The Myth of Lilith: Medieval Jewish Folklore & Women

Adam, Eve, and Lilith

Adam, Eve, and Lilith

Most people know the story of Adam and Eve, however, not as many are familiar with the story of Adam and Lilith.  This medieval Jewish folklore presents and interesting view of the relationship between women and men that has extended into the modern world.

Lilith is a Jewish mythological creature who has her origins in Babylonian texts.  This figure in found throughout many writings and traditions, however, I would like to focus on the Jewish folklore that developed in the Middle Ages surrounding Lilith.

In this folklore, Lilith is the first wife of Adam.  Jewish rabbi’s interpreted the two creation accounts as two different stories: one in which a women was created at the same time as Adam and another in which a women is created from the rib of Adam.  Lilith is the wife of the first creation account and  is created from the same earth as Adam, unlike Eve, the wife of the second creation account who would be created from one of Adam’s ribs.

The relationship between the two is turbulent as Adam expects Lilith to be subservient while Lilith, who is equal to him because of their common origin, refuses to do so.  She does not want to be on the bottom during sex nor does she want to perform the wifely duties that Adam assigns to her.  Because of this Lilith ultimately leaves the Garden of Eden and gains her independence from Adam.  Angels are sent to retrieve Lilith but she refuses and does not return to the garden but instead produces many children outside of the garden.  With his first wife gone, Adam is given Eve who is seemingly more obedient and willing to be subservient than Lilith.  Poor Adam, we all know that that marriage didn’t exactly turn out well for him either.

The character of Lilith is very interesting.  She is depicted as a dark mythological creature who is a symbol of both sexuality and fertility but is also willing to kill her own children with little thought.  She is thought to be very promiscuous and to prey upon the sons and daughters of Adam.  Though an avid fan of the Chronicles of Narnia as a child, I never recognized the influence of Lilith in them.  In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis associated the White Witch as the daughter of Lilith who sets out to kill the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.  It is very interesting that Lilith is depicted as a demon and considered by some to be the Queen or mother of demons.  This is very telling of what people thought of sexual and independent women.

Sculpture by Kiki Smith at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Lilith, 1994, bronze and glass,

Sculpture by Kiki Smith at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Lilith, 1994, bronze and glass,

Some believe that this folklore was written as a spoof on the sacred texts, however, it has been revived by many feminists and different groups throughout history as a symbol of the struggle between the sexes, patriarchy, and with Lilith as an example of a strong women who is in touch with her sexuality and independence.  She has been depicted in art, poetry, and literature and even has become a character in video games.

Before stumbling upon this character of Lilith, I had never really known anything about her and the folklore surrounding her.  I find this story and the interpretations of it to be very interesting in regards to Christian theology, commentary on Sacred Scriptures, and the attempt to understand the relationship between men and women that has lasted throughout all of human history.





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