Lilith: The First Woman and First Feminist
The story of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden is a patriarchal fairy tale that most of us learn at an early age. But Eve wasn’t the first wife or the first woman. Her predecessor, Lilith, was the first “fallen woman” who refused to submit to her husband and openly enjoyed sex for pleasure. She is commonly depicted as a demon who seduces men, murders pregnant women, and devours infants. Although Lilith may be a gruesome nightmare to the patriarchy, she’s been embraced as a leader goddess, promoting feminine assertion, power, and reclamation of the divine.
The name “Lilith” has roots in a Sumerian class of winged female demons or “wind spirits” called the lilitu. The earliest recorded mention of this class of demons is the Sumerian poem, Gilgamesh and the Huluppa Tree, written around 2000 B.C. After the creation of humankind and the separation of heaven and earth, Gilgamesh – a warrior king – set his sights on the Inanna (Ishtar), the goddess of sex and war. Gilgamesh’s plan was thwarted once he was attacked by the lilitu. The visual representation of this poem is called the Burney Relief. By some accounts, the lilitu are said to be prostitutes for Ishtar, but Lilith is not mentioned in the Babylonian tradition as an independent being, but another demoness, Lamashtu, is an exact match for Lilith’s narrative .
Lamashtu is depicted as a winged demoness, who flies by night, seducing men, rendering young women infertile, and consuming infants, just as Lilith would be depicted centuries later. Battles with Lamashtu would only be won with the protection of another demon, Pazuzu (yes, the same Pazuzu depicted in the infamous 1970s classic, The Exorcist). Invoking Pazuzu was the only way expectant mothers could protect themselves against Lamashtu’s attacks. It’s plausible that the Lilith narrative offered an explanation for high rates of maternal and infant mortality, as well as a way for women in the ancient world to cope with fears of death. She was believed to be the daughter of the sky god Anu and was cast down to earth for alleged wicked deeds. Unlike other deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Lamashtu was the only entity who had no connections or requirements of service to another deity. She rebelled against other gods, engaged in sex, chaos, and destruction as she pleased, and this is likely why she was so terrifying to a patriarchal narrative.
Lilith is quite likely a syncretization of Lamashtu and crystallized in Judeo-Christian traditions. Rabbis writing the Talmud made great mention of the sex-crazed night demoness who sexually assaulted men while they slept. During the Middle Ages, Lilith appears as an independent entity, still sex-crazed, winged, and violent. The Alphabet of Ben Sira includes 22 stories corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth letter tells the story of Lilith, a woman created from the earth alonside man, betrothed to Adam, and banished from Eden for her refusal to have missionary sex with Adam. She argued that they were both created from the earth, were therefore equals, thus proving she was too good to lie underneath a man.  Adam complained to God that Lilith refused to submit; God responded by punishing Lilith with the death of 100 of her children daily. She’s clearly quite fertile, but she’s also enraged that she’s condemned to patriarchal punishments. As a result, she attacks pregnant mothers and infants to satisfy her rage and to rebel against God.
Although the Lilith account in the Alphabet of Ben Sira is a widely-accepted narrative today, medieval scholars deemed it to be vulgar and rejected it as serious scholarship. Her last appearance in Jewish texts is in the kabbalistic book of Zohar, also written during the medieval period between 1250 – 1350 CE. Zohar also recounts the creation of Lilith as a winged wife of Adam, who flies away in a jealous fit, angered by Eve’s physical connection to Adam.
In the early 20th century, Lilith retained her status as the dark feminine being. She inspired the character of the White Witch in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. However, with the rise of the feminist movement, depictions and understandings of Lilith have evolved. She has become a cultural icon and an inspiration for women’s sexuality and liberation. Artists, poets, and novelists have all centered Lilith as a rebellious entity, challenging the status quo, reinforcing femininity, and embodying liberation. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker’s characters in Sula and The Color Purple have been likened to Lilith as women who are fearless in their sexual freedom and their independence. Jewish feminist scholars have revisited the role of Lilith as a model for women, instead of the demonic figur banished by the patriarchy. Lilith continues to live on, encouraging all of us to harness the divine energy within.
 Gaines, Janet Howe. “Lilith,” in Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeology Society, accessed November 12, 2020, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/lilith/
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Books and Journal Articles
Aschkenasy, Nehama. Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images In Hebraic Literary Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
This book traces the development of female characters in Judeo-Christian texts and the evolving cultural perceptions of women in these faith traditions. Chapter 2 specifically examines Lilith.
Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader In Religion. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
An anthology of essays on feminist theory and theology. Several of the essays explore Lilith’s myth, the dichotomy of good and evil in feminist theology, and feminist reflections on religious practices.
Dame, Enid, Lilly Rivlin, and Henny Wenkart. Which Lilith?: Feminist Writers Re-Create the World’s First Woman. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 2004.
A collection of Lilith renderings from feminist Jewish writers, this book encourages readers to reconsider the myth of Lilith and encourage inviting and infusing her feminine/feminist energy to create a new tradition and narrative around Lilith.
Doyle, Sady. Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019.
Doyle’s comedic prose highlights the narratives of Lilith, Mary Shelley, and others to demonstrate the patriarchal fear of women, and places women’s autonomy at the forefront.
Eisler, Riane Tennenhaus. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Cambridge: Harper & Row, 1987.
Eisler explores the possibility of a true egalitarian society by examining history and global interactions through a feminist lens. She posits that an emotionally-balanced society is not only healthy, but better than one riddled with violence and patriarchy.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
A classic! Estes shares intercultural myths that demonstrate the power, resilience, and vision of the female psyche.
Hunter, M. Kelley. 2009. Living Lilith: Four Dimensions of the Cosmic Feminine. Bournemouth, England: Wessex Astrologer Ltd.
Hunter’s work traces Lilith and her myths through history and literature, with emphasis on the goddess’s influence in astrology.
Hurwitz, Siegmund, and Robert Hinshaw. 2009. Lilith, the First Eve: Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Dark Feminine. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag.
Hurwitz, a psychologist and student of Carl Jung’s school of thought, delves into the Lilith myth for a deeper understanding of masculine and feminine identity.
Koltuv, Barbara Black. The Book of Lilith. York Beach, ME: Nicolas-Hays, 2007.
A Jungian analysis of the Lilith myth and the ways that narrative can be incorporated into accepting feminine energy within.
Plaskow, Judith., and Donna Berman. The Coming of Lilith: Essays On Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972-2003. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies and this collection of essays highlights her contributions to feminist theology. The book is organized into four sections, including an examination of feminism in Judeo-Christian traditions.
Schwartz, Howard. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
An anthology of Jewish mythology, Tree of Souls contains nearly 700 myths, including the story of Lilith.
Web-Based Articles & Blogs
Lyons, Sarah. “Praise Lilith, a Chill Demon Cast from Eden for Refusing the Missionary Position,” in Vice News (August 25, 2017) Link to source.
This article synthesizes the Lilith myth and introduces contemporary feminist analysis of feminine power and sexuality.
Museum & Cultural Material Sources
“Amulet with a Lamashtu Demon,” circa early 1st millennium, B.C.E. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed November 12, 2020. Link to source.
Lilith is often syncretized with a Babylonian demon-goddess named Lamashtu, known for her attacks on pregnant mothers and infants. This amulet, carved on obsidian, depicts an image of Lamashtu surrounded by offerings commonly associated with feminine beauty: combs, spindle, and a pin.
Graff, Sarah. “Pazuzu: Beyond Good and Evil.” New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed November 17, 2020. Link to source.
Sarah Graff, the Met’s associate curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art, gives insight into Pazuzu, a demon-god, who offered mortals protection against Lamashtu’s attacks. Lamashtu is often syncretized with Lilith.
“Lilith,” Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum. Accessed November 17, 2020. Link to source.
A brief biographical entry on Lilith as it relates to the gallery’s main exhibition, Judy Chicago’s *The Dinner Party,* which highlights 1,038 women of mythical and historical achievement.
Keen, Henry. Lilith, ca. 1925 – 1930. Lithograph (303mm x 142mm). London: The British Museum. Accessed November 19, 2020. Link to source.
Henry Keen’s rendering of Lilith incorporates her beauty and her power, as she sits naked, surrounded by skulls and lilies.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. *Lady Lilith*, 1867. Watercolor and body color (51.3 x 44cm). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed November 17, 2020. Link to source.
British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Lilith is of a beautiful femme fatale surrounded by flowers, indicative of love.
Said, Miriam. “Mesopotamian Magic in the First Millennium B.C.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (December 2018). Link to source.
Miriam Said, a former scholar in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Ancient and Near East Art, provides an overview of Babylonian belief systems and religious expressions of art.
Smith, Kiki. Lilith, 1994. Sculpture, bronze with glass eyes (80 x 68.6 x 44.5cm). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed November 17, 2020. Link to source.
American-born artist Kiki Smith’s rendition of Lilith, on display at the Metropolitian Museum of Art. This link also features a brief curator’s commentary about the sculpture and Lilith’s inspiration of the piece.
Digital Humanities and Web-Based Encyclopedic Sources
Humm, Alan. Lilith. Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. Link to source.
This site offers a collection of Lilith and Lilith-related sources in modern magic, Jewish Mysticism, folklore, and other forms of modern literature.
The Book of Lilith Website. Hosted by Duke University. Link to source.
A website full of links devoted to Robert G. Brown’s The Book of Lilith. The site provides additional links about the Lilith myth and her relationship with other biblical characters.
Lesses, Rebecca. “Lilith,” Jewish Women’s Archive: Sharing Stories, Inspiring Change. Link to source.
“Lilith,” in Jewish Virtual Library. Link to source.
“Lilith” in The Jewish Encylcopedia: The Unedited Full-Text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Link to source.
Born, Tyler. “Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson” in Challenging Gender Boundaries: A Trans Biography Project by Students of Dr. Catherine Jacquet, accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
Kuwabara, Sessi. “At STAR House, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera Created a Home for Trans People,” Vice News June 8, 2020, accessed August 25, 2020. Link to source.
Article centered on Johnson and Rivera’s work with STAR. This piece is part of a larger digital project entitled Queers Built This hosted by Vice News.
Washington, KC. “Marsha P. Johnson,” in BlackPast.org, accessed August 15, 2020. Link to source.
Klebine, Anna. “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Drag Queen Scorned”: Sylvia Rivera’s Activism, Resistance, and Resilience,” in Challenging Gender Boundaries: A Trans Biography Project by Students of Dr. Catherine Jacquet, accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
Books and Journal Articles
Calafell, Bernadette Marie. “Narrative Authority, Theory in the Flesh, and the Fight Over The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 6, no. 2 (Summer 2019), pp. 26-39.
Focuses on the controversy resulting from the Netflix documentary about Marsha P. Johnson’s life. The author uses Queer Theory to argue the documentary whitewashed Marsha P.’s biography and, by extension, the life experiences of trans people of color.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.
Recounts and analyzes the 1969 Stonewall Uprising using oral histories, first-person interviews, and sealed municipal records. The PBS documentary *Stonewall Uprising* was based on Carter’s work.
Cook, Timothy E. “The Empirical Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Politics: Assessing the First Wave of Research.” The American Political Science Review 93, no. 3 (1999): 679-92. Accessed August 25, 2020.
Review essay covering ten monographs on LGBTQ identity and sexual politics as well as HIV/AIDS activism.
Duberman, Martin and Andrew Kopkind. “The Night They Raided Stonewall,” in Grand Street 44 (1993), pp 120-147.
Martin Duberman, LGBTQ+ rights activist and professor of American history, recounts the events leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.
Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Workers World, 24 Sept. 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2012 accessed. Link to source.
This short article focuses on STAR’s founding and collaboration with other grassroots organizations such as the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. It truly demonstrates coalition building and dispels negative perceptions of revolutionary organizations during the 1970s.
Gan, Jessi. “Still At the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle,” in Centro Journal 19, no.1 (2007): 124-139.
Gan offers a deeper dive into Rivera’s early life to argue that her “accountability to her ‘children’ and of inclusive love” fueled her passion for social justice.
Glass, Dan. United Queerdom: From the Legends of the Gay Liberation Front to the Queers of Tomorrow. London: Zed Books, Ltd., 2020.
British activist Dan Glass documents the evolution of the LGBT Rights movement in America and its impact on British culture and politics. Glass speaks specifically to the work of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and their collaborative work with the Black Panther Party in the 1970s.
Haynes, Suyin. “How the Fight Against Police Brutality Helped Ignite the LGBTQ-Rights Movement,” in Time (June 19, 2020) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
This article establishes the connections between state violence and the origins of the LGBTQ movement at Stonewall.
Morris, Charles E. and Thomas K. Nakayama. “Paying Mind to GLBTQ Pasts,” in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1, no. 2 (Summer 2014), pp. 26-39.
This article is the introduction to a special issue centered on LGBTQ+ activism.
Mullen, Bill. “Meet James Baldwin: the Black, Gay, Angry Novelist Who Pathed the Way for the Stonewall Uprising,” in Pink News (November 2, 2019) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
Mullen’s article provides insight into the life and writings of James Baldwin and his influence on Marsha P. Johnson and the LGBT Rights Movement.
New York Public Library, eds. The Stonewall Reader. New York: Penguin Classics, 2019.
An anthology published in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising that traces the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the five years before and after the uprising.
O’Brien, Keegan. “Tearing Down the Walls,” in Jacobin Magazine (August 25, 2015) accessed August 25, 2020. Link to source.
Provides an overview of the Stonewall Uprising and the Gay Liberation Movement with commentary on the current and future of the movement.
Riemer, Matthew and Leighton Brown. We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2019.
A curated collection of photographs documenting the Queer Liberation Movement from 19th century Europe to contemporary activists of the 21st century. The Stonewall Uprising is featured in the book along with parades, protests, Queer family life, and culminates with Pride.
White, Deborah Gray. “Out and on the Outs: The 1990s Mass Marches and the Black and LGBT Communities.” In Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in North America, edited by Jennifer Brier, Jim Downs, and Jennifer L. Morgan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 282-294.
Prominent historian Deborah Gray White explores the issue of race and gender within the LGBT Rights Movement and the continuing fight for civil rights in the 1990s.
Wilson, Maddox. “Against Co-Optation: The Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” in Left Voice (August 24, 2019) accessed August 22, 2020. Link to source.
A guest essay reflecting on the life and legacy of Marsha P. Johnson.
Heilbroner, David. “Stonewall Uprising,” in American Experience. PBS Documentary. Aired June 9, 2020. Link to source.
PBS American Experience presents the Stonewall Uprising, based on the monograph written by David Carter.
Kasino, Michael and Richard Morrison. “Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson” Film accessed August 18, 2020. Link to source.
One-hour documentary complete with Marsha P. Johnson’s final interview from 1992, as well as a series of interviews with other gay rights activists who were present during the Stonewall Uprising in 1969.
Stonewall FOREVER. Link to source.
A digital monument and collective learning/reflection space for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Provides content central to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as integral leaders of the uprising and the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Queers Built This. Link to source.
A digital exhibition curated by *Vice News* covering LGBTQ activism, culture, and social issues.