Variations: Lamiae (pl.); Empusa, Empousa, Empuse, Empusae (pl.); Mormo, Mormolykiae (pl.); Gello, Gelloudes (pl.); Lilith
Lamia, “shark”, “dangerous lone shark”, or “great white shark” (following various interpretations and contexts) is both a person and a class of nocturnal demons from Greece. Isidore of Seville refers to lamiae as witches, and derives their name from laniare, “tear apart”. The lamiae of the land have little in common with the Lamia of the Sea, said to be the queen of the marine nymphs. The lamia of the Ortus Sanitatis, on the other hand, is nothing more than a highly aggressive and destructive type of wild cattle.
Lamia of Cyrene, queen of Libya, was surpassingly beautiful. Her looks caught Zeus’ eye – not much of a feat, all things considered – and she became his latest conquest. The Libyan queen’s relationship with Zeus, and the children they had together, attracted Hera’s ire. Lamia was punished with the deaths of her children, an act which drove her to madness, twisting her face into grotesque bestial features. She became overwhelmed with jealousy of other women and stole their children to be slain and eaten. Thus Lamia became the monstrous child-devouring ogre from which the race of lamias sprung.
Lamia was not all bad, however. Her grief made her turn to drink, and when she was drinking, her mood improved considerably, allowing her subjects to do what they pleased. It is this, states Diodorus, that gave the impression that she had gone blind, which in turn made people believe she had removable eyeballs. Soon the notion that Lamia removed her eyes from their sockets became widespread, with Plutarch adding that she took her eyes out when at home and replaced them when traveling. In some versions it was Zeus who gave her that ability. The metaphor was perhaps appropriate, given the wine’s dulling of the senses that Lamia so desperately sought.
Her descendants, the lamiae or empusae, are even less reputable. While lamiae are capable of shapeshifting, it is generally agreed that they are shaped like gigantic, coarse, corpulent, and monstrous women, with deformed lower limbs. Their legs may number more than two, and tend to be mismatched – one could be of bronze, the other of some animal like an ox, donkey, or goat. One lamia shot by a peasant at Koropíon, Attica, was three fathoms (over 5 meters) long; where her blood dripped, no grass would grow.
Lamiae are unclean, gluttonous, lascivious, and stupid. They mate with dragons and are poor housekeepers; “the lamia’s sweeping” is used as an expression for untidiness. They have no idea how to cook bread, putting the dough in a cold oven and heaping coals on top of it; they feed their dogs hay and their horses bones. They will, however, show gratitude to anyone who helps them out of their household disasters. They are rich but not intelligent enough to hold on to their riches; they are powerful, but can be scared away by sufficient shouting and cursing. One lamia named Mópa used to walk about at night, embracing and crushing men she met until their roared like bulls, but if her would-be victim snatched her headdress from her she would promise life and wealth to get it back. She always kept her word, as most lamias are not intelligent enough for deceit.
They feed on human flesh and prefer new-born infants above all, hence the popular Greek phrase “the child has been strangled by the lamia” to denote children that died suddenly. They are also fond of attractive men. Apuleius tells of two lamiae who, snubbed by one young man by the name of Socrates, tore his heart out in front of his companion Aristomenes.
The best-known lamia was probably the one encountered by Menippus on the road to Cenchreae, Corinth. She was disguised as a beautiful Phoenician maiden, and when she saw the handsome 25-year-old walking alone at night, she clasped his hand and declared her undying love for him. Menippus fell for her on the spot. Apollonius of Tyana, however, saw through her ruse and warned Menippus. “You nourish a serpent, and a serpent nourishes you”. When Menippus refused to listen, Apollonius rebuked the couple at their wedding feast, and immediately all the illusive food, riches, and servants vanished. The lamia confessed that she had been fattening up Menippus to serve as a feast. This account was retold, heavily altered and romanticized, by John Keats in his poem Lamia, which also set the misleading image of the lamia as a snake-nymph hybrid.
Lamiae are now nothing more than another bogey to frighten children with. The lamia’s propensity for killing infants is shared with the Empusa, Mormo, and Gello, all of which are roughly interchangeable. Philostratus grouped the lamiae, empusae, and mormolykiae together as synonymous, saying that they desired the joys of the flesh, but desired human flesh more, and that they seduce their future prey. Gelloudes, on the other hand, are tied to Lesbos, and are descended from the child-killing maiden Gello. “Gello-eaten” describes a newborn that wastes away.
Topsell classified lamiae (Latin) and empusae (Greek) among the fairies, or perhaps the spectres, or perhaps a compound of beast and fish, or even “Poetical allegories of beautiful Harlots”. He equated them with the Hebrew Lilith. They have a woman’s face, dragon’s scales, four hoofed legs, a dragonlike hiss, and “very large and comely shapes on their breasts”. Lamias were extremely fast, using their speed to run down their prey, and their natural wiles to seduce men.
The lamnid sharks, including the great white shark, take their name from Lamia.
Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.
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Diodorus; Geer, R. M. trans. (1933) Diodorus of Sicily. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Lawson, J. C. (1964) Modern Greek Folklore: A Study in Survivals. University Books.
Philostratus; Conybeare, F. C. trans. (1912) The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. William Heinemann, London.
Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.
Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.