In many cultures around the world, old legends become cautionary tales. Eventually, they turn into metaphors and allegories used to frighten people into good behavior. There’s no more remarkable example of that than Lamia in Greek mythology.
Ancient writers described Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon, as a ” queen of surpassing beauty.” It was her attractive appearance that led to her unfortunate future. Her trouble began when her exquisite beauty drew the attention of Zeus. Lamia eventually became Zeus’ mistress much to the displeasure of his wife, Hera. The jealous wife cursed Lamia, and the curse is what led to the queen becoming known as a child-eating demon.
Lamia is a feared beast who took many forms. Sometimes she was referred to as a shape-shifting woman. In other stories, she was a sea monster or nighttime phantom. Either way, Lamia is a figure that continues to inspire fearful tales of vengeance and madness.
The Origins of Lamia
In most accounts, Lamia is the daughter of the King of Egypt. Some say that she was the progeny of the god Poseidon. However, she’s most often described as the beautiful Queen of Libya. Her beauty was unmatched. According to the legend, it was enough to attract the attention of the king of the Olympians himself.
How Lamia’s story begins can vary a bit. Some accounts say that she was an innocent target of unbridled jealousy. These iterations say that Zeus adored her beauty as he showed obvious signs of infatuation. That caused extreme jealousy with his wife, Hera.
Other versions paint Lamia a bit differently. Instead of being innocent, she returned the affections of Zeus and had a full-on affair. The affair led to pregnancies, which Hera later cursed.
Lamia’s Transformation into a Monster
Regardless of the start of her story, scholars agree that what happens next is the nexus of Lamia’s transformation. Enraged by Zeus’ love of the Queen of Libya, Hera curses Lamia’s children.
Hera’s curse began with the deaths of the children of Lamia. Any child the queen gave birth to would quickly die. Some accounts of the story say the children were murdered by Hera, and others state the deaths occurred by their mother’s own hands under the influence of Hera. It is possible Zeus fathered some of the children lost due to the curse.
According to some accounts of the myth, Hera killed them directly. Other stories say that Lamia killed them under Hera’s influence.
Start of Madness
The strain of witnessing, and even causing so much death drove Lamia to madness. The misery of seeing other women with healthy babies took a toll on the cursed queen. The inability to sleep, another part of Hera’s curse, worsened the mental state of the damaged woman and led to her committing heinous acts.
Lamia began to kidnap infants to appease her misery. The manic woman stole newborns from their mother’s arms and brought them to a cave that had become her lair. Once at the cave, Lamia would feast on the children. The actions worsened her mental state, and she became determined to rob every woman of all their children as she had lost her own. The insanity and the cannibalism turned the once lovely women into a monstrous demon.
Lamia the Child-Eater
The loss of her children was not easy on Lamia. Hera’s wrath caused every single one of the Lamias children to perish. The constant death led to mental anguish for the Libyan Queen. The former beauty became enraged anytime she saw a happy mother holding her child. She was jealous of their joy and angered by everything taken away from her.
On top of all that, Hera cursed her with sleeplessness. She prevented Lamia from getting a single moment of respite, which only worsened Lamia’s emotional turmoil. The loss and insomnia tormented Lamia so much that she became a shell of her former self. She was driven to insanity.
This is when she starts to transform. Instead of the beautiful woman she once was, Lamia takes on a nightmarish look. She moves into a cave and begins to perform spine-tingling acts. Some versions of Lamia’s story say that Hera turned her into a beast. Some depictions show her as a horrid sea serpent or a four-legged beast. However, most retellings don’t mention this act from Hera at all.
As a result, many attribute her transformation to pure grief and rage. The darkness in her heart took over, eventually manifesting itself on her outward appearance. She was no longer beautiful but rather a beast that anyone would fear laying eyes on.
Lamia snatches up children and infants. She kidnaps them from new mothers and takes them to her lair. There, she would devour them. Lamia’s so stricken with grief and rage that she tries to rob every woman of their children. The once beautiful Queen of Libya is now a child-eating daemon that everyone through Ancient Greece fears.
Seeing what’s happening to mortal mothers in Greece, Zeus decides to take action. In an attempt to save future children from Lamia’s cannibalistic acts, Zeus goes to her and makes her eyes removable. He forces her to remove her eyes during the day and put them in a glass jar.
The reason behind this act varies between retellers. Some poets described the act as a form of punishment. However, others saw it as a move of pity. By removing her eyes, Lamia could not see the happy mothers and their children. As a result, she would stop hunting and killing them.
Unfortunately, the eye removal was only temporary. She had to take them out during the day, but she was free to put them back in at night. That’s precisely what she did. But instead of finding peace and solace, Lamia continued her reign of terror after the sun dipped below the horizon.
Thanks to Hera’s curse of sleeplessness, Lamia used her nights for hunting for children.
Lamia’s story gets passed down from generation to generation. Over time, she becomes a phantom in the night. Her legacy is that of a bogeywoman that mothers and nannies use to scare children into behaving.
Lamia appears in many works of art. Not only was the personification of evil in her child-eating form, but the story of Lamia evolved throughout history.
To Ancient Greeks, she was a feared monster. Often, she took on a serpentine look or appeared as a woman with a malformed face.
Around the first century, Lamia became a figure of female power. She was portrayed as a beautiful seductress who would trick men before devouring them whole!
Later, classical artists used her as a target for beautiful paintings. She was an enchantress who held a snakeskin or had a hidden serpentine body in those depictions.
The story of Lamia as a dangerous enchantress was made most famous by the works of John Keats. The English poet was inspired by Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy.” He used Burton’s work as a starting point to describe the characteristics of Lamia. However, he expanded upon her evolved form, pushing her further away from the child-eating Queen and more towards the eater of young men.
Influence in Tales
The ability to continue her hunt for flesh after sunset made Lamia into a bogeyman to children. Parents would use the story of the cursed queen as the reason for children to behave or stay in bed. A failure to follow the instructions meant the risk of becoming a meal for the monster.
Later cultures described Lamia as a sea-monster and others would say she became a vampiric creature that turned her attention to men. In this role, she would seduce men either in real life or in their dreams and feast on their flesh and blood once they succumbed to her advances. Influenced by Lamia’s story, a type of demon creatures that posed as beautiful women to lure young men to their deaths were often known as the Lamiai / Lamiae.
Survival of Children
Various tales suggest that not all the children of Zeus and Lamia died. One story tells of a daughter of Zeus and Lamia named Herophile who was notably the first woman to chant oracles. Given the surname Sibylla, she chanted the oracles on a rock that rose above the ground at Delphi. Herophile, however, is also recorded as a sea-nymph and the daughter of Poseidon and Aphrodite.
- According to Greek myths, Lamia is a monster that eats young children.
- Lamia is a shapeshifting monster who scholars believe represents the fear of females in power.
- Lamia is a lesser-known beast that was all but lost to history. She reappeared in works by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. More notably, she was a figure in Romantic poetry by John Keats in the 17th and 18th centuries.
- Hera, the Queen of the Olympian gods, reportedly created the monster.
- Later, Lamia was used as a fiend-like bogeyman creature to scare children into good behavior.
- In “The Life of Apollonius of Tyana” by Flavius Philostratus, Lamia took the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men. Once she lured them in, she would devour them. Her role was similar to that of Empusa.
- Lamia was the daughter of King Belus of Egypt. Retellings by Stesichorus say that she was the daughter of Poseidon.
- Once she earned bogeywoman status, Lamia was sometimes referred to as Mormolyca or Mormo.
- Lamia may have had surviving children. Some accounts say that she was the mother of Sibyl. Others describe her as the mother of Scylla.
- Some scholars compare Lamia to Hecate, a primordial goddess often associated with snakes and witchcraft.
- Lamia appears in stories by Strabo, Aristophanes, Diodorus Siculus, and more.
- The name “Lamia” is translated into many works. It’s the translation for “Lilith” in the Hebrew bible. The word also shares a similar definition for “wild beast” in Suda.
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