Last time I mentioned Drakaina, dragon-like beings of Greek lore who are part woman and part snake. Possibly the most famous drakaina of legend is Lamia, the star of a lengthy poem by John Keats.
Lamia’s tale is a little bit complicated. The original character was one of Zeus’s lovers who had the misfortune to fall into Hera’s clutches. In some variations, Hera killed Lamia’s children. Lamia went mad and became a cannibal who preyed upon children. In other versions of the tale, Hera cursed Lamia into the form of a monstrous snake with a woman’s head, and Lamia devoured her own children. Also as part of this curse, Lamia was unable to close her eyes. She could never have rest, and this contributed to her madness.
These legends were passed down through Roman and into Medieval times. Lamia became a class of creature rather than an individual. Mothers told their children a lamia would get them if they didn’t behave, just as they might have said a witch or a goblin.
However, Lamia’s torment was not entirely forgotten. During the 1800s, in the Neoclassical and Regency periods, her tale was often repeated in paintings, poetry and drama. Of all these, the most influential edition was by John Keats, whose epic poem, “Lamia,” was written in 1819 and published in 1820.
Keats’s style is very different from what we consider good poetry nowadays. He’s lush and florid, giving so many details that it slows the narrative pace and in many places forcing his rhyme. Here’s an example, from Book I of “Lamia.”
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
In Keats’s telling, the god Hermes is roaming on Crete in search of a gorgeous wood nymph when he hears Lamia bewailing her cursed state. Lamia may originally have been some sort of nymph herself, for she has magical and prophetic powers. Indeed, she foresaw that Hermes would come to Crete and waited there for him. Lamia offers to tell Hermes where the nymph is — if he will restore her to her original form. Hermes does so and goes off to dally with the nymph.
After writhing in agony, Lamia finds herself once again a lovely woman. She goes to find a man named Lycias, who she has watched with her magical powers for many years. Lycias immediately falls in love and takes Lamia to his home town, Corinth. Lamia uses her magic to construct a lavish palace, where the two live happily. They plan to marry, but alas, Lycias has a mentor named Apollonius who sees Lamia as she truly is. Lamia, foreseeing doom, wants to cancel the wedding, but Lycias persuades her of his love. Apollonius reveals Lamia at the wedding. Lamia vanishes with a shriek and Lycias falls dead, apparently of a broken heart.
This rendition was widely acclaimed. It influenced the work of Edgar Alan Poe and many others. Even into modern times, Lamia appears as a character in books like Rick Riordan’s Olympian series and the Neil Gaiman comic, Sandman. The original D&D game included lamia as a type of monster that charms and devours unsuspecting men.