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. These days she is most commonly used to explain the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, although her disquieting figure has pervaded through 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, even a vampire—with the power to immobilize a person by sitting on their chest as they sleep, thereby haunting them in their dreams. She possesses a hatred of all things beautiful and is sometimes described as having black skin, burning red eyes, and talons for fingers. People who have suffered from this sleep condition sometimes called “Old Hag Syndrome” attribute the “presence” they feel to this she-demon who brings terror to the peaceful realm of sleep.
Although most people realize the night hag is a mythological figure, the paralyzing sleep condition related to her is one of the most terrifying disorders in the medical world, as people often wake unable to breathe, move, or speak. This feeling of paralysis gives them the feeling of being “pinned” down by something as they struggle to escape from the unbearable pressure. Sufferers also complain of hallucinations, shooting pains, and a feeling of suffocation. Ancient stories of why this happens vary between cultures, but many agree these nightly episodes are the result of a visit from the infamous night hag.
She has an array of magical powers and can transmit “demon fever” to her victim through biting and invading their dreams. Given the medical world’s lack of explanation, many people continue to believe it is the result of supernatural forces, ghosts, or demons who are looking to terrifying the living. This sleep syndrome happens to all races, ages, and genders and is reported to have struck about 20 percent of the population at some point. Even though old hag syndrome has been documented since ancient times, modern medicine tells us it’s not harmful and only lasts a few moments before the sleeper fully recovers. It is thought sufferers may be predisposed to this condition through traumatic events or severe disruptions in life.
Although there have been endless reports of the night hag, she is generally perceived as a watching, lurking presence, always just out of sight. She is a dark figure that can bring about auditory hallucinations—strange voices, ringing, buzzing, scraping, laughing—and strike fear in the hearts of those around her. But the night hag is a whole lot more than just a witch from dreamland, she is a pervasive female figure well-documented throughout history. She is most widely known as “Lilith”—a seductress, a heroine, a murderer, and the embodiment of all female wiles and secrets.
For 4,000 years, Lilith has wandered the earth as a sinister power who has preyed on pregnant women, eaten infants, and terrified the innocent with her dark knowledge. She has been an intrinsic part of the literary and artistic imagination through time, illustrated in some of the oldest writings ever discovered. Her reputations as a mighty jezebel began in Babylonian demonology and moved through the world of the ancient Hittites, Egyptians, Israelites, and Greeks. She can be found in the Bible, the Talmud, and in Jewish writings from the Middle Ages. Cast as the witch, the Eve, the succubus, the image of the night hag has made a permanent mark on the dark history of the world.
Her name Lilith derives from the Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits called the Lilītu. Although these creatures are often perceived as beautiful and alluring, they are dangerous spirits who seek the destruction of the living world. Although they are fertile and able to bear the children of men, they tend to target pregnant women and babies or act aggressively toward those they want to intimidate. The Lilītu dwell in the desert and other isolated, dark spaces and have poisonous breasts filled with lethal liquid instead of milk.
The night hag is always female and can reproduce by mating with a male of any species, human or beast, although typically with a civilized race. Once she has impregnated herself, she usually kills her mate and goes on to bear a child who appears normal with black or bluish hair. Disguised as a normal woman, she usually gives this child up for adoption—unless the child is a girl in which case she returns to transform her offspring into a similar hag-like creature once she reaches puberty.
The first time we see Lilith in history is in the ancient poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the earliest surviving piece of great literature. Dating back to approximately 2,000 B.C., the story tells the tale of the world’s first hero, Gilgamesh, who searches in vain for the secret to eternal life. When he tries to help the goddess of erotic 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—the serpent, the Zu-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 two beasts, sending Lilith fleeing into the desert to lick her wounds.
Sitting in the British Museum is a priceless Babylonian artifact called the Burney Relief that further explains this ancient story. The terracotta plaque depicts a beautiful, naked goddess-like sylph with bird-like features who stands atop two lions and between two owls. Although once believed to be the actual image of Lilith, it is now thought to possibly represent Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, beauty, war, and sexual desire. The depiction of the nocturnal and predatory owls, however, has led many to believe the relief is an affirmation of Lilith’s role as a demon 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-yielding Yahweh seeks the destruction of the infidel Edomites, long-time enemies of the ancient Israelites. The place where he finds himself is 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, perhaps because she didn’t need one—people of that era already knew Lilith from her extensive oral history and artistic depictions. Because she is seen here again wandering the desert, her persona 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 the notion of the ever-curious Eve who kicks off the fall of man suffers the same misogynistic punishments.
The stark wilderness where Lilith 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.
The dark image of Lilith resurfaces in The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in ancient caves around the Jordan River in what is now the West Bank. These writings are believed to date back as far as the 8th century B.C and include manuscripts of considerable historical, religious, and linguistic significance, all of which predate the Bible and ancient religious beliefs of Judaism. They are the stories that came before the stories—and Lilith is there, woven into the text like a shadowy minx who has haunted the world since the beginning.
In the hymn Song For A Sage, possibly used for exorcisms, Lilith appears again as a target the Sage would like to destroy. Along with the “bastard spirits, the demons, and those that strike suddenly… and make to desolate their heart,” Lilith finds her brethren. Again, her image as a murky, dangerous she-devil delivers a lot of terror without much description. This characterization is echoed in the Bible and becomes a pervasive image in future depictions.
One of the oldest religious texts in the world is the Talmud which contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis dating back the 5th century B.C. and is the basis for all Jewish law and discussion. Again, Lilith appears as a long-haired demon with wings who had the power to seduce men in seconds or unknowingly fornicate with them as they slept. In Judaism, unwholesome sexual practices were often linked to the image of Lilith as a way to explain why men were weakened against their will. Although based on an intellectual study, the Talmud does nothing to dispel the reputation of Lilith—instead, it recommends people do not sleep alone at night for fear Lilith will molest or kill them.
Because Lilith terrorized society for centuries, many incantations and amulets were created to ward off her evil power. One such artifact dating back to the 8th century B.C. was discovered in Syria in 1933 and clearly illustrates the ancient fear of this winged demon. This limestone plaque (which likely hung in the home of a pregnant woman) served as a protector against Lilith who was believed to always be lurking at the door and blocking out the light. One translation of the artifact reads, “O you who fly in the darkened rooms, be off with you this instant, this instant, Lilith. Thief and breaker of bones.” It was believed Lilith would see her name written on the plaque and flee out of fear of being seen, as she was presumed to enjoy the act of sneaking up on the unsuspecting. The plaque thus offered protection from her malevolent intentions and kept the innocent mother and child safe. Ancient people of this time believed there were always supernatural forces at work just looking to bring about destruction—much like the Evil Eye—and Lilith bore the face of this demon. These amulets and protections surely helped these impressionable people cope with the fear of infant mortality and the death of young mothers.
People living in the Jewish colony of Nippur, Babylonia thousands of years ago also knew and feared the figure of Lilith. Numerous ceramic bowls used for incantations have been uncovered in the area, revealing detailed Aramaic inscriptions of spells and protections. These artifacts date back to the approximately 600 and are an excellent illustration of an average citizen’s beliefs about Lilith. According to their ancient beliefs, such demons not only killed infants but they could produce depraved offspring by getting it on with men.
Outside of the Bible, the most legitimate source on Lilith is found in an ancient book called the Zohar which is the foundational work of the Kabbalah. In this text, scriptural interpretations are discussed as well as the essence of God, redemption, the nature of souls, and the structure of the universe. The Zohar speaks specifically to the “true self” and the relationship between God’s energy and humans; it is also one of the most respected volumes in the book of Jewish mysticism. Lilith is mentioned 27 times in this depiction, and it supports the idea that she was created during the time of Adam using dust from the earth. It goes on to describe her as the unsuitable wife of God’s Adam 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 Eve’s female weakness but also of Lilith’s perniciousness—a double whammy. 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,” and 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.
Her image as a darkly feminine jinni continued until the 7th century at which time her reputation became even more sinister. Sometime around the year 1000, an anonymous text entitled The Alphabet of Ben Sira was introduced to the Jewish community. In it, Lilith plays a big part as the winged destroyer who preys on the innocent, but she is also a major player in the history of the world—she is Adam’s first wife, the one before Eve, who left Eden because she no longer wanted to live in man’s shadow. In this fanciful addition to the age-old biblical tale, the Almighty fashioned a woman for Adam named Lilith who was supposed to serve as his loyal companion. But Lilith was not interested in her “wifely duties” and did not want to lie under Adam during sex. She wanted to be on top, literally and figuratively, in her rightful place as a free and powerful woman. She did not want to rule over Adam—she just wanted to be equal because they were “both created from the earth.”
Much to the chagrin of the Creator, Lilith continued to fight with Adam and eventually became so frustrated with his arrogance that she brazenly spoke the sacred Tetragrammaton Yahweh of the lord which was reserved only for holy priests. In doing this, she shocked her society and proved her unworthiness to live in Paradise with Adam. As a result, she fled as a more powerful being and was set up to become a supernatural character who is of the earth and yet, not beholden to it. While she bore the blame for her failed relationship with Adam, their conflict illustrated the universal theme of patriarchal authority and the archetypal battle of the sexes. Both wanted to be on top—as dominant and independent creatures—and there could be no compromise. In universal terms, man cannot handle woman’s innate need for freedom and power, while a woman will settle for nothing less. In the end, even though their bodies can find union, their souls can never reconcile and are forever destined to be separate.
In one of her more flattering depictions, Irish mythology defined the night hag as the Morrígan, or the phantom queen, who is linked to fate and portents of death. In this role, she returns to her bird-like figure, appearing as a crow who flies over a battlefield, a harbinger of things to come. Often linked to the Valkyries in Norse mythology, the Morrígan is a powerful figure associated with wealth and strength. This female figure of the Gaelic Morrígan is linked to the classic image of Lilith through a 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate. Within, she is described as “a monster in female form, that is a Morrígan” who asserts her power of the story’s hero Cúchulainn and predicts his death in battle. Once his battle has begun, however, the Morrígan returns in human form to offer him her body and her protection, but he rejects her offer. Spurned by the young hero, she intervenes in his next battle and tries to destroy him—but she is unsuccessful and Cúchulainn prevails.
In Irish folklore, she is also associated with the banshee who is a symbol of imminent death. She has been described as youthful warrior-hunter who lives on the edge of civilized society and partakes in lawlessness as a way to garner strength and influence. But she is also regularly seen a sexualized figure connected to fertility, sovereignty, and protection. Her image is interwoven into the very fiber of Irish mythology and is consecrated with holy sites in wild areas and endless oral traditions.
Looking back through literary history, there are countless representations of Lilith-inspired characters, all of whom possess a ghastly beauty and deep-seated desire to bring about the ruination of happiness. From C.S. Lewis’s White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia who has put an endless freeze on the world and is eventually destroyed by Aslon, to the deadly stepmother in Snow White who wants to stomp out anything younger and more beautiful, literature is rife with demonic and sexually deviant female figures who represent an inversion of the “norm.” Through these various depictions of the quintessential hag, it is easy to see how the ancient occult gave rise to a literary tradition of female fear. The anxieties and complexities that surrounded the nature of woman are nothing new—they date back to the beginning of the human narrative and continue to this day. This succubus, this winged night demon, this dastardly golem, has been reborn again and again through the ages to reflect a new perception of women, document her new definition, and redefine her place in society. As humans evolve and change with time, Lilith perseveres because she is eternal—she is the original Eve, the scapegoat of man, and an undeniable part of our shared psychological framework. Through her, civilization has tried to untangle the anxieties and complexities around female power and find a way to understand that which can never be fully explained.
Today, the image of Lilith receives a more compassionate reading and has even made a resurgence as a feminist figure who demanded her own intellectual and sexual autonomy. In the modern parable The Coming of Lilith by Judith Plaskow, Lilith assumes a different persona and becomes a more intelligible and likable character. As Plaskow tells it, Lilith feels lonely when she is exiled from Eden and tries to reconcile with Adam—but he will not accept her back because he’s happy with Eve. But one day Eve sees Lilith on the other side of the wall in Paradise and recognizes her as being a woman like herself. She swings on a branch and lands on the other side, making friends with Lilith and discovering a common bond of friendship. Through this connection of the two original female figures, “sisterhood grew between them” and became a deeply puzzling and alarming fact for both man and God.
Other authors have gone on to describe Lilith’s dilemma as a natural one and the result of the Almighty’s impossible request—to deny one’s very nature as a human being. The evil figure of Lilith seen throughout history is now cast as a sympathetic figure who feels herself to be God’s “after-whim” and who has no real purpose in Paradise, other than to reflect the desires of Adam. As a feminist misfit, she escaped her confines and tried to find happiness, but all she discovered as a solitary female was loneliness and external resentment. Through this new lens, her frightening night flights are transposed into a very human journey to find companionship in a world full of fear.
And the rest is history.