If matriarchal feminists reread the Bible they can find it a source of fascinating information and inspiration about our powerful foremothers and the Goddesses they worshipped. It also records their put-down, Goddesses and women alike. In this it is similar to other sacred writings of various religions, i.e. the Ramayana, the Rigveda, and many African religious myths. Lilith is one example of the process.
"The land shall become burning pitch Thorns shall grow over its strongholds It shall be the haunt of jackals yea there shall the night hag alight and find for herself a resting place." Isaiah 34. 8-14
Who is this "night hag"? What is she
doing in the biblical Book of Isaiah? The verses describe a state of desolation, due, in the context, to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. God is angry both at the destruction of the place and the exile of the people from it; the verses are also supposed to reflect that this desolation is brought on themselves by people who worshipped other deities. We know that this part of the Bible was written by the scribes in exile at that time and put together later, as an object lesson in what happens to those (many,) people who did not adhere to the patriarchal monotheism that was the religion of the ruling classes.
The word in Hebrew which is translated by (night) hag is Lilith. It is the only time in the bible that the word Lilith appears. The translation night hag comes from Revised Standard Version (reasonably modern and said to be very accurate). The more familiar King James Bible (authorised version) translates Lilith as "screech owl". A look at other Bible translations shows that New English Bible (NEB) gives night-jar. The Revised Version (RV) of 1881 uses night monster; the Latin Vulgate of the 4th century CE from which most Christian translations stem says Lamia - who are the Hellenistic "dirty goddesses'. Moffat (American) produces "vampires" (plural), French bible calls Lilith "le spectre de la nuit" (ghost of the night), and German Lutheran translates her as der Kobold - masculine - a sprite or goblin.
None of them give her real name, Lilith. Perhaps they are afraid to use it. The patriarchal world turned Lilith into a monster, strangling new born babies and sucking their blood; a demoness howling in the desert and in the night, making men impotent, (where have we heard that before?), causing cattle to die and generally being the personification of evil. In medieval times, the christian church called her Mother of the Witches, and projected on to women all these feared so-called attributes of Lilith. Christians united with Jews and Moslems in their fear of her.
Here is a charm against Lilith as a 'Striga', a witch, dated 1531 G.E.
Black Striga, black and black
There is a linguistic connection in Hebrew between Striga and hystera - womb. This speaks for itself!
The question comes up: since Lilith is only referred to once, in Hebrew, in the Bible, why all this fear of her, why this emphasis on her demonic character? I want to say that in studying our mother Lilith, I see in what happened to her an exact parallel with what has happened to us women in patriarchy. We have several sources of information about Lilith: the archaeological records and pictures from the Ancient Near East; Jewish rabbinical and medieval literature as well as the Cabalistic writings; an Arabic pool of Lilith legends; many Christian church references, mainly connected with the persecution of the witches.
Yet the secret of Lilith is revealed for me, right at the beginning - it is in her name. All the rest flows from that. The various translations help us to deduce what is being hidden from us, while the misogynistic stories are designed to put her down - literally - into the worst and furthest place the male mind can dream up. Lilith is connected with two root words - Layil, Hebrew for night, and Lil, Sumerian (c. 3000 BCE) for wind or breath. Traditionally, until the information from Sumer came to light, Lilith was always derived from "night", but today scholars insist that it is more correct to use Lil. This Sumerian word meant breath, or spirit, and was borrowed by the Babylonians for the same use, becoming lillitu. One of their chief deities, En-Lil is Lord of the Lilim, a host of ghostly spirits flying around.
I suggest that Lilith is the first and original "breath of life". In the Bible (Gen. 2:7) God breathes the breath of life into the human being formed of dust, and this being "became a living soul". Words in many languages which double as wind and spirit indicate the creation process, the turning of inanimate matter into animate (anemos is Greek for wind). Another Greek word for both wind and spirit is pneuma, used impartially for air - as in pneumatic - or in a philosophical sense as breath, spirit, or soul. The Biblical Hebrew "ruach" is used both as the spirit of God and a mighty wind (Gen. 1:2 & 1 Kings 19:11).
So I believe her to be the Lady of the Air, of the living breath, that gives life to us all. It seems to me, reading from her records and her symbols, that she is also an early Wisdom Goddess, also responsible for creation and for outer and inner knowledge. Lady of the Air is Lady of Knowledge. I look to some legends for this information, the first from Sumer, then from early Judaism, and lastly from Arabic literature In addition, there is a relief of her, from Northern Syria, dated about 2000 BCE which tells us a great deal.
The Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic includes the story of the hero Gilgamesh and the Huluppu tree. In this legend we already see some patriarchal influence, where the goddess Inanna insists on a throne being made for her from this special tree (it may have been a willow) and the hero is eager to cut it down in order to do this. But in the tree are three beings - a bird at the crown, a "snake who knows no charm" at the base, and in the centre, Lilith had built herself a house. She is called a "desolate maid". When Gilgamesh chops down the tree, all these beings leave it, and Lilith flies off to the desert.
The Jewish legends have been the subject of intense inspiration to feminists. In the beginning, (though not in the Bible) Lilith (female) and Adam (a man) are made from the same and equal dust. They engage in sexual intercourse but Lilith objects to the missionary position, saying "I am made of the same earth, why should I be treated as inferior?" She escapes from Adam by uttering the magic name of god and flies away to the desert. God sends three angels to bring her back but she refuses. So, in her place Eve is made from Adam's rib to be subordinate to him forever. In both legends, Lilith flies off to the desert where she is free Note that Lilith knows the magic name of god (which is hidden from Adam), and God cannot compel her, but can only ask, and she can refuse - and does so.
Arabic legends show Alilat (a form of Lilith) as the daughter of Allah and Goddess of the night, and her symbol is an owl. She is also recorded as Mother of the Queen of Sheba, who is so wise she can even test the Master of Wisdom - Solomon - with riddles, and win. A relief inscribed with her name has been found in Northern Syria, and dates to about 2000 BCE. It shows a beautiful naked woman with bird's legs and talons, huge wings and a crown; she is attended by two owls, and stands on two lions (possibly lionesses). The symbols that come with Lilith as well as the translations in the bible tell a story that has to be connected with Wisdom. The owl universally is a wisdom bird; Alilat has been identified with Athena, ancient Wisdom Goddess; she is also of the night, as is the owl and it is in the dark of the womb and the earth that all nature germinates; and in the dark of the mind, ideas are born, before they spring into the light.
The snake in the huluppu tree reminds us of the snake in the garden of Eden; there the serpent was coiled round the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; scholars remind us that this was not moral knowledge - it was knowledge of magic in its different forms.
We may also ask ourselves, from the Jewish legend, how did Lilith and not Adam - know the magic name of god? I suggest it is because she is the original Wisdom Goddess who was with god from the beginning (Prov. 8.22) She was the creation principle with him "When he established the heavens I was there". She is the serpent of Wisdom who offers to her sister Eve her own knowledge. Both are punished by the patriarchy for their innate power.
But wisdom comes through again later Though not called Lilith, but by the Hebrew word for Wisdom, Hochma, she appears in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon (c. 200 BCE) "Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself she renews all things... she reaches mightily from one end of the world to the other, and she orders all things well (Book of Wisdom of Solomon, 7:27 8:1) In Chapter 10 of the same book, Wisdom is credited with "protecting the first formed father of the world" and with the saving of the world from its own stupidities.
The statement of her reaching mightily from one end of the world to the other recalls her tremendous wings. She is spirit of the wind and of the air, Lady of Knowledge and Wisdom. In Jewish lore, the Shekinah the female divine presence over the ark of god also has huge far-reaching wings. Later, Hochma becomes the Greek Sophia, Lady of wisdom, and in the Gnostic picture, the creatrix, while to many of the early Christians she was pneuma - the Holy Spirit.
A legend from the Mandean Gnostics reveals that Lilith knows 'the secrets of darkness and light, and unites heaven and hell'. Her aspect is that of Wisdom.
Although history downgraded and poisoned her, occasionally someone calls on the older myths and begins to reinstate her. The Cabalistic Zohar texts say "she has dominion over all instinctual natural beings over every living being that creepeth". Some Cabalists went further: "Lilith is a ladder on which one can ascend to the rungs of prophecy," says one; he makes the connection with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Another document sees her actually as the bride of god.
The vestiges of Lilith as a Wisdom Goddess cling through all the scurrility about strangling babies, and being a night demoness and queen of evil. There is some possibility that the emphasis on her negative role in childbirth may be a reversal of an earlier time, when like Artemis and Astarte, she was Goddess of childbirth and assisted women in labour.
Many feminists have been interested to concentrate on her autonomy, her freeing herself sexually from Adam on the grounds of equality; others have become involved with darkness and in getting into the dark side, the dark of the moon, and the shadow side of our natures. We renew ourselves by accepting it and experiencing it. I feel at one with these insights, but for me Lilith goes further.
In addition to all these, She is the spirit that gives life, the wind or breath of life; She is the Wisdom Goddess who creates, renews, protects and makes knowledge available so that we do not perish through our own ignorance. She is the Goddess who knows the "magic name of god" because it is her own. She is the powerful creatrix. Lady of Wisdom and knowledge, Lady of the Air and of Breath, the original Mother Goddess.
Patriarchy has turned her into queen of the demons, killer or children, particularly to be feared by mothers in childbirth. And that sums it up; instead of the creatrix they have made her the destroyer. The symbol of women's wisdom and power, she has become a source of evil to be feared most particularly by women. She represents to us our innermost herstory. In reclaiming Her, we throw off and pour away for ever the poison about ourselves, our so-called inferiority, our evil inner selves, our guilt. On reclaiming Lilith we reclaim the breath of life, that emerges as we give birth to our children, to our works of all kind; we reclaim our Wisdom, our knowledge, our power, our autonomy.
It may be in recognising at last the original Goddess of Wisdom we may be able to avert the nuclear disaster that patriarchy has brought us so near to. It is her Wisdom, her breath of life that is our true necessity today.
Arachne 2, 1985
Acknowledgements to all my dear sisters and friends who support me in my writing and research.
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