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The 'Lamia' and Aristotle's Beaver: The Consequences of a Mistranscription

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In Greek mythology, Lamia, daughter of the king of Libya, bore several children to Zeus, but his jealous wife, Hera, killed all but one of them. Transformed by grief and anger, Lamia became a monster with the manners and physical traits of an animal. The word lamia can also be found in the form of an appellative. In the book of Isaiah in the Vulgate, the lamia is among the animals, beasts and monsters which will despoil Jerusalem when God's judgement befalls the city. Ancient zoological works use the word to indicate what is probably a species of shark, while medieval encyclopedias add several other meanings: lamia denotes, among other things, a hybrid creature which looks like a woman with horse legs; and a four-legged animal which damages plants in gardens at night and is likely to attack people it encounters. The origins of most ancient, early-Christian and medieval conceptions of the lamia have been traced more or less satisfactorily; the only tradition which remains unexplained is that of the fierce quadruped which threatens property and people's lives. The purpose of the present Note is to explore the origins of this ferocious creature, to determine what animal or animals may have inspired it, and to map the ways in which it entered medieval culture under the new name of lamia. The answers to these questions are to be found in the medieval reception of Aristotle's zoological observations, through the Arabic and Latin translations of his Historia animalium.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Texts, Olomouc

Publication date: December 1, 2016

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