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The Origins of the Female Vampire in Literature and Art

The Origins of the Female Vampire in Literature and Art
© Photograph by Bella Kotak

Female vampires have a history that began long before Abraham Stoker created the quintessential aristocratic-male vampire in his book ‘Dracula’ (1897). While hardly rare in literature and art, female vampires have often been connected with goddesses in ancient religions or were used to represent all that was wrong with women.

Mythology typically has defined them by their sexuality, and associations with the pagan and evil.1 Two of the earliest examples of female vampires appear in Greek and Judeo-Christian mythology, Lamia and Lilith. While these subjects are often blended into one figure, they were at one time considered two individual female vampires known for preying on children and men.

Both remained obscure themes in art until the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries when Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882), John Maler Collier (1850-1934), Herbert James Draper (1863-1920), and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) briefly explored the female vampire in their erotic depictions of Lamia and Lilith.

Although neither vampire became as popular in the art as other mythological femme fatales, representations of Lamia and Lilith present an interesting phenomenon because of the consistency of their portrayals in literature and art. This chapter will explore the origins of such representations of the female vampire, specifically of Lamia and Lilith, and demonstrate how their portrayals have varied relatively little over time. The myths of Lamia and Lilith have consistently served as warnings for men to beware while at the same time presenting a visual object of desire, as dangerously beautiful in their ability to entice and ultimately destroy.

Lamia was a female vampire who originated in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of a Libyan king who caught the attention of Zeus, king of the gods. Hera, Zeus’ wife, became incredibly jealous after Lamia bore Zeus several children. In revenge, Hera killed all of Lamia’s children except one.

Lamia was so distraught over the death of her family that she turned into an evil creature possessed with anger and grief.2 She spent the rest of her life hunting and then draining the blood of young children and men, in accordance with the meaning of her name, “she who swallows up”.3

According to Greek mythology, Lamia’s penchant for sucking the blood of children turned her into a hideous being that was half-woman and half-serpent. Eventually, she garnered the ability to transform herself into a beautiful woman in order to attract and seduce young men.4 While Lamia did not fit the typical definition of a vampire, an undead creature who lives off of the blood of living beings, she turned to vampirism as an outlet for her grief by destroying other woman’s children to account for her own loss.5

Lamia first appeared in Greek literature in ‘The Life of Apollonius of Tyana’ (217-238) by Philostratus (c. 170-247), a Greek sophist.6 In the story, Menippus, a young Lycian, encounters a beautiful vision who proclaims her love for him. Menippus is enchanted with the mysterious beauty and immediately asks for her hand in marriage. When he returns to the village to share his good news, Apollonius, a philosopher and teacher, tells him, “You are cherishing a serpent, and a serpent cherishes you.”7 Later that night at their pre-wedding banquet Apollonius of Tyana again warns Menippus that he is going to marry a vampire, and advises him that although she appears beautiful, it is simply a deception. Apollonius and Menippus confront Lamia and, “Then she admitted she was a vampire, and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong.”8 This literary text provides one of the first descriptions of a female vampire. Lamia’s mysterious and supernatural qualities allow her to entice her prey despite her admission of the truth, resulting in a fatal attraction; the sexual desire of the young Menippus causes his untimely death. The roles of seductress and vampire are intertwined as Lamia uses these attributes to her advantage to fulfil her desire for young blood.

The nineteenth-century English poet John Keats (1795-1821) immortalized Lamia’s beauty in his poem “Lamia” (1819), which closely followed Philostratus’ original tale, but he presented a more sympathetic interpretation of the female vampire. The poem begins with the Greek god Hermes, who is searching for a nymph renowned for her unsurpassed beauty. As he searches the country, he comes across Lamia, who is trapped in a serpent form. She begs Hermes to restore her to her physical form”.

Hermes agrees to transform her into a beautiful woman if she will reveal where the nymph resides. Lamia consents and Hermes reinstates her human figure. As Hermes and the nymph happily depart into the woods, Lamia sets out to find Lycius, a young man from Corinth. They immediately fall in love and all is well until the night of their wedding feast when Apollonius, a sophist, reveals that Lamia is truly a vampire.

Lamia, being recognized, instantly returns to her serpent form and Lycius dies of grief and a “body wound,” the equivalent of the vampire’s bite.

John Keats presented a sympathetic character in Lamia and her deadly beauty which Pre- Raphaelite artists later echoed in their haunting and beautiful images of the vampire.9 The Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of artists and writers whose work harkened back to the style of art before Raphael (1483-1520) when, in their mind, art was still pure and not tainted with the mechanical poses and compositions of Renaissance and Mannerist art. Mythological scenes, specifically of women, were enormously popular in Pre-Raphaelite art. After John Keats’ popularization of the mythological vampire in Victorian circles, she became popular for a time in poems, paintings, sculpture, and music. Many of the first images of Lamia and Lilith in art occur in nineteenth-century Victorian England when male desires, represented in paintings of sensual, beautiful women, were gaining popularity. Nina Auerbach’s book ‘Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth’ (1982) examines Victorian culture and its creation of a woman, in literature and art, who challenged the acceptable boundaries of society. Some of the most popular representations of this type of woman during the nineteenth century were mythological creatures — vampires, mermaids, and serpent-women, whom each attracted male attention in their physical form, but represented a greater danger to Victorian society by symbolizing a powerful woman breaking the confines of the traditional family and church.10

Perhaps one of the most famous English artists to become enthralled with the Lamia myth was John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). He painted two depictions of the red-haired female vampire, Lamia (1905) and Lamia (1909). In John William Waterhouse’s ‘Lamia’ (1905) the vampire is depicted as a beautiful seductress, begging her prey, a young, medieval knight, to give in to temptation. She silently implores in her kneeling position with an intense gaze and delicate touch. Lamia seems to beckon the young knight with soft-spoken words or a song. Her long fingers caress his hand and forearm while his closed right fist fights the urge to touch the temptress. As Lamia kneels, it appears that the armoured foot of the knight is the vampire’s tail, the layers of metal echo the snake scales imprinted on the fabric of Lamia’s dress. The knight’s red sash and the helmet’s red plume hint at the blood Lamia truly desires. It is the moment when temptation is greatest.

The young man’s bowed head and lax body show that he is mesmerized by Lamia, not knowing what creature he is truly encountering. Waterhouse follows in the literary tradition of John Keats by representing Lamia as a sensuous, charming figure rather than an evil creature that is her original incarnation. John William Waterhouse’s second ‘Lamia’ (1909) incorporates a different setting but similar approach to the femme-fatale by placing her alone, on the edge of a stream, gazing at herself in the water. Her dress falls erotically away from one side of her body, revealing a classically beautiful figure that delights in her appearance. Lamia’s flowing hair enshrouds her shoulders and back while the shimmering reflection in the water reflects her exposed foot.

In both paintings John William Waterhouse includes a serpent motif in the fabric that drapes around her legs, indicating Lamia’s true identity as a serpent-woman while still maintaining the illusion of the ideal temptress.11

1.
Pam Keesey, Daughters of Darkness: Lesbian Vampire Stories (Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1993), 8.
2.
David Walter Leinweber, “Witchcraft and Lamiae in ‘The Golden Ass’,” Folklore 105 (1994): 77.
3.
Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2002), 189.
4.
J. Gordon Melton, The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1994), 272-273.
5.
The vampire is a complex and constantly evolving mythological creature who has taken on many forms throughout the centuries. Lamia and Lilith are early examples of the varied figures described as a vampire. Traditionally a vampire was a re-animated corpse who returned to prey on the living and sustained themselves by drinking the blood of living creatures. Lamia and Lilith differ from this definition in that neither were dead; rather they drank the blood of children and men as a form of revenge. Nevertheless, they were termed vampires because of this unique attribute and have remained two of the earliest examples of the female vampiric type in literature and art.
6.
Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. Christopher P. Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 1.
7.
Anthony Masters, ‘The Natural History of the Vampire’ (New York: G.P. Putnem’s Sons, 1972), 167-168.
8.
Masters, 168.
9.
“John Keats,” Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 3: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789-1832 (1992), Reproduced in Biography Resources Center (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 2008), http://galenet.galegroup.com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/servlet/BioRC, Accessed 8 Nov. 2008.
10.
Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 1-3, 15.
11.
Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse (2002), 189-190.
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