The origins of the Goddess Lilith are shrouded in mystery which seems appropos for Her. She is a banner for female power, authenticity, and the act of reclaiming parts of our Selves that are vital for survival. Many of Her stories are dark – whispers of stealing babies and cavorting with demons. They call Her a winged succubus, the bride of the devil and the patriarchy has seemed determined to make Lilith an object of fear and loathing.
As a Goddess with no cults or defined ritual ceremonies, seeking the threads of Lilith’s origins can be challenging. Lilith’s most ancient forms seem to be of a Bird and/or Snake Goddess. Her name appears as a spirit of the wind in early Sumer, associated with Queen of Heaven and Earth, Innana. By 2400 bce, as patriarchy began to encroach on Sumerian myths and traditions, Lilith was transformed into a demon of the night who caused storms and destructive winds. Several classes of demons were named for Her: the vampiric Lillu demons, the Lilitu (she-demons), and the Ardat Lili and the Irdu Lili who haunted lonely places waiting to prey on humans and conceive demon babies.
The Lilu, the Lilit, the night Lili,
Enchantments, disasters, spells,
Illnesses, evil charms,
In the name of heaven
and in the name of earth
Let them be exorcised.
~ from an ancient Babylonian seal
This litany of demonic beings is at complete odds with the graceful Spirit of the Air and Maiden of Innanna’s temples that was represented by a lily and surrounded by owls and lions.
As Sumerian culture was further superseded by the Babylonian, Hittite,and Semitic civilizations, the demonization of Lilith continued. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Lilith is the snake that rests in the tree and refuses to vacate it. The Goddess Innana turns to the”hero” Gilgamesh who in turn slays the serpent (sound familiar?) and restores the tree to Innana. Of course, in this rendition as created by men, the Goddess Inanna is grateful to Gilgamesh for banishing Her previous handmaiden – more layers to the banishing of Lilith.
Lilith was absorbed into Hebrew legends after the Babylonian exile (approximately 586 bce) and installed into Jewish demonology as a “buyer beware” sign to the Hebrew women who continued their tradition of praying to the Great Goddess. To promote submissiveness and adherence to the new monotheistic religion that the men were creating, Lilith was held up as a woman rejected and cast out. When She does not submit to Adam as his first wife, She is called the mother of demons and accused of killing children. She was the ancient symbol of what happened to women who demanded equality and disobeyed their husbands.
The bible speaks of the evil serpent who offers Eve (the new wife) a bite of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Here again is Lilith as the serpent Goddess but in a twisted fashion as the root of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Eve has been blamed for accepting the temptation of the serpent for 2000 years, but Lilith was the vehicle for that temptation.
For centuries, Lilith was relegated to the dusty, depths of the Zohar and only spoken of in prayers of protection against Her evil behavior. If men had wet dreams, it was blamed on Lilith. If infants died in their sleep, it was blamed on Lilith. She has been shrouded not only in mystery but in hundreds of years of fear, blame, rage, and isolation. Patriarchy established a pattern of a “woman” who disobeys man, flees from man, lives in isolation, takes out Her rage on innocents, and is the eternal femme fatale (emphasis on fatale).
What is left for modern women? Is Lilith just another casualty of patriarchy or has She survived over two thousand years of histrionic repression?
Like the screech owl for whom Lilith is named, Her screech cannot be silenced. She is all women who have been subjugated, humiliated, and cast out from male-defined society. Her rage is the rage of women who have realized that our natural women’s sexuality has been made dirty by men who fear the power of it and the power of free women.
Lilith is the experience large and small of each and every woman on this planet at one or more times in our lives: the rape victim who was asking for it; the woman who is told to shut up and, if she fails to do that, who is ignored; women who bump up against “glass ceilings;” women whose natural rhythms are disrespected, bullied into hiding, and are even denuded through pharmaceuticals and surgical manipulations; women who are told through nearly every aspect of society that they are not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, or accomplished enough – and that they never will be; women told that their growth depends on the surrender of their bodies against their will and true desires; women who are subjected to sexual mutilation; the woman who lives in fear and isolation in her relationship with a man.
As I was writing this copy, I saw Lilith standing on the shores of the Red Sea. She was standing in the surf, wind blowing Her long red hair in tangles and the expression on Her face was one of calm defiance. Gone was the rage, the humiliation. The elementals danced around Her in delight. Here was a woman, a Goddess who has heard it all and been called every negative name in the book. Here was a woman, a Goddess who mourned and then gathered Herself together to stand tall and straight and beautiful once again. Here is a woman, a Goddess that is the symbol of reclaiming our Women’s Power and surviving.
Lilith brings us the message of creative female force in the breath of Her beloved spirits of Air. In Her serpent form, She calls us to cast off the parts of our lives that our suppressing us. Through all forms, She invites us to stand with Her and to know that we are never, ever alone.
Additional Resources to connect with the Goddess Lilith:
Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Re-Create the World’s First Woman edited by Enid Dame
Lilith – The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz
The Book of Lilith by Barbara Black Koltuv
Living Lilith – Four Dimensions of the Cosmic Feminine by M. Kelley Hunter
Eliza Fayle did a Lilith column for many months on The MotherHouse of the Goddess based on the following book and her personal experiences with the Goddess Lilith:
Lilith – Healing the Wild by Tom Jacobs