Lamia, Now and Then
In John Keats’s poem Lamia, we are treated to the tale of a creature cursed by the gods to be serpentine who is then allowed to circumvent her curse and take human form again and pursue her love. Being a poem of the Gothic tradition, there must, of course, be a tragic element. The Lamia is discovered and in the process, is forced to leave, and her love dies in the process. Despite being a little demanding (“You have deserted me;-where am I now?”, Damrosch 1024) and shrieking upon her discovery, Keats’s Lamia is fairly demure compared with other incarnations of the creature.
In the original myth, for example, her original transformation sees her cursed so that she “devours the children of others” after losing all of her own. In later incarnations, the Lamia becomes a seductress, luring away young men to their demise. In still later versions of the myth, she was further cursed with eyes that wouldn’t close so that she was forced to watch her treachery. Though her aggression seems to be somewhat muted by Keats, it appears that Keats was the one of the first to give the Lamia a partially serpentine body. Previously, she had simply been monstrous, with no particular attributes assigned.
In more modern incarnations, writers have taken various takes on the traditional Lamia. In the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy game, there are even two varieties of Lamia: one similar to Keats’s depiction with the lower body of a snake, and one with the lower body of a lion. In Neil Gaiman’s novel and BBC TV show, Neverwhere, Lamia was one of the “velvets,” who were “vampire-like seductresses, dressed in dark velvet, who suck the warmth from their victims.” On another BBC show, Merlin, the Lamia is visually a run-of-the-mill beautiful girl, but she possesses serpent blood who is able to cause “discord and violence among the men around her.” Even in music, the demoness is referenced in a 1981 song by Iron Maiden called “Prodigal Son.” In an appeal to the Lamia for aid, the lyrics seem to appeal to her for saving because “I’ve got this curse, I’m turning to bad,” a plight the Lamia would no doubt understand.
Compared to the various versions of her throughout culture the Lamia serves as an iconic representation of temptation, tragedy, and the fall of man. Though the physical form changes, there seems to be one constant with the Lamia: she takes or deprives something desired from her victims. Thanks to John Keats, we have the Lamia’s entry into pop culture as an iconic mythical being who has been drawn upon for the inspiration of many works since.
“Lamia.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia>
“Lamia (Dungeons & Dragons).” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia>
“Neverwhere.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neverwhere>
Keats, John. “Lamia,” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 176-203. Print.
Iron Maiden. “Prodigal Son.” Killers. 1981. MP3.