By Sarah Janes
In ancient Sumer supernatural beings were part of the fabric of reality. They travelled on winds ill and favourable and were associated with the element of air, hence they were often invoked or exorcised using a fumigation of incense.
In the Sumerian language they were rabisu, a neutral term. Their evil or benevolence being indicated by the appropriate determinative.
Throughout Mesopotamian history, complex goddess figures were able to display paradoxical divine qualities that the ancients could hold in their minds, seemingly with minimal conflict. A cultural cognitive dissonance in which the goddess of amorous love, beauty and sex could also be the power hungry, control-freak goddess of war and violence, as was the case with Inanna (Sumerian) /Ištar (Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian), who doubtless has an even more archaic provenance.
As personification of the planet Venus — Inanna’s dual nature extended to being female when she rose as the morning star and male when she appeared at sunset. She is also credited with the divine power to change the sex of humans and her temple attendants are often recorded as being of ambiguous gender.
At the beginning of time, in the Sumerian myth Inanna and the Huluppu Tree — which is related in the preamble to The Epic of Gilgamesh — Inanna identifies the ‘World Tree’ on the banks of the Euphrates. She brings it to her holy garden at Uruk where she tends to it for many years, intending to carve it into a shining throne and bed for herself. In doing so, she hopes to establish her sovereignty and dominion over the three realms of sky, earth and underworld. However, during this time some unwanted residents move in — the Anzû-bird and its young (in the branches), the serpent ‘who knows no charm and is immune to incantations’ (in the roots) and Lillake the ‘phantom/dark maiden’ who has taken up residence in the trunk. Gilgameš kills the snake with an axe, the Anzû-bird flies to the mountains with its fledglings and the phantom maiden Lillake flees to the wild, uninhabited places or desert.
Many scholars believe this phantom maiden Lillake and more generally the whole class of lilîtu (female winged-demons of the wind) to perhaps be the prototype or inspiration for the Lilith of the Talmud. This headstrong and sexually virulent first wife of Adam, is said to have sprouted wings and left Adam when he wanted her to take a subservient role. In Hebrew language-texts the word lilith or lilit is translated as night creature, night monster, night hag, or screech owl. And like the ghostly apparition of an owl, Lilith hunts on the wing at night for her victims.
In her nefarious activities Lilith, as sketched out by the Hebrews in their Babylonian exile, closely resembles the Mesopotamian demon goddess Lamaštu who had similarly been expelled from the paradisiacal realm. Both waged war on pregnant women and babies. For this reason expectant mothers wore amulets or displayed plaques depicting the demon Pazuzu — Lamaštu’s male rival (misrepresented but made famous by The Exorcist). Pazuzu was thought to escort her back to the Underworld — where Lamaštu navigated a boat on its river. Similarly, so-called Incantation Bowls were used to trap both Lamaštu and Lilith.
When three angels try to disturb her mission Lamaštu answers:
“Let me be, for I was created in order to weaken the babes: if it is a male, I have power over him from the moment of his birth until the eighth day of his life (when he is circumcised and thereby deemed protected), and if a girl, until the twentieth day”.
The Lilith of the Jewish and Hebrew peoples in the post-diaspora period, pushes the point somewhat further and Lilith becomes a fully developed figure, sloughing off the ugly, hairy, donkey-treading image of her predecessor and taking on that of the Ardat Lili (handmaid). She is immortalised as the evil seductress with an irresistible and wild sexual appetite.
This Lilith is a demonic succubus, implicated in human infidelity and unwholesome cravings. She falls upon hapless males in the night, stealing away their semen with sexy dream power and harvesting their nocturnal emissions to create her own vile demon children. She drains men of their life-giving sap, sometimes to the point of death.
Fear of Lilith put the kibosh on playful, sexual love and this fear is supposed to have led to the introduction of extreme prohibitions around sex and the strict rules about how and when the sexual act could be performed. Sex became sinful. Women that enjoyed sex were evil and wicked, possessed by the spirit of Lilith. In this puritanical outlook, even the carefree laughter of children was frowned upon and thought to be an attraction to Lilith. If children laughed in their sleep, it was thought that Lilith was playing with them.
One can’t help but wonder if Lilith was a psychic tulpa. Penned by the scribes and painted by the artists, she was feared in whispers and secretly desired in the imagination. Eventually she was made manifest within the collective consciousness.
Poor Lilith really became a scapegoat, a convenient excuse for sucking the joy and pleasure out of life. An excuse for the uncontrollable urges of human beings, especially men. She was another nail in the sarcophagus of female sovereignty, which had been slowly and systematically dismantled over the preceding millennia. Female sexuality was demonised, as this once goddess-rich region shifted towards patriarchal social structures and the male-centric monotheism of its Abrahamic religions.
Interestingly, the very term scapegoat originates in ancient Mesopotamian magic (the term ‘scapegoat’ itself comes from a translation of the Hebrew bible where it is used to describe the ritual sacrifice of a goat for the Jewish Yom Kippur — Day of Atonement). In a Mesopotamian magical ritual, the scapegoat was used as a living vessel, into which demons exorcised from a human patient could be transferred. This concept has many parallels in the ancient Near East and in its various iterations utilises all sorts of animals including frogs and birds. The animals are often tied with a thread or other adornment that has previously been worn by the afflicted human. These creatures are then either sent off into the wilderness or ritually sacrificed.
On a material level, we might identify an aspect of Lilith’s true jealous and spiteful nature in the real-life threat that a beautiful hand-maiden posed even in ancient Sumer and Babylon. Legal inheritance was very important during this time, especially for the higher echelons of society. The control of wealth and family could always be wrested from the offspring of a primary wife or wives by the potent sexual spell of an attractive intruder. In particular a newcomer’s ability to conceive, if a legal wife could not, was of primary concern. An obsession with status and inheritance is powerfully attested throughout the literature of the period and is certainly of no less interest to those who demonised Lilith and her sisters. For me, when thinking of the multitude of goddesses of Mesopotamia and beyond, their complex attributes, moods and powers. I am reminded of the Greek Hecate and the triple goddess of paganism, the triunity of Maiden, Mother and Crone. All tethered and tempered by the push and pull of the Moon, Nanna (Sumerian) or Sin (Akkadian).
Sarah Janes, 12th May, 2021