The Dark Queen you won’t meet in Sunday School
What if I told you that everything you think you know about the origin of womankind is wrong? If you were to ask anyone who the first woman was, according to biblical tradition, what would their answer be? Eve, right? Well, what if I told you that Eve was Adam’s second wife? That Adam, in fact, had a little-known first wife? Maybe you’ve come across her in popular culture. As a vampire goddess in True Blood or as the namesake of an influential Jewish feminist magazine. You may even remember her from a wildly popular, woman-centric music festival of the late 1990’s. But no preacher will tell you her tale from the pulpit; no rabbi will sing her praises in synagogue. If you didn’t even know that Adam had a first wife, it’s not your fault. Knowledge is power, and there are those who don’t want you to have the kind of power that comes with knowing this woman’s story.
Like you, I spent most of my life believing that the first humans of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition were Adam and Eve. Eve ate the apple, everything went to shit, and here we are, quite far from Eden. But when I started studying women’s biblical history, I made a startling discovery. Something so mind-blowing, so empowering, that it will change the way you see womankind from this day forward.
Before Adam and Eve, there was Adam and Lilith. Unlike Eve, who was formed from Adam’s rib, Lilith was made at the same time and from the same materials as Adam. Because of this, Lilith saw man and woman as equals. Adam, however, disagreed. He saw man as superior, and therefore insisted that Lilith assume the bottom (submissive) position when they had sex. Believing herself equal to Adam, Lilith refused. In fact, she did not just refuse to lie beneath Adam, she refused to live with him if this was going to be the division of power between them. And so she uttered the ineffable name of God, flew out of the Garden of Eden, and started a new life for herself where she was free from male dominance.
“Why should I lie beneath you… when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?”
Sadly, all doesn’t end well for Lilith in Adam’s world. Lonely, frustrated Adam complains to God that he no longer has a female companion, so God sends three angels to bring Lilith back. When the angels find her, she refuses to return. Flustered, they threaten her with life as a demon, and promise to kill one hundred of her demon babies every day. In one of the funnier twists of biblical lore, Lilith prefers this punishment to living with Adam. And so she settles in for life as a demoness, and God takes a second stab at the creation of womankind. This time he makes Eve from Adam’s rib so that she knows from the start that woman is inferior to man.
And what of Lilith? The shit-talking begins and the rumors start flying. She becomes the archetype of the little-loved ex-wife. A scapegoat for the inexplicable wrongs of the world. Who is responsible for infant deaths? Why, Lilith, of course. Nocturnal emissions? That’s Lilith’s doing, too. Insatiable Lilith is even present in the marriage bed, stealing any spilled drops of semen to make her demon babies. She can transform into a snake. She is a winged demoness. She seduces men and steals their sperm. She is a killer of children, and of women in childbirth. She is an irresistible succuba who binds men tight with her long hair and never lets them go. There is even a time when she seduces Adam, giving birth to the plagues of mankind. As recently as the 20th century, Jewish exorcisms were still being performed to exorcise and protect against invasion by Lilith.
Wait. What are we talking about here? Demons? Sexual dominance? Nocturnal emissions? Magical powers? The first woman could fly? Where does it say this in the Bible? Show me!
Alright. I know, I know. This story sounds way cooler than anything you learned in Bible Study. And it only gets better.
Here’s the thing. There are two versions of the creation myth in the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates humankind, male and female. In the second chapter, God creates man and then creates woman from man’s rib. That’s right. Two different creation stories, with two different versions of the making of woman. Right there in the Bible.
At least as far back as 700-1000 C.E., biblical scholars have been trying to resolve the issue of these two disparate creation stories. In the end these scholars concluded that there are two versions of the making of woman because there were two different women created. The second was Eve, and the first was given a name: Lilith.
But Lilith existed for thousands of years before she was officially named as the first woman. In fact, she existed for thousands of years before the story of Adam and Eve was ever told in the first place.
Lilith first appeared on the world stage in 2,400 B.C.E. in the Epic of Gilgamesh as a she-demon who visited men by night and bore them ghostly children. Sound familiar? The Sumerian Lilith was a night-demon, a vampire, and a beautiful maiden. Labeled a harlot, she tortured her lovers, giving them neither freedom nor satisfaction. But by 2,000 B.C.E. she had transformed from a lowly she-demon into a full-fledged goddess who tamed wild beasts and ruled by night. By the time Jewish mythology began to take shape, Lilith was already well known to the early Israelites. They borrowed her story from their neighbors and began to make Lilith their own.
Beginning in the 13th century C.E., the Jewish mystical scholars got their hands on Lilith, and she transformed yet again. At nearly 4,000 years old, Lilith was no longer meddling with mere mortals. Oh no. She had risen to far greater heights. No longer a displaced first wife, she became the woman doing the displacing. But she was no mere woman, and her husband was no mortal man.
Lilith’s rise has been nothing less than epic. After spending thousands of years lurking in the shadows, Lilith rose to rule the universe. She caused God himself to cast aside his wife — the Shekhina — and took her place at God’s side as his evil queen. There she rules to this very day, and there she will remain, at the height of her power, until the messianic era; until the world is without sin.
While countless Jewish mystics and normative Jews still believe that Lilith will rule the universe alongside God until the end of days, in the 20th and 21st centuries Lilith has transitioned from a mythological figure to a pop culture star. She was commemorated by Goethe, Keats and Shelley before D.G. Rossetti first re-cast her in a positive light. In the 1970’s she emerged as the predominant heroine of the Jewish feminist movement. Is it any wonder that a woman who considered herself equal to man and who fled her marriage because her husband did not consider her equal became a feminist icon? To this day, poets, authors, artists, musicians and creative types of all genders, creeds, races and religions continue to explore and expand upon the story of Lilith, as we have been doing for well over four thousand years.
And now it’s your turn. How has it changed your view of womankind to learn that the first woman was not the inferior Eve, but the independent Lilith? If all it took to transform Lilith from a demon to an icon was a shift in perspective, how can you improve your perspective of yourself? Are you a harlot or a goddess? Can you be resilient like Lilith, and rise?
The RH Blog is a project of Reviving Herstory: Reviving and retelling lost women’s stories. Biblical, historical, and otherwise. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.