Lamia: Man-Eating Shapeshifter of Greek Mythology

Lamia was a shapeshifting monster that devoured children in Greek mythology. Described as a half-woman, half-monster, Lamia roamed the countryside in search of her next meal. The name Lamia likely is derived from the Greek word laimios, meaning esophagus. Thus, Lamia’s name hints at her tendency to devour children whole.

Like many supernatural dangers that lurked in ancient Greece, the Lamiae worked to warn young children of worldly threats. It is a quintessential “stranger-danger” warning, tales of the Lamiae advised younglings against trusting seemingly harmless strangers, especially the charming ones.

Who is Lamia in Greek Mythology?

Lamia is predominantly known as a female demon that has an appetite for children and youths. However, she wasn’t always a monster. It is just how Lamia is best remembered.

Originally, Lamia was a Libyan queen. Ancient commentaries on Aristophanes’ Peace echoed this notion. She eventually caught the attention of Zeus, becoming one of his many paramours. Equipped with substantial beauty and charm, the mortal woman effortlessly won the devotion of her divine lover. As one can guess, this extramarital affair did not go over well with Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera.

The fallout from Lamia and Zeus’ affair led to the death of their children and yet another tragic legend. Most importantly, the end of the relationship led to the creation of one of Greek mythology’s most famous monsters.

Is Lamia a Goddess?

Lamia is not traditionally a goddess, though the Greek lyrical poet Stesichorus identifies Lamia as the daughter of Poseidon. Therefore, Lamia could be a demi-god. It would explain her great beauty, the same which plagued Helen of Troy and inadvertently led to the Trojan War.

There does exist a Lamia in ancient Greek religion that is the daughter of Poseidon and a lover of Zeus. This Lamia is considered to be the mother of Scylla and the monstrous shark, Acheilus. Once a beautiful youth, Acheilus was cursed for his hubris after he challenged Aphrodite to a beauty contest. The possible connection between Lamia the sea goddess-turned-sea monster and Lamia the vampiric demon is speculated, but unconfirmed.

Some separate sources ascribe Lamia’s parents as Belus, a king of Egypt, and Achiroe. Belus was the demi-god son of Poseidon and the brother of Agenor. Meanwhile, Achiroe was the nymph daughter of Nilus, the god of the Nile River. Diodorus Siculus suggests that Lamia’s father was Belus and that her mother was instead Libye, the Greek personification of Libya. 

Regardless of whether the beautiful Lamia had a god for a parent or not didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Her beauty was enough that she became one of Zeus’ favorite lovers. Furthermore, by the end of Lamia’s story, she is considered to be immortal. Ultimately, the threat of Lamia’s torment existed for generations and, arguably, may still exist.

Is Lamia Poseidon’s Daughter?

If we listen to Stesichorus, Poseidon is the father of Lamia. However, he is the only source that lists Poseidon as Lamia’s old man. There are no other surviving sources that support this theory.

Lamia is rather generally accepted to be the daughter of Belus, an Egyptian king. Interestingly enough, Pseudo-Apollodorus does not mention Lamia as one of Belus’ offspring with his wife, Achiroe. Therefore, the only sure-fire fact about Lamia before her monstrous transformation is that she was a Libyan queen.

The name ‘Lamia’ may translate to “rogue shark,” which would make sense if she was a daughter of the sea god. By comparison, it could refer to a variation of the myth where Lamia is not serpentine, but rather shark-like.

Who Were the Lamiae?

The Lamia, better known by the plural Lamiae, were vampiric phantoms. They were inspired by the myth of Lamia, the ill-fated Libyan queen. These were folkloric monsters similar to blood-draining vampires and seductive succubi.

John Cuthbert Lawson in his 1910 study Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, remarks that the Lamiae were notorious for their “uncleanliness, their gluttony, and their stupidity.” An example of this is the contemporary Greek proverb, “της Λάμιας τα σαρώματα” (the Lamia’s sweeping).

Outside of their apparent uncleanliness and supposed stench, the Lamiae were beautiful beings that lured handsome youngmen to their demise. At least, they were beautiful when they wanted to be. They could shapeshift and conjure visions of splendor in order to cement their victim’s place in their lair.

What Does Lamia Look Like?

Lamia appears as a half-woman, half-snake. Whether or not Lamia retained her beauty is still up for debate: she is either repulsive, as several ancient writers attest, or is as enchanting as ever.

It is additionally said that Lamia can shapeshift. The shapeshifting was thought to make it easier for the creature to lure in prey. Usually, she would target young children or young men. It was rationalized that either one would have been willing to drop their guard around a beautiful woman.

The poet John Keats described Lamia as ever-beautiful: “She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue…vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue…” (Lamia 1820). Keats’ Lamia follows the later interpretation of Lamia, that despite all efforts to make her monstrous, she was still easy on the eyes. Many modern artists have taken a shine to John Keats’ description, preferring it to Lamia’s monstrous Greek appearance. An example of this is the painting, Lamia, created by Herbert James Draper in 1909.

The English Classicist painter Herbert James Draper depicts Lamia as a woman clothed in shed snake skin. The snake skin represents both her shapeshifting capabilities and her serpentine history. In all, Draper’s Lamia is not outright menacing, though the implications of her tenderly holding a poppy – a symbol of death – is chilling. The American painter John William Waterhouse also created a similar painting in 1916.

In the painting, Lamia, John William Waterhouse depicts Lamia as a woman with snakeskin surrounding her feet. She spoke to a potential lover, a knight, that gazed upon her in enchantment.

In original Greek mythology, Lamia was an ugly being, either shark-like or serpentine in appearance. Some accounts describe Lamia as merely having a disfigured face. Other, albeit rarer accounts, give Lamia a chimeric appearance.

What is the Story of Lamia?

Lamia was a beautiful queen of Libya. In ancient times, Libya had close political and economic relationships with Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Due to early contact with indigenous Berbers (Imazighen), traditional Berber religion influenced Eastern Greek religious practices and vice versa.

There was even a Greek colony in Libya, called Cyrene (Roman Cyrenaica) after the Berber folk hero Cyre, which was established in 631 BCE. Cyrene’s city gods were Cyre and Apollo.

As with most beautiful women in classical mythology, Lamia caught the attention of Zeus. The two began an affair, angering Hera. Just as Hera tormented all other women her husband lusted after, she was determined to make Lamia suffer.

Resulting from relations with Zeus, Lamia became pregnant and birthed children several times. However, Hera’s ire extended to their offspring. The goddess took it upon herself to kill Lamia’s children or induce a madness that drove Lamia to devour her own children. Other accounts state that Hera simply kidnapped Lamia’s children.

The loss of the children caused an unprecedented disturbance in Lamia. She – whether in her grief, madness, or insomniatic curse by Hera – could not shut her eyes. The lack of sleep forced Lamia to forever envision her dead children. This was something that Zeus pitied.

Perhaps, as the father of the now-dead children, Zeus understood Lamia’s turmoil. He gifted Lamia the gift of prophecy and the ability to shapeshift. Furthermore, Lamia’s eyes could be painlessly removed whenever she needed to rest.

In her maddened state, Lamia began eating other children. She especially targeted unattended infants or disobedient children. In a later myth, Lamia developed into the multiple Lamiae: spirits with many vampiric qualities that targeted young men.

How is Lamia Represented in Greek Mythology?

Athenian mothers, grandmothers, and nannies would use Lamia as a bogeyman. She became a fairy-tale figure, capable of extreme acts of violence and rage. The unexplained, sudden death of an infant was often blamed on Lamia. The saying, “The child has been strangled by the Lamia,” says it all.

Later mythology describes Lamia as a shape-shifting creature that disguises itself as a beautiful woman that seduced young men only to consume them later. This version of Lamia became popularized by Romans, early Christians, and Renaissance poetry.

In all, Lamia was yet another archaic tall tale meant to frighten children into obedience. Her development into a blood-sucking enchantress came after the fact.

Life of Apollonius of Tyana

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written by the Greek sophist Philostratus. The Lamia in question had seduced a student of the main character, Apollonius. As a part of her scheme, the pupil, Menippus, arranged a wedding: she planned to devour the young bridegroom afterward.

In this work, Philostratus equates the snake-like Lamia to an Empusai, a phantom from the Underworld with a copper leg. Though the Empusai are obscure, they are thought to have vampiric qualities generally related to the Lamiae. It is believed that the Empusai are under the control of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft.

The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass, also known as The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, is an ancient Roman novel that hints at the presence of Lamiae. The novel itself follows a certain Lucius from Madaurus, who dabbles in the occult and gets turned into a donkey. Although not obviously stated, the characters of the witches Meroe, Pamphile, and Panthia all carry Lamia characteristics.

Lamia – and the Lamiae – became synonymous with sorceries and witchcraft by the 1st century CE. After all, in many Greek legends, the most powerful sorceresses were beautiful such as Circe and Calypso of Homer’s Odyssey.

Despite using blood in their rituals and operating at night, the witches in The Golden Ass are not blood drinkers. Thus, they are not necessarily vampires, as most Lamiae are considered.

The Courtesan

Just as Lamia became the name for witches, it also was used as a way to refer to mistresses in Greco-Roman society. By bewitching powerful men, many courtesans gained social and political prestige.

Famously, a courtesan named Lamia of Athens enamored the Macedonian politician Demetrius Poliorcetes. She was older than Poliorcetes, though he remained captivated by her for decades. When the people of Athens were looking to gain Poliorcetes’ favor, they constructed a temple dedicated to Lamia under the guise of Aphrodite.

Far from a monster, Lamia of Athens was a hetaira: a well-educated, multi-talented prostitute in archaic Greece. Hetaira were afforded more privileges than other Greek women of the time. Although a mere coincidence, Lamia’s shared name with the man-eating monster of myth did not go unnoticed by social commentators of her time.

READ MORE: The Life of Women in Ancient Greece

In the Suda

The Suda is a massive 10-century CE Byzantine encyclopedia. The text gives insight into the ancient Mediterranean world. It contains biographical information regarding significant politicians and religious figures. When discussing ancient religions, it is speculated that the author was Christian.

In the entry for Mormo, another child-snatching bogeyman, the creature is counted as a Lamiae variant. Otherwise, the entry for Lamia in the Suda summarizes the story of Lamia as told by Duris in “Book 2” of Libyan Histories.

Lamia in the Middle Ages and in Christianity

Lamia maintained her identity as a bogeyman throughout the Middle Ages. With the spread of Christianity, Lamia became more demonic than ever.

READ MORE: How Did Christianity Spread: Origins, Expansion, and Impact 

Early Christian writers warned of the seductive capabilities of Lamia. She was compared to the night demon Lilith of Jewish folklore. Lilith was initially the first wife of Adam that was banished from the Garden of Eden for disobeying her husband. In her banishment, Lilith became a feared she-demon that targeted children.

Both Lamia and Lilith were viewed as female demons that used their feminine beauty to beguile unwitting men and naive children. They are equated with the medieval succubus more frequently than not.

Lamiae were further associated with the dissolution of marriages, as the Archbishop of Reims, Hincmar, suggests in his fragmented 9th-century treatise De divortio Lotharii regis et Theutbergae reginae. He associated the Lamiae with female reproductive spirits (geniciales feminae): “Women who by their evil-doing are able to place an irreconcilable hatred between husband and wife” (Interrogatio: 15).

By the Middle Ages, Lamia – and the Lamiae – became known as the reason children disappeared or unexplainably died. Pretty routine stuff as far as her history goes. Though, the Middle Ages did see a break in the routine, with Lamia also becoming the shadow behind a broken marriage.

Why is the Lamia a Monster?

The madness that Lamia experienced upon losing her children caused her to become a monster. She began to seek out other children to devour them. It was an act so vile, so wicked, that it caused Lamia to transform physically.

Transforming into a monster is not at all a new thing and is a pretty common occurrence throughout Greek myths. Consequently, Lamia’s development is not at all peculiar. The transformation of Lamia the monster to the Lamia demon is even less surprising.

Lamia could be ghostly, grisly, graceful, and predatory all at once. In the end, some of the most horrifying monsters were once people driven past their breaking point. Similarly hauntingly human, Lamia has been equated with the ghostly La Llorona – the Wailing Woman – of Latin America. On the flip side of things, the Greek Lamia has been further compared to the Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore, who kidnaps children to feast on their flesh later.

READ MORE: Slavic Mythology: Gods, Legends, Characters, and Culture

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