This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
She is the most horrifying demon of all: the queen of terror who swore from the beginning of time to eliminate all human males. She chooses the most remote of places of all, valleys and long travel routes so she can ambush male travelers. She seduces them with her calls, which they cannot resist, so that she can tear their bellies with her sharp hooves and drink the juice of their guts. She easily abducts children who stay out playing late after sunset and aborts women’s pregnancies once they bear male fetuses. She is more than just any other ordinary demon, like those created by the popular imagination to scare children from going out late at night. Most Middle Eastern cultures share a common belief in this feminine terrorizing monster. While she climbs the Yemeni slopes with ibex legs and hooves to catch her prey, Umm-al-Subyan has camel legs in Najd and Hejaz, where her name is Umm-Dowis and Sa’laa, respectively. In Syria and Iraq, she is al-Sala’wah, with a fish tail as she takes residence in rivers. Outside the Middle East, on the Russian and Eastern European steppes, she is Baba Yaga, the demon of swamps, with her stick-like long legs. In this article, first, we outline the Umm-al-Subyan legend and others by tracing her origins, and second, we look at a proposition, supported by ancient Sabaean archaeological inscriptions, that reveals the origins and symbolism of this figure in Yemen.
The Sabaean Phase
It is well-known that the Arabic word lail is used for the time that follows sunset, the nighttime. By going back 5,000 years, however, we can trace the first appearance of this word in the Sumerian transcripts, the oldest civilization in the world. The Sumerian goddess of air and spring was called Ninlil, a complex name that consists of two merged names, nin, meaning goddess, and lil, meaning wind. Later, during the Akkadian Empire, nin, the female reference, was omitted, making Lil the new name of the goddess of air and spring. It could be that the social and cultural changes that occured in the Bronze Age set the foundations of the patriarchal system, which were then reflected in mythology. For example, Lil was no longer an important goddess though she still enjoyed some form of sacredness and respect. With the establishment of Babylonia, the goddess of the lost southern winds was named Lilito. The Assyrians, however, transformed the name to Lilith, who became the goddess of the sickening cold northern winds. As the Assyrians grew in power and controlled all Mesopotamia, their Akkadian and Aramaic languages became the official dominant language of the ancient world., For over a thousand years of Assyrian dominance, their understanding of Lilith also became dominant and she became the goddess of the wind, a being that hides in the night, like an owl, when people go to sleep. This understanding could be the beginning of associating the word Lil with nighttime. This happened in parallel with degrading Lilith to the status of a demon that brings the deadly night storms to life. This degradation reached a peak when, around 600 BC, during the time of late Babylonia, Lilith became the most horrendous demon of all, immortalized in the Epic of Gilgamesh., In 586 BC, before the events known as the Babylonian exile, when Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, Jews lived for centuries in Mesopotamia as slaves. Many researchers believe this period witnessed a lot of Babylonian influence on Jewish culture. As a result, Lilith became a significant character in Jewish mythology.
At the beginning of my research, I thought that the myth of Lil did not come to Yemen until the late stage of her demonization as Lilith, which is when Judaism came to Yemen. However, as I tried searching for Lil in ancient Yemeni archaeological transcripts, I was shocked to find her in the Beit Dhaba’an’s inscription (60 BC). This is when my proposition began to take a logical framework. The rare text, discovered in 1984, mentions Wlil-Lil who is a goddess not commonly mentioned in any of the ancient South Arabian Musnad scripts: “With the blessings and help of the gods Athtar Shariqan, Lil, Sumaida’, Dhat-Badan, Athtar Aziz Dhi-Jaweb, Dhat-Trr, Rayman and their sun.” It is difficult to consider this a matter of linguistic similarity as Lil was among the gods the text requests blessings from. This may mean that the myth moved from Mesopotamia to Yemen at a time that preceded the demonization of Lil. This constitutes a puzzle: what if the myth dates back to ancient peoples who had mutual ancestry?
The Ḥimyarite Aksumite Phase
When the Dhu-Raidan tribes seized control of Yemen in 1 AD, a new state rose upon the ruins of the Kingdom of Saba. The new state was named the Himyarite Kingdom and took Judaism as the state’s religion before the Aksumite conquest in Yemen began spreading Christianity. With this, the country entered centuries of religious wars, and it could be that these 500 years of cultural and religious transformations have deeply influenced the figure of Lil in the popular Yemeni imagination. We can trace how she was a goddess for the Sabaeans and then transformed into the denounced demon, Lilith, in Judaism, which was influenced by the Mesopotamian civilization. In Judaism, we find that Lilith is the first woman, before Eve, who was created equal with Adam. The story is that when Lilith ran away from heaven, God created Eve. In order for Eve to be obedient, she was created from Adam’s rib. According to the Judeo-Christian perspective, Lilith objected when God gave Adam and his male lineage the upper hand in the hierarchy of power. As a result, Lilith asked for equality and she refused to recline underneath Adam during sexual intercourse out of belief that she should be on top. When Adam tried to tame her, she was furious, and a pair of strong wings grew out of her shoulders, which she used to fly away from heaven towards an isolated place near the Red Sea. After that, and just like Satan before her, she rebelled and took an oath to disobey God and show nothing but loathing for Adam and his male lineage, whom she swore to murder. With that, God cursed her and turned her into a demon, so she looked for Satan and married him. Since then Lilith has been having 100 demons a day with Satan, which could be why she was called Umm-al-Subyan (the mother of boys). By 7 AD, it became very common to recite anti-Lilith spells when a woman gives birth. Spells would also be put in necklaces that hang from children’s necks to protect them from abduction. They would also be written on bowls that are buried underneath the house or placed in the corners of rooms out of a belief that the bowl would captivate Lilith if she attempted to enter the house.
The Arab Phase
Six AD witnessed a deep transformation in Yemeni culture, especially when Arabic replaced the Himyarite language. Even though Lilith does not exist in Islam, the popular imagination retains her to the present day. Arabic has its roots in the old Semitic languages, just as Akkadian inherited Sumerian and Aramaic. Today’s Arabic alphabet is believed to have come from the Aramaic alphabet. I noticed how linguistically similar rooh (spirit), riyah (wind), lail (night), rawah (sunset) are. They all end up in a similar field of meanings in the old and modern Semitic languages. Lil, for example, in old Semitic meant rooh (spirit) and riyah (wind), while in modern Semitic it means rawah (sunset) and became the Semitic root word for rooh (spirit) as well as riyah (wind) in modern Semitic languages like Arabic. Thus, the words, which were used for spirit and wind are now used for sunset and vice versa. This could be because the Sumerian goddess Lil has always manifested in nighttime, winds and spirit.,
Non-material culture presents Bilquis as the most significant and powerful historical Yemeni figure. However, many of Yemen’s prominent historians associate her with jin; Nashwan al-Himiyari says Bilquis’s mother was a gazelle named Rawaha bint Sakan. A gazelle is close to an ibex in many ways and rawaha is the feminine of rawah. Islamic historian and exegete, Ibn Kathir, reiterates that historian al-Tha’labi says Bilquis had the legs and the hooves of an animal. So what is the purpose behind mixing the characteristics of Bilquis with those of Lilith? Is it an attempt to beautify Lil after centuries of demonization? Or is it, as many researchers believe, these historians’ way of remembering the good old days when women ruled? Some researchers associate the myth of Lilith with men’s desire in exercising patriarchal control over women. On the one hand, we can see metaphors in language that compare women who voice an objection to control with animals associated with demons. On the other hand, Lilith, today, has become a symbol for the feminine ego and feminist wisdom that was long demonized.
Lil is still present in many traditional Arabic songs that usually begin with a call for the night – O’Lail, as we see in Dhabi al-Yaman by Abu Bakr Salem, Sana’ani songs like Ya Lail li mn Ashku by Ali bin Ali al-Anesi and in Iraqi, Levant and Egyptian songs that usually start with Ya lail ya ain. We do not know when these song verses first appeared, but many researchers believe that they originated from ancient hymns that were meant to praise Lil and seek her approval.
Umm-al-Subyan is not just a monster that parents created to incite fear in their children; she is the figure of a long record of socialization, social propaganda and creative heritage, all produced by the collective human imagination. Day after day, media and education takes away much of the monstrosity of this figure and makes the stories that horrified people for thousands of years fade. What remains of her is the non-material cultural aspect that presents a case to study with the help of historical analysis, where we cannot help but ask: Does this figure, with all these dramatic transformations, present a reflection of women’s changing status throughout time?
Shihab Jamal al-Ahdal, is a researcher in Cultural Anthropology. Holds a Bachelor degree in Media (University of the Future – Sana’a). He works as a public relations officer at Basement Cultural Foundation.
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 Gospel: (KJV): Isaiah 34:14