Stalking Us for 9,000 Years: The Levantine Origins of the Undead

From enigmatic burials in prehistoric Jordan to the ancient Sumerian demoness Lilitu, the vampiric archetype originated early, and endures in a form the ancient Romans would recognize very well

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod
800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod: Attempt to thwart the undead from rising?Credit: Bin im Garten
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

Fear of demons and the undead has stalked humanity since prehistory. The oldest indication that living people feared unholy resurrection may be a site in Jordan, where prehistoric villagers enigmatically dismembered the dead 9,000 years ago. Some archaeologists postulate that the post-mortem mutilation was done to prevent them from rising again.

What the beliefs were in the millennia before writing can only be inferred. But finally writing would develop, and over 4,000 years ago, as texts attest: belief in demonic beings that, at the least, consumed blood, were prevalent in Mesopotamia and Northern Africa.

By the time of ancient Babylon, over 4,000 years ago, the spirit was clearly believed to survive the physical body. Rituals and amulets were created to prevent these supernatural beings from molesting the living. And at about the same time, in the deserts and wastelands of Sumer, demons named Lilîtu and Dimme were believed to prowl the night, in search of victims to drain of blood and life force.

Dimme, who would later also be known as Lamashtu, was believed to be a rogue daughter of the Mesopotamian sky god Anu. She appears as early as the early second millennium B.C.E., in ritual incantations written in Sumerian and Akkadian.

“Her iconography is well known from amulets, many inscribed with incantations that became canonized in the first millennium B.C.E. It is from this corpus that the oral origin of combating this demon and similar evil beings becomes apparent,” explains Dr. Shai Gordin, lecturer of biblical and ancient near eastern history at Ariel University.

Meanwhile, in ancient Egypt, a demonic winged being called baa – based on the verb for “drinking blood” – is mentioned in a 3,800-year-old ancient magico-medical papyrus text called Ramesseum III found in Thebes.

Certainly by the time ancient Egyptian religion took shape, belief in beings who consume blood was commonplace, says Dr. Kaisa Szpakowska, associate professor in ancient history and Egyptology at Swansea University, UK. Similar creatures are mentioned in the New Kingdom's funerary text of Amduat and in ("Text of the Hidden Chamber Which is in the Underworld") as well as in the Book of the Dead 125B, which both date to approximately 1,500 B.C.E. The Book of the Dead references the "Lady of raging, she who dances on blood", who is propitiated through ceremony.

In another seminal Egyptian story, “The Destruction of Mankind,” the humans are pitted against Ra, the sun god, who sends the goddess Hathor to wipe them out. The instant blood touches her lips, Hathor is transformed into the vicious Sekhmet, who slaughters so many that she wades in blood up to her knees.

While in the ancient world, blood represented life and power, the Mesopotamian "vampires" were not seeking souls but sustenance. Also, as microorganisms were unknown, disease was usually thought to have a demonic origin, hence the need for amulets to heal the sick.

In all this lore of demons, illness, curses and bad will, the legend of Lilith stands out.

The evolution of Lilith

It was apparently in ancient Mesopotamia that the demon Lilitu, who would later be transformed into none other than Adam's first wife, was first thought to wander the earth, vexing chiefly children and young men.

An arch-demoness feared by households throughout the region over thousands of years, she would come to be seen as a generalist targeting the family home: women in labor, little children and potent men, Gordin explains.

“The Mesopotamian spirit Lilîtu, whose name is actually derived from the Sumerian word líl meaning wind, spirit, is part of a triad of winged evil demons with human-like upper bodies, the legs of a wolf or a lion and taloned feet that belong to the spirit-class," says Gordin. The other two were her male counterpart lilû and the 'maiden' Lilu', he says.

The earliest known record of Lilitu is found in the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh, under her Sumerian name (“Dark Maiden”).

Seal with the Sumerian Gilgamesh motif showing the hero fighting two lions, dating to around 2500-1500 B.C.E.Credit: Ismoon

The legend of Gilgamesh, which was written about 4,000 years ago, was found on a clay tablet in 1853 by archaeologists excavating in Ur. The hero Gilgamesh overcomes a number of obstacles in his quest for immortal life. In one escapade he encounters the demoness Lilitu, who tries to thwart his plans to declare his love to Inanna, the goddess of eroticism and war. Equipped with a steady sword and sturdy armor, he not only kills a monster but also forces a terrified Lilitu to flee to the desert.

But, in myth at least, she would not die. In Sumer, Lilitu was considered to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Her breasts were engorged with poison, not milk. In early chants against Lilith, she was said to fly, not a rare mode of passage for creatures of the night.

A limestone wall plaque dating the 7th or 8th century B.C.E. discovered in 1933 in Arslan Tash, Syria, contains a dreadful mention: “O you who fly in (the) darkened room (s), Be off with you this instant, this instant, Lilith, Thief, breaker of bones”. The tablet may well have hung in the house of a pregnant woman, serving as an amulet against Lilith.

Over 3,000 years ago, the myths of Lilith and Dimme/Lamashtu merged. “The two become equated in the lexical tradition at some point with Lilîtu being called 'Lamashtu of the Night,'” says Gordin.

In turn, Lamashtu would morph into the ancient classic demoness named Lamia. She was believed to have birthed a child by Zeus, who was killed by his wife Hera.

While the myth takes various forms, by and large, in her grief – Lamia metamorphosed into a beast devouring the flesh and blood of young children. Amulets crafted to defend against Lamashtu/Lamia have been found from Iran in the east to Italy in the west and from the southern Levant to Anatolia in the north, Gordin says.

Belief in Lilith/Lamashtu/Lamia-type demons persisted up to the medieval period. Texts in Aramaic, Ethiopian and Greek all speak of baby-snatching demons against which incantations and amulets were useful, by invoking supernatural helpers, Gordin says.

A Jewish protective amulet from the 18th century that reads a warning in Hebrew: “Bind Lilith in chains!”Credit: Israel Museum, Jerusalem

By the time she reached Jewish tradition, the legend had gained a new dimension. Lilith had become Adam's first wife. She does not appear, certainly not as such, in the bible itself, but in its supporting literature – the Talmud.

Adam's sexy first wife

In the Hebrew Bible, Lilith is mentioned only once, in Isaiah 34:14, in which a sword-wielding Yahweh seeks vengeance against the pagan kingdom of Edom. Here, her name has reached the familiar form: Lilith.

The Book of Isaiah is a compendium of Hebrew prophecy spanning years; the first 39 chapters seem to date to the prophet's lifetime (approximately 742–701 B.C.E.) “The editors of the biblical texts were reluctant to include names of demonic figures in their text," Ben-Amos says. "Isaiah was a prophet/poet and he incorporated in his text figures and metaphors that were known to his audience from their oral tradition, and in this way, Lilith got into the Bible."

The various translations of the bible handle the Hebrew "Lilith" there in different ways, some giving her the name, others rendering it for example as screech owl, lamia (!), night animals, and some hedge their bets with "lilit (night creature)". Tnternational Standard Version renders it plural: "Liliths."

Prof. Robert Alter, who retranslated the bible from scratch, translated the Isaiah verse: "And wildcats shall meet hyenas, / and the satyr shall call to its mate. // There Lilith shall rest / and find repose for herself."

"Lilith is probably a demonic night-goddess (somewhat different from the later mythological Lilith), and the mixture of zoological and mythological creatures is not unusual in biblical literature," Alter tells Haaretz.

Dan Ben-Amos, a professor of Near Eastern folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that in the demonology of the time, Lilith was a desert resident. "She is mentioned together with other inhabitants of the deserts,” he says.

The Talmud was written centuries after the biblical books, between the third and fifth centuries C.E., and it has a new twist: Lilith as Adam's first wife. This was the rabbis' solution to the conundrum born of the bible having two conflicting versions of creation, in Genesis 1 (man and woman created together) and Genesis 2 (man created first). If the scripture was the word of God, and he couldn't have become confused, evidently there was a wife before Eve. In time, that mysterious spouse became conflated with the myth of Lilith.

Come the Middle Ages, Jewish amulets explicitly mention that 'First Eve'. "It seems to me, from the evidence that is available to me in scholarship, that she was imagined as a sexy woman, all sex and no fertility,” Ben-Amos tells Haaretz.

Mesopotamia, ceramic bowl that some suspect shows Lilith, about 600 C.E. Has Aramaic incantation to protect a man named Quqai and his family from demonsCredit: Semitic Musuem, Harvard Universi

Eli Yassif, professor of Jewish folklore at Tel Aviv University, elaborates that Lilith was thought to be the partner of the Great Demon (i.e., Satan), and to seduce men in their sleep, causing night emissions.

And in time, as the legend took evil wing and spread, it seems that the Levantine demons would merge with other horrific beliefs, culminating in the central European legend of the vampire.

A mother's love and vampires

According to a Greek myth that seems to stem from the fourth century B.C.E., the brothers Agrios and Orios, Thracian half-men-half-bears of vast size and strength, acted violently and insolently towards both gods and men, and feasted on human flesh. Eventually they incurred the wrath of Zeus, but were saved by their mother, who transformed them and herself into birds (often depicted as an owl-like creature): strigoi.

The Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, who lived in the third century C.E. and served under the Roman emperor Caracella quotes the second-century B.C.E. author Titinius in his medical poem Liber Medicinalis, saying that an efficient method to ward off these demons, called strix in Latin, was garlic (which also worked against mosquitoes). But the only way to slay the owl-like monster was to decapitate it and place the head between its feet. Another efficient method was to drive a stake through its heart.

During Rome’s ascendancy in the Balkans, the Geto-Dacian alliance posed a major threat. In fact, the alliance led by Dacia's King Decebalus twice defeated Roman armies. Early in the second century C.E., however, Rome prevailed and made the region a province.

Dacia, as it was called, enjoyed great prosperity and attracted droves of Roman colonists. They interbred with the Dacians, taught them Latin, and begat the ancestors of the present-day Romanians.

Quite possibly the Romans brought their fear of the undead with them – and their methods of dealing with them.

Similar belief in demons and the undead is suspected to be behind "deviant" burials discovered by archaeologists in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, in which bodies were decapitated, sometimes their severed heads were placed by their feet, and their chests were pierced by stakes. (Iron in later times was thought to deter vampires.) Some bodies were also found with amulets or material in their mouths - or a rock, as in the case of a 10-year-old child buried in ancient Rome, in roughly the 5th century C.E.

In the center of Romania lies Transylvania, home of the Dracula, the vampire invented by the sensationalist novelist Bram Stoker in 1897. The immense popularity of that creepy story endures to this very day. That probably because an evil thing going bump in the night that may play us and our sexuality for fools and eat our children is, simply, one of the most archaic images we know.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism