Lamia: The Child-Eating Monster of Greek Legend
Long ago in Greece, mothers and fathers whispered a horrifying story to their children. “Don’t wander too far away, or the Lamia might snatch you up and eat you!”
Stories of child-eating monsters that are used to scare children into good behavior are hardly unique to ancient Greece. Many children around the world have grown up with stories of the bogeyman, La Llorona, or Baba Yaga.
The Greek Lamia, however, is a particularly terrifying version of this common theme. She could inspire fear in adults as well as children.
An eyeless beast with distorted features and an obsession with children, the Lamia would be at home in any modern horror story.
Like many other monsters from ancient Greece and from around the world, the story of how the Lamia was turned into a cautionary tale for children is a tragic one.
According to most Greek writers, the Lamia had once been a beautiful young woman. In fact, she was a queen.
The two had an affair that lasted for some time, and Lamia gave birth to at least two of Zeus’s children. Inevitably, however, his wife Hera learned of their adulterous affair.
The wife of Zeus was known for her jealousy and had tried time and time again to take her anger out on her husband’s mistresses and their children. With Lamia, she succeeded.
In most versions of the story, Hera kidnapped Lamia’s children. Their ultimate fate was unknown, many assumed that she had them killed while others thought she had simply sent them away to be raised by someone else.
Other versions take an even darker turn. In those, Hera forced Lamia to kill the children herself.
The loss of her children was enough to drive the Libyan queen insane with grief. But Hera wasn’t done tormenting her husband’s lover.
Many accounts of the Lamia said that, to increase her insanity, Hera deprived Lamia of the ability to sleep. Zeus tried to alleviate her suffering by giving her removable eyes so she could rest, but it was too late.
In other versions of the story, her eyes were not affected by the gods. Mad with grief, she tore them out herself.Lamia was completely mad. Consumed by thoughts of her children, she began looking for other children wherever she could find them. Click To Tweet
In her madness, she killed whatever children she came across. As she became more and more obsessive and cruel, her appearance began to match her actions.
The once-beautiful queen became distorted beyond recognition. Exhaustion and monstrous behavior made her look every bit as terrible as she acted.
Lamia was the daughter of the sea god, and she took on an appearance that was fitting. According to most accounts, she began to resemble a shark.
Her name, in fact, means a lone shark. Unlike other monsters of the sea, however, Lamia did not just represent a danger faced by sailors.
Instead, Lamia hunted the land. She snatched up children who were unguarded and unaware and murdered them in horrible fashion.
Some stories went further, saying that she would pull unborn children from their mothers so she could eat them.
Lamia became a true monster, a vampiric creature that hunted children by night for no reason but to spread suffering and pain.
The Lamia became a caution to disobedient children, like an ancient Greek bogeyman. Children were warned that if they wandered out of sight or didn’t behave, the Lamia would snatch them up and devour them.
In later eras, it became a common practice for historians and philosophers to try to rationalize the myths of their ancestors. By removing the supernatural elements from the stories, they hoped to find a historical truth.
Often these historic rationalizations were just as fanciful as the magical myths that they drew from.
In the 1st century BC, the Greek philosopher Diodorus of Sicily attempted to find a logical explanation for the monstrous figure of the Lamia. He focused his attention on her origin as a human queen.
According to Diodorus, Lamia really was a Libyan queen. And she was responsible for the deaths of many children.
He rationalized that the queen of Libya had ordered the kidnapping and deaths of many children in her kingdom. As she grew more cruel she became uglier, just as the legendary creature had.
This Lamia was still very much a human, though. The Libyan queen that Diodorus imagined was dishevelled and distorted, but did not take on the elongated face or sharp fins of a shark.
He also rationalized the story of Lamia’s removable eyes. Diodorus imagined that the cruel foreign queen was also a heavy drinker.
When she consumed too much wine, the queen would stumble about as if she was blind. This led people to joke that the queen had put her eyes in a vessel, meaning the cup or bowl from which she had drunk.
The story told by Diodorus has no basis in history. But it was an effort but one of the great minds of antiquity to find a logical story behind a piece of horrifying folklore.
There was one tradition that claimed that at least one of Lamia’s children had survived.
Pausanius was a travel writer of the 2nd century AD. He wrote an extensive Description of Greece in which he recorded the sights and local beliefs he encountered.
He claimed that, while visiting Delphi, he was told that the famous oracle Sybil was the daughter of Zeus and Lamia.
There is a rock rising up above the ground [at Delphoi (Delphi)]. On it, say the Delphians, there stood and chanted the oracles a woman, by name Herophile and surnamed Sibylla (Sibyl). The former Sibylla I find was as ancient as any; the Greeks say that she was a daughter of Zeus by Lamia, daughter of Poseidon, that she was the first woman to chant oracles, and that the name Sibylla was given her by the Libyans.
-Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 12. 2 (trans. Jones)
Sibyl may have been the name of a more ancient priestess, but by the time of Pausanias it was the general title used for Apollo’s famous oracle at Delphi.
The oracle was said to give prophecies that came directly from Apollo himself. The god had been given the power to know the plans of fate, so the oracle’s words, while sometimes difficult to interpret, were always true.
There seemed, therefore, to have been a story that Lamia had at least one daughter who survived to adulthood. Whether she was the only one spared by Hera or if the goddess had simply taken the children to be raised away from their mother was never made clear.
Like the older stories of Lamia, the story Pausanias heard claimed that the ancient Sybil had been born in Libya. Her gift for prophecy and interpreting the visions sent by a god may have been a legacy of her own divine lineage as Zeus’s daughter and, thus, a half-sister to the god she served.
One 2nd century writer claimed that the first Sibyl was a surviving daughter of Zeus, but her human children were not the only family the Lamia had.
Like many characters in Greek myths, Lamia’s background was constantly shifting. Family connections were constantly being made between the thousands of gods, monsters, and mortals mentioned in various legends.
The Lamia was no different. While her story began relatively clearly, with a named father and an unspecified number of lost children, the family tree of the Lamia became more complex as subsequent writers added their own twist to the story.
Among those connected to the Lamia were:
- Hecate – The goddess of magic and witchcraft was often said to be Lamia herself or a close relative. As the Lamia became more associated with magic and witches this connection became more common.
- Scylla – The terrible sea monster that devoured six of Odysseus’s crew was sometimes called the daughter of Lamia.
- Achielus – A few legends mention a surviving son of Lamia and Zeus. Achielus was a handsome young man who was transformed into a shark by Aphrodite when he bragged that he was more attractive than she was.
- King Belus and Queen Libye of Egypt – Some alternative versions of the legend make Belus and his queen Libye her parents instead of Poseidon.
- The Laestrygonians – Some stories said that the cannibal tribe encountered by Odysseus were related to her. One source said that she was their queen and the city of Lamos was named for her.
The story of the Lamia proved to be a popular one.
As literal belief in Greek and Roman mythology gave way to Christianity, the Lamia remained a figure in folklore. Separated from her mythical origin, she became a local monster instead of a legendary figure.
By the Middle Ages, the word lamia was used to refer to a whole host of monsters instead of one single being. They were bogeymen or bugbears, a figure used to frighten children but not necessarily taken seriously by adults.
But even the connection with children was not always present in stories of the Lamia. Like many nymphs and monsters of legend, the Lamia was re-imagined as a seductress.Instead of kidnapping children, this Lamia preyed on young men. She was a succubus figure who seduced unwary men and killed them for her own pleasure. Click To Tweet
One story used the name Lamia for a creature called an empusa, a shapeshifting demon of Greek folktales. This Lamia transformed herself into a snake while seducing an innocent student.
The empusa Lamia in that story eventually admitted to her plan to fatten the young man for slaughter. She said that she preyed on young males because their blood tasted fresh and pure from their youth.
The 2nd century Latin writer Apuleius called the witched in The Golden Ass lamiae. They murder a young man in his bed by draining his blood into a sack made of skin.
The connection between the Lamia and a temptress may have some basis in history.
Lamia of Athens was a famous courtesan who won the heart of the Macedonian prince. The name she shared with the bloodsucking monster of legend became a common joke in comedies of the time, reportedly even being repeated by the prince’s father.
Even later in history, the name Lamia became connected with another supposed seductress of legend. She was often named in association with Lilith.
In Judeo-Christian folklore, Lilith had been the first wife of Adam. She turned out to be wicked, however, and was expelled from the Garden of Eden before Eve was created.
The 4th century Vulgate Bible translated the Hebrew Lilith to the Greek Lamia.
This made the figure even more supernatural and evil to European audiences.
The character of Lilith was never fleshed out in the Bible, and the story of her creation with Adam was a later invention. In fact, the lilith is mentioned just once in a passage that lists the dangerous beasts that one might encounter in the desert at night.
People familiar with Greek folklore already had a clear idea of what was meant by Lamia, and subsequent translations into European languages changed the text so that it referred more clearly to monsters instead of wild animals.
By the Middle Ages, Lilith was said to be the mother of many types of monsters and demons. Like the monsters of Greek mythology, she had created a host of creatures that plagued mankind.
Lilith took on all the monstrous connotations that had been associated with the Lamia in late antiquity. She was both a monster and a femme fatale.
The medieval Lamia Lilith could shapeshift, particularly as a snake. She often had a serpent’s tale even when the rest of her form was that of a beautiful woman.
This Lilith preyed on the weak, especially young men. While Greek parents still warned their children about the Lamia, Lilith became the monster that preyed on their older sons.
Lilith came to be known as the mother of witches and vampires, a temptress who threatened the lives and souls of young Christian men. Existing Hebrew legends and the association with an established ancient Greek monster transformed Lilith from an unspecified desert monster to one of the great villains of medieval Christian thought.
The Lamia was one of the most terrifying monsters in ancient Greek mythology.
Many monsters were associated with a single place or just one story. A large number of these had been killed in the Age of Heroes by great men like Heracles and Perseus.
But the Lamia was a threat that hit closer to home. She didn’t threaten travelers or haunt a far-off land.The Lamia specifically killed the children of Greece. Click To Tweet
Stories of monsters that snatch up unwary children are common in folklore. They represent a common fear that children can be kidnapped, lost, or fall victim to an accident.
Ancient Greece warned children to be good by reminding them that the Lamia could take them away, and it reminded parents of the importance of keeping a close watch on young children even if you don’t believe in monsters anymore.
Modern people are still familiar with these stories. The bogeyman is not a forgotten character and urban legends are full of stories of children who fall prey to monsters of killers when they are left alone.
The Lamia seems like a creature out of a modern horror movie. Not only is her story horrific and compelling, but she represents the types of universal fears that still make audiences jump.
She evolved from being a sea beast to the murderer of children, then to a succubus who threatened the lives of young men. The Lamia became the mother of monsters and an enduring piece of folklore that scared children long after belief in the gods had ended.