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The Serpent Vampire In Keats' Lamia Essay

3140 words - 13 pages

The Serpent-Vampire in Keats's Lamia

    The origin of the lamia myth lies in one of the love affairs of Zeus. The Olympian falls in love with Lamia, queen of Libya, which was, for the Greeks, the whole continent of Africa. When Hera finds out about their love, she destroys each of Lamia's children at birth. In her misery, Lamia withdraws to the rocks and caves of the sea-coast, where she preys on other women's children, eating them and sucking their blood. To recompense his mistress, Zeus gives her the power of shape-shifting. Perhaps as a reflection of this versatility, the monstrous race of lamiae of Africa are composite beings, with the heads and breasts of women, but the bodies of serpents. In this earliest incarnation, Lamia is a cannibal and a blood sucker.

     Lamia's position in the myth is clearly that of the outcast. She is an abandoned mistress, a non-Greek, and a violator of the almost universal taboo against eating human flesh. That she takes on this role out of anguish over the loss of her own children does not, however, arouse sympathy. The lamiae later come to be more closely associated with vampires who return from the grave to suck the blood of the living. Since no community tolerates vampires, such a creature is otherness or difference personified.

     Other female mythic figures show affiliations with the lamia and its vampirism--the mortal femme fatale, the goddess who offers the hero a paradise of ease and immortality, and the female monster, sometimes visibly horrible, sometimes apparently benign, that lurks in cliffs (Skylla), under the waters (Kharybdis), and on the rocks (Sirens). Homer's Odyssey conveniently gives us examples of all of these women. The mortal femme fatale, represented most spectacularly by Helen of Troy, attracts men through her beauty and its promise of sexual bliss, leading them willingly to die for her favors. When Telemakhos meets Helen in Sparta, she still can charm her listeners and even jest about her infidelity of twenty years earlier when the Greeks besieged Troy, "daring all for the wanton that I was" (IV, 157). While she is not a vampire, she has caused the bloody deaths of numberless Trojans and Greeks.

     Immortal temptresses hold out that same promise of heightened sexual experience, but they add to that the lure of an escape from the ordinary world into a dream land of perpetual youth and eternal life. They can raise man above his mortal station. In this category we can place the Homeric goddess Kalypso. She has tried to secure Odysseus for herself by giving him eternal youth and immortality. As she complains to Hermes, who has come with the gods' command to send Odysseus home, all her effort has gone unrewarded:

I fed him, loved him, sang that he should not die

nor grow old, ever, in all the days to come. (Odyssey V, 142-43)

     No one is grateful to such a benefactress, least of all the hero himself, though we have to remember that he has spent...

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