She's been called many things throughout history - Demon, Night Hag, Lilith - and yet, she is always the same. Creepy, terrifyingly powerful, and malignant, she can appear as a potent seductress, the stuff of a nightmare, or as a wretched crone. She induces sleep paralysis. She is like a golem or jinni, made from the dust of the earth and yet imbued with supernatural powers. Her disquieting image dates back to the most ancient stories in civilization - from Adam's first wife in Paradise to the succubus who would sit on the chest of her marks as they slept - she perpetuated the myth of the evil woman capable of taking peace from the innocent.
In each historical portrayal, she is uniquely terrifying and, at the same time, remains a universal symbol of woman's unconquerable power. In most myths, she is chaos and she is ungodliness, but in every guise throughout history, she is a figure that can never be fully understood or vanquished.
Outside of the Bible, the most legitimate source on Lilith is found in an ancient book called the Zohar, one of the most respected volumes in Jewish mysticism.
Lilith is mentioned many times in this text. And depictions of her support the idea that she was created at the time of Adam from the dust of the earth. She is also described as the unsuitable wife of God's first man and the demon who inhabited the serpent's body to tempt the original Eve. In this way, the fall of man was not only the result of female weakness but also of woman's perniciousness. According to the Zohar, Lilith was in league with Satan and represented the ultimate female figure of wickedness: "She wanders about at night time, vexing the sons of men and causing them to defile themselves [emit seed]” (Zohar 19b). She even disguised herself as the Queen of Sheba to seduce King Solomon. But he spied her hairy legs and recognized her as the beastly imposter she was.
Known primarily as a fantasy creature from various folkloric tales, the Night Hag is described as an incredibly evil and merciless woman who exists in her own fiendish plane, mostly invisible to the eyes of men. She is most commonly used to explain the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, although her disquieting figure has pervaded the centuries, weaving its way through endless religious and cultural texts.
She is believed to be many things - a malevolent witch, a succubus, a devious woman, a nightmare - who has the power to immobilize a person by sitting on their chest as they sleep, thereby haunting them in their dreams. People who have suffered from this sleep condition sometimes called "Old Hag Syndrome" attributed the "presence" they feel to the Night Hag and her demonic ability to bring terror to the peaceful realm of sleep.
The first time we see Lilith in history is when she appears in the ancient poem, Epic of Gilgamesh, which is often regarded as the earliest surviving piece of great literature. Dating back to approximately the 3rd millennium BCE, the story tells the tale of the hero, Gilgamesh, who searches in vain for the secret to eternal life. When he tries to help the goddess of love and war cut down a tree she needs to fashion herself a throne, they both discover the wood has been plagued by a triumvirate of evil spirits - a serpent, Anzu the demon bird, and the demoness Lilith who has used the center of the tree to set up her home. Gilgamesh dons his armor and slays the snake, sending Lilith fleeing.
Sitting in the British Museum is an ancient artifact that further represents this story known as the Burney Relief. The Babylonian relief depicts a beautiful sylph with bird-like features who stands atop two lions and between two owls. Lilith's connection to the owl as a predatory and nocturnal bird also reaffirms her reputation as a demon of the night who flies about the underworld, delivering night terrors to those who sleep.
Although brief, Lilith does appear in the Bible, specifically in Isaiah 34:14, when a sword-wielding Yahweh seeks the destruction of the infidel Edomites who were long-time enemies of the ancient Israelites. He finds himself in a chaotic desert of purgatorial disdain, where goat-demons and wildcats wander without purpose, and the nefarious she-devil Lilith is known to reside.
She does not receive much more description than this in the Bible; however, historians assume that this is solely because she didn't need one - people of that time already knew of her from oral histories and artistic depictions. Because she is again wandering in the desert, her personage can be directly linked to the Gilgamesh story and establishes her as a legitimate figure in human history. And even though a formal reference to Lilith is only made once, one could argue that the notion of the ever-curious Eve who kicks off the Fall of man suffers the same descriptive parsimony.
The wilderness where she finds herself symbolizes the barrenness of both her body and mind, where there is no warmth, life, or companionship. Lilith, in all her dark female glory, is the opposite of the masculine world and has been exiled as such to a wasteland where she can never prosper. It is at this point in English translations of the Bible where the name Lilith becomes interchangeable with "the night hag" or the "night monster." Hebrew texts and certain biblical depictions label her as "Lilith," but in other versions, her image is more akin to a bird or creature of the night.