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Lilith

Lilith is one of the most famous figures in Jewish mythology. A female demon (mazikim), Lilith endangers pregnant women and children, and is a sexual predator. Over the centuries, many artists illustrated the demoness through various depictions until the twentieth century when Lilith infiltrated pop culture, inspiring characters in video games, films, and songs. Lilith has also become one of the greatest feminist figures, whose powerful and liberated behavior is celebrated. [1]

She is usually considered as one of the mothers of all demons. Howard Schwartz uses the character of Lilith in his book in three stories: Lilith as demoness trapped within a mirror that comes to possess a young girl (“Lilith’s Cave”); as a demoness that comes to take the life of a mother and child during birth (“A Hair in the Milk”); and as lustful demon that seduces a goldsmith (“The Cellar”). [2] The origins of Lilith are still unclear, although she is cited many times as Adam’s first wife, created at the same time as him by God. Texts indicate that Lilith was not willing to abandon her equality and be submissive to Adam, and by extension, to God, and disappeared into the air. She believed that she was created to harm newborn infants, but accepted to let go of infants wearing an amulet representing angels sent by God to look for her. One of these famous accounts is narrated in the anonymous medieval Jewish text “The Alphabet of Ben Sira.”

It was common to protect women giving birth from Lilith by placing amulets above their bed, or on all four walls of their bedroom. The amulets not only represented and named the angels sent after her, but also at times Lilith herself held captive in chains, or the prophet Elijah excommunicating the demoness. The amulet (Iran, eighteenth century) below was used for newborn children, and depicts Lilith as well as multiple inscriptions from the Bible and Kabbalistic formulas. One of them, inscribed on Lilith, states: “a protection for this child, that he may not die.” [3]

Clay incantation bowls were also commonly used to expel demons and protect houses—notably from Lilith. Also called magic bowls, they were created by scribes who wrote incantations, spells, or curses with ink on the bowl’s surface. It was buried upside down in the home of the person who commissioned it. This image of an incantation bowl is one example of what they looked like, usually representing a demon with many incantations around them. [4] 

Incantation bowl with an Aramaic inscription around a demon. Nippur, Mesopotamia, sixth–seventh century. Ceramic. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen - Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY 2.5.

Incantation bowl with an Aramaic inscription around a demon. Nippur, Mesopotamia, sixth–seventh century. Ceramic. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen - Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY 2.5.

In more recent years, Lilith has become a feminist icon. In her essay “Lilith,” assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College Rebecca Lesses writes that: “Until the late twentieth century the demon Lilith, Adam’s first wife, had a fearsome reputation as a kidnapper and murderer of children and seducer of men. Only with the advent of the feminist movement in the 1960s did she acquire her present high status as the model for independent women. The feminist theologian Judith Plaskow’s midrash on the story of Lilith played a key role in transforming Lilith from a demon to a role model.” [5] 

One of the best-known manifestations of Lilith’s feminist reclaim is Lilith Magazine created in 1976 by Susan Weidman Schneider. The magazine, “independent, Jewish, and frankly feminist” has at the core of its mission to “be the feminist change-agent in and for the Jewish community, amplifying Jewish women’s voices, creating a woman-positive Judaism, spurring gender consciousness in the Jewish world and empowering Jewish women and girls to envision and enact change in their own lives and their communities.” [6]

Covers of Lilith Magazine—independent, Jewish & frankly feminist. Left to right: Lilith premiere issue, Fall/Winter 1976. Cover drawing by Ruchy Seligman; Fall/Winter 1983. Concept and art direction by Barbara Taff. Mask by Yona Levine; Summer 2006. Art direction by Laurie Douglas. Cover photo by Rebecca Weiss Photography; Fall 2009. Art direction by Lindsay Barnett. Covers of Lilith Magazine —independent, Jewish & frankly feminist—are used with permission. More at www.Lilith.org.

Covers of Lilith Magazine—independent, Jewish & frankly feminist. Left to right: Lilith premiere issue, Fall/Winter 1976. Cover drawing by Ruchy Seligman; Fall/Winter 1983. Concept and art direction by Barbara Taff. Mask by Yona Levine; Summer 2006. Art direction by Laurie Douglas. Cover photo by Rebecca Weiss Photography; Fall 2009. Art direction by Lindsay Barnett. Covers of Lilith Magazine —independent, Jewish & frankly feminist—are used with permission. More at www.Lilith.org.

Many pop culture references and homages to Lilith have appeared throughout the past decades. 

The Lilith Fair (1997–99 with a revival in 2010) was started by Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan. Her frustrations with the recording industry (mainly concert promoters and radio stations) refusing to play two female musicians back-to-back led her to create the music festival. She booked a tour with herself and fellow artist Paula Cole, naming it Lilith Fair, after the demoness, inviting other women musicians to perform such as Lisa Loeb and Michelle McAdorey. The official Lilith Fair tour was launched in 1997, with $16 million in ticket sales; for three successful years, the Fair raised over $10 million for charity, donating one dollar of each ticket sold to local women’s charities in each city along the tour. [7]

Some pop culture references take various aspects of Lilith, such as her physical appearance and bewitching attributes, to invent demon-like characters, powerful yet not necessarily in line with her feminist reinterpretation. Created in 1997, the Japanese media franchise Digimon (short for “Digital Monsters”) encompasses virtual pet toys, anime, manga, video games, films, and trading cards game, featuring many creatures and monsters living in the digital world. One of them is Lilithmon, one of the great demon lords of the game, and is inspired by the figure of Lilith. In the Digimon world, Lilithmon, or the “goddess of Darkness,” fell from Heaven and her main powers are to bewitch all her opponents with her suggestive looks, but also the “Phantom Pain” curse which can cause her opponents’ data to disappear and to suffer pain even in death. [8]

Lilithmon’s character design in the Digimon Reference Book. © Bandai Namco. Image source: wikimon.net, released under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Lilithmon’s character design in the Digimon Reference Book. © Bandai Namco. Image source: wikimon.net, released under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The HBO original series True Blood also features a character inspired by and named after Lilith. Known as the Progenitor, Lilith birthed the vampire race. Played by Jessica Clark, she is the very first vampire, believed to have been created before Adam and Eve whose progeny sustains the vampire race. In True Blood, Lilith is worshiped as a god by many other vampires, but her existence is also doubted by many other vampires. [9] 

Lilith has also been the subject of many paintings, drawings, novels, sculptures, plays, etc. 

Among the most well-known sculptural representations is American artist Kiki Smith’s work Lilith from 1994, a nude bronze sculpture depiction of the demoness crouched hanging on a gallery wall, usually surprising the viewer’s gaze. [10] Her facial expression faces the viewer back with piercing eyes, ready to jump or spring. Smith’s representation is among the most human of Lilith. In Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid, artists Tracey Snelling and Dina Goldstein chose to feature Lilith in their works. 

Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1994. Bronze and glass; 33 x 27 1/2 x 19 in. (88.82 x 69.85 x 48.26 cm.) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. Copyright Kiki Smith. Photo by Ben Blackwell.

Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1994. Bronze and glass; 33 x 27 1/2 x 19 in. (88.82 x 69.85 x 48.26 cm.) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. Copyright Kiki Smith. Photo by Ben Blackwell.

Bay Area Composer Joshua Horowitz created a chamber folk opera titled Lilith the Night Demon in 2014, “that tells the story of Adam's first wife, in an adult, edgy alternate story of creation.” [11] The opera is performed in English, Yiddish, and Latin (with supertitles and features main protagonists Adam and Lilith, a couple battling over sexual positions and roles, nocturnal sounds, etc. Despite the opera’s explicit dialogues and topics, Horowitz says he drew his story directly from various texts and sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, the Zohar and The Alphabet of Ben Sira. [12] 

[Watch Joshua Horowitz’s Chamber Folk Opera Lilith the Night Demon , performed by Veretski Pass and San Francisco Choral Artists on May 4, 2014 at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center. Video directed by Lenny Levy. Courtesy of Joshua Horowitz.]


Sources: 

1. “Lilith,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed August 16, 2017, jewishvirtuallibrary.org/lilith.

2. Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). 

3. “Amulet for newborn children,” The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life – Collections Online, The University of California, Berkeley, accessed August 16, 2017, magnesalm.org/notebook_fext.asp?site=magnes&book=6 .

4. Avigail Manekin Bamberger, “Naming Demons: The Aramaic Incantation Bowls and Gittin,” TheGemara.com, February 14, 2016, accessed August 16, 2017, thegemara.com/naming-demons-the-aramaic-incantation-bowls-and-gittin.

5. Rebecca Lesses, “Lilith.” Jewish Women’s Archive, accessed August 15, 2017, jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lilith.

6. “Mission | Lilith Magazine,” Lilith Magazine, accessed August 16, 2017, lilith.org/about/mission.

7. Donna Freydkin, “Lilith Fair: Lovely, lively and long overdue,” July 28, 1998, CNN.com, accessed August 16, 2017, cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Music/9807/28/lilith.fair.

8. Wikimon – The #1 Digimon wiki, “Lilithmon,”accessed August 7, 2017, wikimon.net/Lilithmon.

9. True Blood Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia,“Lilith,”May 19, 2017, accessed August 16, 2017, trueblood.wikia.com/wiki/Lilith.

10. “Lilith.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accessed August 16, 2017,  mfa.org/collections/object/lilith-35875.

11. Varetsky Pass, “Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act,” liliththenightdemon, accessed August 16, 2017, liliththenightdemon.com/Lilith_The_Night_Demon/Lilith_Website.html. 

12. Dan Pine, “Lilith, the Night Demon: Racy, raucous, homegrown opera rears its head in Bay Area.” J. The Jewish News of Northern California. April 25, 2014, accessed August 16, 2017, jweekly.com/2014/04/25/lilith-the-night-demon-racy-raucous-homegrown-opera-rears-its-head-in-bay-a.