A demon with a colorful history who is currently depicted as the night-demon par excellence. Lilith can be traced back to the mythology of the Babylonians and Sumerians, where she appears most recognizably as the Ardat Lili, a maiden ghost that preys upon menin their sleep. Supposedly, this being died without first tasting the pleasures of sex, and henceforth she yearns for what she could not have. Her amorous embraces were considered fatal, however, and so this night-dwelling being was greatly feared. Although the Ardet Lili was often thought to haunt the night, Lilith’s connection to night was most likely established by the similarity of her name with that of the Hebrew word for “night,” laileh or layla. Lilith’s name did not originate in Hebrew, however, and so this connection is somewhat misleading. Her name is more properly derived from the Sumerian word lil, meaning “storm.” In this respect, she fits in neatly with traditional Sumerian demonology, where many demons were associated with destructive forces such as storms, earthquakes, and disease.
In her earliest days, Lilith was not a singular being. Rather, the lilin or lilitu were a class of demons believed to haunt the deserts and wastelands. Perhaps because of this, Lilith is often associated with owls and other wild beasts. In Isaiah 34:14 (Kings James Version), the name Lilith is translated directly as “screech owl.” Her connection with birds may trace back to one of her first appearances in written language. One of the first known references to Lilith in literature appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here, she appears as a demon who inhabits the Huluppa-Tree along with a dragon and something called the Zu-bird. When the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh slays the dragon that has curled up around the foot of the tree, Lilith is said to tear her house down and flee into the wilderness. This ancient passage may very well have established many of Lilith’s traditional associations, from birds to dragons to her abode in the wild spaces of the world.
In later years, Lilith became central to Jewish demonology. In the Talmudic Erebim (18b), it is said that while Adam was under the curse (before the birth of Seth), he sired demons—both shedin and lilin. Lilin is a plural form of Lilith. There is a similar passage in the Nidda (16b). This was during the time immediately following the death of Abel and the banishment of Cain. For one hundred and thirty years, Adam would not lie with his wife, Eve. Lilith came to him instead and bore all manner demons by his seed. Later rabbinical sources identified her as the first wife of Adam, cast from the Garden because she would not submit completely to his rule. Here, again, she fled into the wilderness, where many traditions say she became the mother of demons after coupling with fallen angels like Lucifer and Samael. Jewish folklore, in works like Haggadah and the Chronicles of Jerahmeel, often presents her as the consort of these fallen angels.
Certainly, Lilith was a being greatly feared by Jews, as numerous protective amulets have survived designed to keep her evils at bay. She was said to have a particular fondness for attacking infants and mothers in childbirth, and the profusion of Lilith talismans intended to protect these two classes of people certainly attest to this belief. Like her predecessor, the Ardat Lili, Lilith was also thought to attack men, seducing them and luring them to their deaths. Although the development of the Christian traditions of Lilith remains hazy, she eventually becomes depicted as the consort of Lucifer or Satan. Although she does not appear by name in the Testament of Solomon, it is worth nothing that several of the female demons described demonstrate very Lilith-like qualities. Given the profusion of names attributed to this being, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that each of these is are simply variations of Lilith appearing under different names.
Like many of the demons with roots in Jewish folklore, Lilith still managed to make her way into the predominately Christian grimoiric tradition of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Munich Handbook is representative of these works. In this fifteenth-century German book, Lilith features in a spell for enchanting a mirror. Appropriately enough, this item is called “The Mirror of Lilith.” Her name in this work is rendered variously Lylet and Bylet, a detail that may demonstrate an association between Lilith and the demon Bileth, named throughout the grimoiric material.
“Names of the Damned:The Dictionary of Demons” by Michelle Belanger