Martin Johnson explores the Lilith – and invites some help
Mythical or real?
The Lilith is a creature found only in Isaiah 34:14. Biblical translators have long made choices that it is either a mythical demonic creature, or alternatively an owl, and if so, usually they have translated it “Screech Owl”. Critical scholarship was heavily influenced by early medieval Jewish myths, which in turn have been influenced by Greek mythology, to describe a creature very like the Greek Siren (winged, beautiful female with Eagle’s talons). The result was that some ancient Near East texts have been read through this prism and then applied to the Lilith of Isaiah. This is not only anachronistic, but it implies that Isaiah is endorsing pagan myths and beliefs. If Lilith can be established as an Owl, then the integrity of scripture is upheld, certainly in this instance.
Story so far
This study follows research into the birds of Leviticus 11:13-19, where (together with Philip Jenson, former Old Testament Tutor, Ridley Hall Cambridge) we used onomatopoeia to confirm the identity of 17 birds on this list. Incidentally, this also confirmed the majority of the oldest translations from Hebrew, many of which became disregarded by translators in recent centuries. Outputs from this research will be published in the Journal of Old Testament Studies in the near future. On the basis that there is likely to be a real owl behind the word Lilith, I have prepared a survey to see if it sounds similar to the calls of some of these owls.
Onomatopoeia (OP) is when a word sounds like the noise it represents, or the call of the bird or animal is reflected in its name. In English this is the case with birds such as the raven, crow, cuckoo, chicken, and cockerel. Different languages have varying abilities to reflect natural sounds, and often use ways of making the words easier to say that can render the name a little inexact in relation to the call of the bird. Here are four examples of English OP bird names, with a link to a recording of each bird. Please open the link beside each bird and play the sound file at the top of each web page:
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canoris.https://www.xeno-canto.org/482352
Note that the “c” (or k) sound at the beginning of the English name is not actually there: it is used to make the rest of the call easier to say.
Carrion Crow Corvus corone.https://www.xeno-canto.org/490186
Similarly, the “c” in front of crow is a way of covering the guttural sound at the start of the call (which is more of a “hraw” sound). You cannot mistake the “essence” of the crow’s call in its name, even though it is inexact.
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops. https://www.xeno-canto.org/477326
The Hoopoe’s call recorded here is closer to “poop-poop-poop”, and is captured better by the Latin genus name Upupa (above). The “-oe” at the end is a shortening of the actual call, but easier to say.
Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae.https://www.xeno-canto.org/385186
The Kookaburra’s call is a riot of noises, but if you listen you will hear every part of the word “kookaburra”, but not necessarily in that order. The name is therefore an excellent way of recognizing the bird’s call.
Further work required – you can help!
The research study is a survey with 10 questions. There is both a male and a female voice giving an accurate pronunciation of the ancient Hebrew word Lilith, to be compared with the calls of five owls which are likely to have been in the region of ancient Israel at the time of Isaiah. If you open the embedded links behind “Lilith (M)”, Lilith “(F)”, and “Owl 1”, “Owl 2” etc., you will see a sound file, which you can then play.
There are four choices, “Not at All” if you hear no similarities, then “Possibly”, “Probably” and “Distinctly” according to the degree of similarity you can hear. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, as this is a matter of individual decision-making and judgment. Please note, all responses are anonymous, and there are no “good” or “bad” scores.
The survey is found here:
I aim for peer-reviewed publication of the research when complete, and hope this will encourage Bible translators to state that Lilith is indeed an Owl, hopefully of a specific species.
Martin Johnson retired as the Director of the Thalidomide Trust in 2014. He holds degrees in Divinity (BD), Management (PhD), and Behavioural Science (MSc). He has published research papers in Management, Medical, Psychology and Creation Research journals, and has lectured at Kings College London and Warwick Business School on management theory, and at the Royal Society of Medicine.
Martin served 21 years in the Royal Air Force, as a pilot on Vulcan and Canberra aircraft, and later in administrative roles and as an Intelligence specialist.
During recent years he researched the origins of the drug Thalidomide and the background of the company which made it, which was published as a book in 2018; “The Thalidomide Catastrophe”.
Martin has taught biblical subjects in a variety of Christian settings for the past 40 years, and has also published a book aimed at younger Christian adults, “40 Reasons to trust the Bible”.