Monstrous Myths: The Lamia


I thought we might try something a little different this time. I do so dislike proving myself, and think that perhaps it isn’t up to me to demonstrate how human mythologies intertwine and overlap. It seems far better to turn it over to you to hash out. So for the foreseeable future, I will turn this series over to two colleagues of mine: an antrhology student and an artist. Perhaps they can make sense of this far better than I.

This artistic rendering was created by Ain

Hello and welcome to another entry of Monstrous Myths! Blow off the dust and settle in, we’re going for a fun ride.

In a previous post Simon went over the Gorgon, which is a very specific sort of snake monster. Today I’m going to be talking about her distant cousin the Lamia and her place in folklore and ties to Simon’s kin.

Just the lore

The Lamia. A snake bodied seductress best known for her lust for flesh of children. As the purported mother of the famous Scylla of the Odyssey, she is a far more specific beastie with a pedigree. According to myth, Lamia was once the beautiful daughter of king Belus of Egypt who, like every other beautiful woman in Greek myth, fell prey to Zeus’s charms. 

This is where her story gets interesting- compared to Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, there is some historical evidence supporting Lamia being born to actual human parents who were entirely real people. Her father Belus is recorded as having founded a colony on the Euphrates river in Diodorus of Sicily’s Bibliotheca Historica, and while he probably wasn’t exactly as he’s reported (specifically not the spawn of Poseidon and Libya), there is a very good chance he was real and very likely did have at least one daughter. A daughter whose real story has likely been entirely lost to history, though her strange myth lives on.

After being seduced by Zeus, Lamia bore him many children over the course of several years acting secretly as the king-god’s mistress. Eventually Hera discovered their tryst and slaughtered all of Lamia’s children. All but one, a girl cursed into the shape of a hideous creature sent to guard a narrow sea channel with Charybdis.  Most myths agree to all the points up to here, but her appearance has been cause for much debate.

Lamia’s now-signature snakelike appearance isn’t mentioned in older Greek stories, and it has been speculated that this deformity is the result of a Christian lense being put over classic myths, specifically with regard to her seductive nature. Lamia’s original deformity is her wide, strange, staring eyes with no lids, said to be a symptom of her guilt over her children’s deaths, and the ability to remove said eyes. Interestingly enough, the second bit isn’t part of a curse, but a blessing bestowed by Zeus to grant Lamia temporary reprieve from her horrible visions and, perhaps, give her the gift of future site. If this is the case, it’s a mythological blessing she shares with the Graeae.

Perhaps the most tragic part of Lamia’s curse is her mad unsated bloodlust for the flesh of small children. Why is debated, but the most popular interpretation of the myths claim that Hera cursed the woman to consume other’s children as punishment after killing Lamia’s offspring, or that Hera stole or killed Lamia’s children and the loss drove Lamia insane. Her madness caused her to steal and devour the children of others, and this eventually turned her into the strange malformed creature of myth.

Relations to Simon’s Species

With a first glance at the modern interpretations of Lamia, its easy to dismiss her as just a silly morality tale and another sexy clone of the snake in Eden. However, as with most myths, the further back you go in time the less recognizable they get. Lamia’s physical appearance is the first tipoff that she’s a relative of Simon. The strange eyes, gaunt appearance and man-eating appetites are especially obvious.

But let’s not forget that there seems to be evidence the Lamia was a real woman.

My humble theory is that the original Lamia was in fact a flesh and blood person with a name and a life, who got unfortunately involved in some sort of politically dangerous romantic tryst. Maybe it was an affair with a married statesman, maybe she was wed and took a lover, maybe her husband died and she was blamed, maybe a lot of things, but in the end her children from whatever sort of union she had were killed by someone involved in the ensuing dramatic episode. My theory is that the killer was Lamia herself, out of shame or guilt to conceal her crime. It’s probably that the number of children was very small and has been gradually inflated over the years for dramatic effect.

Either soon after or during all of this, a local cousin was probably hunting people without much discrimination in age. It’s feasible to guess that a few children went missing due to the monster’s hunger or from other natural causes. People get emotional when children vanish or are mauled by wild animals, and will blame just about anything to avoid confronting the harsh and painful truth. Regardless of how the people vanished, Lamia was likely exiled, executed or managed to escape and her sudden public disappearance poured fuel on the fire. Rumors of her killing her own children trickled down to the general population as they tend to, and one thing led to another. Assumptions were made, connecting this murderess with the disappearances. I can’t imagine this did good things for the local cousins larder. 

Everything about Lamia screams “thing that consumes humans”, even her name. Aristophenes claimed the name came from the greek word “laimos” or “gullet” in reference to her insatiable hunger.

One of the most frustrating things about Lamia is her gradual evolution from tragic figure to sexy seductress. Placing the two characters next to each other, neither looks like they are in any way related. Even her propensity for eating children has faded as time has gone on. Modern tellings of the myth have overlapped her with Lilith, and erased any possible sympathy the character might have. A creature who has become an interweaving of a woman who committed a historical crime and a cousin in the wrong place at the wrong time has twisted, as many myths do, to fit the moral narratives convenient to the era of a story’s telling.

Simon’s Take On Things

I think it very possible that Ruth is correct in her theory, with one possible alteration. I will draw attention to the things that I discovered about my species, specifically that we appear to be somewhat incensate when not consuming human flesh. We have a natural state, and while we are clever, we are of the earth. Eating people does something very specific for us. So it seems to me that with this knowledge, several possibilities exists for the evolution of Lamia.

It could easily be true that Lamia either murdered her own children or was the victim of some archaic form of justice. But if any children did go missing in the vicinity, it is unlikely to be the responsibility of a cousin. Sheep, yes. Children, unlikely. 

What is most likely?

Well, let us look at the very reason that Laamia is remembered at all. If her father really did found a colony and there is evidence that he did in fact exist, then it is likely that he did have a daughter. If he had a daughter her name would not have been Lamia, as this is her mythical name. Lamia was the monster. And like the gorgon, Lamia was linked with the sea and the serpeant.

But why would anyone care about this young lady? What about her specific story withstood the test of time, even as it twisted and transformed through eons? 

Perhaps because there was a local monster, a cousin of mine. Perhaps there were a few in Ancient Greece. Perhaps they were related, or not, but the Greeks seem to have taken an inordinate amount of notice of them, don’t they? Far more than the modern human does. Perhaps because they weren’t so secretive as they are now. Perhaps there was a girl and there was a Lamia, and perhaps they were friends.

Perhaps the story exists today because of the bizarre association they formed. Perhaps the girl had a bargain with the Lamia, and the two became forever tangled. If the mercenary Lamia did the girl’s bidding, and the girl was driven away or put to death, it is a certainty that the Lamia would putlive her, and if the Greeks believed them to be the same individual, the Lamia would forevermore have been confused for the girl and her controversy.

Be careful making bargains with monsters, my gentle readers.


Ruth Gibbs is an anthropology student at the University of North Texas on her way to a PhD in Folklore with a focus on stories and their cultural impact on society. Her interest in the study of stories started very early in life and has blossomed into what promises to be a very interesting academic career. Special fields of interest include Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Germanic and Eastern European stories and their origins. You can find her at ruthcgibbs@gmail.com or on her Tumblr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s