Evil Spirit

Mormo

Mormo was a female spirit or bogeywoman. Much like the creatures Lamia and Gello, her chief function was to frighten children.

Top Questions

  • What was Mormo?

    Mormo was a spirit or phantom, similar to what we would today call a “demon.” She was known for scaring children.

  • What did Mormo look like?

    There are no ancient descriptions of Mormo’s appearance, but we can probably assume that she was hideous and terrifying to look upon. She was sometimes associated with horses and wolves and may have been able to shape-shift.

Etymology

The name “Mormo” (Greek Μορμώ, translit. Mormṓ) is usually thought to have meant “terrible.”[1] In fact, the name could be used not only for the monstrous female spirit called Mormo but for any frightening person or thing.[2]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    MormoΜορμώ (Mormṓ)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [MAWR-moh]/ˈmɔr moʊ/

Alternative Names

There were a few variations of the name “Mormo,” including “Mormolyce” (Greek Μορμολύκη, translit. Mormolýkē) and “Mormolycia” (Greek Μορμολυκία, translit. Mormolykía). These alternative names suggest that Mormo was occasionally imagined as a wolf, as λύκος (lýkos) is the ancient Greek word for “wolf.”

Attributes

Mormo was a female spirit or phantom, a ghostly being known for inspiring fear. Like Lamia or Gello, Mormo was used above all to frighten children; in fact, she was sometimes considered interchangeable with Lamia, Gello, or the strix, a vampire-like bird of the night that fed on the blood of children.[3]

Ancient writings do not provide much detail on Mormo. According to one source, she was associated with horses and perhaps had equine characteristics.[4] She may have also been associated with other animals: her alternative names “Mormolyce” and “Mormolycia” suggest a connection with wolves (the Greek λύκος/lýkos means “wolf”). Another source represents Mormo with large ears and a long tongue, dashing about on all fours, implying that she had the ability to change her shape at will. This was a quality shared by many spirits of Greek lore.[5]

The name “Mormo” was generally synonymous with “fear.” Perhaps as an extension of this, the term “Mormolycia” could also refer to the grotesque masks used in ancient performances of comic plays.[6]

Mythology

Mormo sports a very minimal mythology. According to one account, it seems that she was originally a woman from Corinth. For whatever reason, this Corinthian woman began devouring children—first her own, then those of others. Eventually she became the bogeywoman Mormo.[7] In an alternative tradition, Mormo was originally the queen of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. After losing her own children, she turned to murdering the children of others.[8]

Yet another tradition, perhaps seeking to add to Mormo’s aura of dread, made the horrible creature into the wetnurse of Acheron, one of the rivers of the Underworld.[9]

Pop Culture

Mormo continues to rear her terrifying head in contemporary pop culture. Her name appears in H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), for example, on an inscription to Hecate, Gorgo, and Mormo. Other references seem to associate Mormo with witchcraft, as seen in an episode of Scooby-Doo (season 3, episode 4, “To Switch a Witch”) and the 2007 film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, where Mormo is the name of an evil witch (the witches are not named in the book). 

Some references are more surprising (and less related to ancient mythology): in the video game Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology, for example, Mormo is a flying sentient cat.

References

Notes

  1. Hesychius, Lexicon, s.v. “Μορμώ (Mormṓ)”; Photius, Lexicon, s.v. “Μορμώ (Mormṓ).”

  2. Aristophanes, Peace 474; Xenophanes, Hellenica 4.4.17.

  3. Plato, Phaedo 77e; Theocritus, Idyll 15.40; Strabo, Geography 1.2.8; scholia on Aristides’ Oration 1.5; scholia on Theocritus’ Idyll 15.40.

  4. Scholia on Theocritus’ Idyll 15.40.

  5. Erinna, Distaff 26–27.

  6. Aristophanes, frag. 31 Kassel-Austin.

  7. Scholia on Aristides’ Oration 1.5.

  8. Scholia on Theocritus’ Idyll 15.40.

  9. Sophron, frag. 9 Kaibel.

Primary Sources

There are few ancient sources that speak of Mormo. The little we know about this terrible spirit comes from scattered Greek writings. Mormo is mentioned once or twice in the comedies of Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 385 BCE), where she is an obscure figure who inspires fear. Plato (ca. 429–ca. 347 BCE) names her as an evil spirit in his Phaedo (77e); she is also mentioned in this capacity by the poet Theocritus (early third century BCE) in his Idylls (15.40) and by Strabo (ca. 63 BCE–ca. 23 CE) in his Geography (1.2.8), among others.

More substantial references to Mormo can be found in early commentaries produced or compiled during the Byzantine and medieval periods. Some of these texts contain rough descriptions of Mormo and her functions, which have been important in reconstructing this obscure figure and her place in the ancient imagination. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Dowden, Kenneth. “Mormo.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 968. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. “Mormo.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e810000.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Smith, William. “Mormo.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 1, 2022. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DM%3Aentry+group%3D29%3Aentry%3Dmormo-bio-1.

Tamborino, Julius. “Mormo.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, vol. 16.1, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, 309–11. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1933.

Theoi Project. “Empousa and Lamia.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Phasma/Empousai.html.

Tümpel, K. “Mormo.” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, vol. 2, edited by W. H. Roscher, 3213–14. Leipzig: Teubner, 1894–1897.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Mormo.” Mythopedia, January 12, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/mormo.

Kapach, Avi. “Mormo.” Mythopedia, 12 Jan. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/mormo. Accessed on 13 Jan. 2023.

Kapach, A. (2023, January 12). Mormo. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/mormo

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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