The ancient Greeks believed that the Lamia was a vampire who stole little children to drink their blood.
Her name comes from the gullet (Greek: Laimos), since she devoured human children.
In Renaissance emblems, Lamia was portrayed as a snake-like creature with a female head and breasts. Usually female, but sometimes referred to as a male or a hermaphrodite. In Lamia and other Poems (1820), the English poet John Keats writes about Lamia too. In this version, based on the information he found in Burton'sAnatomy of Melancholy of the 1600s, Lamia has the ability to change herself into a beautiful young woman. Here she assumes a human form to win a man's love.
In Greek mythology, Lamia was a Queen of Libya who became a child-murdering daemon. In later writings she is pluralized into many lamiae (Greek lamiai). Similar in type to other female monsters from Greco-Roman myth, such as the empuses and the mormolyces, she is distinguished from them by her description as half-woman and half-serpent.
Lamia was the daughter of Poseidon and Lybie, a personification of the country of Libya and a queen of Libya herself, whom Zeus loved. Hera discovered the affair and stole away Lamia's children, whereupon Lamia in her grief became a monster and began murdering children. Zeus granted her the power of prophecy as an attempt at appeasement, as well as the related ability to temporarily remove her eyes. Either Hera turned her into a monster, she was transformed by grief over the murder of all her children (except Scylla), or she was already one of Hecate's brood. Plutarch heard that Lamia had the gift to be able to take her eyes out and then put them back in. A later elaboration on this archaic mytheme is that this gift was given by Zeus, and further, that Lamia was cursed with the inability to close her eyes so that she would always obsess over the image of her dead children.
Lamia gradually evolved into a kind of succubus. Later authors described the Lamiai as haunting ghosts (phasma) which also employed illusion in the seduction of young men. They were companions of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and haunting ghosts, who came forth with her from the depths of the underworld. Many lurid details were conjured up by later writers, assembled in the Suda, expanded upon in Renaissance poetry and collected in Bulfinch and in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Lamia was envious of other mothers and ate their children. She was usually female, but Aristophanes suggests a hermaphroditic phallus, perhaps simply for monstrosity's sake. Leinweber notes, "By the time of Apuleius, not only were Lamia characteristics liberally mixed into popular notions of sorcery, but at some level the very names were interchangeable." Nicolas K. Kiessling compared the lamia with the medieval succubus and Grendel in Beowulf.
One interpretation posits that the Lamia may have been a seductress, as in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, where the philosopher Apollonius reveals to the young bridegroom, Menippus, that his hastily-married wife is really a lamia, planning to devour him. Some harlots were named "Lamia". The connection between Demetrius Poliorcetes and the courtesan Lamia was notorious. In the painting by Herbert James Draper (1909, illustration above), the Lamia who moodily watches the serpent on her forearm appears to represent a hetaira. Though the lower body of Draper's Lamia is human, he alludes to her serpentine history by draping a shed snake skin about her waist.
Modern folk traditions
In the modern Greek folk tradition, the Lamia has survived and retained many of her traditional attributes. John Cuthbert Lawson remarks that "....the chief characteristics of the Lamiae, apart from their thirst for blood, are their uncleanliness, their gluttony, and their stupidity". The contemporary Greek proverb, "της Λάμιας τα σαρώματα" ("the Lamia's sweeping"), epitomises slovenliness; and the common expression, "τό παιδί τό 'πνιξε η Λάμια" ("the child has been strangled by the Lamia"), explains the sudden death of young children (ibid). As in Bulgarian folklore and Basque legends, the Lamia in Greece is often associated with caves and damp places
In modern Greek folk tales, Lamia is an ogress similar to Baba-Yaga. She lives in a remote house or tower, eats human flesh, has magical abilities, keeps magical objects, or knows information crucial to the hero of the tale's quest. The hero must avoid her, trick her, or gain her favour in order to obtain one of those. In some tales, the lamia has a daughter who is also a magician and helps the hero, eventually falling in love with him.
Bell, Women of Classical Mythology (sourced from Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.25; Horace Ars Poetica 340; Apuleias Golden Ass 1.57) :
"LAMIAE, obviously related to the persona of Lamia, the fearful child-snatcher, were handsome, ghostly women who by various sensuous means lured young men to their beds. There they enjoyed the fresh, youthful energy of their victims, then drank their blood and ate their flesh. They were in ancient times the equivalent of vampires in modern legends."
LA'MIA (Lamia). In later times Lamiae were conceived as handsome ghostly women, who by voluptuous artifices attracted young men, in order to enjoy their fresh, youthful, and pure flesh and blood. They were thus in ancient times what the vampires are in modern legends. [p. 714] (Philostr. Vit. Apollon. iv. 25; Horat. de Art. Poet. 340; Isidor. Orig. viii. 11; Apulei. Met. i. p. 57; comp. Spanheim, ad Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 67.)