Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The History of Lamia

Having recently watched Neil Gaiman's television mini-series Neverwhere, and Stardust, the motion picture based on his story, I was quick to notice a recurring character: Lamia. I decided to further research this character, and with one trip to Wikipedia, I became enthralled with the origin of this fascinating character.

Mythologically, Lamia was a Greek demoness who was described as half-woman, half-shark. She was Queen of Libya, but eventually became known as a devourer of children. Many mothers used to tell their children the tale of Lamia in an attempt to get them to behave. While she was generally depicted as female, she possessed a giant phallus that added to her monstrosity. In Basque mythology, the lamia was said to be a man who walked around after dark, with a cane that he used to beat children who weren't home by their curfew.

The Greek demoness Lamia

The name "Lamia" also refers to a city in Greece, a rodent native to New Guinea, and a genus of beetles.

Other authors have capitalized on the lore as well. For example, the lamia are a race of vampire-like creatures in the Tim Powers novel, The Stress of Her Regard. In L.J. Smith's young adult series, The Night World, the lamia are also vampires, but they possess the ability to stop aging and have children whenever they please, unlike traditional vampires.

In gaming, Lamia is a character in Dungeons and Dragons, Everquest II, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Final Fantasy, among others. In these roles, she is generally depicted as either a vampire, a snake-like monster, or a succubus.

In Neverwhere, Lamia is enlisted as a guide for Richard and Door's journey through underground London. When she brings the characters to their desired destination, she sucks the warmth out of Richard. She is soon chastised by a stronger male character, Marquis, who forces her to give Richard back his life-force. Lamia is portrayed as a vampire-like seductress who is dark and mysterious, and viciously evil.

Gaiman's Lamia in Stardust is the more interesting of the two characters, in my opinion. In this story, Lamia is a witch who happens to see a falling star. She sets out to find the star, which is personified as a young human woman, and cut out her heart so that she may obtain her beauty and youth. Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, throws around vanity spells, attempting to beautify herself and the world around her, but in turn, actually begins to drain the life out of herself. In the end, she sets the star free, rather than killing her, because she realizes she has lost everything she once had in the quest to become more beautiful. She ends up a wretched, lonely old hag thanks to her vanity.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia in Stardust

Many of Gaiman's female characters, especially in The Sandman graphic novel series, seem to be based on Lamia. It's likely, with Gaiman such a budding talent in the entertainment industry today, that we will see her pop up again soon.


mikebo said...

Good article... In the 1974 art-rock album _The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway_ by the group Genesis, there is a song "The Lamia". The lyrics (by Peter Gabriel) tell the story of a man, Rael, who is seduced into congress with three half-snake, half-woman creatures, who use a siren song to lure him into their rose-water pool. A wonderful excursion into fantasy and progressive rock music.

mikebo said...

Here's a great interpretation of the song by the late Kevin Gilbert...