Folklore and traditions can be wild, interesting, exciting, mystifying, and wonderful. But one of the most common ways stories are told is through the terrifying. Humans love to be scared, and Jewish folklore doesn’t shy away from stories of monsters in the night, the sea, and the forest. Some are even cultural versions of other familiar creatures, such as vampires, genies, and ghouls (although these ghouls have their own fun and spooky twists!).
There are many very popular Jewish demons and mythical creatures in today’s culture, and you will probably recognize at least some of them, whether from a book or a movie. Some you may have never heard of, and you may wish you hadn’t! If you want to learn more, you may need to delve into Jewish mysticism through Kabbalah or spend years studying Talmudic writings, but hopefully this list gives you a good start.
Related: 10 Creepy Tales From English Folklore
Dybbuks are creatures from Jewish folklore said to possess individuals, often attributed as the reason behind a person’s mental illness. According to myth, a dybbuk arises when a person dies with a great deal of sin and wanders the earth until he can find a living body to possess.
To remove the dybbuk, a rabbi would have to perform an exorcism along with ten other men dressed in burial shrouds. Most importantly, the rabbi performing the exorcism would have to ensure that the dybbuk was released from between the nail and the skin of the big toe so that it would not otherwise harm the host’s body on its way out.
The story of the dybbuk was made popular by a 1916 black-and-white film called Der Dybuk, a Yiddish drama about the creature. More recently, a “dybbuk box” was auctioned on eBay. It consisted of a wine cabinet that was intended to be the living space of a dybbuk that created nightmares and bad luck for the owner. Kevin Mannis, the person who sold the box, concocted a detailed story about its origins that he eventually admitted was an experiment in creative writing.
Lilith is an increasingly popular Jewish folkloric demon that was supposed to be extremely dangerous to pregnant women and babies, largely due to her origin story. Lilith is believed to be Adam’s first wife, made from clay along with Adam before Eve was made from Adam’s rib.
According to the story, she disobeyed Adam, uttered the name of God (the forbidden name often represented by the four letters: YHWH) and was expelled from the Garden of Eden. She is mentioned once in the Book of Isaiah and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Interestingly, mention of her is found in a hymn used for exorcisms.
Today, Lilith represents more feminine ideals than the evil baby-killings of her origins. In her story, it is assumed that she left Adam because he controlled and dominated her, and she wanted more freedom. She fled to the Red Sea, gave birth to about a hundred devil babies a day, and swore to be the enemy of Adam and eventually Eve. But because she broke away from Adam’s control and became a strong female figure of her own, she has come to represent equality, independence, and sexual liberation.
8 estries (vampires)
The Estries are female vampires who apparently prey on the Hebrew citizens; The term comes from the French strix, which means “night owl.” They were beautiful creatures and they attacked indiscriminately. In the Sefer Hasidim, a religious account of Jewish tradition in medieval Germany, Estries is described as having been created on the first Friday, but was still incomplete when God rested on the Sabbath. Another account suggests that they were created in the Tower of Babel and could fly by anointing their bodies with special oils.
Estries could be restrained by grabbing them by the hair, forcing them to swear, or beating them. The only way an estrie could recover from a direct hit was by eating bread and salt belonging to the person attacking them, and they could transform into different bodies to trick someone into handing them over. It is unclear how they were ever recognized, but there are multiple accounts of people recognizing an estrie even in their transformed state and successfully killing them.
The Nephilim are the giants of the world, mainly before Noah’s flood, and descendants of the Watchers (angels sent by God to deliver messages from God) and humans. They are sometimes described as heroes, but there is much debate on the subject and they are often described as more “fallen”. More accurately, they were descendants of the fallen angels known as Watchers after those supernatural beings bred with humans.
Before the deluge, the world had fallen into vice and wickedness, and unnatural nephilim are cited as one of the reasons the deluge is necessary. They are not discussed in depth and are only mentioned a few times in the Bible, but they were fearsome giants.
6 The Tigris of the Bei Ilai
In the mythical forest called Bei Ilai supposedly lives a lion (“Tigris”) that is so large that it has a gap of 9 cubits, or almost 14 feet (4.3 meters), between its ears. According to myth, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah to show him this incredibly large lion, the rabbi tried to warn him against it due to its unusual nature. Hadrian insisted, and from almost 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) away, the lion’s roar was heard.
As a result, all the pregnant women in the area miscarried and the walls of Rome came crashing down. After the lion came a mile closer, he roared, and all the teeth of the Roman men fell out, and the emperor fell from his throne. This is certainly an extremely scary lion and one you would never wish to meet! Fortunately for Emperor Hadrian, the rabbi was able to pray for the lion to go home, and it did.
Shedim are types of spirits or demons in Jewish folklore, but they are clearly different from how demons are described in the Christian or Muslim context. They eventually came to be known as a somewhat less negative version of Jinn (you may know them as geniuses). Shedim are occasionally referred to as “other gods”, or gods that are not the God of Israel and therefore inherently evil. They only appear twice in the Bible, but always negatively, as in Deuteronomy 32:17, where it says:
“They sacrificed to demons and not to God: to gods they did not know, who were new, whom their fathers did not worship.”
In this quote, “devils” and “gods they did not know” are the shedim, which always appear in the plural. They came to be described more like Arabian Jinn much later, where comparatively, they can also be killed with iron weapons and are more malevolent, unlike the fallen angels of Christian tradition. Some kabbalistic rituals involve divining the future through intricate steps, where the shedim are seen as less evil and more helpful to the person performing the ritual.
No, not Gollum’s The Lord of the rings. Golems are creatures created from clay or other lifeless materials that are meant to serve a struggling community during a difficult time. They are said to be produced only by Jewish mystics well-versed in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and are a testament to their skill. On most accounts golems created to help actually end up causing more trouble than they’re worth.
One man, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, created a golem to defend the Prague Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks, but after it turned violent, it was destroyed. Some say the golem still exists in the Altneuushul penthouse in Prague, waiting to be brought back to life when they finally need it again.
It is unclear what kind of violence the golem enacted, but this act of creation by a man perhaps reflects God’s creation of humanity. Though God may have created the human race, they are free to do good or evil as they please, just as golems created to fix a negative situation can often make those same situations much more dire and terrifying.
3 the witch of endor
The Witch of Endor was a witch consulted by the first king of Israel, King Saul. She possessed a talisman that she could summon the dead, and Saul (in disguise) asked her to use it to obtain the advice of the prophet Samuel, despite the fact that Saul himself had outlawed sorcery in Israel. The result of the witch’s conjuring Samuel was that she successfully predicted Saul’s death the next day, but she was unable to give any advice on the situation.
Saul and his three sons certainly died the next day, and Israel fell to the Philistines. Perhaps this isn’t so terrifying as sinisterly terrifying; the witch was able to predict Saul’s fate but she offered no help to save him.
2 Agrat Bat Mahlat
Agrat was a Talmudic demon who traveled with a horde of 180,000 destroying angels and was believed to attack on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Agrat bat Mahlat is occasionally believed to be another version of the demon Lilith mentioned earlier in this list. However, she has her own references to her in the Bible, which are different.
This demon is believed to have procreated with a sleeping King David and gave birth to Asmodeus. She mainly attacks men, especially sleeping men, and many sources compare her to a succubus. However, this is not a meeting that many men would enjoy, and there are strong suggestions that men not sleep alone on nights when she is active.
Leviathan is a huge sea creature that is considered indestructible. Initially, they were two, male and female, but God killed the female so that they would not reproduce and destroy the world. In Olam Ha-ba (the “World to Come”), which is the Jewish belief of life after the messiah comes to Earth, it is believed that the leviathan will be served as food.
When the leviathan is hungry, it produces heat from its mouth, which will make the waters around it boil, and its eyes shine and produce a great light even on the water. The only thing the leviathan fears are worms called “kilbits”, which attach to the gills and kill large fish. However, you may have a hard time finding one of these worms as they are so small. So definitely stay away from leviathan.
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