Myth Monday: Lilith, Mother of Vampires
Myth Monday: Lilith, Mother of Vampires
The Burney Relief: Babylonian relief 1800-1750 BC. Commonly thought to depict Lilith, now believed to be Inanna.
Beautiful, with midnight black hair and clawed owl’s feet, the winged goddess/demoness and thought to be the first-ever vampire Lilith, called the Queen of the Night, has existed in our mythologies and fears since the dawn of civilization. She is a character with a long and murky history, likely beginning her mythological life in Sumeria as a nighttime spirit or class of spirits (I guess “Lilith” was like “moose”--could be singular or plural) frequently associated with screech owls, which in many societies were thought to drink blood. Also known as Lilu, Lilitu, Lillu, Lilake, Ardat Lili and Ardu Lili, she is one of the oldest and most feared entities in mythology, and likely influenced other vampiric creatures such as the Greek vampire-dragon Lamia and her offspring the Lamai.
But where did Lilith herself come from, exactly?
The earliest recorded mention of Lilith comes from a kind-of backstory prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh (which, coincidentally, also has one of the earliest known mentions of zombies.) The Sumerian goddess of love and war Inanna had planted a huluppu tree in her garden, planning to cut it down and turn it into a new throne once it matured. Ten years later, Inanna goes to cut it down and is surprised to find a serpent living around its base, a zu bird (a divine storm-bird described as either an eagle with a lion’s head or a half-man, half-eagle creature) and its babies nesting in the branches, and a ki-sikil-lil-la-ke (“Lilake” or “Lilith”, linked to screech owl,) living in the tree’s trunk. When Gilgamesh arrives to slay the serpent, the ki-sikil-lil-la-ke decides not to take her chances and flees. In another part of the epic, a Lilith spirit appears in the form of a harlot who fled from her home near the Euphrates River and settled in the desert but was unable to have children or produce milk. Her inability to become a mother frustrates and angers her, and thus she retaliates by attacking pregnant women and children.
Later, Lilith was thought to be an attendant of Inanna and was a nymph-like spirit of storms, as well as a spirit of sacred prostitution (priestesses of Inanna and Ishtar—and other ancient goddesses of love and sex—often worshiped their patron goddess by enacting hieros gamos, a rite where they would become an avatar of the goddess and have sex with a devotee, such as a king, to bestow fertility on the land, on the person/people, or to bestow authority onto a leader.) Eventually, she evolved from one of a class of occasionally malicious nature spirits into a goddess-like creature who ruled the night and lived in the uninhabitable parts of the desert. Lilith may have been derived from an obscure fertility goddess in her own right, as she features a duality found in many major goddesses: a Creator aspect (a sexual being that creates life) and a Destroyer aspect (the dark side of a female deity that causes death and destruction, i.e. Hathor/Sekhmet, Devi/Kali, Aphrodite/Anosia, Athena/Gorgon (Medusa), Demeter/Keres, etc.)
According to the Talmud, early Hebraic lore, and The Alphabet of Ben Sira (a medieval text thought by some to be in actuality a satirical story and not meant to be taken as doctrine), Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Both Adam and Lilith were created at the same time out of the same dirt but as separate entities. Yahweh intended for them to be partners, but almost immediately Adam and Lilith began to argue about—what else—sex. Adam believed that he was the superior human and wanted Lilith to be subservient and on the bottom during sex. Lilith said that this arrangement wasn’t fair because they were created equally, and therefore should take turns. Adam wasn’t having any of it, so, in fury, Lilith called upon the secret name of Yahweh (echoing the myth of the Egyptian goddess Isis using the secret name of Ra, the king of the gods) and was filled with magic powers. She fled the Garden of Eden, flying out over the deserts and finding a cave near the Red Sea. Settling there, Lilith was visited by many spirits and demons—among them the Angel of Death, the Archangel Samael—and became the mother to a hoard of demons called the lilim, giving birth to one hundred of them every day (in Islamic lore, she became the mother of the djinn, or “genies.”)
While Lilith was gone, Adam complained to Yahweh about how lonely he was and how he wanted Lilith back. Yahweh agreed that man should not be alone and sent three angels named Sevoy, Sansevoy and Semangelof to bring her back. The three angels approached Lilith in her cave and told her that she had to go back to Adam. She refused. The angels threatened to drown her in the Red Sea but Lilith scoffed at them. The angels then bound her in chains and tried to drag her out, but by now Lilith had grown powerful and resisted. The angels then threatened to kill one hundred of her children every day that she did not return to Adam, and the enraged Lilith vowed to kill one hundred human children every day in retaliation for the deaths of her own (I know, I know, the human race wasn’t supposed to be around then, just go with it) by drinking their blood, one of the absolute worst sins against Mosaic Law.
Eventually, Lilith and the angels worked out an agreement: she wouldn’t have to go back to Adam, but the three angels would kill one hundred of her children every day. Lilith laid claim over the lives of infants and could take whatever she wanted, so long as the babies weren’t protected by amulets bearing the names of the three angels.
Lilith by John Collier
The angels departed, but Lilith’s hatred of Adam was apparently rekindled. According to some versions, after Lilith discovered that Yahweh had created Eve, Lilith snuck into the Garden of Eden disguised as a four-legged snake and convinced Eve that it was all right to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, Eve and Adam were kicked out of Eden (and the innocent snake was blamed and had its legs removed as punishment), and as they wandered the desert wastes, Lilith and her demon children stalked them wherever they went. After their son Cain killed his brother Abel, Adam abandoned Eve and went out into the desert to fast for 130 years in atonement. While there, Adam was visited by the still beautiful Lilith and fathered a new race of demons on her. Immortal, she continues to plague humanity, and in the Bible, the prophet Isaiah warns that when the Apocalypse comes and the land is made barren, Lilith will be present: “And there Lilith (night demon) will settle/And find herself a place of rest.” (Isaiah 34:14)
Sundenfall by Hugo van der Goes
Okay, so you’re probably wondering how this all ties Lilith in with being the mother of all vampires. You see, in ancient societies, a “vampire,” or whatever term they preferred to use to describe such creatures (i.e. Lilith) was an entity that stole vital life force out of an otherwise healthy human being. It could be blood, youth, health, fertility, souls or even semen, and Lilith was believed to seek out all of these. She was thought to drink the blood of infants who were not protected by the three angels’ names, and those that laughed in their sleep were said to be dreaming of playing with Lilith and were at risk of having their souls stolen away. Because she was angry that so many of her own demon children were killed, Lilith stole away women’s fertility, caused miscarriages, and lurked in the room to cause difficulties in childbirth (midwives countered this by drawing a magic circle around the laboring mother and calling on the names of the three angels). At night Lilith would sneak into the rooms of sleeping men, drink their blood and have sex with them (the beginning of the succubus & incubus myths), stealing their semen away, and would sometimes watch couples having sex in order to steal any spilled semen. A man who woke up and found that he had a nocturnal emission (a polite way of saying “wet dream”) would quickly say a prayer that would keep any children he fathered on Lilith from turning into demons. Men were advised to not sleep alone or to write, “Adam and Eve may enter here but not Lilith the Queen” on the walls or door of his bedroom. An exorcism could be performed to drive Lilith out of the house (and interestingly, was presented like a writ of divorce), and clay “demon bowls” with inscriptions guarding against her would be placed inverted-side down beneath a house.
For centuries Lilith remained threatening but was largely unknown outside of the Middle East. Things changed in the Dark Ages; a renewed fear of Lilith sprang up amongst European Christian and Judaic leaders and scholars. Christians believed that Lilith married the Devil or one of his generals and was worshiped by witches, was often identified as one of the prostitutes arguing over a child before King Solomon and as the Queen of Sheba. The Hassidic text The Zohar first appeared in Spain around the 13th century, and both spread and convoluted the myth of Lilith further, stating among other things that she drank the blood of children who were born out of “improper martial relations”--that is, a child conceived in a sexual position other than missionary, which is exactly opposite what the original myth stated. This version of Lilith was strongly believed in by Orthodox Jews up to the 19th century, and even now elements of that belief exist in modern times.
Nowadays, Lilith has become more of a popular fictional character in novels, movies and TV shows, though some occultists worship her as the first woman and a source of divine female power, and many see her as a victim of ancient civilization’s shift from sexual equality to all-out patriarchy, turning a goddess into a demon. But the only one who knows the truth may be Lilith herself … her vampiric spirit is rumored to still inhabit the ruins of Babylon.
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti