The Origins of Lilith: Jewish or Not?
When you grow up familiar with a concept, you take for granted things that others do not. I took for granted the knowledge that Lilith, first wife of Adam, originated within Judaism.
I made a video on the topic, stating that Lilith did not appear in Christianity until 1966 when the Latin bible was translated and the Greek "Lamia" became Lilith. I also referenced Goethe, a German author, who became fascinated with non-Christian religions and Jewish mythology in the 1800s. His works popularized Lilith and she then became the subject of popular media.
I also reminded folks that Judaism is a closed (or semi-closed, depending on who you ask, because like literally everything in Judaism, we will argue over the details) religion. Our beliefs, practices & yes, folklore, are specific to us, and to practice, you must be Jewish.
To no one's surprise, people were not pleased. I was surprised, however, that the witchcraft community took no issue with perpetuating anti-semitic rhetoric and tropes, as well as outright threatening Jews, in the comments.
In conversation with someone who claimed that Lilith is not solely part of Judaism, I ended up reading everything I could on the subject that I already felt so comfortable with. Unfortunately, the books I read growing up are not part of my own collection, so I put together a document with accessible sources so that when this came up again, I would be prepared. As a bonus, I love researching and learning and even found myself translating a document from Italian to see what that person had to say on the matter.
After all that research, here is my conclusion regarding the origins of Lilith. For a comprehensive overview of her, I recommend this article by Spiritroots.
Proto-Semitic was most likely a root language spoken from around the 4th Millenium BC in the modern-day Middle East. Semitic languages stemmed from this early proto-Semitic. Akkadian, which is the main language that Lilû, lilitû, and ardat lilî (a class of demons) are found to have stemmed from the proto-Semitic language. The proto-Semitic connection is what people are referringing to when mentioning the connection between Lilith and Lilû/lilitû, and ardat lilî.
Lilith in Gilgamesh
People cite the fact that Lilith was found within the Epic of Gilgamesh, but is that actually true? Well, kind of. Lilith does not appear within the Legend of Gilgamesh but within the later Sumerian tablet Gilgamesh and the Netherworld, which goes by a few other names, such as Inanna and the Huluppu Tree. The most popular translation,, which contains Lilith, was done by a man named Samuel Noach Kramer.
Kramer was Jewish, coming to America in 1906 after the pogroms against Jews in Ukraine. In his work, In Search of Sumer, Kramer states that their life in America was a “somewhat Jewish tinted and tainted” version of the American Dream (1). Kramer translates “ki-sikil-lil-la-ke” to Lilith with the footnote that “The -la in A is certainly an error for -li in this case” (2). Others have disputed the translation citing the lack of evidence as well as more commonly recognized translations of each part. Ki: meaning “earth; place; area; location; ground; grain,” Sikil: “to be/make clean, pure,” lil: “wind; breath; infection; spirit (of a place); back or open country,” la: “to penetrate, pierce, force a way into (in order to see); to know; to look after; to have a beard” (3). Others still suggest that the translation should actually just be "owl."
Eventually, we stumble back to the issue of translation and the realization that while there are demons in those mythologies, we don’t have any information untainted by the already popularized image of Lilith, the first wife of Adam.
Kramer was Jewish. He spoke Yiddish and translated Jewish texts in Yiddish, and upon arrival in the U.S, his father set up and taught a Hebrew school. It is understood that someone that familiarity with Judaism would know Lilith from Jewish folktales and texts. When coming across a figure that reminded him of one that he was already familiar with (Lilith), it is entirely possible that Kramer translated it accordingly. His translation is not without debate and questioning from other scholars.
Sergio Ribbicini, an Italian scholar adds that, “the presence of such a reference in the Sumerian myth, being isolated and inserted in a context that is outside of the original, poses historical, literary, and religious problems, highlighted in the structure of the story, which is significantly different than other moments and historical processes. All of this should be examined in a more detailed study of the myth and its characters, and under another perspective". This is a rough translation from the original Italian linked below. (4)
Image from Wikipedia // Burney Relief
Next, we address the Burney Relief. A tablet that first surfaced in 1924 is often cited in regards to Lilith. It is believed to have been created in the 18th or 19th century, BC. The tablet, which features a winged woman surrounded by animals, has been up for debate in its authenticity since it was first made public. One reason was that it has no official provenance. However, similar works were found in Ur, but other possible sites include Nippur and Isin. Though, as mentioned by Obitz, There is also much debate regarding the figure's identity depicted there. There are 3 main associations: Inanna (Ishtar), Lilith, and Ereshkigal.
“Further, Lilith comes from the Hebrew tradition, not the Mesopotamian, and corresponds only to the Mesopotamian female demons known as lilitu. The lilitu and the so-called ardat lili demons were especially dangerous to men whom they would seduce and destroy. The male demons of this sort, the lilu, preyed on women and were an especial threat to those who were pregnant or had just given birth and also to infants.
Even so, the possibility that the Queen of the Night plaque, with its high degree of skill in craftsmanship and attention to detail would be a representation of a lilitu is highly unlikely. According to the Hebrew tradition, Lilith was the first woman made by God who refused to submit to Adam’s sexual demands and flew away, thus rebelling against God and his human beings' plans. She was thought to have then occupied the wastelands and, like the lilitu, to have preyed on unsuspecting men ever since. In either tradition, the lilitu was not a popular enough figure to have been portrayed on a plaque such as the Queen of the Night." (5)
“The deity portrayed on the Burney Relief has been the subject of fierce scholarly debate for over 50 years. During the 20th century, a number of scholars suggested that she was none other than the baby-stealing demon “Lilitu” known in the Torah and the Bible as “Lilith.” However, in light of recent research, this theory appears to be extremely unlikely and has largely been discredited, leading her true identity narrowed down to one of two goddesses, Ishtar [Innanna] or Ereshkigal. Ishtar was a Babylonian goddess associated with a number of aspects of life including love, sex, beauty, lust, fertility, war, and the pursuit of political power. Ereshkigal was Ishtar’s elder sister of Ishtar and the goddess of “Kur,” the Mesopotamian underworld.” (6)
It is important to note that Kraeling, who identified the possibility that the character is Lilith, did so based on Kramer’s translation. Obitz and E. Douglas Van Buren discuss here the authenticity of the relief in its entirety, it’s relation to other Sumerian finds from the time, as well as the translated 12th text of Gilgamesh. (7)
In more modern articles, this idea is often described as having been debunked, with researchers focusing solely on Ereshkigal or Ishtar.
Lilitu vs Lilith
Lilû, lilitû, and ardat lilî were a type of demon, not a singular entity. The names refer to their male and female counterparts. There is some debate of the difference between lilitû and ardat lilî, because the word “ardatu” references women of marrying age. While some researchers have drawn their own conclusions, there is only guesswork like most debate on this subject. It is commonly understood that these were demons of the night/the wind. The Sumerian word “lil” is debated in its meaning as it has multiple definitions: “air, sky”, imbecile, “an entity inhabiting a particular area, usually referred to as the “Nature Spirit”, “Earth Spirit”, and “Spirit of the Place”; while LILE is generally understood to mean “the night”. Even here, Lilith refers specifically to Adam’s first wife by name, rather than a demon of Sumerian origin. It is important to note that this work was published in 2014 and is, therefore, using the same translation from Kramer to identify Lilith within Sumerian works. (8)
There is a deep lack of information specifically denoted to the Lilû, lilitû, and ardat lilî, as when Sumerian texts naming them were discovered, Lilith was already well known. Those who cite Lilith as Lilitu refer back to the Burney Reliefs and Kramer’s translation. This begs the question: are the lilu from the mythology actually the same, or are modern scholars, based on Kramer’s translation, using the name Lilith due to their own familiarity with her mythology from Judaism?
Again, the Lilitu were a type of female demon, while Lilith (though she is the mother of Lilin) is referred to in the class of Liliyot, meaning female demons of the night, is a singular figure.
When people refer to Lilith, they are, in nearly all cases, not referring to a type of Sumerian demon discovered in the 1900s, but rather the figure that they are familiar with which stems from Jewish folklore. (9)
Was Lilith a Lilitu that gained notoriety?
Figures by different names
Do similar stories, names, or attributes mean that a figure is the same? Are Ra and Helios the same? Shamash and Akycha? Johonaa’ei and Tōnatiuh? These are all solar deities and have similar attributes, themes, and at times, stories. While there are clear lines between the Greek and Roman pantheons' deities, when we don’t have definitive proof of connection between deities, what else is left?
If it is not their stories and names, what is a figure? And when it comes to working with such an entity/figure/deity/etc, who are we to say that their individual mythos are in fact not theirs?
I could go on researching until the world ends, but I find that my research leads me back to the very same question. Do similar stories, names, or attributes mean that a figure is the same?
Because (and now we head directly into opinions rather than sourceable material), I don’t believe so. Unlike the Greek/Roman pantheon, who are confirmed to be the same with small changes made to reflect the era in which they were most fervently worshipped, names and the stories attached to those names are what set them apart.
Entertaining the idea that Lilith is just another form of the same daemon, her story in relation to my beliefs would still be of the utmost importance. Who she is and who she presents to me as is contingent upon my knowledge and belief. Just as we react to humans in our lives based on preconceived notions and our personal beliefs about humanity as a whole, so do we react to daemons/entities/deities. The idea that we, as humans, are above the basic belief systems that we have in place, some as ingrained as our deepest, most sacredly held beliefs, is, in my opinion, untrue.
To quote a Pagan friend,
“The story behind the entity is what makes the entity and you can’t discount any origin based on similarity. Even if the story seems to be the same it does not mean it reverts to the same entity. Humanity constantly creates similar or the same ideas completely separately from each other. Especially looking at scientific innovation, which arguably, depending on individual belief in the truth behind the stories, is exactly the same. People separately discovering the same thing simultaneously. Or people separately discovering different things that have similarities but are not the same. Or different people discovering completely different things but naming them similarly (this especially when those people speak different languages). Time then muddles all of that up as humans move and share what they know and learn. Therefore, the stories must be taken at face value as belonging to the people who wrote/told them. And the entries referred to in the story are then that entity regardless of similarity to other entities.”
Furthermore, in the specific context of the Lilitu, Lilith is a singular figure. Her identity is singular, rather than as a denotation of a class of demons.
Not all people, even witches, are well versed in her history, but merely know of her as an empowering feminist “icon” through pop culture like Lilith fair, or as a lusty woman through the works of later authors and artists (like Faust and Goethe). Many witches, especially young ones, give name to those who appear to them, but have no idea whether or not that is who they are actually working with. Jewish witches, especially non-Ashkenazi ones, remain extremely wary of the idea of working with Lilith, as she is not one to be called upon lightly. To quote a friend on this, “Lilith is notoriously hard to reach. Like she genuinely does not give a sh*t. You can’t appeal to her ego, you can’t butter her up, you can’t beg.”
My conclusion: there are possible ties to the Lilu demons found within Sumerian history, but as all sources of the name Lilith lead back to a translation by a Jewish man that is questioned in regards to his translation, and the story attached to Lilith originates within Judaism, my initial assertion that Lilith is a Jewish entity remains the same.
Want to read the sources for yourself?
1. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
Vol. 138, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 170-173 (4 pages)
9. The Mythology of Judaism, Howard Schwartz, pp. 464.