Lamia (mythology)

From New World Encyclopedia
Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1909); note the snakeskin about her waist.

In Greek mythology, Lamia was a Queen of Libya who became a child-murdering monster feared for her malevolence. According the Greek legends, the goddess Hera slayed all of Lamia's children (except Scylla) in anger due to the fact that Lamia slept with her husband, Zeus. Lamia's subsequent grief at the death of her children caused her to turn into a monster who took revenge on all mothers by stealing their children and devouring them.[1] In this manner, she is similar to the near-Eastern demon Lilith.

In later writings she is pluralized into many lamiai.[2]

Similar to other female monsters in Greco-Roman myth (such as the empousai and the mormolykei), she is distinguished from them by her description as half-woman and half-serpent.[3] She is described as having a human upper body from the waist up and a serpentine body from the waist down.[1]


Lamia's name derives from the Greek word Laimos ("gullet"), alluding to her stigma as a "child killer."[4][5]


Lamia was the daughter of Poseidon and Lybie,[6] a personification of the country of Libya. Lamia was a queen of Libya herself, whom Zeus loved.[7] Hera discovered the affair and stole away Lamia's children, where upon Lamia in her grief became a monster and took to murdering children herself. Zeus granted her the power of prophecy as an attempt at appeasement, as well as the related ability to temporarily remove her eyes.[8] Her metamorphasis into a monster is less clear: Either Hera turned her into a monster; the grief from Hera killing all her children, save Scylla, made her monstrous; or she was already one of Hecate's brood.[9]

Lamia had a vicious sexual appetite that matched her cannibalistic appetite for children. She was notorious for being a vampiric spirit and loved sucking men’s blood.[10] Her gift was the "mark of a Sibyl," a gift of second sight. Zeus was said to have given her the gift of sight. However, she was "cursed" to never be able to shut her eyes so that she would forever obsess over her dead children. Taking pity on Lamia, Zeus, give her the ability to take her eyes out and in from her eye sockets.[1]

The Empusae were a class supernatural demons that Lamia was said to have birthed. Hecate would often send them against travelers. They consumed or scared to death any of the people where they inhabited. They bare many similarities to lilim. It has been suggested that later medieval lore about succubae and lilim are derived from this Greek myth.[11]

In the Vulgate, Saint Jerome translated Lilith, the spirit in Isaiah 34:14 who conceived by Adam a brood of monsters, as lamia, thus sealing Lamia's image as a seductress in the Christian imagination.


Mothers used to threaten their children with the story of Lamia.[12] Leinweber states, "She became a kind of fairy-tale figure, used by mothers and nannies to induce good behavior among children."[13]

Many lurid details were conjured up by later writers, assembled in the Suda, expanded upon in Renaissance poetry and collected in Thomas Bulfinch and in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Lamia was envious of other mothers and ate their children. She was usually female, but Aristophanes suggests her hermaphroditic phallus, perhaps simply for monstrosity's sake.[14] Leinweber adds[15] "By the time of Apuleius, not only were Lamia characteristics liberally mixed into popular notions of sorcery, but at some level the very names were interchangeable." Nicolas K. Kiessling compared the lamia with the medieval succubus and Grendel in Beowulf.[16]

Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, describes the witch Meroe and her sister as Lamiae:[17] "The three major enchantresses of the novel—Meroe, Panthia and Pamphylia—also reveal many vampiric qualities generally associated with Lamiae," David Walter Leinweber has noticed.[18]

Stesichorus identifies Lamia as the mother of Scylla,[19] by Triton. Further passing references to Lamia were made by Strabo (i.II.8) and Aristotle (Ethics vii.5).

One interpretation posits that the Lamia may have been a seductress, as in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, where the philosopher Apollonius reveals to the young bridegroom, Menippus, that his hastily-married wife is really a lamia, planning to devour him.[20] Some harlots were named "Lamia".[21] The connection between Demetrius Poliorcetes and the courtesan Lamia was notorious.[22][23][24] In the painting by Herbert James Draper (1909, illustration above), the Lamia who moodily watches the serpent on her forearm appears to represent a hetaira. Though the lower body of Draper's Lamia is human, he alludes to her serpentine history by draping a shed snake skin about her waist.

In Renaissance emblems, Lamia has the body of a serpent and breasts and head of a woman, like the image of hypocrisy.

John Keats described the Lamia in Lamia and Other Poems, presenting a description of the various colors of Lamia that was based on Burton's, in The Anatomy of Melancholy.[25]

Modern folk traditions

In the modern Greek folk tradition, the Lamia has survived and retained many of her traditional attributes.[26] John Cuthbert Lawson comments, "...the chief characteristics of the Lamiae, apart from their thirst for blood, are their uncleanliness, their gluttony, and their stupidity".[27] The contemporary Greek proverb, "της Λάμιας τα σαρώματα" ("the Lamia's sweeping"), epitomises slovenliness; and the common expression, "τό παιδί τό 'πνιξε η Λάμια" ("the child has been strangled by the Lamia"), explains the sudden death of young children.[27] As in Bulgarian folklore and Basque legends, the Lamia in Greece is often associated with caves and damp places.

In modern Greek folk tales, Lamia is an ogress similar to Baba-Yaga. She lives in a remote house or tower. She eats human flesh and has magical abilities, keeps magical objects or knows information crucial to the hero of the tale's quest. The hero must avoid her, trick her or gain her favour in order to obtain one of those. In some tales, the lamia has a daughter who is also a magician and helps the hero, eventually falling in love with him.

A Creature with particularities slightly 'Lamian' appears in the movie, Pan's Labyrinth complete with a hunger for children and eyes that are not in its sockets.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Hurwitz, p.43
  2. The Roman equestrian gens of the Lamiae, allied with the Aeliae, Horace Odes 3.17, addressed to Aelius Lamia and linked with Formiae bore no connection with the mythic Greek bogey. The French World War II agent Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, on whose exploits the 1969 film Topaz was based, used "Lamia" as his code name (P.L. Thyraud de Vosjoli, Lamia (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).
  3. Theoi Project: "Lamia" Retrieved June 2, 2008.
  4. Aristophanes, The Wasps, 1177.
  5. The Lilith Myth Retrieved June 2, 2008.
  6. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, xx.41.
  7. Aristophanes, Peace.
  8. Bell, Women of Classical Mythology, drawing upon Diodorus Siculus 22.41; Suidas 'Lamia'; Plutarch 'On Being a Busy-Body' 2; Scholiast on Aristophanes' Peace 757; Eustathius on Odyssey 1714) (Mythology dictionary C20th)
  9. Odyssey 12.124 and scholia, noted by Karl Kerenyi, Gods of the Greeks 1951:38 note 71.
  10. Hurwitz, p.78
  11. Wikipedia: Empusa Retrieved June 2, 2008.
  12. Tertullian, Against Valentinius (ch.iii)
  13. Leinweber 1994, 77.
  14. Aristophanes, Peace, l758
  15. Leinweber 1994, 78.
  16. See Nicolas K. Kiessling, "Grendel: A New Aspect," Modern Philology 65.3 (February 1968), 191-201.
  17. The Elizabethan translator William Adlington rendered lamiae as "hags," obscuring the reference for generations of readers. ([Apuleius], Metamorphoses (Harvard University Press, 1989)). (Metamorphoses is more familiar to English-language readers as The Golden ass.)
  18. Leinweber, "Witchcraft and Lamiae in 'The Golden Ass'" Folklore 105 (1994), 77-82.
  19. Stesichorus Frag, 220; Eustathius on Homer's Odyssey, 1714
  20. Leinweber 1994, 77f.
  21. Kerényi 1951, 40.
  22. See Plutarch, Life of Demetrius xxv.9
  23. See Aelian, Varia Historia XII.xvii.1
  24. See Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae III.lix.29.
  25. Keats made a note to this effect at the end of the first page in the fair copy he made: see William E. Harrold, "Keats's 'Lamia' and Peacock's 'Rhododaphne'" The Modern Language Review 61.4 (October 1966), 579-584, and note with bibliography on this point.
  26. Lamia receives a section in Georgios Megas and Helen Colaclides, Folktales of Greece (Folktales of the World) (University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  27. 27.0 27.1 Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals (Cambridge University Press, 1910), 175ff.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Foubister, Linda. 2003. "Goddess in the Grass: Serpentine Mythology and the Great Goddess." EcceNova Editions. ISBN 978-0973164824
  • Graves, Robert. 1955. "Greek Myths." Penguin. ISBN 0-14-001026-2
  • Hurwitz, Siegmund. Lilith -The first Eve. Switzerland: Daminon Press, 1992. ISBN 978-3856305772
  • Kerényi, Karl. 1951. The Gods of the Greeks. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27048-1
  • Kiessling, Nicolas K. "Grendel: A New Aspect" Modern Philology 65.3. February 1968. 191-201.
  • Lawson. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals. Cambridge University Press, 1910.

External links

All links retrieved October 22, 2022.


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