When it comes to terrifying fictional characters to fear from children's literature, the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" and Baba Yaga of many slavic myths come to mind. But there's one character in Greek mythology who arguably tops them all in terms of evil: Lamia.
To put it simply, Lamia is "a female demon who devoured children." Freaked out yet? Allow mythology expert Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, to elaborate.
"She would 'get you' if you disobeyed — or so kids were instructed," Martin says. "She once lived in Libya, in North Africa. The story goes that, like many a demoness, she used to be a beautiful woman. Zeus (as was his usual habit) seduced and slept with her. The chief god's wife, Hera, got jealous and then killed the children of Lamia. The poor mortal woman was so overcome by continual grief that she became horribly ugly in appearance, and then she began to kill the children of other women, in a sort of madness of revenge."
Queen of Libya
According to Martin, one version of the Lamia tale suggests that she was actually the queen of Libya and ordered all newborn babies to be snatched from their mothers and slaughtered — a tale, he points out, that sounds similar to the story of Herod in the gospel of Matthew. "There are hints from late sources that she was thought of as personally eating children," Martin adds.
As GreekMythology.com puts it, "as many mortal women found out the hard way, being loved by Zeus came with a severe drawback; namely, being despised by Hera." Hera of course was known as the Queen of the Gods, and she was as known for her fiercely protective instincts as she was for her pride and jealousy. Unfortunately, her husband, Zeus, often tested those fiery qualities with a track record of constant infidelity. When it came to Lamia, Hera sought revenge by murdering each of the mistress's children — regardless of whether Zeus was the father or not. The loss pushed Lamia to madness and she then made it her mission to kidnap the children of others and eat them. According to Greek Legends and Myths, "the monstrous actions of Lamia cause her facial features to distort, possibly mimicking that of a shark, and Lamia becomes a monster herself."
"Aristotle records in his 'History of Animals' (4th century B.C.E.) that 'lamia' was the name of a kind of shark," Martin explains.
The HBO Max series, "Raised by Wolves," features a Lamia-inspired character. While Martin hasn't seen the show, he says that if the character really does "remove her eyes" as this Screen Rant summary suggests, "the writer of the script has picked up on an obscure ancient detail. One story preserved only in late antique and medieval sources says Hera caused Lamia to be sleepless (as well as killing her children), so Zeus, to give Lamia the opportunity to have some rest, made her eyes removable — that way they would not always be open (at least not in her head)."
There was at least one child who escaped Lamia's clutches: Sibyl. "She was said to be a daughter of Lamia and Zeus, and was the first woman to chant oracles, like the famous Pythia at Delphi," Martin says. Pausanius, a travel writer of the 2nd century C.E., claimed that while visiting Delphi, he was told that the famous oracle Sybil was the daughter of Zeus and Lamia. But it's unclear from the stories why Sybil survived to adulthood and whether she was the only one Hera didn't eliminate.
The 'Bogey' Women of Greek Literature
Martin says that Lamia was just one of several 'bogey' women in Greek folklore, i.e. a set of scary monstress figures. "There were also 'Gorgo' and 'Mormolykê' and 'Empusa' — taking the form of beautiful women and then sucking the blood of their victims seems to have been common features in the tales about these demon types." Modern Greek folklore, according to Martin, still preserves traditions about Lamia as a scary bogey-woman.
"Maybe every culture needs a way for mothers to keep their kids from doing dangerous things — like wandering off into the woods alone — or just from misbehaving," Martin says. "In the early 19th century, for example, British nursemaids would frighten children with stories of 'Boney' coming to get them — the dreaded enemy of the realm, Napoleon Bonaparte, imagined as an ogre. In ancient Greece, a demoness called 'Lamia' played the same role."
According to Martin, "a multiform of the childless woman/crazy child stealer figure" exists in various parts of the United States through legend and myth, as well. "In the Southwest (and generally in Latin America it seems): La Llorona, 'the wailing woman' supposedly drowned her own children (or they drowned on their own) and now haunts places at night crying and stealing other children," he says. "Mothers warn kids that La Llorona will snatch them if they go too close to water."
Regardless of why the story of Lamia was originally conceived, her legacy lives on, even today. "'Lamia' in everyday Greek or Latin could also be used as an insult hurled at any threatening, powerful or ugly female," Martin says. "In some ancient fictional stories, courtesans get called this, as do witches. Clearly male anxiety at work here, blaming seductive women for the guys' own lust-fuelled ruin."