Externalizing Our Fears

Or: Demon Women, Incantation Bowls, and You

TW: Pregnancy Loss.

As I mentioned last week, Genesis 1:27 reads, “And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created [the human]; male and female God created them.” 

And then later, in Genesis 2, we get the whole business where God makes a woman out of Adam’s side (or rib, depending on your translation.) 

So what is it? Are the human beings made together at the same time, or is the woman made out of the side, or what?  We looked at one midrashic reading then, but here’s another.

As some of you might know, the medieval text the Alphabet of Ben Sirah concocts a whole story to explain why there are two different human creation stories: as they tell it, the woman created in the Genesis 1:27 verse is a different woman than the one from Genesis 2; Adam had another partner before Eve. 

OK, so then what happened to her? 

Obviously: She refused to have sex in the missionary position for egalitarian reasons and turned into a demon who causes SIDS (and, other traditions assert, also wet dreams.)  Duh. 

Come on, it’s an amazing text:

When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.”  [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above.” She said to him, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.” And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God's ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, “Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!”

LILITH SAW HOW IT WAS. 

So she pulled the proverbial ripcord, uttering God’s most sacred of names, and decided to bounce. (I’m not allowed to refer to this as humanity’s first safeword, am I?  Probably not.) Easier and faster than calling a cab. 

(It’s obvious why Jewish feminists have been into Lilith for a while, yes? There’s a whole magazine named after her and everything.)

But God wasn’t particularly happy with her decision:

The Holy Blessed one immediately dispatched the three angels Sanoy, Sansenoy, and Samangelof after her, to bring her back. God said, “If she wants to return, well and good. And if not, she must accept that a hundred of her children will die every day.” The angels pursued her and overtook her in the sea, in raging waters, (the same waters in which the Egyptians would one day drown), and told her God's orders. And yet she did not want to return. They told her they would drown her in the sea, and she replied. “Leave me alone! I was only created in order to sicken babies: if they are boys, from birth to day eight I will have power over them; if they are girls, from birth to day twenty.” When they heard her reply, they pleaded with her to come back. She swore to them in the name of the living God that whenever she would see them or their names or their images on an amulet, she would not overpower that baby, and she accepted that a hundred of her children would die every day. Therefore, a hundred of the demons die every day, and therefore, we write the names [of the three angels] on amulets of young children. When Lilith sees them, she remembers her oath and the child is [protected and] healed.

I mean.

It’s all in there. 

Demonizing women (literally) for refusing to accept inequality. 

Blaming a women who refuses inequality for the death of infants. 

Doing the victim blaming thing of linking a woman’s choices to her own sorrow around infant mortality—obviously a massive issue in the Middle Ages.

Thus implicitly blaming the mothers of babies who didn’t make it. 

Explanations for why amulets are needed and work. 

So much darkness, externalized. 

So many fingers, pointing.

It should be noted that Lilith goes back earlier, though. In Isaiah 34, we find mention of “the lilith,” and Rashi, the 11th c. French commentator, identifies this creature in that verse as a female demon.  She’s mentioned in a list of monsters in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jewish amulets and incantation bowls describe her by name as a female demon as early as the 6th century.  

These bowls—pottery on which certain ritual formulas or incantations were written to expel demons or invoke protection—were often found upside-down, buried in the front of the house, a sort of demon trap.

Image of a pottery bowl, with Aramaic writing in circles all inside, with a little figure scribbled at the very center
7th c CE Mesopotamian Judeo-Aramaic incantation bowl; the inscription calls upon the removal of the child-killing Lilith demon, and mentions its client, Ahyah son of Hati, serving a writ of divorce (a get) to the demon for its permanent removal, and continues by discussing the validity of the Jewish laws of divorce in regard to demons. Because, obviously. Presumably that’s our girl Lilith in the center, there.

Interestingly, some of the incantation bowls involving Lilith used the language of the divorce decree, the document a man could hand a woman to end the marriage (which in Judaism is painfully one-sided in a bad, gendered way, yes that’s a whole thing).  One, for example, reads,

Overturned are the curses upon Burzin the daughter of the Smiter, upon Prince Bagdina, the king of the devil(s) and the great ruler of the liliths. I adjure you, Lilith Hablas, the granddaughter of Lilith Zarnai who dwells on the threshold of the house of Mehishai the daughter of Dodai, smiter and burner of boys and girls, male and female foetuses. I adjure you that you be struck in the membrane of your heart, and with the spear of Qatros the mighty. Lo, I have written a divorce for you and lo, I have expelled you, as demons write divorces for their wives and furthermore, they do not return. Take your divorce, receive your oath, flee, take flight, and go forth from the house and from the back of Mehishai the daughter of Dodai. In the name of Rt Mhs Mhs, the Ineffable Name from the six days of Creation.

(Those aren’t typos, that’s what they’ve got transcribed from the bowls. This isn’t my area of knowledge to tell you much more about that, though.)

How to get rid of a demon? Divorce her, of course. (Of course, now I’m curious about demon wedding contracts, whether you’d have to pay the demons the money specified in the ketubah/wedding contract, whether you say the seven wedding blessings at a demon wedding… I bet it’s a good party, though.) (No, I don’t think there are really demon weddings, they’re trying to get rid of demons, but come on, it’s an excellent line of inquiry). But really, this is right in there with that spurned wife trope we see in the midrash. Hell hath no fury, et cetera, et cetera.  

I wonder if these incantation bowls brought the women of these homes comfort.  Fearing evil women (demons) doing horrors to their babies, feeling safer once they had been kicked, ritually, to the curb.  I wonder how they felt if, God forbid, their children didn’t make it even after writing an incantation bowl.  I wonder what tragedies and griefs prompted someone to order one of these made; I don’t assume that they were the kind of thing you picked up at the Ancient Near Eastern Target. I imagine they were the kind of thing that needed to be commissioned, and were not done so casually. (Some suggest they were buried literally underneath the home, as a precaution before building the house, but others seem to have been written after something had happened and buried underneath the threshold.)  I wonder what changed in a household--emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, ritually, interpersonally--before and after these bowls were written.  Did it help, having someone to blame who wasn’t in the household?  Maybe?

In any case, amulets against Lilith continued to be popular for some time, as we can see in this  18th c. text featuring Elijah the prophet--who, according to Jewish tradition, is often found wandering around the Earth, hanging out, serving as something of a divine emissary. Lilith, on the other hand, I guess just wanted a (wildly unacceptable) snack. But she is unable to lie to the prophet when he asks her a question, and so she’s forced to bargain with him in order to get out of the curse that he throws down:

Elijah [the prophet] encountered Lilith and instantly recognized her and challenged her, “Unclean one, where are you going?” She said, “I’m going to the house of a pregnant woman, to kill the woman and eat the fetus.”

Elijah said, "I curse you in the Name of God. Be silent as a stone!" She said, “My lord, I swear in God’s name to abandon this path—as long as I see or hear my name I will immediately flee…As long as [people] mention my name, I will have no power to harm…where I see those names, I shall run away at once. Neither the child nor the mother will ever be injured by me.

In the middle of the text, which is a bit longer and includes a list of all of her possible aliases, she names explicitly that this includes amulets or other ways that her name can be posted in the home.

Again, amulets. Again, with the right formulas, the right words, the right placement, the worst can be averted.  

From here, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of all the things we do to try to control outcomes--if we just do all the right things, the darkness will stay away. 

If we put up the right words, in the right ways, the worst can stay outside our door. 

If we can find the right person to blame, the right scapegoat, then perhaps we can get through this. 

That there is a formula to avoiding suffering, to sidestepping pain and loss and heartbreak.  

If only that were true. 


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