Lilith is a nocturnal female demon originating in Babylonian tradition, said to harm male children. The name Lilith is mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah 34:14, where it is translated as "screech-owl" in the King James Version. According to medieval Jewish lore, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, who left Eden of her own choice because she considered Adam inferior. For this reason, she has recently become a symbol of the feminist movement.
The earliest recorded reference to Lilith is in the prologue to the Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh, dating from as early as 2000 BCE. Much later, around the 9th century BCE, related demons are attested in Babylonian lore, including the male Lilu and the female Lilitu and Ardat Lili. All three are vampire-like monsters that prey on infants and pregnant women during the night.
Lilith appears in the ancient Jewish texts of the Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbala, in all of which she is equated with demons. In the Kabbala, she is said to be the mate of Samael, one of the most well-known and powerful demons. In the Talmud, she is described as having long hair and wings, and her behavior is similar to that of the succubus, a European female demon who visits men in the night and drains them of sexual energy. Lilith is mentioned by name in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, entitled Song for a Sage, in which she appears in a list of demonic creatures. Another Dead Sea Scroll, called The Seductress, is sometimes presumed to refer to Lilith, although it does not do so overtly.
The story of Lilith that has come to be the most famous is found in The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, an anonymous work in Hebrew and Aramaic written between the 8th and 11th centuries CE. It is The Alphabet of Ben-Sira that tells of Lilith as Adam's first wife. According to that story, she refused to lie beneath Adam during sexual intercourse, and he in turn refused to lie beneath her. Lilith then called upon the name of God, left Eden, and settled on the Red Sea coast, where she consorted with Samael and other demons. Her children by Samael are known as the lilin.
Adam asked God to return Lilith to him, and he sent three angels on the task. They were to kill 100 of Lilith's children for each day she failed to return. Instead of returning to Eden, Lilith responded to the threat with one of her own; she vowed to torment the children of Adam and Eve throughout eternity.
The story from The Alphabet of Ben-Sira became incorporated into Jewish tradition. As the text stated that mortal children could be safe from Lilith only by invoking the angels that God sent to kill the lilin, medieval Jews placed an amulet with the angels' names - Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof - around male babies' necks until their circumcision. Another tradition consisted of letting a boy's hair grow until he reached the age of three in order to fool Lilith into thinking he was a girl.
Although Lilith has long been considered a demon, some modern day feminists have been inspired by the story that she left Adam when he tried to assert dominance over her. Because she calls on the name of God, Lilith is seen as powerful, and because she left the garden of Eden before Eve was created, she can be considered free from original sin. The Lilith Fair, an all-female music festival that ran from 1997 to 1999, is the legendary Lilith's namesake.