Tonight’s post is dedicated to one of my favorite women in mythology: the rebellious badass, Lilith.
For those of you old enough remember Cheers, not that Lilith. This is my first post on any of the myths surrounding Abrahamic religions, and I’m acutely aware of the potential here for me to piss someone off. Let me preface this post by saying I approach all religions as myth and all myths as religions. It’s not my intent to convert or insult: it’s my intention to explore the cultural ramifications and possible sources.
In the beginning, God created both Adam and Lilith from the earth.
In a more…hmm…adult version of the myth, Adam is lonely after watching animals mate like, well, animals. He tries a female from each species for himself, but none are what he’s really looking for. So eventually, he marries Lilith so he has a female of his own species.
In another, Adam asks God for a mate like him because he doesn’t match well with the female animals, so God creates Lilith out of the earth (after Adam has been around for a while), but God grabs a handful of muck instead of pure earth, and so Lilith is tainted from the start. There’s a whole theological discussion door there that I’m going to leave closed for purposes of this post, but I find the possible interpretations here utterly intriguing.
(It’s probably important to note here that the occasional relief found with a member of the shepherd’s herd was an accepted part of life in many tribes at the time…after all, herding is a lonely lifestyle. So it’s not considered an evil or sin in the myth for Adam to be experimenting. One of the differentiations between other herdsman tribes in the ancient world and the Israelites is the prohibition against messing with animals.)
Anyway, Lilith, being created at the same time as Adam and from the same materials, insisted she was Adam’s equal in all things. She refused to submit to Adam sexually (the generally accepted idea here is she refused missionary position) because why should she be on her back in the dirt, subservient, when she’s Adam’s equal? In some variations she wanted to be on top, but the implications here are that she didn’t want to submit: she wanted equal partnership. They fought about it.
Lilith left Adam to hang out by the Red Sea, refuting his demands. Adam pined for her and three of God’s angels to talk her into returning. She refused, and chose to spend her life cavorting with other males (angels and demons both, depending on who you ask), birthing around a hundred babies a day. Busy lady.
Adam, in the meantime, was lonely and angry that his wife left. He begged God for a more pliant partner, and God created Eve. As she was created from a part of Adam, she was bound to him from her beginning. Think about the implications of THAT for just a moment. Her story is another post as well, but suffice it to say she was appropriately submissive for Adam’s tastes, at least in the beginning.
Lilith, the bad girl who wouldn’t listen to directions, was condemned by mythology as a demon. Interestingly, though most of the common mythology points come from Hebrew sources, Lilith is in all the Middle Eastern mythologies in some form or another. In Akkadian, she’s associated with the lilitu (night she-demon). In Sumerian, ‘lil’ mean air: possibly Lilitu was a mix of Sumerian and Akkadian meaning night air demon.
This would fit with the idea that Lilith strangled babies in the night, which is one of her more horrendous crimes. Lilith’s children were taken away by God in punishment for spurning Adam, and she declared war on all women in childbirth, stealing and eating their babies (especially boys). The three angels sent to fetch her forced her to promise to leave anyone wearing any of their names on an amulet alone.
In some versions, Lilith mates with Satan after spurning Adam, creating the Djinn. In fact, in the Middle Ages she was often called the wife, mistress, or even grandmother of Satan (which seems like a lot of work for one woman)…she became a catchall for anything considered female evil. Her daughters, the lilim, were said to cause evil ‘nocturnal emissions’ in men, and people wore amulets against their evil well into the Middle Ages: Lilith was queen of the succubi.
In Greece, she becomes associated with Lamia, the Libyan woman cursed by the gods to eat children. Lamia becomes, as time goes on, a blood drinker…particularly of young men. This, I suspect, is the beginning of Lilith being associated with vampires. Lilith pops up regularly in modern myths intertwined with vampires, sometimes as the original, sometimes just as a
Lilith is fascinating because she’s not a demon until she resists assimilation. She’s independent, sexual, strong, violent, and (I think) fun. Culturally, I think Lilith has a significantly sad tale. Her fertility and her independence are both hallmarks of an Earth Mother goddess: she’s literally populating the area on the edge of the Red Sea herself, and she belongs to no one. She has both a nurturing and violent. She’s untamable…and therefore, she’s dangerous.
Ancient tribal societies in what is now Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, etc. had a patriarchal structure, with the man central to his family and ruling over them in everything. My theory about this need for total control is based on economics and survival: nomadic peoples in harsh environments lived harsh lives. Every mouth to feed was important because children were the future of the tribe, and every mouth to feed was a drain on resources. The only way a man could ensure the children he’s giving precious food and water were in fact HIS was to control the mother’s sexuality. This is not a commentary on modern Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion. There are many societies outside the Abrahamic religions that put importance on controlling the source of progeny (including Greek and Roman). Honestly, we’re looking at a chicken vs egg situation when talking about both secular and religious rules for that time period. They were so wholly intertwined, it’s hard to separate, especially in the myths as old (or older) as the Old Testament. These are rules that existed in many of the nomadic tribes pushing into the established agricultural lands.
So…if you have an agricultural, relatively peaceful society that worships the Mother Goddess, and tough nomadic tribes move in on the territory to take over, who becomes the demon when history is passed down by the conqueror?
The one who refuses to submit.