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John Keats' "Lamia" (1819)


What is a lamia? In the preface to Keats' poem, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, comments: "In ancient demonology, a 'lamia' -- pronounced la' mi a -- was a monster in woman's form who preyed on human beings" (797). The term has also meant "a witch who was supposed to suck children's blood, a sorceress, also, a kind of flatfish, a species of owl, a fabulous monster, also, a fish of prey" (OED). According to the first -- and most widely used -- definition a lamia is "a fabulous monster supposed to have the body of a woman, and to prey upon human beings and suck the blood of children. Also, a witch, she-demon" (OED).

The extreme similarity between this definition and descriptions of Lilith is far from coincidental (even the night-owl is referenced). An 1880 translation of Faust makes this comment: "The name [Lilith] . . . occurs in Isaiah (xxxiv. 14); in the Vulgate it is translated Lamia" (1880 Taylor translation, p310). The transposition of Lilith and Lamia, therefore, results from the strong connection between these two characters. Whether pulling from legends of Lamia or of Lilith, Keats' depiction of the femme fatale in this poem established a archetypal figure that would recur throughout Romantic poetry. Known simply as the femme fatale or as "la belle dame sans merci," this figure today is known as Lilith.

At least three reviewers contemporary to Keats commented on the origins of the story behind "Lamia." According to a review in The Indicator of August 2, 1820, "'Lamia' was suggested to our author by a passage in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which he has extracted at the end of it. . . . Burton's relation is itself an improvement on the account in Philostratus. The old book-fighter with melancholy thoughts is speaking of the seductions of phantasmata" (Matthews, ed., 165).

As quoted from Keats, the passage states:

Philostratus, in his fourth book Vita Appolloniith a memorable instance in this kind, which I may not omit, of one Menippus Lycius, a young man twenty-five years of age, that going betwixt Cenchreas and Corinth, met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house, in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man should molest him; but she, being fair and lovely, would live and die with him, that was fair and lovely to behold. The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her awhile to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius; who, by some probably conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia; and that all her furniture was, like Tantalus' gold, described by Homer, no substance but mere illusions. When she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and therefore she, plate, house, and all that was in it, vanished in an instant: many thousands took notice of this fact, for it was done in the midst of Greece. -- Anatomy of Melancholy. Part 3, Section 2. (quoted at Matthews, ed., 165)

Written in 1621, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy indicates that the tales of Lamia were distinct in origin from those of Lilith. Furthermore, his source, Philostratus, dates from between 170 and 245 CE, indicating that stories about Lamia were present in ancient Greek mythology and culture. According to Grolier Encyclopedia, the Greek myth of Lamia is as follows:

Lamia was a beautiful woman whose children were taken away in jealousy by Hera because Zeus had loved her. In revenge, Lamia began to steal and kill the children of others. She became a hideous creature. Because Hera had condemned her to sleeplessness, Zeus gave Lamia the ability to remove her own eyes at will in order to sleep. In later legend the lamia was a vampire that seduced young men; this version of the story inspired the poem Lamia (1820) by John Keats.

As indicated here, the myth of Lamia is also associated with a similar myth, that of "the lamia" or the "lamiae."

According to Bell's Women of Classical Mythology, the Greek myth of the Lamiae is as follows:

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. (271)

So although Lamia's mythological origins are quite different from those of Lilith, at some unidentified point ("in later legend"), Lamia's identity was merged with that of the Lamiae and she was, therefore, endowed with characteristics strikingly similar to those of Lilith. This may have occurred prior to the writing of the Vulgate in 5th century CE. Regardless, it is only with Keats' poem that the two tales become enmeshed, not to ever become completely separated again.

Although what happened between the fifth century and Keats' poem is not clear, it is obvious that the legends of Lamia and Lilith were indeed distinct by the time of Goethe's writing of Faust, Part Two in 1832. Here, Goethe briefly introduces the Lamiae. Taylor's 1871 translation states: "They are the Lamiae, wenches vile, / With brazen brows and lips that smile" (II.II.iii.113). Having introduced Lilith earlier (in Faust, Part One) as a separate and distinct female creature, it is unlikely that Goethe was making a purposeful connection between Lilith and the Lamiae. Neither the passage itself nor its location in the tale (a totally different volume of the story) make a connection between the two classes of creatures.

With the writing of Keats' "Lamia" poem in 1819, however, a connection becomes forged. Though the title character is never referred to as Lilith, the similarities between these two figures are too prominent to be overlooked. Both a female enchantress and a she-demon of sorts, Lamia is the archetypal Romantic representation of Lilith, the femme fatale. While a mysterious, possibly evil past is alluded to in the poem, Lamia is never branded as "evil" or "immoral." Keats paints her character to be one of a genuine lover trapped in unfortunate circumstances, and the reader is invited to feel her pain. This invites a beginning of transformation for Lilith, for while Lamia/Lilith is still identified with wickedness, these negative aspects are overlooked and redefined in such a way as to make them unimportant.

As the poem begins, Lamia is trapped in the body of a serpent. Though Keats does not say exactly how she became a snake, he indicates that she indeed had a previous human history/existence. In speaking to Hermes, Lamia states: "I was a woman, let me have once more / A woman's shape, and charming as before. / I love a youth of Corinth - O the bliss! / Give me my woman's form, and place me where he is" (I.117-120). This identifies Lamia with the Greek story of Lamia while also indicating why she wishes to reclaim a human body.

Thus, the unacknowledged, mysterious, and "curious" past of Lamia is only briefly remarked upon (Matthews, ed., 185). If one considers that this poem melds together Lilith and Lamia, then this mysterious past would likely be Lilith's life as the first wife of Adam. This view is supported by Keats' introduction of Lamia at lines 55-56 where he states: "She seem'd, at once, some penanced lady elf, / Some demon's mistress, or the demon's self" (I.55-56). All three of these qualities seem to allude to the myth of Lilith from ancient Babylonian sources.

A "penanced lady elf," for instances, refers to punishment, presumably Lilith's punishment from God. The phrase "demon's mistress" makes direct reference to Lilith as the Devil's wife, as in Zohar I 148a-148b, which states: "the female of Samael [the Devil] is called 'snake'". Finally, Lamia is described as "the demon's self," also referring to Zohar I 148a- 148b where Samael and Lilith are described as the two halves of evil. Accordingly, therefore, Lilith/Lamia would be "the demon's self."

Similarly, Keats uses the phrase "full born beauty" to describe Lamia, indicating that she was born "full," not of Adam (I.172). Keats emphasizes this idea later when Lycius reflects on his love for Lamia. He states:

There is not such a treat among them all,
Haunters of cavern, lake, and waterfall,
As a real woman, lineal indeed
From Pyrrha's pebbles or old Adam's seed.
(I.330-333, emphasis added)

The irony is that Lycius, unlike the reader, does not yet know his love is not "a real woman." Not "a real woman," as Lycius suspects, Lamia is neither from Pyrrha's pebbles or Adam's seed, much as Lilith was said to have been created separate from Adam. She is, rather, "a rich orphan," for she no longer has a father (God) but is "rich" in her beauty and her selfhood, nonetheless (Matthews, ed., 167). Thus, the story Lamia tells Lycius of being a mortal woman who is orphaned yet wealthy is symbolically true.

"Lamia" is also filled with Edenic symbolism. The story of Lamia and Lycius, for example, is prefaced by the tale of a beautiful Nymph whom Hermes wishes to see. Lamia has acted like a goddess over her, rending her invisible to the "unlovely eyes" of preying men (I.102). In exchange for a woman's body, Lamia agrees to make the Nymph visible to him. Breathing upon Hermes brow, she gives him sight, an act which parallels the breathing of life into Adam by God.

The conditions by which the Nymph remains invisible are also peculiarly reminiscent of the Lilith legend. Lamia explains: "Her hair in we�rd syrops, that would keep / Her loveliness invisible, yet free / To wander as she loves, in liberty" (I.106-108). Just as Lilith's hair held power for her in the Testament of Solomon (c.f., Chapter One, part four), it is through this "we�rd" or magical arrangement of the hair that the Nymph is made powerful.

A similar vital connection is in the power of names within each legend. Recall that Lilith's ability to flee from Adam and his oppression came from uttering God's holy name. Later, it was said that only by placing the names of the three angels -- Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof - - over one's bed could a mother be protected from Lilith during childbirth. In Keats' poem, names are just as potent. After some time with his lover, Lycius questions Lamia about her name. He states:

Sure some sweet name thou has, though, by my truth,
I have not ask'd it, ever thinking thee
Not mortal, but of heavenly progeny,
As still I do. Hast any mortal name,
Fit appellation for this dazzling frame? (II.85-89)

Lamia craftily dodges this question. At some point, however, Lamia reveals her name to Lycius, for at II.254 Lycius uses it in addressing her.

Yet the power behind her name had not diminished. When Apollonius, the philosopher, enters and addresses her by name -- "Lamia!" -- her beauty diminishes and she sits frozen, a "deadly white" (II.261, 269, 276). Lamia grows increasingly weak as Apollonius continues his speech to Lycius until, finally, he names her "a serpent" and she dies (II.305). The naming of Lamia results not only in her death but in that of Lycius.

"Lamia" also introduces the dual sexual nature of Lilith: she is both a virgin and a woman experienced in the ways of love. The paradox in her sexuality is here first introduced with the lines: "A virgin purest lipp'd, yet in the lore / Of love deep learned to the red heart's core" (I.189-190). Such a contradiction was also present in the founding texts, some of which claimed that Lilith both gave birth to hundreds of children a day and murdered hundreds of others.

While Lamia is called "a virgin," her various excesses are continually drawn upon, painting a highly sensuous portrait of this once child-slaying succubus of the night. Perhaps the most important variation on the Lilith theme introduced by Keats was the association of Lilith with excess. Her words are spoken as if "through bubbling honey," her song is "too sweet," and she herself is described as "bitter-sweet" (I.64, 299, 59). This excess does not go unnoticed by Lycius who is driven to profess that Lamia's very presence invokes "a hundred thirsts" (I.285). Lycius knows from the beginning that he will die without her (I.260), and that her memory alone is powerful enough to kill (I.269-270).

Lamia's physical beauty is also excessive. Men are driven to weeping at the fairness of her eyes. Even nature is affected by this beauty, for it was said that while a serpent, the grass withered at the sweetness and virulence of Lamia's foam (I.148,149). When Lamia comes to be with Lycius, their union is excessive and powerful. Love itself grows jealous (II.12). And when Lamia is identified and betrayed by Apollonius, it is not only she who dies but Lycius also.

While this characterization of Lamia bears many similarities to that of Lilith, there are some aspects, such as the child-slaying witchery, which have been purposely erased, as would be expected in a Romantic portrayal. While she continues to be a seductress, her intentions are painted as true, not immoral. As stated in the Norton introduction, "Lamia is an enchantress, a liar, and a calculating expert in amour; but she apparently intends no harm, is genuinely in love, and is very beautiful" (797).

While Goethe simply deleted the child-slaying aspect, Keats altogether rewrites Lilith's identity. Keats, therefore, rids Lamia -- and, by extension, Lilith -- of all aspects that would connect her to gross immorality. Even the snakes' form which Lamia holds at the outset -- associated with evil for almost all time -- is shed in the body of the poem. From that evil evolves a sensuous, beautiful woman. Whether or not Keats intended to make a connection between Lamia and Lilith, the connection was made, and it was elaborated upon by later writers.

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