Hebrew Folk Magic and Lilith

Even if you casually read the first few pages of the Biblical book of Genesis, you’ll notice something.

There isn’t just one creation account – there are two.

And while the overall gist of these two narratives is essentially the same, the devil, as they say, is always in the details…

One crucial difference has to do with the creation of the first woman:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.- Genesis 1:27, KJV

Now, compare this with the next creation account of the woman:

Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. – Genesis 2:22, KJV

Semantics, you might say. However, this bothered some Jewish Rabbis…

Now the Jewish tradition holds the Old Testament, or the Tanakh (an acronym for the Torah (“Teaching”, also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”)) in a different light than Christianity does. While the Tanakh does contain revealed writing, it isn’t thought to be a complete account.

In other words, the Jewish tradition accepts that there might be plot-holes, and developed a complex set of writings to help round out the story.

This gave rise to works like the Kabbalistic Zohar, the Midrashic literature, and the Aggadah, or folkloric/historic texts, all of which contain Rabbinic expansions on the core teachings of the Tanakh.

Now back to the two creation accounts:

*

One resolution to these differing accounts is to assume that indeed, there were two women; the first being created with Adam from clay, and the second being created from Adam’s rib.

Of course, that begs an important question:

Where did she go?

To find a definitive answer, we have to look at the Alphabet of Ben Shira, dated between the 8th and 10th century C.E.

*

The Alphabet contains a series of 44 proverbs; 22 are in Aramaic, while the other 22 are in Hebrew. They are arranged in an acrostic pattern, and the majority of scholars think this work was intentionally satirical; however, it gives us the earliest, clearest account of the fate of the first woman, sometimes called the first Eve, here named Lilith.

Now a demon named Lilith definitely had a place in Babylonian (and most likely earlier Sumerian) mythology; between 597 and 539 B.C.E. many Jews were forcibly taken to Babylon, a fact which would have a great influence on the evolution of Hebrew culture. This would account for Lilith finding her way into Jewish literature, as evidenced here:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. 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 I am to be the superior one.” Lilith responded, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.

Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: “Sovereign of the universe!” he said, “the woman you gave me has run away.” At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, to bring her back.

Said the Holy One to Adam, “If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.” The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, “We shall drown you in the sea.”

“Leave me!’ she said. “I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.”

When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: “Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.” She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

Adam
Adam, by Fillipino Lipi, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence 1502. Here Adam is depicted protecting a child Lilith.

In a passage from the Zohar, she is also blamed with enticing wet dreams and masturbation:

She wanders about at night, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves.

*

So now we can turn to some of the Hebrew folk magic that surrounds Lilith:

Returning to the last paragraph quoted from the Alphabet of Ben Shira,

Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

So what does an amulet to ward off Lilith look like?

For this, we turn to the Zohar. This image was inserted into a 17th C.E. French translation of the foundational Kabbalistic text:

Amulet_to_protect_mother_and_child

In the following text, a conversation occurs between Lilith and the prophet Elijah, after she has arrived with her host of demons. Promising to kill a mother and her newborn, she describes her intentions for the baby girl, specifically that she will “drink her blood, suck her bones and eat her flesh”

However, like every James Bond villain, she reveals to the prophet that she can be repelled if someone uses her secret names: lilith, abitu, abizu, hakash, avers hikpodu, ayalu, matrota…

The amulet itself contains invocations of Adam, Eve and Lilith, ‘Chavah Rishonah’ (the first Eve, i.e. Lilith), as well as the following: Sanoy, Sansinoy, Smangeluf (the three angels sent to confront Lilith in the Alphabet of Ben Shira), along with Shmari’el (the guardian) and Hasdi’el (the merciful).

Of course, that wasn’t the last we’d hear from Lilith…

Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)
John Collier, Lillith, 1892

Lilith has definitely enjoyed a Renaissance, especially in the 20th century. She has been transformed from a night demon who feasts on babies and seduces men into having wet dreams into a feminist icon, and for some Neo-Pagans, a revered form of the Goddess.

So what’s the takeaway? In the end, you really can’t keep a good woman down…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s