Fantastical Creatures of Greek Mythology: The Lamia
In this series, I plan to explore some lesser-known creatures and monsters of classical mythology, many of which are reminiscent of modern-day monsters and beasts in fantasy literature. While many of these creatures of ancient Greek and Roman myth tend to get passed over for the more immediately recognizable villains—ie. the dragon, the vampire, the giant spider—it can be both helpful to the fantasy writer and interesting to the fantasy reader to learn about the origins of many of the traits that are nowadays ascribed to more “popular” beasts of fantasy.
This month, we’re looking at the child-eating demon best known as the Lamia.
Her Origin Myth
Like many women in Greek mythology, Lamia is dealt a bad hand in life just by virtue of being born beautiful—and by somehow not managing to stay out of Zeus’s sight. And we all know what Zeus does to beautiful women…and who it is that gets blamed afterward.
The story goes that Lamia was once the queen of Libya, who became a beloved mistress of the god Zeus (by choice or by force, we’re never told). Naturally, Zeus’s wife Hera found out about the affair—she had a knack for that sort of thing—and instead of punishing her husband, she took out her anger on Lamia. This isn’t unusual for Hera, though the concept of blaming the woman for the man’s infidelity is a theme that runs throughout much of history and ancient myth.
To punish Lamia, Hera transformed into a monster and murdered Lamia’s children while Lamia watched, helpless to stop the goddess’s fury. There are several different accounts that explain what happened here, depending on the source:
1. As if killing her children wasn’t enough, Hera then took away Lamia’s ability to blink or close her eyes, so that she would be forever haunted by the sight of her dead children.
2. Hera didn’t actually kill the children—she only stole them—causing Lamia to go insane with grief and tear out her own eyes.
3. Rather than kill the children herself, Hera forced Lamia to kill and devour her own children.
And whether it happens out of the madness found in grief for her children’s’ death, as a part of Hera’s punishment, or as a gift from Zeus in order to exact revenge on the world for what has been done to her, Lamia is transformed into a serpentine monster that hunts and devours other people’s children.
Her Family Connections
In ancient Greek mythology, it seems like everybody is connected to everybody in one way or another. While Lamia is typically referred to as the daughter of the sea-god Poseidon, other sources make her the daughter of Belus, a king of Egypt in Greek mythology (who was himself the son of Poseidon… yeah, figure that one out).
The two children commonly attributed to Lamia are Scylla and Akheilos, though her origin myth excludes Scylla from Hera’s wrath—evidently Lamia had time to hide Scylla under a rock, giving Scylla a beginning to her own origin story.
Before being transformed into a horrible monster that can, according to some versions of the myth, remove her eyes and put them back in again at will, Lamia was a beautiful young woman—the sort that would attract the attentions of a god like Zeus (ie. she was female…seriously, it didn’t take much for him).
As a monster, her lower half is a serpent’s tail that begins at the waist—though this particular description is more attributed to a John Keats poem from 1819 (aptly titled “Lamia”), than the original mythos. In contrast, the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus simply describes her as having a distorted or disfigured face.
Early 20th century artwork often portrayed her as an attractive young woman who retained her legs and feet, but with snakeskin wrapped around her arm or waist, or draped across her lap.
Strangely, her name actually means “the shark”, and has nothing to do with snakes or serpents.
After her transformation, “the Lamia” (note how she becomes referred to as a thing once she’s a monster, instead of named as a person) was said to wander the earth in a jealous rage, devouring the children of others so that none could be happy—and in some versions of her story, this act is what turns her into a monster in the first place.
As time progressed, the myth of the Lamia became less about devouring the children in full, and more focused on sucking their blood. She became known as a vampiric figure of ancient myth, and rumors of her presence were used by mothers in ancient Greece to scare their children—probably to get them to behave, much like the “bogeyman” tales from more recent history.
Mythology has a way of shifting and changing over time, and as the myth of the Lamia passed into Roman mythology, another aspect was added to her character: she became a prototype of sorts for the modern vampire. Instead of having a serpent’s tail, she remained in appearance like a beautiful woman—as she’s depicted in the 1905 painting Lamia (first version) by John William Waterhouse or the 1909 painting The Lamia by Herbert James Draper—and was said to seduce men in order to drink their blood and drain their life.
These later traditions would then shift into more folkloric beliefs about multiple lamiae, who retained the same dangerous quality of seducing young men in order to drink their blood.
Her Enduring Presence
It’s fairly clear that the Lamia was a precursor figure to the well-recognized vampires and succubae of modern fantasy and horror literature. Even though her origin story became less important as time progressed—with a greater emphasis on her monstrous side—she remained a rather prevalent figure in Renaissance artwork and poetry.
In 1819, the English Romantic poet John Keats composed a poem simply titled “Lamia” that then influenced one of Edgar Allan Poe’s sonnets (“To Science”), which is all to say that there is something about this creature’s origin and character that has continued to capture popular attention over the course of several thousand years.
It’s unfortunate that the Lamia’s role in blood-sucking and seducing men has been more or less usurped in popular culture and fantasy by the vampire and the succubus, but at the very least, her essence has survived in recognizable ways in those creatures to this day.
Title image by AbigailLarson.