The Child-Killing Lamia: What’s Really Scary on Halloween is Misogyny

This is the second post about ancient Greek Vampires. The first looked at the Empousa. 

Lucian, Lover of Lies 2

“…these are various and disturbing tales, able to rattle the minds of children who still fear Mormo and Lamia.”

πάνυ ἀλλόκοτα καὶ τεράστια μυθίδια παίδων ψυχὰς κηλεῖν δυνάμενα ἔτι τὴν Μορμὼ καὶ τὴν Λάμιαν δεδιότων.

The Lamia (or, just Lamia to her friends) is one of the figures from Greek myth who seems like a frightening monster but really is a particular distillation of misogyny. She is often called a Greek ‘vampire’ along with Empousa. Unlike the latter, however, Lamia is specifically associated with killing children.

Diodorus Siculus, 20.40

“At the rock’s root there was a very large cave which was roofed with ivy and bryony in which the myths say the queen Lamia, exceptional for her beauty, was born. But, because of the beastliness of her soul, they say that her appearance has become more monstrous in the time since then.

For, when all her children who were born died, she was overwhelmed by her suffering and envied all the women who were luckier with their children. So she ordered that the infants be snatched from their arms and killed immediately. For this reason, even in our lifetime, the story of that women has lingered among children and the mention of her name is most horrifying to them.

But, whenever she was getting drunk, she would allow people to do whatever pleased them without observation. Because she was not closely watching everything at that time, the people in that land imagined that she could not see. This is why the myth developed that she put her eyes into a bottle, using this story a metaphor for the carelessness she enacted in wine, since that deprived her of sight.”

 περὶ δὲ τὴν ῥίζαν αὐτῆς ἄντρον ἦν εὐμέγεθες, κιττῷ καὶ σμίλακι συνηρεφές, ἐν ᾧ μυθεύουσι γεγονέναι βασίλισσαν Λάμιαν τῷ κάλλει διαφέρουσαν· διὰ δὲ τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἀγριότητα διατυπῶσαί φασι τὴν ὄψιν αὐτῆς τὸν μετὰ ταῦτα χρόνον θηριώδη. τῶν γὰρ γινομένων αὐτῇ παίδων ἁπάντων τελευτώντων βαρυθυμοῦσαν ἐπὶ τῷ πάθει καὶ φθονοῦσαν ταῖς τῶν ἄλλων γυναικῶν εὐτεκνίαις κελεύειν ἐκ τῶν ἀγκαλῶν ἐξαρπάζεσθαι τὰ βρέφη καὶ παραχρῆμα ἀποκτέννειν. διὸ καὶ καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς μέχρι τοῦ νῦν βίου παρὰ τοῖς νηπίοις διαμένειν τὴν περὶ τῆς γυναικὸς ταύτης φήμην καὶ φοβερωτάτην αὐτοῖς εἶναι τὴν ταύτης προσηγορίαν. ὅτε δὲ μεθύσκοιτο, τὴν ἄδειαν διδόναι πᾶσιν ἃ βούλοιντο ποιεῖν ἀπαρατηρήτως. μὴ πολυπραγμονούσης οὖν αὐτῆς κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνον τὸν χρόνον τὰ γινόμενα τοὺς κατὰ τὴν χώραν ὑπολαμβάνειν μὴ βλέπειν αὐτήν· καὶ διὰ τοῦτ᾿ ἐμυθολόγησάν τινες ὡς εἰς ἄρσιχον ἐμβάλοι τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς, τὴν ἐν οἴνῳ συντελουμένην ὀλιγωρίαν εἰς τὸ προειρημένον μέτρον μεταφέροντες, ὡς τούτου παρῃρημένου τὴν ὅρασιν.

Euripides, fr. 472m (=Diodorus Siculus 20.41.6)

“Who does not know my name, most hateful to men,
The Lamia, a Libyan by birth?”

τίς τοὐ<μὸν ὄ>νομα τοὐπονείδιστον βροτοῖς
οὐκ οἶδε Λαμίας τῆς Λιβυστικῆς γένος;

The story of why Lamia killed children gets a little more depressing in the Fragments of the Greek Historians

Duris, BNJ 76 F17 [= Photios s.v. Lamia]

“In the second book of his Libyan History, Duris reports that Lamia was a fine looking woman but after Zeus had sex with her, Hera killed the children she bore because she was envious. As a result she was disfigured by grief and would seize and kill the children of others.”

ταύτην ἐν τῆι Λιβύηι Δοῦρις ἐν δευτέρωι Λιβυκῶν ἱστορεῖ γυναῖκα καλὴν γενέσθαι, μιχθέντος δ᾽ αὐτῆι Διὸς ὑφ᾽ ῞Ηρας ζηλοτυπουμένην ἃ ἔτικτεν ἀπολλύναι· διόπερ ἀπὸ τῆς λύπης δύσμορφον γεγονέναι καὶ τὰ τῶν ἄλλων παιδία ἀναρπάζουσαν διαφθείρειν.

Elsewhere, the evidence of narratives about Lamia are rather limited. She becomes just another negative, female monster.

Suda, Lambda 85

“Lamia: a monster. The name comes from having a gaping throat, laimia and lamia. Aristophanes: “It has the smell of a seal, the unwashed balls of a Lamia.” For testicles are active—and he is making a fantasy image of Lamia’s balls, since she is female.

Λάμια: θηρίον. ἀπὸ τοῦ ἔχειν μέγαν λαιμόν, λαίμια καὶ λάμια. ᾿Αριστοφάνης· φώκης δ’ εἶχεν ὀσμήν, λαμίας ὄρχεις ἀπολύτους. δραστικοὶ γὰρ οἱ ὄρχεις. εἰδωλοποιεῖ δέ τινας ὄρχεις λαμίας· θῆλυ γάρ.

Unlike Empousa and some others, Lamia is interestingly integrated in some other genealogical traditions.

Schol. G ad Ap. Rhodes 4.825-831

“Stesichorus says in his Skylla, regarding her form, that Skylla is the daughter of Lamia.”

Στησίχορος δὲ ἐν τῇ Σκύλλῃ †εἶδός τινος† Λαμίας τὴν Σκύλλαν φησὶ θυγατέρα εἶναι.

Pausanias on Phocis, 12

“There is a crag rising up over the ground on which the Delphians claim that a woman stood singing oracles, named Hêrophilê but known as Sibyl. There is the earlier Sibyl, the one I have found to be equally as old as the others, whom the Greeks claim is the daughter of Zeus and Lamia, the daughter of Poseidon. She was the first woman to sing oracles and they say that she was named Sibyl by the Libyans. Hêrophilê was younger than here, but she was obviously born before the Trojan War since she predicted Helen in her oracles, that was raised up in Sparta as the destruction for Asia and Europe and that Troy would be taken by the Greeks because of her.”

XII. Πέτρα δέ ἐστιν ἀνίσχουσα ὑπὲρ τῆς γῆς· ἐπὶ ταύτῃ Δελφοὶ στᾶσάν φασιν ᾆσαι τοὺς χρησμοὺς γυναῖκα ὄνομα Ἡροφίλην, Σίβυλλαν δὲ ἐπίκλησιν. τὴν δὲ πρότερον γενομένην, ταύτην ταῖς μάλιστα ὁμοίως οὖσαν ἀρχαίαν εὕρισκον, ἣν θυγατέρα Ἕλληνες Διὸς καὶ Λαμίας τῆς Ποσειδῶνός φασιν εἶναι, καὶ χρησμούς τε αὐτὴν γυναικῶν πρώτην ᾆσαι καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν Λιβύων Σίβυλλαν λέγουσιν ὀνομασθῆναι. ἡ δὲ Ἡροφίλη νεωτέρα μὲν ἐκείνης, φαίνεται δὲ ὅμως πρὸ τοῦ πολέμου γεγονυῖα καὶ αὕτη τοῦ Τρωικοῦ, καὶ Ἑλένην τε προεδήλωσεν ἐν τοῖς χρησμοῖς, ὡς ἐπ᾿ ὀλέθρῳ τῆς Ἀσίας καὶ Εὐρώπης τραφήσοιτο ἐν Σπάρτῃ, καὶ ὡς Ἴλιον ἁλώσεται δι᾿ αὐτὴν ὑπὸ Ἑλλήνων.

Dionysus of Halicarnassus, On Thucydides 6

“Foremost he differed from previous authors in this, by which I mean how he took on a subject that was not a single thread nor one divided in many different and also disconnected parts. And then, because did not include mythical material in his work and he did not use his writing for the deception and bewitchment of many, as every author before him did when they told the stories of certain Lamiai rising up from the earth in groves and glens and of amphibious Naiads rushing out of Tartaros, half-beasts swimming through the seas and then joining together in groups among humans, and producing offspring of mortals and gods, demigods—and other stories which seem extremely unbelievable and untrustworthy to us now.”

πρῶτον μὲν δὴ κατὰ τοῦτο διήλλαξε τῶν πρὸ αὐτοῦ συγγραφέων, λέγω δὲ κατὰ τὸ λαβεῖν ὑπόθεσιν μήτε μονόκωλον παντάπασι μήτ᾿ εἰς πολλὰ μεμερισμένην καὶ ἀσυνάρτητα κεφάλαια· ἔπειτα κατὰ τὸ μηδὲν αὐτῇ μυθῶδες προσάψαι, μηδ᾿ εἰς ἀπάτην καὶ γοητείαν τῶν πολλῶν ἐκτρέψαι τὴν γραφήν, ὡς οἱ πρὸ αὐτοῦ πάντες ἐποίησαν, Λαμίας τινὰς ἱστοροῦντες ἐν ὕλαις καὶ νάπαις ἐκ γῆς ἀνιεμένας, καὶ Ναΐδας ἀμφιβίους ἐκ Ταρτάρων ἐξιούσας καὶ διὰ πελάγους νηχομένας καὶ μιξόθηρας, καὶ ταύτας εἰς ὁμιλίαν ἀνθρώποις συνερχομένας, καὶ ἐκ θνητῶν καὶ θείων συνουσιῶν γονὰς ἡμιθέους, καὶ ἄλλας τινὰς ἀπίστους τῷ καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς βίῳ καὶ πολὺ τὸ ἀνόητον ἔχειν δοκούσας ἱστορίας.

There is another variant name–she might get her own entry some day

Suda, s.v.Μορμώ 

Mormô, in the genitive Mormous, declined like Sappho. There is also the form Mormôn, genitive Mormonos. Aristophanes says “I ask you, take this Mormo away from me”. This meant to dispel frightening things. For Mormo is frightening. And again in Aristophanes: “A Mormo for courage”. There is also a mormalukeion which they also call a Lamia. They also frightening things this.

Μορμώ: λέγεται καὶ Μορμώ, Μορμοῦς, ὡς Σαπφώ. καὶ Μορμών, Μορμόνος. Ἀριστοφάνης: ἀντιβολῶ σ’, ἀπένεγκέ μου τὴν Μορμόνα. ἄπο τὰ φοβερά: φοβερὰ γὰρ ὑπῆρχεν ἡ Μορμώ. καὶ αὖθις Ἀριστοφάνης: Μορμὼ τοῦ θράσους. μορμολύκειον, ἣν λέγουσι Λαμίαν: ἔλεγον δὲ οὕτω καὶ τὰ φοβερά.

 In some traditions, Lamia became proverbial

Plutarch, De Curiositate [On Being a Busybod y] 516a

“Now, just as in the myth they say that Lamia sleeps at home, putting her eyes set aside in some jar, but when she goes out she puts them back in and peers around, in the same way each of us puts his curiosity, as if fitting in an eye, into meanness towards others. But we often stumble over our own mistakes and faults because of ignorance, since we fail to secure sight or light for them.

For this reason, a busybody is rather useful to his enemies, since he rebukes and emphasizes their faults and shows them what they should guard and correct, even as he overlooks most of his own issues thanks to his obsession with everyone else. This is why Odysseus did not stop to speak with his mother before he inquired from the seer about those things for which he had come to Hades. Once he had made his inquiry, he turned to his own mother and also the other women, asking who Tyro was, who beautiful Khloris was, and why Epikaste had died.”

Lamia is not well-attested in art and myth

νῦν δ’ ὥσπερ ἐν τῷ μύθῳ τὴν Λάμιαν λέγουσιν οἴκοι μὲν εὕδειν τυφλήν, ἐν ἀγγείῳ τινὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχουσαν ἀποκειμένους, | ἔξω δὲ προϊοῦσαν ἐντίθεσθαι καὶ βλέπειν, οὕτως ἡμῶν ἕκαστος ἔξω καὶ πρὸς ἑτέρους τῇ κακονοίᾳ τὴν περιεργίαν ὥσπερ ὀφθαλμὸν ἐντίθησι, τοῖς δ’ ἑαυτῶν ἁμαρτήμασι καὶ κακοῖς πολλάκις περιπταίομεν ὑπ’ ἀγνοίας, ὄψιν ἐπ’ αὐτὰ καὶ φῶς οὐ ποριζόμενοι. διὸ καὶ τοῖς ἐχθροῖς ὠφελιμώτερός ἐστιν ὁ πολυπραγμονῶν· τὰ γὰρ ἐκείνων ἐλέγχει καὶ προφέρεται καὶ δείκνυσιν αὐτοῖς ἃ δεῖ φυλάξασθαι καὶ διορθῶσαι, τῶν δ’ οἴκοι τὰ πλεῖστα παρορᾷ διὰ τὴν περὶ τὰ ἔξω πτόησιν. ὁ μὲν γὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς (λ 84 sqq.) οὐδὲ τῇ μητρὶ διαλεχθῆναι πρότε- ρον ὑπέμεινεν ἢ πυθέσθαι παρὰ τοῦ μάντεως, ὧν ἕνεκ’ ἦλθεν εἰς ῞Αιδου, πυθόμενος δὲ οὕτω πρός τε ταύτην ἔτρεψεν αὑτόν, καὶ τὰς ἄλλας γυναῖκας ἀνέκρινε, τίς ἡ Τυρὼ καὶ τίς ἡ καλὴ Χλωρὶς καὶ διὰ τί ἡ ᾿Επικάστη ἀπέθανεν…

Image result for Ancient Greek Lamia vase

Skylla, relative of Lamia. More Misogyny.

Some other misogynistic tales from myth with telling variants

The Lemnian Women and their Terrible Smell

The Privileging of Klytemnestra’s Infamy

The Terrible Tale of Asclepius’ Two Mothers

Pretty Much Everything about Medea

Kassandra’s Prophecy and Life

Kassandra’s Children

The Death of Hecuba

Helen and Iphigenia

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Halloween is Next Week: Time for Werewolves! | SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

  2. Pingback: THE VAMPIRE AND ITS COMPANIONS – ORIGINS AND ETYMOLOGIES | tony thorne

  3. Pingback: Classical Studies and Halloween | camwsgrads

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