Welcome back to the Fantasy Prompt Corner! This week, we’ll dive into the world of vampire myths and tackle two harrowing stories from Greece and Scandinavia.
Retellings of Classic Myths
The strange thing about old stories is the way they keep reappearing in different mediums. Tolkien’s elves have gone from a single species in a single story to a staple of high fantasy. Greek and Norse myths still make their mark in basically any Western story, inspiring everything from comic books to Dungeons and Dragons. There really are no “original” stories.
And then there are the stories that seem to appear in basically every culture, give or take a few features or an origin story. Whatever the reason, a startling number of cultures have produced their own bloodsucking monsters, seemingly independent of one another.
Last time we were on the fantasy prompt corner, we tackled two legends from my home state of New Jersey. Before that, we had some Irish monsters— including the tragic tale of the Dearg Due, one of Dracula’s many cousins. This week, I will introduce you to two vampire myths from around the world: the Lamia from Greece and the Scandinavian Mara.
The Lamia of Greece
One of the first humanoid vampire myths, the lamia has its origins from Greek mythology. There are a few different origin myths for the lamia, but the most common one states that Lamia was a Lybian princess who became the mortal mistress of the god Zeus. Like most of Zeus’s mistresses, Hera, queen of the gods, eventually discovered her and was — as usual — not happy about being cheated on.
Hera cursed Lamia out of jealousy. In other myths, Hera abducted or killed the children of Lamia and Zeus, causing Lamia to go mad with grief. In one story, Lamia went mad and devoured her own children. From that day forward, Lamia became a monster who kidnapped and ate children.
Lamia is usually depicted as a beautiful woman from the waist upwards and a hideous snake from the waist downwards. A variant of the lamia myth claimed that lamiae sometimes took the form of beautiful human women to seduce men and drink their blood. One Greek philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, recalled having to save a young friend from the clutches of a beautiful lamia.
The poem “Lamia” by John Keats recounts the story of Apollonius and his young friend. Keats’s poem is probably the best-known use of the lamia myth outside of the tale itself.
The Mara of Scandinavia
The Norse Mara is also called Mora or Mare. It’s believed the word “nightmare” comes from the word “mara.” Mara were believed to visit sleeping people in the middle of the night, and they were, indeed, nightmarish.
Most myths concerning mara describe them as having a fluid appearance, so it’s hard to describe what they look like. Sometimes they appear as mares; other times, as beautiful young women. Some mara took the same role as succubi, tempting sleeping men with seductive visions to drink their blood. Mara were also believed to hurt sleeping people by “riding” them, causing nightmares and sleep paralysis.
People who were ridden by mara woke up exhausted and confused. Their hair was often strangely tangled, in a fashion that came to be known as “mare-locks.” Enough nights with a mara could kill a person; one legend told of a Norse king who was killed by a mara that his vengeful wife had summoned.
Like a lot of similar nocturnal demons, we may have invented the mara to explain sleep paralysis or wet dreams. Scholars theorize that the succubi and incubi of medieval European folklore have the same origins.
Vampires have shown up in pretty much every medium of fantasy, from fairy tales to black-and-white movies to regrettable romance novels. Still, the classic Dracula vampires seem to have a monopoly on modern fiction. Have any thoughts on these vampire myths, or want to talk about a different one? Let us know in the comments!