Art by tumblr user @ain-individual
Chinese folklore contains multitudes of monsters, ghosts and other supernatural creatures, commonly called demons by Western culture. European traditions, dominated by Christianity list much of its grasp of interstitial or transitory dimensions- world’s in between good and evil. Consequently, many tales of earthbound spirits and non-human entities do not translate, and that lack of translation inevitably shifts the stories themselves.In no place is this dilemma more obvious, than in the tale of the Éguǐ, or Hungry Ghosts.
Hungry Ghosts are purported to be the spirits of those too greedy in life. Their inability to ever be satisfied, somehow disturbs the natural balance and order of their souls, triggering a curse that dooms them to wander with ravenous hunger. Most of the more modern versions depict them with mouths too small to take satisfying bites. They prowl alleys and kitchens, searching for offerings or spoiled food. According to the tales, which vary in their grotesquery, they will scour midden heaps, graves, even ashes, just to eat anything they think might sustain them.
These hungry ghosts are portrayed with green or grey corpse-like skin, distended bellies, and skeletal thinness. They can take on gaseous form and wander into homes. But as with most myths, there is a sort of branching off which takes place over time, and over long distances. Myths trapped behind mountains will evolve like an endemic species, and transform yet again.
Consequently, there are nine different varieties of Éguǐ, separated into three classes, along a somewhat difficult concept to translate: means. Depending on what you’ve read, “means” appears to correspond to magical strength or spiritual capital, somehow obtained by the humans who maintain the spirits. Egui are believed to be dead humans, and in cultures that worship ancestors, often the people who pray, offer up food, and so forth, create for the ghost, a kind of strength.
Ghosts of No Means, are known as Wú Cái Guǐ. These include Ghosts with Needle Mouths, who cannot take in enough food or beverages to satisfy themselves, Torch Mouth Ghosts whose mouths appear like flames, and Foul Mouth Ghosts whose breath is disgusting to themselves and any witnesses.
Ghosts of Small Means are known as Shǎo Cái Guǐ .They are punished with physical ailments. Needle Hair Ghosts have hairs like sharp iron needles which torment them but can be used to inflict pain on others. Smelly-Hair Ghosts have spiky hair that exudes a terrible odor, much like their Foul Mouth Ghost brethren. Tumor Ghosts are the most unfortunate of the Small Means class, forced to feed on the oozing pus from their own hideous goiters and tumors.
Ghosts with Excessive Means include Ghosts Hoping ForOfferings, which only keep themselves in existence by feeding on sacrificial offerings, such as ancestor offerings from their unwitting descendants. Ghosts Hoping For Leavings can steal and eat the qi of living beings, and feed on human leftovers. Ghosts of Great Powers are perpetually aggressive and violent.
All of these ghosts have some similarities with Cousins. Simon frequently explains that he is always hungry, seeking for food and never satisfied. The grey skin and skeletal physique common to these ghosts is also familiar. The breath and body odor of a Cousin accustomed to feeding on spoiled food, corpses and offerings would likely be anything but pleasant. The violence and aggression of a Cousin on a feeding spree may account for the legends of powerful ghosts. Even certain features such as Needle Hair may be cases of mistaken identity and physical sensations. The filaments comprising a Cousin’s ‘hair’ are flexible, shiny, and a similar thickness to larger needles. Simon describes being able to cause feelings of unease and dread, which may translate to the well-known feeling of ‘pins and needles’.
The ghosts’ ability to turn into a gaseous form may be explained by the Cousinly ability to project emotional influences over humans and animals, as well as their ability to silently break into and freely wander through homes. While spitting flames isn’t a common ability, it may be explained either by the cleverness of a Cousin employing trickery, or though more unlikely, the growth of bioluminescent bacteria in a Cousin’s mouth. Bacteria which occur naturally on rotting flesh, especially human flesh and seafood are known to emit a phosphorescent glow, and the variety known as Angel’s Glow (P. luminescens) was a common occurrence in wounds of Civil War soldiers.
The known information about Simon and his species do seem to match up very well to legends of the Éguǐ, and it is my conclusion that Cousins do in fact inhabit China, and are direct contributors to the rich history of folklore in the many cultures housed within.
Jill Ford is a freelance editor and grant writer. In her spare time, she works with Simon to manage his social media and organize his otherwise confusing online presence.
“Jolly Jim” Cardwell opened a hotel. In fact, he owned several, but this particular hotel was something of an oddity. It was perched at the top of what is now called Donner Summit. This isn’t in and of itself an oddity, as people have been building resorts in picturesque places since the Roman times. What was unusual about this hotel was its positioning. It was beside the railroad, its front door directly positioned upon the entrance between two railway snow sheds.
You see, the Sierras are treacherous in the winter. As the oft referenced story of the Donner party might suggest, the snow could get twenty feet high. Avalanches were common. Blizzards were frequent. Even though most of the Transcontinental’s movements were cut into the very mountain, there were still portions of the rails that ran around the outer edges of ridges and along the sides of mountains. Where the tracks were bared, great wooden structures were erected, manmade tunnels with very few openings. These allowed the trains to come and go without becoming stuck in the snow, and at Tunnel 6, the Summit stop, the hotel took in all the off boarding passengers.
Before the highways and interstates were put in, there was an old mining road called the Dutch Flat. This too ran within sight of the Summit Hotel, and it was from this barely carved trail amongst the trees that I had my first view of the place.
Pardon me for not discussing all the particulars of how I came to be there. Suffice it to say that I had been forced to leave. Pinkertons can be a bit testy when you’re accused of massive theft and the murder of a lawman, and sometimes even faking your own demise doesn’t work out so well. I’d spent the better part of two months gambling on my earnings, growing a small fortune through the preternatural gifts I possess. But Truckee had run dry and truthfully, had taken an extremely hostile temperament with me, and so I’d determined it was time to move on.
So I spent a day walking, moving my carcass as swiftly as I could up the Dutch Flat road. For a number of reasons, the train wasn’t truthfully an option for me, and I wasn’t at my best. Then there was the added difficulty of my nearest cousin, who appeared to be following me. I decided it was time to stop, and that the Summit Hotel was as good a place as any.
The place was like a beehive in many respects, much of it a honeycomb of wooden tunnels connecting buildings, painted a pale golden color. I entered off to one side, thinking it would lead me to the entrance. I found, however, that it lead me straight into a bear cave.
I call it that, because at the mouth of this lean-to hallway, there was a bear.
He didn’t seem particularly interested in mauling anyone. In fact there were a few people entertaining him by tossing fruit at his head, and he seemed to be chained to the spot. Creeping around behind him, I was put in mind of the old days, of the South Bank and my time in the theater district. I don’t like seeing animals chained. It irks me in a way I cannot adequately put to words, but I’m also equally out of love with large predatory animals like bears, so in this case was willing to overlook his treatment.
He was a black bear, quite common in those parts, but his fur was a soft brown, whiter at the neck than the back. He wasn’t too large—I put his weight somewhere around three hundred pounds, but that’s far superior to my bulk anyway. As I snuck around his back, he caught the feel of me, and immediately wheeled round. The tourists were treated to a full display of him on his hind legs, grunting at me in challenge.
Animals don’t speak in words, my friends. They only know feelings. Normally, I own whatever land I occupy and assert dominance, but these weren’t my territories. I wasn’t about to put out anything that made me seem a danger to him. Instead I stood very still, except for a slight bow. I kept my eyes on the ground between us as the stupid people clapped. After a time, he accepted our truce, and landed back on all fours.
I moved inside as swiftly as I was able. The proprietor was there and seemed surprised to see me. Evidently this time of year, he had few patrons coming via the muddy road from Truckee. I got a room and was given a promise of exceptional food. He didn’t know the cooking I’d left was some of the finest I’d ever had, but how could he. I went up to my room and washed up.
In the evening, a train came through. It brought a number of new guests and some people who simply wanted to pop over to the hotel for the merriment. None of them were from Truckee, so I didn’t trouble myself as I looked out the window onto the gap between the door and the snow sheds. The bear was a cause for delight and many of the patrons gave him a wide but laughing berth.
Dinner was a bit of a fancy affair. Despite the time of year and the snow still plastered to the mountain outside, there were people of all types, some of whom had brought some very fine dinner attire. I sat by myself as usual, and ate my dinner in peace, until Jolly Jim came and put a hand on the back of my chair.
“Did you like the bear?”
“Someone said he gave yo a bit of a turn when you arrived. I hope he didn’t scare you.”
Those words had mockery to them. I wiped my mouth. The three men at the table beside mine gave a chuckle at my expense.
“He’s a fine chap.”
Jolly Jim grinned ear to ear. “You’ll be happy to know I’m bringing him inside for a bit, then.”
I stared up at him. Was he daft? Putting an animal like that indoors, with all the tobacco smoke and the food smells. The poor thing would be in misery in an instant. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Oh, he does it all the time.” Jim dropped his voice. “I do it for the guests! They love it. Bring him right up to the bar and give him a beer glass.”
As he walked away, I took a deep breath. The poor animal was dutifully brought in a few minutes later, led by a chain around its neck. As if it expected it, the bear waited beside the bar for his beer, which the bartender gave him very gingerly. The bear stood up and stuck its nose into the glass, sucking out the beer to the amusement of all. I sat back from the spectacle, aware that my mere presence there was a danger to everyone.
I ate and I pulled myself in as much as I could, but I could tell the bear’s behavior was off. Jim had to scold it several times and eventually, it became so belligerent that a somewhat apologetic handler had to take it outside via another door.
Jim clapped his hands. “Terribly sorry ladies and gentlemen! I’m afraid our friend is a bit irascible today! It’s my fault. I promised him a good wrestle this morning and only ended up giving him a hug.”
There was laughter. Some of the women were shaking their heads in astonishment.
“I’ll wrestle with him,” said a man whose accent was German.
Jim laughed, but I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t confirmed that was a good idea. “I’m sure you would, sir! And from your brawn I’d say you could win too!”
I shook my head and finished my meal, tossing my napkin upon the table. The audacity of a man doing such a thing to a large beast purely for his own amusement was obnoxious to me. I had no desire to see any more of it, nor to bother the bear further with my proximity. I stood up and began to make my way from the room.
Jim was telling everyone a story about the time the bear nearly took off the former bartender’s arm, when the German persisted. He wanted to have a go at this bear. Jim laughed.
“He chooses his own opponents!”
I looked up through the window. The bear was trying to come back into the bar, dragging the handler behind him. As he shoved his bulk into the doorway, the space between us opened and the bear caught sight of me. He let out a long growl and would have turned Sampson against the pillars if not for Jolly Jim jumping between us.
Chuckling nervously, he turned to me and whispered that I should help him for a moment. I had no idea what he was talking about, but the bear kept tugging and aiming for me.
“Go out to the front, Mr. Graves, if you please, sir!” Jim hissed at me. All at once, understanding dawned for me and with a long-suffering sigh, I turned on my heel. Walking out the front door into the sludge and dirty snow of the courtyard, I waited. The bear ambled out behind me, very swiftly, followed by a number of Jim’s patrons.
“It seems, Mr. Graves, that my friend here has decided he’d like to wrestle you!”
The crowd got a good chuckle from this—thin, darkly clad me with my silver topped cane and my sour expression. There wasn’t a person there who could have thought me healthy enough for such a leisure activity, but the bear could see through all that. He wanted a piece of me. He wanted to finish our conversation from earlier.
The handler tangled with him as Jim approached me, and in his low whisper promised me a free night if I could be asked to let it transpire. I glared at him, and he apologized profusely, but there was nothing for it. The bear had his eye on me and he would not be dissuaded.
I took off my coat and handed it off to Jim. He wanted a spectacle. He was going to get one.
I’ve never fought any large animal before. I seldom if ever need to. Usually, I either know precisely what the animal wants and make allowances, or I convince it to leave me alone. But this was a wild thing raised by a man who liked to entertain. It didn’t know the proper etiquette. It didn’t have the proper bearing…if you’ll forgive the pun. I was going to have to hurt it, I supposed. And likely end up killing one of these fine folk to make up the difference in strength. It would have to be Jim, though that would most definitely cause me a few problems.
I rolled up my sleeves and checked my braces.
There goes another suit, I thought. This trip was proving to be very rough on my wardrobe.
The bear was freed from his chain and immediately made his display of height and strength. I kept still, my arms at my sides. When he dropped, it was into a full charge. I heard the heartbeat of every man standing about leap into full race and a woman scream. I side–stepped. The bear wheeled around, very close to, and brought up an arm.
With the force of a stamp mill, the bastard swiped downward at me, caught me in the chest, and put me on my back. As I lie there, looking up at him in astonishment, he stood atop me, pressing me to the ground. His head came very close to my face and he let out a slavering roar.
I thought for certain I was about to be eaten, which would have been appropriate, to be quite honest. I raised my hands to take hold of its jaw, but suddenly the bear was being pulled backward by Jim and a few hotel staff members, one of whom threw a rope around the bear’s neck. Suprisingly, the animal allowed it, and in a sullen series of moans, was pulled back to his usual post.
They fed him a large sack of fruit, while I, covered in mud, was bodily lifted off the sticky ground.
I have fought many men in my life. From Burgundians to Red Coats, and this was the first time I’d ever been put on my back so easily. Wincing, pieces of my skeleton barely hinged together, I stood huffing in the cold air, several other patrons patting my back. A large glass of brandy was brought to me and I drank it up. It was good brandy too—Hine, if I’m not mistaken. I slurped it down and took a second when it was offered. The crowd got their laughter and commiseration out of the way.
As they all repaired back to the warmth of the hotel, Cardwell slapped me on the back and asked if I was well.
“I’ve just been stood upon by a cinnamon bear, sir. How do you think I feel?”
He laughed. “Give your clothes to the steward. I’ll have them cleaned up. Shoes too! And have a bath too. I’m sorry about that. I don’t know why he was so belligerent. It had to be you, I’m afraid.”
I stood up. Something cracked loudly. His eyes went wide.
“I’ll take some more chops up in my room if you’ll do me the kindness.”
“Of course, Mr. Graves.” I put out a hand for my cane, which he dutifully gave me. “Sir, you’re faring remarkably well. You wrestle with a bear before?”
“No sir. And never again, I’m afraid.”
He chuckled and saw me back indoors. As promised, I was given a free stay, but as I took my leave, I felt it incumbent upon me to say a farewell to my adversary.
He was sitting just inside the entrance to the tunnel, huffing at me, but I could see that he was afraid. Poor sap. He’d done the one thing most people never survived—getting drunk and trying to win a fight with a monster. No telling, but it felt as if he truly wanted to beg pardon and fall upon my mercy. As if a night of thought had made him look on his actions a little more sensibly.
I stood opposite him for some time. Talking with animals takes time. Stillness too. It takes a kind of poise that humans seldom manage. I took a seat on the footing of the snowshed.
“You gave me quite the walloping, sir,” I said aloud, but with my whole being, I told him it was all in good fun, and that I wasn’t upset about it. There were a few half barrels of fruit and slop just out of his reach. I tossed him a soft apple. It sat beside his paw untouched.
He made a small, plaintive moan.
“Go on then. I’ll have one too.”
I bit into mine. It was rotten, but so what. You eat a ten day old drowning victim a few times and an old apple gives no pause.
He ate his in one great bite. After I’d eaten most of mine, I tossed him the core and got on my way.
And that is the story of how I had a free hotel stay at the Summit Hotel, by virtue of wrestling a bear. Though to be fair, he won.
You might be asking yourself what happened to the bear, and I do know the answer to that. Why? Because I never take defeat without knowing my enemy better for the next encounter. It’s tragic, I’m afraid, which is one reason I hesitated to tell the full story.
Jolly Jim was forced to shoot the poor dear only a year later. According to what I was told, he’d tried to eat a horse inside the stables at Truckee, where he was housed after Cardwell purchased the Kaiser House. It seems a few boys threw some stones at him to stop him, and he chased them from the property.
It’s a sorry tale, but in at least one way, I am content. The only enemy to ever fight me and win, no longer exists to do it again.
And I have learned my lesson. I will never again wrestle a bear or even joke about it. They are lethal killing machines, to be sure.
The following is a continuing collaboration between Folklore consultant Ruth Gibbs and the author of this site.
Welcome back to monstrous myths everyone! Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear from nightmares? Have you ever felt a crushing weight on your chest as the darkness closes in on you and something slowly, slowly, creeps over the floor towards your bed? According to the Slavs, you might’ve had a run in with a Mare.
Just the Lore
It is fairly safe to say every person who is reading this has either had a very bad nightmare or knows someone who has had a very bad nightmare. It is part of being human, overactive brains stressed from a long day or week filtering all that pent up emotion, finding a way to release it all in a relatively harmless way. These range from a slight dread and no memory, to something that haunts your waking hours for years to come. We have brain scans nowadays. We can see what the brain is doing when it is asleep, and while the substance of a dream is open to interpretation, the mechanism of it really isn’t anymore.
However, if you lived in ancient Germany, Norway, or various parts of Eastern Europe, that stress nightmare would likely have been caused by a Mara, a small demon creature who sits upon the chest of sleeping people, “riding” them and causing asthmatic fits, thrashing, injuries during the night, and horrific nightmares that awaken the afflicted person with apoplexy and screaming…if they wake up at all. These sleeping-demons tend to be lumped in with the likes of succubi and incubi, but they don’t appear to actually do anything to their victims beyond terrorize, while those other, more well known monsters have serious consequences.
These little beasties didn’t limit themselves to humans, though. In Sweden and Norway they were known to ride horses to sweating exhaustion, causing horrible frustrating knots called marflätor (mare-locks) or martovor (mare-tangles), or ride trees that cause the knots and gnarls in bark. If something looks twisted, exhausted, and upset in the morning… the usual source was a Mare having a fun night out on the countryside.
Physical descriptions of Mare vary from place to place. Mare’s cousins in Romania, the Moroi, are said to be the resurrected souls of the dead seeking revenge on the living for poor burial, while over in Catalan the Pesanta takes the shape of a huge cat or dog. Mare’s can be anything from foot-tall fuzzy gnomish things to ghoulish gangly things with heads scraping the ceilings. Whatever your brain creates that is the most strange, and terrifying, the Mare is, providing whatever it is you are frightened of is humanoid.
In Russia, the Mara are said to be relatives to the more friendly but no less odd looking Domovoi. Normally the Domovoi are benevolent house spirits who help with housework and scare away mice, and can get a little uppity when left without milk or a little food. However, if the Domovoi goes without appeasement, it will retaliate with more and more violent outbursts, sometimes even killing people. In some parts of western Russia Mara are corrupted, twisted Domovoi who have been separated from their homes or families long enough to forget their nature of helpfulness.
It is worth noting that in Germanic lore, Mare are specifically female. They only cause strife and misery, but they do have a slightly more charming male counterpart, the Alp. Where Mare appear to be doing what they do for pure entertainment value, the Alp seems to gain some sustenance from his nightly terrorizing, drinking blood from the nipples of men, women, and young children in the night, and even stealing milk from nursing women’s breasts.
Relation to Simon’s Species
Many people who experience night terrors of sleep paralysis and make the mistake of opening their eyes during this debacle, often describe strange, wriggling things at the corners of their vision, crawling closer and closer every time the sufferer blinks or moves their eyes. Any observant or clever creature could take advantage of that and use the opportunity of a terrorized awake-but-immobile person to have a little fun at their expense.
For the most part the terror that is Mare’s and their ilk can be attributed to sleep paralysis and the ensuing hallucinations that occur, though I believe not all. If we link all these similar creatures by what they do…we can then look for a more distinct description that may tie in to some footing based in Simon’s physicality. The mare, lietuvens, moroi and pesanta as a “familial group” have striking physical similarities. While the Mare do have a very wide range of possible ways they can look, the other three do not.
Always gaunt, always pale, usually wearing the clothing of the deceased relative they’re meant to be, they are otherwise borderline unrecognizable, similar in many ways to the emancipated zombie in one of Simon’s earlier articles in this series, the Obur.
Simon has told stories of grave robbing sometimes being a necessity to obtain clothes and sustenance, so it’s not entirely infeasible that other Cousins might do the same to avoid having to prey upon living people, thereby avoiding arousing suspicion in local communities. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some managed to survive decades on freshly buried corpses alone, assuming the cousin in question correctly scheduled their nighttime grocery collecting and didn’t take too frequently from the same cemetery.
It’s also worth noting that all of the listed creatures in this article also tend to correspond with similarly-timed animal attacks. Missing or dead livestock stripped to the bone is a popular and common sign that a pesanta has been roaming your farm, and the wild-eyed, sweating horses probably were positively terrified at the predator sneaking past them and into the home of whoever it was they were hunting.
Anything that scares humans could be the inspiration for the Mara. Simon’s species has spent millennia creeping into the corners of our psyche, inspiring and being blamed for the deepest and darkest of our fears. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the shape our brains decide is the most frightening when we are paralyzed with terror looks strangely like the creatures that live in the forest and sometimes eat human flesh. Or, just maybe, it’s a little bit of primordial fear left over from a time when we weren’t actively ignoring the threat hiding in the trees.
While the above draws inescapable similarities between creatures of previous articles, I would like to point out the dissimilarities. In the case of the Mara, the creature appears to be something of a trickster. It likes to torment and instill fear. Now while I may be a “nice” creature now, as some have so often framed me, I would like to say that I have not always been.
I know it seems terribly silly to humans, who judge an ancient and secretive species dwelling in secret alongside their own with human eyes and human standards, but allow me to give you a notion from our perspective. For a moment, strip back all your human assumptions of what is odd, what is timely or “worth it”. Imagine you are perhaps somewhat on the border between sentient and insensible. I’ll make a comparison, because I know it happens to you humans often – have you ever been about to say a word, and forgotten the word itself? Have you stood there mutely unable to speak further because you were looking for that one word that escapes you? Imagine living in that place, when all your thoughts are wordless and everything is an uphill approach without the corresponding gravitational pull toward self-expression, or indeed, any closure of an idea at all.
Now imagine you live on the border of a tiny village. In the ancient areas of Eastern Europe farming communities were usually clustered around rivers upon the edges of forests, and we’re overseen by some sort of land baron. These plots were scoured for resources, the families on them eking out a living while tithing their goods. Imagine you are watching these creatures live out the strange lives, pulling their livestock in and out at different times of the day, dragging metal through the ground to make rows, chopping wood, riding animals, singing songs…
In that hazy in between state of mind…what might you make of them? Would you come closer? Would you wonder why they hang things over their lintels? Would you find their little babies fascinating? Would you be amused and take a dish here, a tool there, and then amuse yourself with their reactions? And the closer you got, the more they stimulate thought, and the more that happens…
The hungrier you get.
Man creates the monster, just as stress creates the nightmare. Perhaps in some tiny little village, a Cousin watched, was tempted, stole ever closer. Perhaps he found reason to be angry. I don’t like to pattern my own psychology onto those of my species, but I know whereof I speak, and I know that I have always been protective of certain things – trees, smaller creatures. I despise injustices on a deep level, such that it feels integral to my nature.
It seems easy to imagine, for this not-to-creative soul, a Cousin of mine, waiting until nightfall, when the man habitually went indoors, stealing inside and having a look around, disturbing a man from sleep at just the right moment to interfere with the paralytic of sleep, to spring him to uch a degree of fright and confusion so as to utterly paralyze him, and then to lean over his prostrate and petrified form with a menacing and prophetic leer.
“Don’t cut down anymore of my trees, Mr. Human. I am not to be trifled with.”
On a more amusing and personal note, to go back to the oft heard argument “if you’re really that old, then none of those things would matter to you,” I would like to say that I am a trickster. I have many times taken revenge on humans I find insufferable. And to my doubters I say, I bored! What else am I going to do besides toy with you mayflies? A man beats his horse? How much will I enjoy stacking every single piece of furniture from the roof while he is off in town? He cheats at cards? Well…how much will I enjoy replacing all his coins with pebbles? He abuses his fellow man? How much will I enjoy watching him sleep…while I pluck every hair from his powdered wig and strew it over the floor?
Is it petty? No. I view is as as much a natural force as you are, and all things in Nature achieve an equilibrium. Where would human character be without its tricksters? Where would you be without your nightmares? You would would be flat and two- dimensional without your shadows, my friends.
We’re only helping.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on her Tumblr