We dunno what you've heard. You could have heard Lilith is a model for Oppressed Womanhood. You could have heard she's a succubus who gives men wet dreams. You could have heard that she's a demoness who murders babies. You could have heard that she's a goddess, the wife of Death.
On the one hand there are all these (and likely other) interpretations. On the other hand there are the legends themselves, which are also quite varied, from Jewish folklore. Let's start with a paraphrase of the most familiar legend, which dates to medieval times, from the controversial work known as the Alphabet of Ben Sirah, including a few of our own interjections:
When God created Adam, he was lonely, so God created Lilith from the same dust from which Adam was molded. But they quarrelled; Adam [the proverbial domineering male] wished to rule over Lilith. But Lilith [a militant feminist] was also proud and willful, claiming equality with Adam because she was created from the same dust. She left Adam and fled the Garden. God sent three angels in pursuit of Lilith. They caught
her and ordered her to return to Adam. She refused, and said that she would henceforth weaken and kill little children, infants and babes. The angels overpowered her, and she promised that if the mother hung an amulet over the baby bearing the names of the three angels, she would stay away from that home. So they let her go, and God created Eve to be Adam's mate [created from Adam's rib, so that she couldn't claim equality]. And ever since, Lilith
flies around the world, howling her hatred of mankind through the night, and vowing vengeance because of the shabby treatment she had received from Adam. She is also called "The Howling One."
You can see how this legend could lead to various interpretations, depending on whether you think she is noble (in rebelling against male domination) or evil (in vowing vengeance against innocent babies.)
But where does this legend come from? The author of Ben Sirah basically wove together three separate threads from centuries earlier works, because Lilith is a very ancient legend.
Let's start with the Bible as primary source material. Genesis of course mentions Adam and Eve, but -- please note -- doesn't mention Lilith. The idea of Lilith as a "prior first woman" before Eve arises much later. The only reference to Lilith in the Bible (Old or New Testaments) is Isaiah 34:14, probably written around 540 BC; it's a description of desolation, jackals and ravens among nettles and briers, etc.: "Goat demons shall greet each other; there
too the lilith will repose." Most of the other creatures referenced in this poetry cannot be positively identified. The KJV, following the Vulgate, translates "the lilith" as "the night demon," confusing the lili- with the Hebrew word for night. But presumably Isaiah meant some sort of demon.
The notion of a lilith as a demon is probably Assyrian (say around 700 BC), incorporated into Isaiah by way of the ancient Israelite contacts with the mythologies of Babylonia and Chaldea. The Assyrians had three female demons, Lilit, Lilu,and Ardat Lilit. There's little doubt that the Hebrew lilith-demon mentioned in Isaiah was a folkloric adaptation of the Assyrian demons.
Several hundred years after Isaiah, we find Talmudic writings that describe Lilith (now as a named demon, rather than a broad category) as an irresistibly seductive she-demon with long hair (presumably worn loose, a sure sign of wantonness) and wings. Terey wants us to be sure to say that she's a succubus. She seduces unwary men, then savagely kills the children she bears for them.
From this, she becomes the demon responsible for the death of babies. In ancient times, one needed to protect against such demons; today, we blame other factors for the death of infants. To guard against Lilith, superstitious Jews would hang four amulets, one on the wall of each room of a newborn babe, with the inscription "Lilith - abi!" ["Lilith - begone!"] which some think is the origin, much later, of the English word "lullaby."
OK, that's legend one: a she-demon who kills babies.
Legend two: early rabbinic writings about Adam and Eve. There are rabbinic midrashim, stories filling in the gaps in the text, that tell of Adam and Eve after they leave the garden. Adam is angry with Eve for causing so much trouble, so he leaves her, and is beset by demons (called "lilith"; the name is still a generic category of demon). A particular lilith called Penzai seduces Adam and becomes pregnant. Got it? So that legend associates a lilith
Legend three: an early midrash that puzzles about why Eve is created from a rib of Adam, why not created equally with him? The midrash suggests the creation of a prior "first woman" (unnamed) who doesn't work out as a fitting companion for Adam.
OK, so around a thousand years later (give or take a few centuries), the Alphabet of Ben Sira creates the story we started with, tying together all three legends, merging (1) Lilith the child-slaying night-demon story with (2) Penzai the lilith who seduces Adam with (3) the "prior first woman" story.
This mingling of legends provided a good Jewish context for the ancient custom of making the Lilith amulets (thus exonerating the custom from the taint of superstition or witchcraft.) That's why the legend of Lilith as Adam's first wife doesn't emerge until medieval times, although the strands of the story are much earlier.
The Zohar, the great book of Jewish mysticism from the 12th Century, adds yet another dimension. The Zohar generally doesn't mention Lilith by name, but refers to her as the wife of Samael, the Angel of Death ... and sometimes as the wife of Satan. She sleeps with men, causing wet dreams, and she collects semen from the marriage bed. (Flowing semen is a symbol of life, the white fluid, contrasted with flowing blood as a symbol of death, the red fluid,
so the demoness who kills children collecting semen is symbolically very neat.)
So that's the legend(s) and their origin(s). A little confusing, but demonology is not an exact science.
Now, a brief footnote in Modern Times. You can imagine that modern feminists would latch on to the rabbinic story of punishment for resisting male domination, and use Lilith as a symbol. It's a two-edged symbol, of course, since Lilith as a demon who destroys newborns pre-dates the medieval explanation of Lilith as a rebellious wife. However, the modern use of Lilith as a symbol of oppressed womanhood is quite strong.
For tons more information, check out http:/www.lilitu.com/lilith/
A warning, though: because Lilith is used a modern symbol, some websites have distorted the legends to meet their political agendas. That's OK, we're not quibbling with that, that's one of the reasons that legends and mythologies persist is that they can grow and develop. We're just saying, be careful to separate modern interpretations from earlier historic ones.
--SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Terey, with an assist from RvkhMccabi
Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Author: SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Terey, with an assist from RvkhMccabi, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Source: The Straight Dope