Jewish texts have a surprising number of hair-raising spooky stories.
by Arielle Kaplan
It’s no secret that the Torah abhors goblins and ghouls. In Exodus, the text states, “You shall not allow a witch to live,” and just take a look at this passage from Deuteronomy:
“Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquiries of the dead.”
Biblical prohibitions against necromancy and witchcraft aside — who’s going to tell God there’s a witch in the Torah? — supernatural beings, from vampires and succubi to sea monsters and Satan, come alive in ancient scripture. Where the Torah stops short on shedim (the biblical word for demons, also used to describe foreign gods like Moloch, the child eater) the Talmud practically word vomits them. Demons fill houses of study when sexual energy isn’t properly channeled, and spirits haunt every crevice of dark places. Kabbalistic demonology expands even further, providing a breadth of hair-raising spooky stories.
Spirit of darkness and a figure of uncontrolled female sexuality, Lilith is the most notorious baby-snatching anthropomorphic demoness in Jewish mythology. Portrayed in pop culture as a femme fatale, the succubus is associated with many biblical creatures, including the serpent from the Garden of Eden and the Queen of Sheba.
Ala known as the “screech owl,” Lilith is the cause of wet dreams in teen boys. At night, she collects their spilled seed — a sin in Judaism — and impregnates herself via demonic IVF to birth her legion of demons.
Lilith’s evil nature is not for naught and stems from a grudge against God. The anonymous Jewish text, the Alphabet of Ben Sira, tells the origin of our Jewish demoness as Adam’s first wife, i.e the prototype of Eve. Immediately after God created Lilith, the legend explains, Adam demanded they bone in missionary position. Appalled by her husband’s domineering nature, Lilith, the trailblazing feminist, suggested she be on top. The newlyweds bickered and quarreled until the bride couldn’t take it anymore and “uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled.” As punishment, God curses Lilith so that 100 of her offspring die every day. In turn, Lilith vows to torture Adam and Eve’s offspring and becomes the mistress of miscarriages and stillborn births to exact revenge against man for her curse from God.
The Zohar also paints Lilith as the most prominent of four demonic wives and Queens of Hell who fuck around with Samael, one of many princes of demons. Unfortunately for Lilith and her sister wives, another reason for outsourcing semen is because God castrated Samael and drained his supply.
2. Agrat bat Mahlat
Don’t venture alone at night on Wednesdays and Shabbat, the rabbis warn, or you’ll catch Agrat bat Mahlat haunting the skies with her chariot and crew of 18 angels of spiritual destruction. Known as the “the dancing roof demon,” the Queen of Hell’s name literally translates to “Agrat, daughter of Mahlat.” Who is Mahlat, I rhetorically ask, dear reader? She’s probably a variation of Lilith, which makes the screech owl Agrat’s mother, or possibly grandmother. While Agrat dances on the roof, Lilith howls. A demoness of many names, Agrat is also “the mistress of sorceresses” who taught forbidden magic to Amemar, a Jewish sage.
There’s a sexy story in the Kabbalah about the time King David boned Agrat and the demoness gave birth to Asmodeus, AKA King of Demons. Some historians believe the biblical term “Nephilim” describes the children of demons/angels and humans, while others think it translates as “giants.
The third queen of demons in the Zohar is Naamah (which translates to “pleasant”), but before her namesake got her into trouble for seducing people into singing sweet nothings to pagan gods, she was Noah’s wife. Yes, the Noah with the ark.
Here’s the deal: A midrash was created to explain God’s reckless decision to reboot the universe via the great flood. Humanity quickly turned evil, and it was Naamah’s fault! It was her sex appeal that seduced the angels into copulating with her, after all, and their offspring were e-v-i-l. And that’s how Noah’s wife came to be Lilith’s partner in crime, abusing people in their sleep and snatching babies from their cribs.
An even juicier story in the Zohar relates that after Cain killed his brother Abel, Adam and Eve split up for 130 years. For over a decade, Lilith and Naamah shtupped Adam and their children became the Plagues of Mankind. Bereshit Rabbah relates a slightly different tale regarding Adam’s demonic children:
“During those 130 years Chavah produced male spirits whereas Adam produced female spirits seeing they had been brought to erotic stimulation by female and male stimuli respectively.”
A seducer of men and demons, Naamah is also sometimes attributed as Ashmedai’s mother, which makes the Jewish demon family tree quite confusing to follow. Did Agrat give birth to Ashmedai, or was it Naamah? Flip a shekel and call it a day — demon queens are interchangeable and all lead back to Lilith.
The fourth and last queen of demons is Eisheth, fellow sister-succubi to Lilith, Naamah, and Agrat bat Mahlat. She’s nicknamed the “Woman of Whoredom,” her diet consists of the souls of the damned, and that’s pretty much all we know!
On the succubus demon queens, Rabbi Simeon said: “Woe unto those who are ignorant and therefore unable to avert and ward off the influence of these defiling elemental beings that swarm in their myriads throughout the world. If it were permitted to behold them, we should be amazed and confounded and wonder how the world could continue to exist.
5. Alukah — “Horse Leech”
Don’t dwell on the disappointing truth that the origins of vampires in pop culture can be traced back to an antisemitic 12th-century conspiracy theory that claims Jews kill Christian babies for ritual sacrifice. Instead, focus on Alukah (“horse leech”), the vampire/succubus in Jewish mythology untainted by boring blood libel!
Sefer Chasidim, a 13th-century German text that ushered in Jewish mysticism, describes Alukah as a blood-sucking witch who can fly like a bat when her hair is let loose and shapeshift into a wolf. A seductress with two demon daughters who cry “Give, give,” Alukah will die if her supply of blood is cut off. To prevent the vampire from turning into a demon, she has to be buried with her mouth stuffed with dirt. Wait, so is she a demon, a vampire, or a witch? A true bang for your shekel, the sex-crazed Alukah is all three and more.
In a riddle in Proverbs, King Solomon namedrops Alukah and reveals her favorite pastime: cursing wombs. Sound familiar? Well, it should, because the Hebrew succubus is thought to be Lilith’s daughter.
Sometimes called Ashmedai, and other times Asmodeus, this curious creature is best known as the “king of demons.” There’s a famous legend in the Talmud about how King Solomon outsmarted Ashmedai by tricking the demon into constructing the first Temple
Azazel is believed to be a satyr, a goat-like demon. Featured in post-biblical texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and I Enoch, Azazel is most famously depicted as one of God’s angels who fell from heaven because of beautiful women like Naamah. In other tales, he’s the angel who spilled the beans to humanity about the impure arts of war, and the Talmud straight up characterizes him as a demon. In one midrash, Azazel is said to be the serpent from the Garden of Eden, but so is every demon and their mother.
On Yom Kippur, observant Jews perform a “scapegoat” ritual where the kohen gadol, the high priest, whispers everyone’s sins into a goat’s ear and thereafter sends the sacrifice into the wilderness, or in Hebrew, the “azazel.” A midrash offers a background story to lend credence to the wacky ritual: Every year under God’s command, the Israelites offered Satan/Samael a goat as a bribe to ensure he’d give the Jews an A+ review at the annual celestial court.
Up until the construction of Solomon’s Temple curbed their power, mazzikim ruled the world. Classified as invisible demons, they’re not as scary as other creatures in Jewish lore. On the flip side, these evil spirits are really fucking annoying and cause minor trouble in our daily lives. Superstitions and amulets might help fend them off, but it’s best to learn how to live with them.
Like most demons and spirits in Jewish folklore, mazzikim are born out of “spilled seed.” See, God has baby fever, and masturbating or having sex merely for the pleasure of it is a slap in his face. Take the prophet Onan, for example: God gave him the boot for “wasting the seed.
Shiver me timbers, it’s time for a ghost story! But first, a note on Jewish spirits: Kabbalistic demonology explains that supernatural creatures are a reaction to a life-energy gone wrong. My Jewish Learning author Jay Michaelson describes the phenomena concisely:
“In the proper functioning of the cosmos, energy flows like a cycle: down from heaven, then back up in the form of proper ritual action. But when the energy is misappropriated, as in masturbation or rebellion, its intense power falls into the realm of shadow.”
Enter dybbukim, the infamous spirits of Jewish folklore. Technically a “clinging demon,” dybbukim come from Sitra Achra, the kabbalistic term to describe hell, and roam the earth in search of a suitable living body to penetrate. These malicious spirits tended to possess women and children, and were thought to be the cause of mental illnesses like dissociative identity disorder. Fortunately, Jewish folklore relates a cure to the dybbuk dilemma — an exorcism led by a rabbi, usually including the blowing of a shofar! Fun!
(Read more about Post Malone and the Yiddish ghost of Jewish lore here.
10. The Golem
Unlike a dybbuk, the golem isn’t an evil spirit. Made out of clay and brought to life by magic, the golem’s sole purpose is to serve and protect its creator. The best-known legend of the playdough creature dates back to 1580 when the Jews of Prague battled the ridiculous conspiracy theory that is the blood libel. Rabbi Judah Leow ben Bezalel, fondly called the Maharal of Prague, needed a secret weapon to protect his community, and, in the form of a dream, God told him how to create a golem.
In need of a pogrom busting magical creature? The instructions are found in Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”:
Step 1: Mold an adorable golem out of soil or clay.
Step 2: Write “Emet” (life) on its forehead to bring to life.
Step 3: Once the golem completes its duty, erase the first letter on its forehead so it reads as “met” (death).
11. Shirika Panda
Shirika Panda is the Talmud’s subjectively adorable toilet demon — yes, really. To avoid an attack from the lion-bodied lavatory lurker, be mindful that you poop alone, and quietly. Take heed, or the scary Panda might afflict you with a stroke or a random fall. Oh, and if you have sex within a half-mile of the shitter, the Jewish demon will curse your kids with epilepsy, apparently?
Superstitious folk would be wise to try this protection spell from the Gemera: “On the head of a lion and on the nose of a lioness we found the demon named bar Shirika Panda. With a bed of leeks I felled him, and with the jaw of the donkey I struck him.
12. Demonic doubles
Warning: If you believe in soulmates, proceed with caution. Jewish folklore holds that when humans are born, a demon is made in their likeness, and a month after birth the heavens announce the human’s soulmate. If the demonic doppelganger catches the prophetic declaration, it’ll shapeshift into the soulmate as a means of fucking up the lives and marriages of their victims who will then be dragged to hell. A deeply troubling legend, this demon is the cause of society’s high divorce rate. Try explaining that to your separated parents…
13. Witch of Endor
I told you there was a witch in the Torah! In I Samuel 28, the mood rings that helped guide King Saul in battle — the Urim and Thummim — tapped out, and Saul desperately needed help. After exiling all witches from his kingdom, Saul the hypocrite enlists the help of “a woman of Endor.” Grudges aside, the witch contacted the ghost of Samuel, the prophet who anointed Saul as king. The seance was a total flop — the phantom prophet was pissed at the king for using witchcraft and warned Saul that his army wouldn’t survive the battle. The prophecy was realized, but on the plus side, our sweet Witch of Endor fed Saul one last meal before he fell on his own sword. Phallic imagery for the win!
When God created the world, as the Midrash relates, he made two mythical sea monsters: a female sea monster, and a male sea monster. But then he killed the female leviathan to avoid the chance of offspring — classic biblical sexism, we hate to see it! The “Dragon of the sea” is also featured in a bonkers story in the Talmud about the messianic age. When the nation of Israel returns to the Promised Land, the Mashiach will slay the leviathan, build a sukkah out of its skin, and invite all the righteous folk to enjoy a Michelin star plate of sea-monster meat. Scrumptious!