Lamia, one of the lesser-known demons in Greek mythology, is a bit of a shapeshifter—and according to some researchers, her portrayal says a great deal about male fears regarding the power wielded by females.
Known as a female demon who devoured children, Lamia was portrayed in Greek playwright Aristophanes’ fifth-century B.C. comedy “Peace.”
Oddly, however, she vanishes from history before reemerging in 17th- and 18th-century European literature, most notably in the Romantic poetry of John Keats.
Demons in ancient Greek mythology represented a supernatural power not unlike those enjoyed by the Greek gods themselves. In Homer’s works, the term is used almost interchangeably with “theos,” for a god. Experts say, however, that the distinction there is that “theos” emphasizes the personality of the god while “demon” emphasizes his activity.
This is why the term “demon” was regularly applied to sudden or unexpected supernatural occurrences, they believe. The ancient commentaries on Aristophanes’ play called “Peace” explain the role Lamia played in Greek mythology. She was a queen of what is now Libya who was beloved by Zeus, the greatest of all Greek gods.
When Zeus’ wife Hera robbed her of her children from this union, Lamia went on a killing spree, destroying every child she could lure into her power. Athenian mothers were even known to use her as a threat to frighten children who were misbehaving.
Flavius Philostratus, in his work titled “Life of Apollonius of Tyana,” described Lamia as a “fiend.” In his retelling, she was a beautiful woman who seduced young men in order to devour them.
Lamia depicted half woman, half snake
This frightening depiction of females in the form of monsters is nothing new to Greek mythology; in fact, it is part of a series of portrayals of women in the guise of various monsters and demons whose very existence poses a threat to others, especially men.
John Keats’ poem “Lamia,” written in 1819, was inspired by the reading of Philostratus’ story in Robert Burton’s work “Anatomy of Melancholy,” written in 1621.
Some stories depict Lamia with the upper body of a woman but with the lower half as that of a snake; her name in ancient Greek translates roughly to “rogue shark.” Other tales of Greek mythology represent her as a woman with paws, scales, and male genitalia—or even as a swarm of multiple monsters that resemble vampires.
Regardless of which account one reads, Lamia’s overarching evil power remains the same: She steals and eats children. In any society where the fostering of children is the paramount role of a woman, what could possibly be more horrific? What could possibly pose more of an existential threat to society itself?
Her portrayal was the subject of a recent article by journalist and critic Jess Zimmerman, who argues in “Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology” that “Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.”
It is true that frightening female creatures feature in cultural traditions the world over, but Zimmerman focused on ancient Greek and Roman works of literature and art, which have had by far the most influence on American culture.
Lamia’s actions were motivated by grief
The portrayal of Lamia exudes a great deal of sympathy for her, as her actions are motivated by grief; many of her children fathered by Zeus are killed by Hera, Zeus’ wife, in a powerful pique of rage.
In her almost unimaginable sorrow, Lamia plucks out her own eyes and then wanders the earth in search of other peoples’ children.
In some of the tales of Greek mythology, Zeus grants her the ability to take out her own eyes and then replace them at will. Zimmerman points out that, much like Lamia’s origin myth, the reasons for this power vary from one story to the other.
One plausible explanation, according to “Women and Other Monsters,” is that Zeus offers this as a small act of mercy toward Lamia, who has the unbearable burden of never being able to stop envisioning her dead children.
Zimmerman states that Lamia represents a deep-seated fear about the threats women pose to children in their societally-prescribed roles as the caregivers of children.
As Debbie Felton, a Classics professor at UMass Amherst wrote in 2013, in the work The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, “women could also sometimes produce children with physical abnormalities only added to the perception of women as potentially terrifying and destructive.”
Women are expected to care for children, but society remains “constantly worried (they) are going to fail in their obligation to be mothers and to be nurturers,” Zimmerman says. If a woman rejects motherhood, expresses ambivalence about motherhood, loves her child too much, or loves them too little, all of these acts are perceived as violations, albeit to varying degrees.
“To deviate in any way from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made a monster, a destroyer of children,” Zimmerman writes.
In Greek lore, both beings called Lemusae and Lamiae were vampire-like individuals able to attack new mothers and their children and were known to seduce and devour men, as well. “These various beings, it was believed by some, could be encountered in real life by ordinary men,” Felton says.
“And men themselves were capable of monstrous, savage, lawless behavior that made them little different from the terrifying hybrid creatures of myth fought by heroes of the distant past. In such cases,” the researcher posits, “the concept of monstrosity is based not on a physical deformity but on abhorrent moral values.”
Did this creature come about because of men’s fear that some women possessed moral values that were not entirely to be emulated? Or did this creature come about after a man from the distant past observed a woman in the throes of grief over a dead child—a grief that was all too common until recent times?
Or perhaps it was just another way of men cautioning society of what might happen—as with Scylla and Charybdis—when women were by their very natures wild and uncontrollable and had to be subdued by any means necessary, as men so often did with female goddesses and monsters in Greek mythology.