The Oldest History of Lilith
by Mary Lynn
Lilith first appears in text form in "The Hullupu Tree," on a clay tablet dated to c.a. 2500 BC In this story we see the goddess Inanna as a child who pulls a hullupu tree (a kind of willow) from the banks of the flooded Euphrates. She plants it in her garden and tends to it until she comes of age. At that time she goes to get the tree with the intent of making her bed and her throne from its wood, but she runs into a problem. "The serpent who cannot be charmed" has wrapped itself around the hullupu’s roots, the Anzu-bird (a trickster) has made a nest in the branches, and "the dark maid Lilith" has made her home in the trunk. Inanna goes to get help and finally gets the aid of her brother Gilgamesh (yes, brother in this case) to run the creatures off. With that, Lilith destroys her home and flees "to her desolate haunts." The text of this story can be found in full in "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer," pages 4 through 9.
Diane Wolkstien makes note that Lilith does not appear in any other Sumerian/Babylonian cuneiform texts found thus far. She also goes on to say that she sees Lilith in "The Hullupu Tree" as one of a triumvirate of "sexual, lawless creatures who live outside the bounds of the Sumerian community, and seeks power only for themselves." (Inanna, 142)
Elizabeth Williams-Forte wrote "Annotations of the Art" on the various pieces of artwork/illustration that she provided for "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth." Here she describes the appearance of Lilith in Sumerian artwork (clay plaque. Mesopotamia. Isin-Larsa-Old Babylonian period c 2000-1600 B.C. Baked clay. Paris, Louvre AO 6501):
"A nude, winged, bird-footed goddess wears a crown composed of multiple horns. Her gaze directly engages the attention of the viewer as she stands frontal, with both hands uplifted, palms facing outward. Beneath her taloned feet appear two horned animals back to back.
"A demonic composite being part-bird, part-human, is represented on this clay plaque. Her delicately nude body is juxtaposed with powerfully clawed bird feet and wings that fall behind her like an open veil. She has been identified as the dark maid Lilith, called ‘screech owl’ in a biblical passage (Isaiah XXIV:14). Like a nocturnal bird, Lilith makes her home in the trunk of a tree, the hullupu tree of Inanna." (Inanna, 179)
Donald MacKinzie says that Lilith is the babylonian Lilithu, the feminine form if lilu (Sumerian lila), a kind of shape-shifting demon. (Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 67-68) Unfortunately, he leaves this statement pretty much at that as he compares the various demons’ actions to the demons of Indian mythology, and banters on in a variety of ways.
Samuel Noah Kramer sites that "Lilith is actually a loan word that goes back to the Sumerian lil, which has a semantic range corresponding with the Hebrew ruach, ‘wind,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘demon.’" (From the Poetry of Sumer, 22). He also says in "Sumerian Mythology" that another title Lilith held was "Maid of Desolation," which is another variation of the "dark maid" translation found in "The Hullupu Tree." (33)
According to Buffie Johnson, Lilith is the former Queen of Heaven who has now become the "Maiden of Darkness," although how so she does not say.
In "The Rebel Lands: An Investigation in the Origins of Early Mesopotamian Mythology," J. V. Kinnier Wilson proposes in great detail the theory that the origin of the early gods is found in nature. Most notably the effects and after-effects of seismic activity in the area currently known as Iraq and Iran. He goes on to say that the Sumerian word lil means "wind," "spirit," "demon," "nothingness," and lilla (Akkadian lilu) specifically means "gas-demon." He explains that Lillith may have been all actuality a gas-demon in mythology, but in reality she was probably either natural gas itself, and/or a column of natural gas that had been lit. He also says that he believes that the snake at the base of the hullupu tree was probably oil, and the Anzu-bird was a dust cloud. (57-58) Before tossing this theory out, one thought to think on is the later mythology/beliefs of Lilith’s power; wasn’t she able to kill people in their sleep? And just how poisonous is natural gas?
In "When God was a Woman," Merlin Stone points out that Lilith was the "Hand of Inanna" who went to go out and gather men from the streets and took them to the temple for ritual sex. (58) She sites her source as being a Sumerian cuneiform tablet fragment, which I sincerely doubt as that I have not seen it referenced to or mentioned in any of the sources I have researched. Unfortunately, her book seems highly biased due to its innumerable inaccuracies just in the Sumerian section alone, and I suspect that it was written to be aimed at an audience immersed in the women’s movement in 1976, its publication date; anything to make a book sell?
Johnson, Buffie. "Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals." New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Kramer, Samuel Noah. "From the Poetry of Sumer." Berkley: University of California Press, 1979.
"Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium BC." New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.
MacKinzie, Donald A.. "Myths of Babylonia and Assyria." London: The Greesham Publishing Company.
Stone, Merlin. "When God Was a Woman." New York: Dial Press, 1976.
Wilson, J.V. Kinnier. "The Rebel Lands: An Invesitgation into the Origins of Early Mesopotamian Mythology." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer." New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1983.