From Medusa and Lamia to Scylla and the Sirens, Ancient Greek mythology abounds with terrifying female monsters, marked by their bodily hybridity – part human, part not. But what were the gender politics that resulted in monstrosity being linked with human femininity? To tackle this question, I’d like to focus on the origins of two popular female monsters, Lamia and the Sirens, and explore how they became associated with monsters, in both antiquity and more modern literature. For me, their subsequent shift from antagonists to sympathetic female figures in the 19th century emerges is especially interesting: both John Keats’s poem “Lamia” (1819) and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Mermaid (1837) can be usefully explored from a feminist perspective, especially because both these works have exerted a positive influence on the representation of female monsters in contemporary culture.
In the reception of Greek mythology, seductive female figures, such as Medusa and Circe, have seen their stories changed and often retold from a female perspective. This highlights the power that these figures exert on our imagination: it should come as no surprise, then, that Lamia has undergone a protean transformation in terms of her representation.
In Greek mythology, Lamia had an affair with Zeus, and as a punishment Hera either killed her children or made Lamia kill them (traditions vary) – an act that transformed her into a monstrous child murderer. This legend may reflect the underlying gender politics of antiquity that linked femininity with monstrosity. Debbie Felton, for instance, has argued that in Ancient Greek culture the monster was conceptualized as the incarnation of a menace against civilized order, often misogynistically constructed on the basis of sexual difference. According to her argument, fluidity and hybridity were associated with the female body, whose reproductive capacities posed both a mystery and a threat to the male social order. This fear was, in turn, reflected in the proliferation of female hybrid monsters in mythology.
Indeed, Lamia’s “monstrous” qualities are constructed around her gender. Her ability to slay children is a reversal of the mother-figure that produces life. It links her to the sorceress Medea, who – at least in Euripides’ tragedy (431 BC) – is vilified partly because of her gender. Contrary to Athenian gender conventions that praised silence as a female virtue, Medea, like many women in ancient tragedy, displays rhetorical power, an attribute that allows her to mislead the tragedy’s male characters, thus demonstrating how women’s persuasive skills upset and overturn patriarchal norms. Moreover, Medea kills her children, which marks her as a danger to the male-dominated society, since it implies that a woman is not just the source of life, but potentially the greatest threat to the perpetuation of the male line. Similarly, it has been suggested that Lamia is designated as a monster because she represents male fears about women failing to live up to the patriarchal standards of motherhood or rejecting this role entirely.
Gradually, Lamia’s appearance acquired snake-like features, an association that may link her, in the myth’s subsequent reception, to the religious image of the Devil as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. This parallel was not lost on Robert Burton’s reproduction of Lamia’s story in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), an influential text that examines various types of mental afflictions, often resorting to ancient legends to illustrate them. Exploring how melancholy is caused by love, Burton theorizes that there are instances of men deceived by devilish creatures that look like women, a category under which he places Lamia’s story.
The other major danger posed by Lamia is her ability to seduce men in order to devour them. This point is included in the most famous legend concerning Lamia, a story recounted by Philostratus in the fictional biography Life of Apollonius of Tyana (3rd cent. AD). He narrates how Apollonius saved the young Menippus from the clutches of the evil Lamia of Corinth. The evident purpose of the story is to praise Apollonius’ superiority over Lamia, who represents a female menace existing at the intersection of erotic allure and predatory behavior.
The threat of the seductive female predator is also embodied in the Sirens, whose enchanting voices invite men to their deaths. Although in contemporary culture we think of the Sirens as half-human, half-fish monsters, this was not the case in antiquity: in ancient art they are often depicted as bird-like: half-avian, half-female figures. It was in the Middle Ages that the Sirens were re-imagined in their familiar form of half-fish mermaids, who still retained their infamously alluring voice; this trait was already established in Homer’s Odyssey, where the eponymous hero is asked to be tied to the ship’s mast in order to resist the Sirens’ deadly song. This particular attribute is deeply gendered, since the Sirens’ danger lies in their having a voice, contrary to patriarchal gender conventions: their ability to sing literally causes death, thus encapsulating the male fear of allowing women to speak in public. As we saw above in the case of Medea, the vilification of vocal women points towards the destructive potential female speech could have within a patriarchal context. Since both the Sirens and Lamia constitute manifestations of male fears, their legacy in subsequent centuries was long that of a misogynistic archetype.
Yet the tide started shifting in the 19th century when two literary works offered a redemption to the much-maligned Lamia and the Sirens: Keats’s “Lamia” and Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
The English Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821) had a life-long engagement with ancient art and used Classical myths (among them those of Endymion and Hyperion) to explore his own philosophical concerns. Dominant among these was his view that sentiment should be valued over rationality. His “Lamia” constitutes a subversive retelling of the story recounted in Philostratus – though Keats relied largely on Burton’s version of the tale in Anatomy of Melancholy.
The poem is split into two parts. The first part deals with the god Hermes encountering Lamia in serpent form and agreeing to transform her into a woman. Restored to her human form, Lamia professes her love for the Corinthian youth Lycius (= Menippus in Philostratus) and starts an affair with him. Although Lamia is genuinely in love, Lycius becomes abusive towards her in the poem’s second part, causing their short-lived bliss to collapse – through the intervention of his tutor Apollonius. Eventually, Apollonius reveals Lamia’s true nature as a serpent, resulting in her disappearance at the poem’s dramatic end.
Keats’s representation of Lamia runs contrary to the connotations of monstrosity found in ancient myth by evoking the reader’s sympathy for the female enchantress. In contrast to Philostratus’ narrative, where the story is experienced through Apollonius’ eyes, here Lamia is introduced as the protagonist and given a voice to express her desires. This allows us to experience the story from the viewpoint of the marginalized female Other. In the poem’s first part, she confesses to Hermes that she “love[s] a youth of Corinth” (I.119), thus subverting our preconceptions regarding Lamia’s villainous nature: unlike her mythological predecessor, Lamia has no malevolent intention to devour Lycius. She genuinely loves him.
Rather than Lamia, it is the male figures of the poem, namely Lycius and Apollonius, who are cast in a negative light; the poem thus criticizes the vilification of women in 19th-century gender discourse. In the poem’s second part, as we witness Lamia’s mistreatment at the hands of Lycius, our sympathy for her inevitably grows. Lycius not only takes sadistic “delight… in her sorrows” (II.73–4), but also forces a limiting role on Lamia, who learns to “love… the tyranny” (II.81) of domesticated femininity. The male cruelty of Lycius comes to highlight Lamia’s innocence and suffering, since it is Lycius who has become the real monster.
Moreover, the once virtuous Apollonius intrudes upon the narrative only to make matters worse by vilifying Lamia, which results in her disappearance. Contrary to Philostratus’ narrative, his intervention no longer constitutes a triumphant scene (II.229–40):
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven…
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
Here Lamia represents the magic and sentiment of the “rainbow”, whereas Apollonius sides with “cold philosophy” – that is, science and reason, which efface otherness in their effort to explain it rationally. Apollonius’ rationality is foregrounded as an exclusionary force of intolerance, since his assessment of Lamia rests on prejudice masked as “reason”. Through Lamia’s sympathetic portrayal as a vilified woman and Apollonius’ negative portrayal as a representative of the normative male experience, the poem critiques female oppression within patriarchy, unsettling the gender politics of the ancient myth.
Keats’s reconfiguration of Lamia seems to anticipate a similar transformation of another female mythological figure: the Siren/mermaid. In The Little Mermaid, the fairytale of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75), we encounter the tragic story of an innocent mermaid who gives up her voice to be with a prince she has fallen in love with, only to be rejected by him and die. Similarly to Keats’s poem, Andersen presents the story from the perspective of the outsider, i.e. the “monster” Siren, giving her a voice which (ironically enough) the Little Mermaid is forced to give up as soon as she enters the realm of humans. In a sense, her literal silencing mirrors the metaphorical silencing of women in 19th-century public discourse.
To draw a parallel between Keats’s and Andersen’s narratives, Lycius’ Corinth and the Prince’s kingdom are coded as male spaces; although seemingly fictional locations, they reflect the real world. Both Lamia and the Little Mermaid’s otherness is highlighted through their social isolation in the human world: Lamia claims that she has “no friends… not one/ … in wide Corinth” (II.92–3) except for Lycius, while the Little Mermaid’s existence in the realm of humans is centered exclusively around “the prince for whom she had forsaken her family and her home”. And yet, in both works, the female mythological creatures are objectified by their male love interests. The Prince refers to the Little Mermaid as “his little foundling”, treating her more like an exotic animal rather than a human being, and Lycius proudly exclaims “what mortal hath [such] a prize” (II.57), thus reducing Lamia to an inanimate object.
The unjust pain inflicted upon Lamia and the Little Mermaid also underlines their humanity. The traditional association of the Siren with the death of her male prey is reversed in Andersen’s tale, where the Little Mermaid chooses her own sacrificial death for the Prince to live. Indeed, the pain and sacrifice of the Little Mermaid, complimented by her wish to acquire an eternal soul through love, link her to the tradition of Christian martyrs, whose narratives are characterized by the suffering they undergo for their faith. Similarly, Lamia’s emotional suffering is expressed through the intensity of her pain, for she “wept a rain/ of sorrows” (II.66–7) at Lycius’ actions. In fact, Lamia’s disappearance and the Little Mermaid’s death highlight the real world’s rejection of the female Other, demonstrating the impossibility of integration within the male-dominated mainstream.
Although Lamia and the Sirens were malevolent, one-dimensional figures in Greek mythology, both Keats and Andersen transform them into tragic figures that wish to find love rather than cause harm. In the end, both become more human than the supposedly “human” male figures of the stories. Although the misogynistic treatment of female monsters all but disappeared in subsequent artistic representations, Keats’s and Andersen’s compassionate narratives could well have contributed to a shift in assessing gender difference that resulted in a positive re-evaluation of these once villainous female figures.
One such example can be found in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), inspired by Keats’s poem. In contrast to paintings depicting Lamia as a lustful seductress, with an emphasis on her deformed or snake-like body, Waterhouse’s painting echoes Keats’s poem. She is depicted as a human during her first encounter with Lycius, with only a subtle allusion to her true nature through the patterns of snakeskin at the lower part of her dress. Lamia is humanized, since her gaze towards the knight is the focal point of the painting, thus inviting the viewer’s identification with her. Lamia’s amiable portrayal echoes the humanity that Keats gave her.
As for Andersen’s Mermaid, she lives on in Ariel, the protagonist of Disney’s 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid. Though Ariel differs from her literary counterpart in having a more cheerful personality and getting a happy end by marrying Prince Eric, she has become a widely-recognized pop culture icon, celebrating hybridity and difference, which are not associated with monstrosity anymore.
The 19th-century works of Keats and Anderson represent a turning point in the feminist re-interpretation of classical myths. They invite the reader’s identification with the female Other, proposing that its association with monstrosity is not an inherent trait, but rather a harmful construct of the dominant male discourses surrounding femininity. It is through humanizing the “female monsters” that these vilified archetypes are vindicated and reconceptualized as tragic heroines in later art.
Nina Triaridou is a student of English language and literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, with a focus on pop culture and feminism as well as an interest in the reception of ancient mythology. Her debut podcast “The 7th Wife”, selected to compete in the 62th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and her video essays on YouTube, use new media to communicate the humanities to a wider audience.
Of the items mentioned in the notes to this piece, I recommend especially:
Debbie Felton, “Rejecting and embracing the monstrous in Ancient Greece and Rome,” in A.S. Mittman and P.J. Dendle (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Routledge, London, 2016)
Jess Zimmerman, Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2021).
|⇧1||For an Antigone article that explores some of these themes, see Athina Mitropoulos’ “Mere Child’s Play? Comparing Greek Myth with Fairy Tale” here.|
|⇧2||Debbie Felton, “Rejecting and embracing the monstrous in Ancient Greece and Rome,” in A.S. Mittman and P.J. Dendle (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Routledge, London, 2016) 105.|
|⇧3||Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton UP, 1999) 19–20, 26–8.|
|⇧4||Jess Zimmerman, Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2021), 161–2.|
|⇧5||The text can be read in its entirety via Project Gutenberg here.|
|⇧6||Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (Vintage, London, 1995) 399.|
|⇧7||The poem can be accessed on Project Gutenberg here. The edition and line numeration used here refer to the version reprinted in J.N. Cox (ed.), Keats’s Poetry and Prose (W.W. Norton, New York, 2009).|
|⇧8||Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid,” in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, tr. M. Tatar (W.W. Norton, New York, 2002) 327.|
|⇧10||Warner (as n.6) 402.|
|⇧11||See further Finn Hauberg Mortensen, “The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication,” Scandinavian Studies 80 (2008) 450–1.|
|⇧12||James K. Baker & Cathy L. Baker, “The ‘Lamia’ in the Art of J.W. Waterhouse,” British Art Journal 5 (2004) 18.|