18 July 2009

Lamia: the demon enchantress

She seem'd, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon's mistress, or the demon's self.
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman's mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love's sake,
(Keats 55-66)

In his poem, entitled Lamia, Keats describes Lamia as "an enchantress in the form of a serpent" who is transformed "into a lovely maiden" by Hermes as he searches Crete island for the most beautiful nymph of the forest(MacDowell 2). Lycius, a mortal man, is entranced by her beauty and impressed by her grace. But, in the end "Lamia again assumes the form of a serpent...and Lycius is found lifeless" (2). "The tender-person'd Lamia" has melted "into a shade" (Keats Pt 2).

The examples of a romantic Lamia are many. Thomas Hood writes a play with Lamia cast in the romantic role. Others follow the footsteps of the great authors, transfiguring Lamia from a demon into a nymph or glorious goddess. But, like all such ancient stories of archaic fiends, the Lamia that rears her head in myth greatly differs from the one who steps lightly through literature.

Is she a beautiful nymph or is she the "dreadful wild beast called a Lamia" that Plutarch asserts (Plutarch 139). Plutarch describes Lamia in some similar language--creating her a judge. However, "Upon this acccount, Diodorus tells us, that this Lamia became a bugbear to children" (Plutarch commentary by Langhorne). The ancients described her as ghoul or a goblin that scared and tormented children at night. She was an object of dread.

Homer and Hesiod called Lamia Hekate or Echidna. She was a goddess and frightful one at that. She traveled the world, but "the commonest legend of Lamia places her in Libya" (Fontenrose 100). "In Libya there once lived a beautiful queen. Since Zeus loved her and made her his mistress, she aroused Hera's jealousy and hatred. In consequence Hera destroyed every child that was born to Lamia, until from great grief she turned ugly in body and soul." In other words, her despair transformed her into a monstrous creature with evil and vile intentions. "Because she envied other women their children, she went about seizing infants and killing them. Some say that she tore them to pieces or ate them. Finally she became literally a beast and went to live in a cave. Hera sent insomnia upon her too, but Zeus in pity granted her the power to remove her eyes, which she placed in a basket when she wanted to sleep" (Fontenrose).

"Lamia in myth is Scylla's mother, also another name for Hecate, or Echidna, meaning viper, seen in her snake form" (Alban 95). These attributes vary between tales, and Lamia is also called the mother of Sibyl Herophile. In any case, this "frightful woman [Hecate, Lamia, Echinda] was spectre, ogress, vampire, snake, sea monster, several kinds of beast and various mixtures of them" (Kabitoglou 311). Like all ancient monsters, Lamia has been given many names of the millennia. Other names include Sybaris and Gerana. In Latin, her name means witch or vampire and this is what she is (Latin wordlist). She is not a giggling nymph or romantic enchantress, although her human form may be entrancing. She is a vile, disgusting, serpent-woman who tears children apart and drinks the blood of many.

I could speak for days on Lamia, for I know her better than all the other creatures that crawl the earth. (Don't worry, although Calista is dear to me, you needn't fear--she is not the Lamia--but, a predator of a different sort.) I fear that I already bore you with such descriptions, so take this information with you. Lamia adopts many forms and names, and she is closer than you imagine. Time has subdued her raging heart, but she still morns the loss of her children, and at times her anger overpowers her. Beware of the lady with a beautiful face and graceful body, for in her core may beat a heart of evil.


Requested by @Twilightmyst.
Fontrose, Joseph Eddy. Python.
Hood, Thomas. Lamia.
Kabitoglou. E. Douka. Plato and the English romantics.
Keats, John. The Poetical Works of John Keats. "36 Lamia: Part 1 and 2." 1884.
Plutarch, John Langhorne, William Langhorne. Plutarch's Lives.


  1. Hey, was doing a bit of mythology research on Lamia. Can you tell me anything about when/if she died in mythology? And how? Ta. X

  2. Didn't anyone tell you that it's dangerous to summon demons, dear? Lamia hasn't died.

  3. if she is not dead, why would she let hollywood use her name for movies and instead of a demon from greek mythology they show her as a demon from bible folklore.