Some say Lilith was Adam’s first wife, and/or she was the serpent who tempted Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But that’s not what this essay is about.

I’ve had Lilith on my mind a lot lately. I think it started when I was listening to a Fat Feminist Witch episode in which the host, Paige, was talking about the Black Moon Lilith. In astrology, the Black Moon Lilith is an empty space between the Earth and the Moon’s apogee, and it’s feature that wasn’t well known when I was learning astrology more than 30 years ago. As I was reading about it, I was growing really annoyed at popular websites describing the Black Moon Lilith in purely sexual terms. Nothing wrong with sexuality, but I knew there had to be a lot more to Lilith than her reputation as a temptress or succubus (which was imposed on her by the storytellers of Abrahamic faiths in a smear campaign meant to encourage women to be more like obedient, submissive Eve).

Scratch at the surface of Lilith and a lot more emerges. She embodies a whole cornucopia of earlier myths, and branches out again into many later ones.

Early stories suggest that Lilith emerged as a “husk of evil” after God settled a fight between the Sun and Moon. The two bodies felt they were equals, but God decreed the Moon was the lesser of the two, and that it must derive its light from the Sun. At this point the Moon was also deemed feminine (it’s worth noting that in the Sumerian stories of Inanna, Inanna’s father is the Moon god, Nanna). This is probably the origin of the Black Moon Lilith in astrology.

Lilith is also connected to spirits of the night, to screech owls, to nuts and nut shells (King Solomon, digging in his nut garden, found a shell; its layers reminded him of the spirits, or lilim, that inspire sensual desire in human beings). It is said that after Lilith was banished from the Garden of Eden that God turned her into a female Leviathan (and then thought better of it, realizing that male Leviathan + female Leviathan = lots of baby Leviathans. That would be bad, so “he slew the female, reserving her flesh for the banquet that will be given to the righteous on the advent of the Messiah,” according to the Jewish midrash).

The association between Lilith and the ocean, or massive undersea beings, is rich indeed. Going back to Sumer again: in their cosmology, Nammu was the goddess of the sea, a divine creator who gave birth to the other gods, including Enki, to whom most of Nammu’s powers were later attributed. Nammu is the mythological foremother of the Babylonian Tiamat, also a sea-based creatrix who is sometimes described as a sea serpent. Marduk kills Tiamat and divides her; her ribcage becomes the sky and Earth; her tail becomes the Milky Way. There’s a good argument to be made here for the idea that the whole “men killing sea serpents” trope is an allegory for patriarchal religions taking over from matriarchal religions. The seas are also connected to the unknown, the unseen, the unconscious.

Marduk killing Tiamat. Michael slaying the dragon. Beowulf killing Grendel’s mother. Same as it ever was.

And that brings us back to sleep and nighttime. Frightening noises of the night are attributed to Lilith, who is not only linked to the screech owl but with the nightjar and other nightbirds whose calls keep humans from slumber. Lilith is sometimes depicted with an owl’s or bird’s feet. Some legends say that on the Day of Atonement, Lilith spends the entire day in a screeching battle with Mahalath, another female demon. And Lilith is blamed for all sorts of things human bodies naturally do, often at night, including lustful feelings and nocturnal emissions. If there were a goddess of insomnia, Lilith might be it.

Others say Lilith is associated not with the night but with wind or air; in Sumerian, “lil” meant air, Nin-lil was the goddess of the south wind.

One of the things I find most interesting about Lilith is that she is blamed for the deaths of infants. Throughout the Middle East, pregnant women and new mothers wore amulets to protect their babies from Lilith, and baby boys wore similar protections until they were circumcised. More specifically, Lilith was known to strangle babies (a quality later passed down to the Greek Lamia, a baby-killing goddess with a serpent’s tail — though it’s worth noting that she picked up the habit as revenge, after Hera killed all of Lamia’s children). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the modern explanation for this, but even then it’s only a half-explanation. Nobody knows what causes some babies to die in their sleep, though it may be due to defects in the portion of an infant’s brain that controls breathing and arousal from sleep.

I wonder, too, whether Lilith might instead be the psychopomp who helps the souls of babies find their way to the afterlife. Her presence at a baby’s deathbed makes her look like a culprit, but maybe she’s performing an important service instead.

These facets hint at roots in the Assyrian deities/demons Pazuzu and Lamashtu. Lamashtu was a hybrid creature with “a hairy body, a lioness’ head with donkey’s teeth and ears, long fingers and fingernails, and the feet of a bird with sharp talons.” She was known to kill children, babies and fetuses, harm mothers and expectant mothers, eat men and drink their blood, and disturb sleep, including bringing nightmares. Pazuzu, a god or demon in his own right, is best known in modern times as the demon in the Exorcist. In Assyrian times, he was associated with the southwesterly winds (there are those winds again), storms and drought — but he could be invoked to protect against Lamashtu.

An amulet to protect the wearer from Lilith. On display in the Israel Museum.

As a mother of a young girl, I read all of this with a kind of grim fascination — the process by which female power and equality was dismantled, the process by which female creativity and sexuality was made demonic; the process by which the tragedy of child and maternal death was blamed on these demons. There’s a thread in here, too, of post-partum depression and psychosis, which also went unexplained for millennia. And not all stories about children meeting grim fates are about women; there’s the Pied Piper, or the fairies who steal children and replace them with changelings — a phenomenon thought to be an early explanation for autism. The stuff of what happens to some babies and mothers and little children is scary, incomprehensible. It’s no wonder there are so many stories to make sense of it.

I feel the temptation to dust Lilith off, to brush away the awful things that have been said about her for the past couple-thousand years. But to do so is to separate her into those early, disparate pieces — Pazuzu and Lamashtu, Tiamat, Nammu, and the rest — whose origins go further back, so far back we cannot find them. Trying to hold all of Lilith’s threads, all of her roots and branches, in the mind is like trying to hold an armful of wriggling eels. She’s in the seas, the winds, the night sky, the moon. She’s in the mystery of mother and child when things go wrong. She’s in the darkness. She may be the darkness. As with many gods, our minds cannot really contain her.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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