote the famous Vine, who is she?

Generally speaking, Lilith is a mythological figure. There are many descriptors one could attach to her: "the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition," for instance, or a wanton night hag. But such brief descriptions belie the true complexity of her story, which has developed over millennia. One of the earliest known references to Lilith's existence is from 2400 BCE, in a Sumerian list of demons which describes a fearsome cohort of succubus-like "Lillu-demons," who are known to "visit sleeping men in order to seduce them and thereby produce grotesque children," as one scholar put it.

As a demonic figure strongly associated with darkness and infanticide, Lilith appeared throughout the ancient legends of the Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites, and Greeks. She is mentioned just once in scripture, in Isaiah 34:14, though her name is sometimes translated as "screech owl" or "night hag."

"Even if we accept Lilith's vengeful activities... we can regard them as having originated in self-defense against male domination and as a consequence of having to fight on alone."

Lilith is best known as a figure within Jewish folklore. Her most notorious—and most frequently cited—appearance is in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an early Medieval Jewish text that's often read as satirical. Here, Lilith is described as Adam's first wife, created from the earth as God "had created Adam himself." Almost immediately, she started to quarrel with Adam about sex: "She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.'"

Eventually, per the text, an exasperated Lilith "uttered God's ineffable name and flew away into the air." From there, the legend goes, God dispatched three angels to implore her to return and inform her that, if she did not, one hundred of her children would die each night. When the angels tracked her down with this admonition, she responded, "Leave me alone! I was only created in order to sicken babies: If they are boys, from birth to day eight I will have power over them; if they are girls, from birth to day twenty."

But even if the story in the Alphabet of Ben Sira is meant to be humorous and irreverent, it does reference actual traditions, as numerous scholars have pointed out: As a parable, it serves to explain the ancient practice of outfitting children with a special protective amulet. (It's inscribed with the three angels' names, and it's thought to ward off Lilith.) And, regardless of intent, the narrative presented in this text is one that's resonated deeply across centuries and cultures, remaining the dominant tale of Lilith to this day.

"While medieval readers might have laughed at the story's bawdiness, at the end of this risqué tale, Lilith's desire for liberation is thwarted by male-dominated society," Bible scholar Janet Howe Gaines explains. This, obviously, is a theme that's both universal and immemorial.

In 1972, theologian Judith Plaskow helped this interpretation reach a cultural apotheosis by writing a parable entitled "The Coming of Lilith." Rather than portraying Lilith as an unruly, evil, child-snatching entity, Plaskow sought to explain her side of the story: Lilith simply didn't want to be bossed around by Adam, whom she viewed as an equal, so she fled, only to be virulently slandered in her absence. Plaskow's account ends with Lilith meeting Eve and helping to expand her perspective "till the bond of sisterhood grew between them."

From that moment on, Lilith's position as a feminist icon was cemented. In 1976, Lilith Magazine was launched, proudly billing itself as "Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist". In its first issue, Jewish feminist and activist Aviva Cantor Zuckoff wrote an op-ed explaining why a modern magazine would name itself after an ancient demon. "Lilith is a powerful female... By acknowledging Lilith's revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith's power," she said. "Even if we accept Lilith's vengeful activities... we can regard them as having originated in self-defense against male domination and as a consequence of having to fight on alone, century after century, for her independence.

"What men are saying, really is that Lilith 'fights dirty,'" she continued. "But this is a meaningless concept designed to keep women from developing and utilizing their strength to fight, period. Lilith, it must be emphasized, is a fighter and a fighter in a good cause."

As the feminist movement grew in popularity, so did Lilith's positive influence. In 1997, feminists organized the all-female music festival Lilith Fair, invoking the erstwhile demon's name for their progressive cause. Sarah McLachlan, who organized the event, recently told Glamour that a friend had explained the story of Lilith to her, and she felt very moved by it. "I thought, perfect protagonist! Obviously words are important to me, and Lilith on its own didn't seem like enough," she said. "I loved the play on words of fair being the sort of old-fashioned fair, and fair being equal." Lilith would have approved.

Lilith has become an ubiquitous yet oddly elusive pop culture figure in the past century, appearing everywhere from Ulysses (where she is described as "the patron of abortions") to the sexy vampire television series True Blood. But there are those who still revere her as a powerful—if misunderstood—spiritual being. Today, many pagans, witches, and other magical practitioners who work with divine female forces use Lilith in their own practices; she's typically invoked in rites involving sex, power, and the dark side of the divine feminine archetype.

"We are bombarded with stories of God(s), or of strong masculine figures, but rarely do we see strong women. If we do, their stories are demonized or the credit for their strength is given to the man or a masculine power," says Jaclyn Cherie, a Luciferian Witch who runs the blog The Nephilim Rising and works with Lilith in a spiritual context. By reclaiming Lilith's story, women can push against this unrelenting and oppressive status quo.

According to her, Lilith is a powerful figure with a continued relevance for women today. "She fought for her individual sovereignty, for the right to make her own choices," she states. "She fought for the right to own her body, her pleasure, and her destiny. I don't know what is more commendable than that."