Lamia, in addition to being the main character of John Keats’s poem, is also a creature of Greek myth. Her name means “large shark” in ancient Greek (Atsma). Originally a queen of Libya, she became one of Zeus’s lovers as she was very beautiful. Hera found out and murdered her children in a jealous rage (Atsma). In order to help her get revenge, Zeus turned Lamia into a sea monster with an appetite for human children (Atsma). In this original myth, Lamia is a victim to the goddess’s wrath and Zeus’s weird perception of getting revenge rather than a true perpetrator of evil. Read more about the Lamia of myth here!
When we first meet Lamia in Keats’s poem, she is a beautiful snake with a woman’s mouth rather than a sea monster. She is “dazzling”, “rainbow-sided”, and has fair eyes (Keats 937). These are pretty words, however, she is also described as “some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (Keats 937). Changing Lamia from a sea monster to a beautiful snake could be a reference to the treacherous serpent in the bible. She also has a “woman’s mouth, with all its pearls complete” (Keats 937). According to the Bible, Eve convinces Adam to eat the apple, so the woman’s mouth with perfect teeth would be a vision of temptation but dishonesty. The snake combined with a woman’s mouth is a deadly combination, treacherous but beautiful. The snake-woman is the forbidden fruit herself.
Although she claims to love Lycius, the man she covets and asked Hermes to turn her human for, she does not seem to show much care for his well-being. After explaining to him that she cannot live among humans, he faints.
The cruel lady, without any show/ of sorrow for her tender favorite’s woe/ but rather, if her eyes could brighter be/ With brighter eyes and slow amenity/Put her new lips to his, and gave afresh/The life she had so tangled in her mesh:/And as he from one trance was wakening/ Into another, she began to sing,/ Happy in beauty, life, and love, and every thing,/A song of love, too sweet for earthly lyres,/While, like held breath, the stars drew in their panting fires/And then she whisper’d in such trembling tone,/As those who, safe together met alone/ For the first time through many anguish’d days,/ Use other speech than looks; bidding him raise/ His drooping head, and clear his soul of doubt,/ For that she was a woman, and without/ Any more subtle fluid in her veins/Than throbbing blood, and that the self-same pains/ Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his (Keats 942)
First of all, she is described as a “cruel lady”, another negative word. To be cruel is to mean to cause one harm, uncaring of the pain of others. These lines say explicitly she does not show any sign that she is concerned for her lover. On the contrary, her eyes could not possibly be any brighter once he faints. “Bright eyes” can be used as a euphemism for eagerness. As opposed to being concerned for his safety and well-being, she is excited to have him in such a vulnerable and easily corruptible state. His life is “so tangled in her mesh”, leaving him unable to escape her influence. Next, she sings so beautifully that she convinces him utterly that she is a normal woman and not a snake in disguise. This likens her to the Greek siren, whose lovely singing lures men to their death. The siren is also a water creature, which connects to the original Greek myth that she was transformed into some type of sea monster. Under the influence of her siren song, she also convinces him that “the self-same pains/Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his” (Keats, 941), implying that her heart is different from his and that she does not truly feel the same human love for him that he does for her. Lamia, although she protests that she was once human in the past, has proven here that she is a nefarious character.
Finally, Apollonius, Lycius’s old mentor, shows up unannounced to his and Lamia’s wedding. Apollonius is named after the Greek god Apollo, who is the god of music, poetry, archery, and light. However, he is also described as “the god who punishes and destroys the wicked and the overbearing” (Atsma). Lamia has already been described as cruel and demon-like, so it should not be surprising that a character with Apollo’s name, with his piercing, spear-like stare would be the one to ultimately destroy Lamia. Apollo is also the god of prophecies (Atsma). Right before Lamia and Lycius’s wedding, Apollonius is confirmed to be able to see the future as well. “His patient thought, had now begun to thaw/ and solve and melt:–‘twas just as he foresaw” (Keats 947). Since Apollonius is able to see the future, or at least guess correctly at what would happen next, we can draw further parallels between him and the god Apollo.
While in the original Greek myth Lamia may have been a victim of Hera’s wrath, in Keats’s poem Lamia is quite obviously depicted as a treacherous snake who keeps Lycius from his true calling—philosophy and rationality. Her siren spell traps him, and so when Apollonius the mentor reveals the truth, he dies along with her of a broken heart. According to Keats, Lamia was cruel for keeping Lycius underneath her spell and neglecting his studies. This poem is a warning to men. Beware of tempting women who will make you stray from the path of knowledge and truth, lest they turn out to betray you and take your life away. In short, beware of all-encompassing love.
Atsma, Aaron J. “APOLLO- Greek God of Music, Prophecy, & Healing.” Theoi Greek Mythology. 2001. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.theoi.com/olympios/apollon.html>
Atsma, Aaron J. “LAMIA.” LAMIA – Demon & Sea-Monster of Greek Mythology. Theoi Greek Mythology, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.theoi.com/Ther/Lamia.html>.
Keats, John. “Lamia.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Comp. Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 935-50. Print.
Waterhouse, John W. Lamia, Second Version. Digital Image. Wikipedia. Web. 30 Mar 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia#/media/File:Lamia_Waterhouse.jpg>