November 29, 2007
ENGS 25: World Literature
The Archetype of Lilith
The question “Who is Lilith?” has no one answer. Lilith is a demon temptress of the night . Lilith is the first wife of Adam, the first man according to Abrahamic tradition. Lilith is an archetype for independent, obstinate women . She is present in the mythological folklore of almost every Middle-Eastern and European culture to have developed since she first appeared in Sumerian mythology. Some scholars have placed her origin within a set of Sumerian wind and storm demons called Lilitu around 3000 B.C. Some scholars such as Samuel Kramer have (controversially) identified Lilith with the character Ki-sikil-lil-la-ke (“maiden [of Gilgamesh’s father Lila/Lillu ] who screeches constantly; gladdener of all hearts”) as well as Ki-sikil-ud-da-ka-ra (“maiden who has stolen/seized the light”) from the prologue to the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh . Nonetheless it is Jewish folklore that truly developed the character of Lilith and it is this version that is most commonly meant when one refers to Lilith. What we see within these early versions of Lilith are really characters that share certain associated traits with the Jewish character of Lilith. For example the Lilitu demons evolved from storm and wind demons into demons of the night. They invaded the dreams of sleeping men to seduce him, much like the succubae of medieval Western folklore (whom Lilith is sometimes identified as the queen or mother of). Lilitu demons were also said to prey upon women and children and were associated with predatory animals such as lions, snakes, and birds of prey. Furthermore they became associated with deserts and wastelands. That which was threatening to civilization or represented savagery and ‘natural evil’ was thought to be caused or exacerbated by demons. Many of these associations were adopted by Semitic culture and as a result we come to know Lilith as a demon queen that preys upon children (because God preys upon hers) and seduces men in their dreams. We know that the character of Lilith was known of in Jewish culture by at least 8th century B.C. due to the singular reference to her in the Jewish Bible. The passage (Book of Isaiah 34:14) refers to the screeching owl that will find rest in the desert after God exacts his vengeance and turns the earth into a ‘desolate wilderness.’ This passage may allude to the character identified with Lilith in Gilgamesh in which she fled to the desert after being abandoned by the Anzu bird . The character that Kramer identifies as Lilith in his translation takes residence in a tree along with a dragon or serpent that built a nest at the foot of the tree and the Anzu bird who resided in the top of the tree. While Kramer’s account is disputed it isn’t difficult to see the connection. The Semitic character of Lilith adopted many characteristics typical of Lilitu demons including associations with serpents and birds of prey. Furthermore, the Gilgamesh character fled to the desert when abandoned by the Anzu bird just as the Jewish Lilith left the Garden of Eden for the deserts. Aside from the alluding to the cultural origin of Lilith’s character the Bible provides us with little insight to one of the largest mythological characters in Jewish folklore. What the Bible does give us is a slight contradiction and it is upon this contradiction that the foundation for Lilith was laid. In Genesis 1:27 it is written “Male and Female He created them.” This implies a simultaneous creation of man and woman rather then the sequential account given in the stories of Adam and Eve. Because the Bible is God’s word and therefore infallible the rabbis interpreted this contradiction to allude to a more complex story: the story of Lilith . The story was developed and eventually recorded. It is within these unofficial texts that we have accounts of oral traditions and folklore that give us insight to the actual character of...
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