Lilith - The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods

Earth’s first woman was a witch. And no, we’re not talking about Eve, although the Inquisition laid some aspersions at her door, too. According to Jewish mystical traditions, another woman existed prior to Eve; her name is Lilith and she initiated Earth’s first divorce, preferring to run away and dance all night with demons in the most desolate regions of Earth to living in Para-dise with someone who wished to dominate her.

No spirit possesses a more fabulous history than Lilith. She remains very vital and alive, feared and adored. Spirit of darkness, night, and feminine independence, Lilith is associated with witches, angels, Djinn, demons, and vampires.

Lilith is a bird woman with powerful associations with cats. Her Hebrew name means “screech owl,” which is cognate with strix or strega. “Lilith” is also related to the Semitic root word for “night.”

Lilith’s earliest incarnation seems to have been as a wind spirit from Mesopotamia associated with childbirth. The Burney Plaque, dating from a late period of Sumerian art (c.2300 BCE) is believed to portray Lilith: it depicts a beautiful winged woman, flanked by large owls, naked but for her horned cap. She stands atop two lions on her bird’s feet. She holds the ring and rod of power in her hands. The plaque was discovered in what appeared to be a personal shrine.

According to her numerous legends, Lilith possesses many forms, appearing as an old hag or a beautiful young woman. Sometimes she is a beautiful woman from head to waist, pure flame underneath. Sometimes she is a snake from the waist down. Often dressed in red, Lilith’s long hair is alternately described as black or red. It tends to be distinctive, either because it is beautiful, or because it is wildly disheveled, or both. In cultures where women bind or hide their hair, Lilith’s is defiantly loose.

She manifests in animal form too, usually as a large black cat, an owl or snake. Even when in apparently human form, Lilith often displays aspects of a bird: feet, claws or wings. Helen of Troy and the Queen of Sheba are reputedly among her avatars.

Lilith may also have early roots as a tree spirit. In any form, she cannot be tamed. In the Sumerian myth The Huluppu Tree, “Dark Maid Lilith” lives in the sacred tree together with a snake and a sacred bird. When the formerly wild goddess Inanna makes the transition to an urban, settled, agricultural environment, she chops down the sacred tree Lilith calls home. Lilith flees, remaining a spirit of the wilderness.

Traveling westward, Jewish legend identifies Lilith as Adam’s first wife, the true first female, created not later from Adam’s rib but from Earth simultaneously with him. (And Genesis does contain two versions of human creation.)

Adam and Lilith’s relationship quickly became contentious. She refused to be subordinate—specifically refusing to always lie beneath him during sex. Lilith demanded to be treated as an equal, basing her claim on their common origin.

When Adam attempted to force her, Lilith uttered the secret, ineffable name of the Creator, giving her the ability to fly away. (In myth, only Isis also knows this Name of Power.) Adam appealed to YHWH to send his woman back. Three angels were dispatched to fetch her but through the power acquired from knowledge of the Creator’s name, Lilith was able to defy them.

The angels threatened her but Lilith threatened them right back, warning that she intended to spend eternity killing human babies and striking adults infertile. Instead of dragging her back to Eden, the angels end up negotiating with Lilith: she agrees not to harm babies in homes where her name is posted. Significantly her name does not appear in the Bible (the one possible reference to her in the Book of Isaiah is encoded; it may refer literally to screech owls); however, its presence is ubiquitous in Jewish amulets.

According to some legends, Lilith is infertile herself and burns with rage, hence her resentment of human mothers. In other legends, Lilith is the mother of a host of demons, the Lilin or Daughters of Lilith. Their father may be the fallen angel Samael or the dangerous spirit Asmodeus, both eventually identified with the devil. On the other hand, their father may be Adam, who allegedly reunited with Lilith after his expulsion from Eden. Another legend suggests that Lilith is the original succubus: she secretly seduces men while they sleep, their nocturnal secretions become her children.

Christian legend would ultimately claim that the snake in the Garden of Eden was Lilith in disguise, spitefully returning to take revenge upon Adam and her replacement. Some now feel that perhaps she was attempting to share her knowledge with her sister.

Sacred Creatures: All wild animals but especially jackals, hyenas, wild cats, ostriches, snakes, and unicorns. The owl is her sacred bird and messenger

Element: Lilith has all the bases covered, having associations with air, water, earth, and fire

Planet: The Moon. Her strength increases with the waning of the moon

Time: Solstices, equinoxes, and during the astrological sign of Scorpio

Although she is known throughout Semitic areas, it is in Jewish folklore that Lilith survives strongest. Lilith is a major player in Jewish fairy tales where, just as in Sumeria, she is still found living within trees. She retains her goddess-like features although whether she is a dangerous benefactor or a sometimes-benevolent demon is subject to interpretation.

Among Sephardic Jews, La Broosha (“the witch”) is a euphemism for Lilith. Here she usually manifests as a large, black cat, which may account for the irrational fear that cats will suck a baby’s breath out of its body.

Lilith continues to weave her spell: she is invoked in modern works of fiction more than any other witch-spirit, from the Victorian novels of Marie Corelli to comic books like Vampirella. Feminists have adopted her as a role model, as have witches, Neo-Pagans and Jewish-Pagans.

See also Aradia, Herodias; ANIMALS: Cats, Owls, Snakes; CREATIVE ARTS: Comics: Vampirella; DICTIONARY: Bruja; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Keshalyi.