I have been struggling with breaking back into blogging for a number of reasons. The biggest of them is that there has been a lot in my heart and on my mind about Africana traditions that I want to share from the last year of my spiritual journey but haven’t yet… and most of those things are cups of flaming hot tea that go against the grain of what’s popular to write about online. These are mostly basic things anyone would encounter when they work with an OG, traditional practitioner or join any legitimate ATR house, but none of it is particularly exciting or good news when you’re just learning about Africana spirituality on your own. For the most part, they also aren’t things people are talking a lot about online.
So for a long time, I’ve tiptoed around or kept silent on these topics. The truth is, holding back on these areas won’t make them any less important to add to our community’s discussion. I am just one voice and one perspective among many – one that should be questioned, poked, and prodded just as much as any other. There’s potential benefit for everyone’s growth as a collective when we can have open, honest dialogue together about what’s confusing, unexpected, and difficult to confront. With that, it’s time to finally open up and spill some of my tea this year. I hope that with every post, every time I share my thoughts, it is not as an expert or with any sense of “rightness,” but rather a piece of the broader conversation that we can share and an invitation to learn and grow together on our paths wherever they may be leading.
As I see the popularity and presence of Africana spirituality growing more and more, these become an increasing concern to me about the future of our traditions. Social media and online platforms are both an incredible way to spread empowering knowledge about our traditions, history, and culture – but without the wisdom and discernment of elders dedicated to teaching it carefully, that knowledge can be just as harmful to the preservation and genuine practice of those traditions as it can be for positive spiritual transformation. If we want to tap into all the good that technology can do to truly strengthen and support the black community through increased access to our spiritual traditions, we have to understand and step up efforts to protect against the damage that can also be done with these tools. As information and access multiples, so too does the potential for appropriation outside the black community and abuse, misunderstanding, and misuse of Africana traditions within the black community.
It is a wonderful thing when the internet can connect skilled practitioners to those who can benefit from their spiritual talents and create a means for that practitioner to support themselves financially. Money is another form of energy, and payment is an energy exchange in the context of Africana traditions, but not in a good way when the spirituality is all too often watered down through toxic processes of commercialization and problematic marketing.
It is amazing when so many more beginners on their paths can learn so much more than ever before about Africana traditions, but also dangerous when the delivery of that information comes at any time about potentially any topic – not taught by an elder who has taken on the responsibility of teaching and has the beginner’s best interests and what they are ready for in mind at all times.
It is exciting and empowering that anyone – myself included – regardless of experience or qualifications can write and share about Africana spirituality… not just the initiated, priests, and elders of many decades who traditionally were the respected sources. On the flip side, this opens the flood gates for falsehoods and misunderstandings about the traditions to become widespread if enough want to believe them.
I seriously worry about all these dangers because they pose a threat to the health and well being, the financial stability, and the spiritual growth of our community – as well as to the authentic transmission and preservation of our traditions and culture themselves. I firmly believe that these are areas where we need to be as honest and aware as possible. We must do our best to hold ourselves and each other accountable for how we represent, share, practice, engage in, and sustain Africana spiritual traditions. This is not to say that there aren’t many across our different online (and offline) communities who aren’t striving towards this – there are MANY. This is simply a call to action for that to continue in earnest and become a mainstream priority for all of us. I’m looking forward to hearing other’s thoughts on this subject, and I’ll definitely be writing on more specifics in the future.
To end on a positive note, I’ve been really inspired by some of the things that well-known podcaster, diviner, rootworker, and ATR practitioner Juju picked up during her reading of the year for 2020. At the end of 2019, I went to a Palo ceremony where I heard some things about this year that really fit together well with Juju’s messages and have been inspiring. Juju talks about how in 2020, it’ll be really important for us to share our gifts with each other for uplifting the black community. So here’s to this year, and all the possibilities for collective growth that it holds for us!
Pride month may be technically over now that it’s July, but in honor of Pride this year, I’m finally gonna tackle a topic that I’ve shied away from for quite some time – the difficulties that come with being LGBTQ+ and practicing Africana traditions. I identify as queer and nonbinary, and I’m also a Lucumi aborisha, a rootworker, and a Palo Kimbisa practitioner. There’s a lot of challenges for non-cis and/or non-straight practitioners of Africana traditions… there are definitely many aspects of the traditions I practice that I find more inclusive than Western ones, and other areas where I really, really struggle sometimes. I haven’t written about my experiences with this much before or advice on how to handle it because I wasn’t sure what to say that could help.
The fact is that many black communities around the world including many African cultures have prejudice issues related to LGBTQ+ identities and peoples. So homophobia, transphobia, and other prejudices in black spiritual and religious communities are very widespread and very difficult to face alongside everything else. And whatever advice or solutions that work for me in my particular situation with my identities wouldn’t necessarily be helpful for others. In many ways, I am also struggling with these things myself and so this topic is also difficult to talk about for me in that way as well.
I have been asked to and would love to write a well-researched article about the gender neutral / gender fluid Orishas and Yoruba concepts of gender… but as I realized after receiving my elekes, learning about the Orishas is something you must do with your ile and godparents. Every ile views the genders, characteristics, nature, and stories of the Orishas in their own way. Unless one day I become a godparent, it’s not my place to teach those things to anyone. The way my ile views Olokun, Obatala, Oshumare, and Olodumare is not the same (or necessarily even gender neutral / gender fluid as how other iles may understand them. Learning about the Orishas is not only a journey, it is a collection of wisdom and knowledge that can only expand through initiations. I wish I could share with you what I’ve learned as a queer enby on that journey, but even if I could it would not make your own journey. That can only happen when you navigate and experience it yourself.
I could jump into a discussion about the various specific practices and beliefs in Orisha traditions that relate to gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of one’s identity – but again, these vary a lot by ile. There’s no way for me to represent every tradition or belief (or the many perspectives on either) that could help to pin down and solve the issues related to them all. Ultimately, it depends on the Orisha tradition, the ile, and your godparents too. I could say, “Do your research thoroughly before joining an ile and before selecting godparents to make sure you find accepting ones”, but of course, it’s already extremely difficult for most of us to find an ile and godparents at all. So it feels like that advice isn’t very practical or insightful.
Instead of advice, what I want to offer is some hope for us. First, the hope that you’re not alone in this and never will be. When you feel the homophobia, transphobia, or lack of acceptance in any other way for being LGBTQ+, remember that there are many of us facing it. We can seek each other out, we can listen to each other, support each other. There’s the hope that your presence in these traditions matters. It matters so much, especially for all of us who face these challenges. As there are more and more of us being open with each other about who we are in these communities, so then we can better find and support each other.
We have the hope that some of us will eventually become the LGBTQ+ godparents who are able to welcome others into the traditions. The hope that there will be more out and well-respected gay babalawos, nonbinary olorishas, asexual aborishas, transgender iyanifas, and beyond… so that anyone can be and will be initiated as they are meant to be in harmony and alignment with their identities. The hope that these elders will one day expose and peel back as much as possible the influences of colonialism that have brought so many prejudices into our traditions.
I also believe in the powerful hope with all my heart and soul that the Orishas love every single one of us. That they love us and want us to have true happiness and fulfillment in our lives no matter who we love (or not), who we sleep with (or not), who we marry (or not), what gender (or lack thereof) we identify as. And I take comfort in the hope of the Yoruba belief that we all are born with different destinies, and that we played a role in shaping what that destiny would be before we were born into this lifetime.
Obatala may have made many “mistakes” when humanity was created, but I’ll never believe that anyone’s gender or sexual orientation was one of them. Many destinies, and so then many identities, because whoever you are, you are valid, and you were meant to be you.
In a broader sense beyond the Orisha traditions, these are my hopes for every Africana tradition and every black spiritual community. May we all find the hopes that help us to keep growing and receiving the healing we need from our traditions despite the challenges. May my many hopes for us, our Africana LGBTQ+ community all around the world, bring you hope on your journey as it does for mine. I’m always happy to listen if you ever want to talk about these challenges, so we can support each other along the way. Ashe.
As yall know, I haven’t posted much this year. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that I’ve been meditating on and practicing the power of silence. In many ways, it’s caused a huge shift in my perspective, and I want to share that experience with you because it’s part of how practicing Lucumi has changed my life.
In spirituality and magic, we talk a lot about the power of putting out one’s energy or ashe. When you pray, chant, sing, light candles, mix oils or baths… you’re making, doing, speaking your energy into the universe. We focus on that so often that we don’t discuss much of the opposite: controlling and directing energy by not spending it.Just as writing a petition or sealing a jar when done with intention contains ashe, so does choosing not to say or do something with intention.
Exchanging Ashe Wisely
In Lucumi, there is a seemingly endless array of herbal medicines, healing techniques, spiritual baths, prayers, ways to work juju… the curious part of me wants to learn it all and understand it all. But the reality is that most of the time as a practitioner of Lucumi, unless you are a very active priest, you probably won’t need or actually even learn the majority of them. That’s because we are very particular about when, where, and how we use our ashe. Our spirits – Egun (the ancestors), the Warriors, and the rest of the Orishas – guide us and inform us when it’s time to do work spiritual work to help restore balance in someone’s life and align them to their destiny. They also let us know when not to do anything at all, because there is a wisdom and power in knowing that, too.
We speak to the spirits through our traditional forms of divination – Obi, diloggun, Ifa – and learn what is needed or not at any given time for someone. This can be as simple as a brief cleansing with ewe (herbs) that lasts only seconds or as complex as making Ocha, the initiation to priesthood that lasts many days and can take years of preparation. All of our traditions involve exchanges of ashe between spirits and people, usually with the mediumship and assistance of a priest and their ashe as well. When the ashe is exchanged, the relationships between the people and spirits involved may deepen and healing, destiny-aligning balance is brought to the person’s life to empower and uplift them in the way that they need at that time.
When it is not needed, then we do not engage in these traditions. We do not spend or exchange our ashe if it isn’t necessary. As someone who likes to go, go, go and do, do, do and learn, learn, learn – this lesson in stillness and restraint has been a challenging one for me. I’ve had to really meditate on what it means to completely follow the guidance of the spirits and my godparents. It means letting go of my own agenda, which used to be my own direction for my path many years ago when I was a witch and solo practitioner. As I’ve learned more deeply what this means for me now, the practice of silence has spread throughout my life in ways I never expected.
Guarding the Threshold
Across many different spiritual, religious, and magical traditions, there are concepts similar to what is commonly known as a “taglock.” I imagine taglocks as doors, pathways, roads of connection from one point to another. That could be from person to person, object to person, location to person, or spirit to person. When you call on a spirit or deity by name, when you use dirt from a specific location, when you use a person’s photos or a lock of their hair, when you use a piece of an object or a color related to it… you’re drawing on that connection to something through something related to it. Not all traditions call this a “taglock,” but the basic concept is there. As I began to practice and learn more about Lucumi, it was like I was suddenly awakening to the fact that I had been leaving a breadcrumb trail of taglocks to myself and my practices.
So it began when I felt compelled not to publicly share the intimate details of my workings, my spiritual development in Lucumi, or what I was doing with my ile. Even as a rootworker, I stopped sharing as much (or anything at all) about my hoodoo workings. Every time I would be tempted to tell someone in a public space online, my ancestors would whisper in my ear. They kept telling me that if I share it, the information is out there for someone to use in ways I can’t control. It’s like the feeling I get when I leave my purse or wallet on a table, but immediately feel compelled to grab them before walking away. It’s not that I expect anyone to steal them. It’s that I never want to create an opportunity for them to be stolen, or for my workings to be disrupted.
Next, I found myself unable to take photos anymore of anything I owned that I used for spiritual purposes – not my altars, not my candles, my workings, my elekes, or anything else. It was like my ancestors were urging me to keep all the windows and doors and roads and paths to my sources of protection and ashe closed to the outside world wherever possible. Like how an iyawo (new initiate in Orisha tradition) is not allowed to be photographed, which is specifically for the iyawo’s spiritual protection. I had begun to protect all the sources and tools of my ashe in ways I never had before.
Last, I learned the most powerful kind of silence – to not share my ashe with those who hurt, provoke, taunt, disrespect, threaten, or anger me. In the past, I’ve been known to speak up online and engage in dialogue even with those who appropriate cultural practices or spread racism and other types of prejudices and hate. Those dialogues are important, and I don’t regret standing up for my culture and my peoples. Now I’ve been learning to be more careful and thoughtful about which exchanges of ashe are productive and lead to growth… and which ones may only fuel more hatred and pain on all sides. Though she may not know it, @afrocentric-divination has been a role model to me in this particular practice of silence, as someone who is very selective and thoughtful about when she speaks up on something or not and how she engages with trolls.
The Power of Potential
Ever since I’ve started practicing silence in these ways, I’ve noticed some changes. There is a lot more peace and quiet, a calmness, a sense of privacy around what I do spiritually. It has become more meaningful in new ways when I do share certain things with friends and family about my practices and spiritual development. Overall, I feel much safer and more protected.
I can feel the ashe that is kept just for me, the special air of quiet around that power that is only channeled outward when it feels just right. There is a joy in that and a stillness. From that quiet, I find it easier to pray, chant, and sing my ashe. From that peace, I find more clarity to divine and to direct my ashe. I discovered the power of the silence is in its potential as a blank canvas for me to color with manifestation.
Thank you for reading, and I hope that this little piece of my journey from this year is helpful in one way or another! Ashe.
This right here is literally a huge reason why I’ve shifted away from Tumblr to WordPress. I’m glad to see bloggers like @witches-ofcolor and her sister @visibilityofcolor speaking up about these trends.
The way in which close-mindedness mixed with a childish desire to be right can quickly spiral into online bullying fueled by group mentalities is something I’ve not just experienced myself but also watched happening over and over again to many others… I’ve seen it enough to seriously worry about the state of our online communities across Tumblr and Discord.
I think it’s especially important what Aubrey (@witches-ofcolor) is saying about how every argument no matter how good the intent behind it has flaws. My arguments and opinions that I share across this website have their flaws too… because there’s always going to be another perspective, another side to things. I do my best to stand behind my beliefs, but I also try to be open to listening to those I disagree with and to acknowledge that my beliefs and opinions have changed over time.
I believe there are ways we can all constructively and compassionately challenge each other and openly share our honest opinions. And I hope that there are more folks out there who want to see that happen than those who are happy to just watch drama explode or feed into that toxic drama. I hope our communities can do better in supporting each other even when there are major differences in opinions among us. Because spiritual communities can’t successfully help our people to heal, be protected, and move towards spiritual growth if those communities are focused on bringing others in their community down rather than growing, learning, and admitting to mistakes together.
In this article, I dive into the history of Lilith both inside and outside of Judaism to cover where she comes from, why there is confusion around who she is, what she means within Jewish tradition, and why it all matters when it comes to cultural appropriation of Judaism. The featured image of this post is a painting from the Jewish Museum by Melissa Meyer called “Lilith,” which you can read more about here.
If you’d like to continue this discussion about Lilith’s origins and cultural appropriation, please feel free to comment, reblog, etc. or tag me on Tumblr (@spiritroots) in your reply post. I only ask that you please read the article in its entirety before responding and that you please use sources and citations to dispute any historical evidence and interpretations. Comments, replies, anons in my inbox, etc. that aren’t constructive or are just straight up rude and baseless will be ignored. Thank you!
The Origins of Lilith
Midrashim are retellings of stories in the Torah to help fill holes in the text and explain biblical mysteries. Historically, midrashim were written by rabbis filling in these missing pieces of stories or repairing inconsistencies between multiple passages. Rabbinic midrashim became an important way for the Jewish people to interact with the nuances of the Torah and its narrative, and often they would be taught as if the midrashim really were the way things had happened. Some stories people don’t even realize are midrash and aren’t actually in the Torah, such as the story of Abraham smashing the idols. The story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife before Eve, is also a midrash.
Lilith was first mentioned as an evil entity in the Tanakh and later emerged from a midrash written to explain an inconsistency in Genesis. In Genesis 1, it says God created man and woman together. Then in Genesis 2, Adam is given a wife. So what happened to the first woman? In Lilith’s midrash, she is that woman who was made at the same time as Adam – and so, as a result, she considered herself his equal. In the ancient rabbinic tradition, Lilith was vilified and imagined as a vampiric, baby-eating arch-demoness. The rabbinic stories turned her into a demoness who sought to kill human infants unless they were protected by amulets. Here is one version of the original Lilith story from the classic Alphabet of Ben Sira.
After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen.2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.” Lilith responded, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.”
The validity of Lilith’s argument is more apparent in Hebrew, where the words for man (Adam) and “earth” come from the same root, adm (nst) (adam [nst] = Adam; adamah [vnst] = earth). Since Lilith and Adam are formed of the same substance, they are alike in importance.
But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: “Sovereign of the universe!” he said, “The woman you gave me has run away.”
At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angles to bring her back. Said the Holy One to Adam, “If she agrees to come back, fine. If not she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.” The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, “We shall drown you in the sea.”
“Leave me!” she said. “I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.” When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: “Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.” She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day.
Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.
Lilith became so notorious that she even garnered an official place in the demonology of the Kabbalah: “From these ancient traditions, the image of Lilith was fixed in Kabbalistic demonology. Here, too, she has two primary roles: the strangler of children (sometimes replaced in the Zohar by Naamah), and the seducer of men, from whose nocturnal emissions she bears an infinite number of demonic sons” (x). Lilith also had a place in Jewish folklore. Many Jewish folktales like this one speak of her dangerous ways:
For every mirror is a gateway to the Other World and leads directly to Lilith’s cave. That is the cave Lilith went to when she abandoned Adam and the Garden of Eden for all time, the cave where she sported with her demon lovers. From these unions multitudes of demons were born, who flocked from that cave and infiltrated the world. And when they want to return, they simply enter the nearest mirror. That is why it is said that Lilith makes her home in every mirror…
Now the daughter of Lilith who made her home in that mirror watched every movement of the girl who posed before it. She bided her time and one day she slipped out of the mirror and took possession of the girl, entering through her eyes. In this way she took control of her, stirring her desire at will…. So it happened that this young girl, driven by the evil wishes of Lilith’s daughter, ran around with young men who lived in the same neighborhood.
Source: “Lilith’s Cave,” Lilith’s Cave: Jewish tales of the supernatural, edited by Howard Schwartz (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)
Whether you look at Lilith from her origins in midrashim, her demonic status in the Kabbalah, or her lusty spirit possessions and infanticide in Jewish folklore, it is clear that Lilith’s role in Judaism was traditionally very, very negative. She was not historically celebrated, worshipped, or venerated in Jewish tradition, but instead feared and quite literally demonized. And originally, Lilith was simply an explanation for Genesis in the Torah. Even if she was seen in a positive light, it is important to remember that monotheism is a core and essential aspect of Judaism. The archangels themselves are not worshipped, and according to mitzvot (the commandments of God in the Torah) it would be a horrible sin to do so. In Judaism, none of the messengers and servants of God are the same as God. So, when people refer to Lilith as a “Jewish goddess” (or refer to any “Jewish goddesses”) this is a deep misunderstanding of Judaism on many levels.
Lilith in Modern Judaism
In the seventies, the second wave of feminism began to transform Jewish women’s views on Lilith and her place in modern Jewish theology. The woman’s movement and Jewish feminists were central to evolving the concept of midrash into a new form of interpretation and commentary of the Torah that was not limited only to rabbis but gave this interactional power to “ordinary” Jews as well – making Judaism and the Torah’s sacred message a little more inclusive for everyone.
Thank Hashem for modern contemporary Jewish feminists who decided that if rabbis could give birth to Lilith and her original story through the writing of midrash, then a new midrash could bring about the rebirth of our first woman. In 1972, Judith Plaskow, a Jewish theologian, wrote a new midrash about Lilith entitled, “The Coming of Lilith.”
In the beginning, the Lord God formed Adam and Lilith from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. Created from the same source, both having been formed from the ground, they were equal in all ways. Adam, being a man, didn’t like this situation, and he looked for ways to change it. He said, “I’ll have my figs now, Lilith,” ordering her to wait on him, and he tried to leave to her the daily tasks of life in the garden. But Lilith wasn’t one to take any nonsense; she picked herself up, uttered God’s holy name, and flew away.
“Well now, Lord,” complained Adam, “that uppity woman you sent me has gone and deserted me.” The Lord, inclined to be sympathetic, sent his messengers after Lilith, telling her to shape up and return to Adam or face dire punishment. She, however, preferring anything to living with Adam, decided to stay where she was. And so God, after more careful consideration this time, caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam and out of one of his ribs created for him a second companion, Eve. (read the whole midrash here)
In the rest of this re-telling of the story, Eve and Lilith find companionship and sisterhood together, realizing that they can lift each other up in empowerment rather than be trapped into fulfilling Adam’s wishes. This new midrash contains many of the same elements and plot points as the original rather than completely doing away with traditional version, but also brings modern Jewish values of women’s roles, relationships, and self-respect to the way both Lilith and Eve are depicted. The author, Edith Plaskow explains,
We took Lilith for our heroine, and yet, most important, not Lilith alone. We try to express through our myth the process of our coming to do theology together. Lilith by herself is in exile and can do nothing. The real heroine of our story is sisterhood, and sisterhood is powerful.”
Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, gracing the cover of Lilith.
In the same year that “The Coming of Lilith” was written, another Jewish feminist, Lilly Rivlin, published an article about Lilith to try to recover the feminist power of her story for a modern audience. Not long after, Lilith magazine was created in 1976, making the once demonized first woman their namesake because of her fight for gender equality with Adam. An article in their introductory issue finitely rejected her as a demoness and explained her feminist implications.
Today, Lilith is a well-respected and award-winning feminist, Jewish-American publication that has featured investigative reports, contemporary and historical first-person accounts, entertainment reviews, fiction and poetry, art and photography. It is a result of modern Judaism’s shift in view of Lilith from an evil figure to be feared to a feminist hero and role model for Jewish women today.
Just as there are many branches of Judaism or different levels of observance, there are also different types of Jewish cultures within the Jewish community around the world. Some remain more traditional and still regard Lilith as a demonic baby-killer and seductress, as our folklore and stories are still told and still a part of our culture. Not every Jewish person accepts or even knows of the modern Jewish feminist interpretation. However, I want to emphasize that this does not take away from the importance, significance, or power of Lilith as a feminist figure in Judaism today. While not everyone shares this perspective, it is an important and very meaningful one to those who do choose to see her that way.
The traditions of our past and present are both a part of the Jewish religion and culture – and neither version of Lilith’s midrash is illegitimate. One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that it may be monotheistic, but it’s not monolithic. The theological art of debating and arguing is at the heart of Jewish tradition, which is why we have jokes like “ask three Jews, get ten answers.” There doesn’t have to be just one right way to understand Lilith in Judaism, and that’s more than okay. No matter how you look at it, Lilith has remained an important and significant Jewish figure.
Now that you have some background and context about where Lilith comes from in both historical and modern Judaism, let’s take a step back in time. It’s common to hear goyim (non-Jewish folks) refer to Lilith as if she existed as a figure prior to the Tanakh and original midrash where she is first mentioned in Judaism. This is a simple confusion about the name “Lilith” and the archetype of a dangerous, fierce, chaotic neutral feminine entity that has become heavily associated with Lilith.
Some historians have suggested that the archetype which inspired Lilith within rabbinical literature comes from pre-Judaic cultures. This is debatable, but certainly not completely unfounded since there were other entities or spirits in other nearby cultures that had some similar characteristics to Lilith. Just as there are spirits or creatures in many cultures around the world that seem to resemble vampires, mermaids, and fairies, it’s not difficult to find other figures in different cultures who have a spirit archetype to Lilith in Judaism. In Mesopotemia, there were descriptions on cuneiform inscriptions of Līlīt and Līlītu spirits who brought disease. In Ancient Greece, there was a belief in the Lamia (pl. lamiai) who killed children and had serpentine bodies from the waist down. Scholars have made connections between the Mesopotamian līlītu and Greek lamiai with Lilith.
However, the name “Lilith” is Hebrew and was never used until it was written in the Tanakh and the midrash that tells Lilith’s original story within Judaism. Even though the name “Lilith” didn’t exist as a name for the pre-Judaic entities that may have inspired rabbis to write Lilith’s midrash, “Lilith” is now such a well-known name that it gets misapplied to those pre-Judaic figures. This is the classic problem of anachronisms, which occur when a later developed term with a contextual meaning is incorrectly used to refer to an older concept that preceded it historically. The Greek lamiai and Mesopotamian līlītu can be compared to Lilith, but they aren’t exactly the same entities from an academic historical perspective or a cultural one.
Historians and social scientists who have tried to make inaccurate, anachronistic arguments about līlītu being the same as Lilith have been debunked time and time again. For example, connections made between Lilith and an entity called ki-sikil-lil-la-ke in the Gilgamesh have been rejected by scholars Dietrich Opitz and Sergio Ribichni. Henri Frankfort and Emil Kraeling tried to identify a Mesopotamian figure (shown to the right) from the Burney Relief as related to Lilith. This claim was also rejected by multiple sources, including the British Museum where the relief is now kept.
In conclusion, the archetype commonly associated with Lilith is not exactly the same as the specific figure of Lilith, and where it applies to pre-Judaic cultures and other folklore, the specific names of those entities such as lilitu and lamiai should be used. The name “Lilith” is Hebrew (written as לִילִית) and inherently refers to the Jewish figured called Lilith who was first referred to in the Tanakh (Isaiah 34:14) and later expanded upon in midrashim.
The Spread of Lilith
With the historical evidence we have today, it’s clear that the archetypes associated with Lilith exist across many cultures, but Lilith herself as a figure with that Hebrew name comes from Judaism alone. Looking forward, we see that some of the Abrahamic religions that came from Judaism later adopted Lilith into their own folklore and cosmologies.
During the Renaissance, Michelangelo imagined Lilith like a Greek lamia: half-woman, half-serpent, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge (see painting to the left). These sorts of depictions of Lilith and a Christian interest in her came about as a result of Lilith’s popularity within Judaism through cultural diffusion. It happened similarly to how Christianity approached the Kabbalah, a genre of sacred mysticism literature within Judaism. The Kabbalah appeared to be an exotic and magical system to early Christians who wanted to apply it to their own understanding of Christianized texts from Judaism within the Bible (well known as the “Old Testament”). Likewise, Lilith was well-known demoness within Jewish folklore and the Kabbalah who was integrated into Christian folklore and storytelling as well.
Even later in history, Lilith was also adopted into some Islamic folk stories, where she was said to be the original mother of the Djinn just as she was viewed in other cultures as the mother of all demons. There are no references to Lilith in the Qu’ran or Hadith, but a Sufi author Ahmad al-Bunni mentions a demon in Sun of the Great Knowledge called “the mother of children” who might be derived from Lilith.
Today in some occult circles and in many forms of modern Satanism where usage of Christianized Kabbalistic texts and demonology abounds, Lilith is extremely popular and sometimes even viewed as a goddess rather than a demon. Unfortunately, in these contexts, there is often a lack of understanding about where Lilith originally comes from and views of her have been heavily filtered through both Christianity and Satanic or Western occultist interpretations.
Lilith & Cultural Appropriation
Lilith is a challenging topic when it comes to cultural appropriation, because much of Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths derive their beliefs and sacred scriptures from Judaism. The line between simply practicing an Abrahamic religion versus appropriation Judaism can be complex, confusing, and fiercely debated. However, there is a way to understand where some respectful boundaries are when it comes to Christian concepts that are open as sources of inspiration for one’s spiritual practice as opposed to Jewish traditions that are closed.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that while Christianity and Islam are religions that are open to anyone to convert and proselytize widely across the globe, Judaism is a very closed religion. Technically, it’s semi-closed because you can convert, but it certainly feels closed because traditionally a rabbi is supposed to say “no” three times to potential converts before saying “yes.” The conversion process into Judaism is considered like being permanently adopted into the Jewish family, and it’s a very lengthy and detailed process that can take up to a year or longer. It involves rigorous study, special ceremonies, joining a Jewish community, and working closely with a rabbi. So when goyim try to practice aspects of Jewish that they aren’t explicitly invited to practice, it’s a serious violation of this religion and culture that has been marginalized and oppressed for most of its very long history.
That being said, Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic religions developed out of Judaism and used many aspects of Judaism as a part of their foundational beliefs. That’s why it gets complicated to discuss where the line between Judaism and other Abrahamic religions ends or begins. For some Jewish traditions, however, there is a clear precedent for what many of us Jewish folks consider cultural appropriation – and it definitely includes Lilith as a figure who never became a part of other religions until after she was a popularized folkloric and esoteric figure within Judaism.
Outside of the one brief Lilith mention in the Tanakh, Lilith as a fully conceptualized figure developed within rabbinical literature after Christianity had already emerged as a new religion. Unlike elements of Judaism that were used as a basis for the formation of Christianity at the beginning of the religion, Lilith was a separate and distinct part of Jewish culture that wasn’t originally a part of Christianity as a religion at its inception.
There are other aspects of Judaism that weren’t incorporated into Christianity from the religion’s beginnings such as celebrating Seder or the Kabbalah but were later adopted or culturally absorbed into Christianity. The notion of a “Christian Passover” or “Christian Qabalah” are considered very culturally appropriative by much of the modern Jewish community today – and goyim (non-Jewish people) incorporating Lilith into their religious beliefs is regarded the same way, as a form of blatant cultural appropriation.
On both Tumblr and Discord, Jewish folks who are a part of the spiritual/occult/magical/witchcraft communities that so often appropriate Lilith have spoken out against goyim who incorporate Lilith into their spiritual and religious practices. These are just a few examples from several Jewish bloggers:
If you made it this far, seriously thank you for taking the time to read this! Unfortunately, this is a hotly debated but largely misunderstood topic, but it’s an important one to many Jewish folks like myself who see our religion and culture appropriated on an almost everyday basis in New Age and pagan spiritual circles – as well as in Western magick and witchcraft traditions that were built off of so much appropriation from Judaism and other closed or semi-closed religions and cultures.
If you are Jewish, you have every right to work with Lilith in your spirituality or not and to view her as a demoness, an old folktale, a feminist hero, or simply the first woman that Hashem created. If you aren’t Jewish, please understand how significant Lilith was traditionally and still is today in Judaism, and please don’t misrepresent her or incorporate her into your practice. If you find the archetype of Lilith inspiring, you are more than welcome to work with the Mesopotamian spirits and goddesses or Greek lamiai who share some commonalities with Lilith but belong to open religious traditions that anyone may practice.
In the mundane aspects of our lives, it isn’t always so surprising when things don’t work out as planned. But when you’ve dedicated lots of time to work the roots, pray intensely, and invoke spirits, it can feel even more like a failure when your goals aren’t realized through all that effort. It takes time, energy, and resources to invest in a working, spell, ritual, or ceremony… so when it feels like the main goals weren’t achieved, it can be more than disappointing. It can feel like the spirits or your own abilities and energies have failed you.
In certain forms of Western traditions of magic and witchcraft such as ceremonial magick and chaos magick, it is common to put a strong emphasis on obtaining results from the efforts of one’s spellwork or rituals. I’ve seen some practitioners argue that this is the case for all traditional paths including Africana and Afro-Latine traditions. Of course, it is true that our ancestors were motivated both during and after slavery to preserve these traditions to see very immediate results for the sake of survival. However, looking at this from a Eurocentric perspective and boiling it down to results as the top priority misses out on the bigger picture.
Though there are many indigenous African religions that are all distinct and unique, they also share many commonalities with each other. A traditional part of the Afrocentric worldview shared across cultures is the concept of interconnections between different energies, spirits, and forms of life. For example, you can connect with forces and spirits of nature through roots and herbs, or you can tap into your connection with your ancestors through your own DNA and memories to work with them – and potentially also the many groups of spirits that they are connected to. To grow one’s abilities, one must grow and develop networks of spirits and energies so that they can draw influence and power from the links and bonds between circles of people and spirits.
Within this context of spiritual networks and communities, it becomes clear from the Afrocentric perspective that one cannot fail all on their own. To accomplish something with the help of nature, ancestors, or the divine, one must have agreement and permission from those spirits or forces. It’s always possible that no matter how hard one prays or asks for help, the answer is still “no.” Some spirits or forces within the universe simply may not have the power to help you with what you asked. Sometimes, they may have much greater knowledge than you about what it is you wanted and won’t give it to you for what are extremely good reasons from their perspective. Alternatively, your working or ritual could have manifested something, but the spirit decided it was better to give it to you in a form that you didn’t recognize or didn’t like. What feels like “failure,” can be the result of many different ripples across these spiritual networks and it isn’t necessarily because you did anything wrong.
Looking at it from this Afrocentric perspective, the notion that these traditions are about “obtaining results” is not entirely wrong, but it’s definitely an oversimplification. Personally, I would describe the purpose of workings, rituals, and ceremonies in Africana traditions as ways of connecting with and receiving guidance from the forces and spirits of the universe. These connections and guidance can help manifest things or outcomes that one needs in life when the spirits or forces at play are both willing and able to help. They can also stop or prevent things from occurring when the spirits wish to do so for your own protection or development. Once you recognize the bigger picture, you can begin to see how something not working out as you planned may not actually be a “failure” at all.
What to Do
When these things happen, it’s often hard to accept no matter what perspective you try to take on it. What feels like “failure” can be a serious test of faith or confidence in oneself and one’s practice. It can make you wonder if your ancestors are listening because otherwise how could they not choose to help you? It can be easy to feel like you are the problem and wonder where you went wrong.
During times like these, I’ve sometimes really struggled with acceptance and understanding of the situation so that I can move on and move forward with my practice. There is no one right way to deal with it, but here are a few steps I take that help me to process what happened and regain confidence again.
1) Ask why. One of the great things about our connections with spirits and forces of nature when working with them through these traditions is that there is a way to communicate. There are traditional divination methods and ways of communicating with spirits to be found in every Africana tradition and religion. So, the reasons why things didn’t turn out as expected don’t have to remain a mystery or an unanswered question stirring in your mind.
As long as you do so respectfully, it can be okay to follow up with the spirits and ask what happened or why something went the way that it did. I don’t recommend doing this if you are feeling resentful towards those spirits, but if you are able to ask respectfully, the answers might have a lesson or insight to teach you – or at least provide some closure about the situation.
For example, perhaps your ancestors knew something about the person you wanted to sweeten towards you as for why they would be a very incompatible romantic partner. Maybe the spirits decided to hold off on giving you something because a different and more needed blessing is already on its way to you.
2) Experience gratitude for the positive aspects of whatever came out of your prayer, spell, or ritual. It can be challenging to look at things as a glass half full when you needed that full glass to do something extremely important or meaningful. But sometimes there’s only so much that spirits can do or that they feel it’s wise to do for a certain situation – and appreciating what you did receive helps ensure that you’ll continue to receive those blessings in the future.
If you prayed to get somewhere on time but you were still delayed, at least you can still appreciate the blessings of arriving there safely in one piece. Maybe you didn’t get as much money in this last check as you had hoped to manifest to pay your rent, but some cash still came. Perhaps that was all your ancestors were able to help bring in for you this time.
3) Choose to let go of what happened. Ultimately, whatever the reason, what’s happened has already passed, and it helps to accept and let go of the outcomes. It’s more than okay to give yourself plenty of time and be patient with yourself if you’re still feeling angry, confused, upset, or disappointed.
Sometimes acceptance of the loss – especially when it’s something you needed very urgently – can feel almost impossible. At the end of the day, it’s up to you when you’re ready to move forward and continue with your practice. Remember that taking a break isn’t a “failure” either, and it can be a very needed form of self-care, reflection, and rejuvenation.
While the mainstream and Eurocentric colors of magic and witchcraft for clothing tend to be black or deep purples and other darker hues, in many Afro-diasporic traditions the most popular color to wear is white. If you are starting down the road of Santería / Lucumí, you’ll quickly notice that it’s considered better to try to wear white or at least lighter shades in general and absolutely mandatory to wear white during certain ceremonies or for periods of time after being initiated.
After being an iyawo from my elekes initiation into Lucumí and wearing white from head to toe for seven days, I’ve felt the ashe of wearing Obatala’s color and being intimately protected by it. So I want to share a bit about this practice in Orisha traditions and dive into a discussion about what it means and where it comes from.
On the surface, it might seem problematic in the same way that white is often seen as implicitly better or more sacred in many Eurocentric contexts. It’s true that white in Africana traditions does often stand for peace, cleansing, and protection, but in the Afrocentric context it’s not because of racist notions that white represents “good” while black is “evil.” Sometimes Eurocentric frameworks have caused misinterpretations and twisting around to bring those racist concepts into Afro-diasporic spaces, but that is not where the idea originated. Never once have I ever heard any of my spiritual elders say that “black” is bad or evil, and the color definitely plays its own sacred role in Orisha traditions.
Ikin on a babalawo‘s divination tray
As the color of the ikin (“palm nuts”) of Ifá divination, black (dudu in Yoruba language) is said to be the preferred color of the babalawo (Olupona 463). Olorisha and scholar Teresa Washington describes black as the source and container of iwa as the “origin and apex in the undiluted power of pure cosmic Blackness” (Washington 34). So it is not at all that this sacred color is seen as “bad,” but rather that it is not the right ashe to be wearing on one’s body because it contains and attracts all. When you need protection and want to repel unwanted energies away, a powerful container of all creation is not seen from the Yoruba perspective as the right color for that specific role.
White (funfun) is for cleansing and protection because it shares similarities with white light in a scientific sense as a combination of many wavelengths. The color white in Orisha traditions also “projects the properties of All” (Washington 57). There is a class of Orisha called orisha funfun (“white orishas”), including Iyanla, Odua, and Obatala, who are primarily represented by the color white and carry its associated meanings (Washington 95). Washington describes the orisha funfun as “funnel[ing] the blood of existence through the reflective properties and scientific principles of the hue white to imbue each person with a signature blend of iwa, ori, and ashe” (Washington 95).
An iyawo of Lucumí tradition
Because white is seen as a projective color, it is strongly associated with cleansing and protection as the spiritual ashe of removing and reflecting away unwanted energies and influences. After some initiations into Orisha traditions, the new initiate becomes an iyawo, or a bride of the Orishas. The iyawo traditionally must wear white from head to toe so that they would be as protected as possible during that time since they are spiritually vulnerable. I can personally speak to the ashe that I felt while wearing only all white clothing every day when I was an iyawo.
Wearing white is also about the color’s connection to Obatala, who is probably the most famous and well-known of all the orisha funfun. His name means “Ruler of the White Cloth” across both Santería / Lucumí as well as West African Ifá / Isese tradition. Obatala’s close relationship with the color white relates to his traditional role as an Orisha of creation and maker of humanity (Washington 38). It is important to understand that his relationship with the color white definitely does not mean that he could ever be accurately depicted with white skin or that he is anything other than an African spirit (see image below for reference).
Artistic representation of Obatala
Obatala’s connection to the color of white (funfun) is a purely spiritual relationship that only exists within an Afrocentric context of the color’s meaning. Washington describes all life as having the qualities of “iwa, Ori, and ashe” (“character,” “soul,” “energy”), which Obatala’s whiteness refracts like white light radiating many different colors through a prism (Washington 39). She quotes Fatunbi, who connects Obatala’s light-like function to the creation of life, “[b]ecause all color is contained within white light, all Orisha are believed to be linked with Obatala” (Washington 39). When understanding Obatala’s white as linked to all colors and Orishas, it becomes clear why it makes sense for practitioners of Orisha traditions to so often wear white.
I hope this article has helped to clear up any misconceptions about this practice in Africana traditions and explain some of the depth behind the color from a Yoruba perspective. You can tap into the energies of wearing white whether you practice an Orisha tradition or another Africana tradition where wearing white has similar meanings or whether you simply practice Afrocentric spirituality on your own!
Olupona, Jacob Obafemi Kehinde, and Rowland Abiodun. Ifa Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Indiana University Press, 2016.
Washington, Teresa N. The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya’s Tornado, 2015.
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