Greece, Vampires in

Greece, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Greece is one of the oldest sources for the contemporary vampire legend. Ancient Greek writings record the existence of three vampirelike creatures—the lamiai, the empusai, and the mormolykiai. Also known in Greece was the strige, a vampire witch. Strige was derived from the Latin strix, which originally referred to the screech owl and later to a night-flying demon that attacked and killed infants by sucking their blood. The lamiai was named after Lamia, who was said to have been a Libyan queen. She was the daughter of Belus and Libya, and, as the story was told, was loved by Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Hera, Zeus’s wife, became jealous and took out her resentment by robbing Lamia of all her children, who had been fathered by Zeus. Unable to strike at Hera, Lamia retired to a cave from where she took out her anger by killing offspring of human mothers, usually by sucking the blood out of the children. Her actions led to her transformation into a hideous beast. (The story of the mormolykiai is very similar—they are named after a woman named Mormo, who cannibalized her own children.) Later, Lamia became identified with a class of beings modeled on her, described as coarse-looking women with deformed, serpentlike lower bodies. Their feet were not identical; instead, one was brass and the other was shaped like that of an animal, commonly a goat, donkey, or ox. The lamiai were known primarily as demonic beings who sucked the blood from young children; however, they had the power to transform themselves into beautiful young maidens in order to attract and seduce young men. Philostratus included a lengthy account of the lamiaiin this transformation in the chapter 25 of the fourth book of his Life of Apollonius. One of Apollonius’s students, Menippus, was attracted to a beautiful rich woman whom he had first encountered as an apparition. In a dream-like state he was told when and where he would find her. The young man fell in love and contemplated marriage. When he related his story to Apollonius, the latter informed his young student that he was being hunted by a serpent. Upon meeting the woman, he told Menippus, “And that you may realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the vampires (empusai), that is to say of those beings whom many regard as lamiai and hobgoblins (mormolykiai). These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially in the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feats.” In spite of protestations by Menippus, Apollonius confronted the lamiai with the facts. One by one, the elements of her environment disappeared. She finally admitted her plans and her habit of feeding “upon young and beautiful bodies because their blood is pure and strong.” Philostratus called this account the “best-known story of Apollonius.” Apuleius, in the very first chapter of the Golden Ass, recounted the story of an encounter with a lamiai who caught up with her fleeing lover and killed him by first thrusting her sword into his neck, taking all of his blood, and then cutting out his heart.

The people soon lost their fear of the lamiai and, even in ancient times, they had simply become a tool for parents to frighten their children. However, when a child dies suddenly from an unknown cause, a saying still popular in Greece suggests that the child has been strangled by the lamiai. The lamiai were rediscovered in literature in the fifteenth century, when Angelo Poliziano of Florence published a poem, Lamia (1492). In 1819, British poet John Keats authored a poem with the same name. Since the time of Keats, the lamiai have appeared in numerous poems, paintings, sculptures, and musical pieces. For example, August Enna authored an opera called Lamia, which was first performed in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1899. Poems on the same theme were written by Edward MacDowell (1888), Arthur Symons (1920), Frederick Zeck (1926), Robert Graves (1964), and Peter Davidson (1977). Among recent novels featuring the lamiai were the four books of J. N. Williamson—Death Coach (1981), Death School (1981), Death Angel (1982), and Death Doctor (1982)—featuring the character of Lamia Zacharias. More recently, Tim Powers’s novel, The Stress of Her Regard (1989), took place in early nineteenth-century England and featured a lamia interacting with Keats, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary Godwin, and Percy Shelley.

The Vrykolakas: Although the lamiai, empusai, and mormolykiai, were known for drinking blood, they were not vampires in the same sense as those of eastern Europe. They were spirit beings rather than revivified corpses (revenants). The ancient Greeks, however, did have a class of revenants, vrykolakas, which would develop into true vampires. The term was derived from the older Slavic compound term vblk’b dlaka, which originally meant “wolf-pelt wearer”. The term developed among the southern Slavs, from whom it probably passed to the Greeks.

The best description of revenants in ancient Greek literature appears in a story told by Phlegon, a freed man who lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It seems that Philinnon, the daughter of Demostratus and Charito, some six months after her death, had been observed entering the room of Machates, a young man staying in the parents’ guest-chamber. A servant told the couple about seeing their daughter, but when they peeped into the guest-chamber, they could not ascertain who Machates was entertaining. The next morning Charito told Machates about her daughter’s death. He admitted that Philinnon was the name of the girl in his room. He then produced the ring she had given him and a breast band she had left behind. The parents recognized both as possessions of their late daughter. When the girl returned that evening, the parents stepped into the room and to see their daughter. She reproached them for interrupting her visits with Machates and said she had been granted three nights with him.

However, because of their meddling, she would now die again. Sure enough, Philinnon again became a corpse. At this point, Phlegon entered the picture as a witness. As town official, he was called upon to keep order as word of Philinnon’s return spread through the community that night. He led an examination of her burial vault, finding the gifts she had taken away from her first visit to Machates—but no body. The townspeople turned to a local wise man who advised that the body be burned and appropriate purification rituals and propitiatory rites to the deities be observed.

This basic story of the returned dead contains some unique aspects of the later Greek vrykolakas account. Once discovered, the body was, for example, characteristically burned, rather than decapitated or staked through the heart. The ancient revenant was not yet a vampire, or even an object of much fear. The revenant often returned to complete unfinished business with a spouse, a family member, or someone close to him or her in life. On this early account of a brief visit by a revenant, more elaborate accounts would build. In later centuries, stories would be told of much lengthier visits and of vrykolakas who resumed life in the family.

Occasionally, there would be a report of a revenant who went to a location where he was unknown, and where he then remarried and fathered children. One of the oldest reports of the vrykolakas was written by the French botanist Pitton de Tournefort. While on the island of Mykonos in the year 1700, he heard of a man who had recently died and yet had been reported walking about town generally making a nuisance of himself. After various noninvasive remedies failed, on the ninth day after his burial the body was disinterred and the heart removed and burned. The troubles did not stop. The townspeople tried sticking swords into the grave since it was a common belief that sharp objects prevented vampires from rising. At one point, an Albanian visitor to the island suggested that the problem was the sticking of “Christian” swords in the top of the grave, since the cross shape of the sword would prevent the devil who was animating the corpse from leaving. He suggested using Turkish swords. It did not help. In the end, on January 1, 1701, the corpse was consumed in a fire.

Greece produced the first modern writer on vampires, Leone Allacci (commonly known as Leo Allatius). In 1645, he authored De Graecorum hodie quorundam opinationibus, a volume on the beliefs of the Greek people, in which he discussed the vrykolakas at great length. Early in the twentieth century, John Cuthbert Lawson spent considerable time investigating the vrykolakas in Greek folklore. He noted its development in three stages, beginning with that of pre-Christian times, represented by Phlegon’s account. In that account, the return was by divine consent for a specific purpose. Lawson also found, in the ancient Greek texts, an underlying belief in revenant status as a punishment for human failure. In the likes of Euripides and Aeschylus, Lawson noted instances when people were cursed with an incorruptible body, meaning that in death the individual would be denied communion with those on the other side of the grave. Thus, the ancient Greek writers entertained a concept of the “undead.” Lawson noted three circumstances that would predispose an individual to become a vrykolakas. First, there could be the curse of a parent or someone who an individual had failed, such as that placed by Oedipus against his undutiful son. Oedipus called upon Tartarus (the place of the dead) to refuse to receive the son and to drive him forth from his place of final rest. Second, one might become undead because of a evil or dishonorable act, most notably against one’s family, such as the murder of a kinsman or adultery with a sister-or brother-in-law. Third, the dead might join the undead by dying violently or by not being buried. The popular belief in vrykolakas was taken into the doctrinal perspective of the Greek Orthodox Church as it became the dominant force in Greek religious life in the first millennium C.E. The church developed a teaching both about the dead whose bodies remain uncorrupted and about true revenants, those who are resuscitated and return to life. Concerning the former, the church taught that a curse could in fact prevent the natural decay of the body which at the same time became a barrier to the progress of the soul. However, the curses pronounced by parents and others took second place to the “curse” pronounced by the church in its act of excommunication (which effectively denied the victim the saving sacraments of the church). Stories of the accursed dead whose bodies did not decay gradually became the basis of a belief that excommunication produced physical results. Reports of changes in the bodies of excommunicated individuals who later had their excommunication lifted joined the popular hagiography of the church.

When it came to the vrykolakas, the church seemed plainly embarrassed but had to deal with what many thought, even in ancient times, to be illusionary. At times the documents spoke of the devil stirring up the imagination of people who believed that a dead person had come to visit. In the face of persisting accounts, however, the church developed an explanation, claiming that the devil inhabited the body of the dead and caused it to move. However, such occurrences tended to be tied to the activities of mediums, in a manner reminiscent of the biblical story of the woman at Endor (1 Samuel 28).

Thus, as the church came to dominate Greek religious life, it proposed that the dead might become vrykolakas if they died in an excommunicated state, if they were buried without the proper church rites, or if they died a violent death. To these it added two other causes: stillborn children or those who were born on one of the great church festivals. These causes expanded the earlier Greek notions of those who died under a familial curse or in great sin. The Christianization of the Slavic and Balkan peoples effectively began toward the end of the first Christian millennium and made impressive gains during the tenth through the twelfth centuries. As the Eastern Orthodox Church gained dominance in Russia, Romania, Hungary, and among the southern Slavs, beliefs from those countries flowed back into Greece and began to alter still further the understanding of the revenant, transforming it into a true vampire. The significant concept was that of the werewolf. It was from the Slavs that the word vrykolakas, derived from an old Slavic term for wolfpelt, was adopted as the Greek designation for a resuscitated corpse.

Some Slavic people believed that werewolves became vampires after they died. Lawson argued that the Slavonic term came into Greece to describe the werewolf (a term he still found in use in a few places at the beginning of the twentieth century), but gradually came to designate the revenant or vampire. The Greeks also absorbed a Slavic view of the possible vicious nature of vampires. The ancient Greek revenant was essentially benign and returned primarily to complete some unfinished family business. On occasion it committed an act of vengeance, but always one that most would consider logical. It did not enact chaotic violence.

Gradually, the view that vampires were characteristically vicious came to dominate Greek thought about the vrykolakas. The vampire’s vicious nature was focused in its bloodthirstiness and its wanton nature. The Slavic vampire also characteristically returned to work its violence upon those closest to it. A popular form of cursing one’s enemy was to say, “May the earth not receive you” or “May the earth spew you forth.” In effect, one was suggesting that the accursed person return as a vampire and wreak havoc on his or her nearest and dearest.

The Callicantzaros: One other type of vampire existed in Greece. The callicantzaros was a peculiar kind of vampire that was discussed at some length by Leo Allatius in his 1645 treatise, De Graecorum hodie quorundam opinationibus. The callicantzaros was related to the extraordinary sanctity ascribed to the Christian holy days at Christmas time. Children born during the period after Christmas ending with the Epiphany or Twelfth Night (the evening when the Three Wise Men are supposed to have arrived at Bethlehem to present their gifts to the baby Jesus) are considered unlucky. They were described as feast-blasted and believed to be destined to become vampires after their death.

The callicantzaros was also distinct among vampires in that its activities were limited to Christmas Day and the week or 12 days afterward. During the rest of the year it traveled in some vague netherworld. It was distinguished by its manic behavior and extended fingernails. It would seize people with its talons and tear them to pieces. Reports on the callicantzaros vary widely as to its appearance, possibly related to the state of maturity of the person deemed to be a future vampire. The callicantzaros had an effect upon everyday life, as any person born during the forbidden period was viewed with some degree of hostility. Parents would fear that these children would act out vampiric fantasies as they grew up and would harm their brothers and sisters.

The Modern Literary Vampire: These legends propagated the Greek idea of the vampire, which was still alive at the time British, French, and German writers began, to explore the vampire theme in poems, stories, and stage productions. As vampire literature developed, the early authors established an association between Greece and the vampire. Goethe, for example, set his 1797 poem, “The Bride of Corinth,” in Greece. Then John Keats drew upon ancient Greek sources for his poem “The Lamia” (1819). And John Polidori placed much of the action for “The Vampyre” (1819) in Greece.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, numerous observers discovered that belief in the vrykolakas was still alive in rural Greece. In 1835, William Martin Leake’s Travels in North Greece contained several accounts of the disposal of bodies believed to be vrykolakas. Lawson’s study, previously noted, recounted many anecdotes he had retrieved in his field work. And as recently as the 1960s, G. F. Abbott, Richard Blum, Eva Blum, and their staff had no problem collecting reports of Greeks who had encountered a vrykolakas. Though mentioned by Lawson, Abbott and the Blums both reported multiple stories that suggested people became vrykolakas because animals, such as cats, jumped over the bodies between the time of death and burial. Abbott recounted a story of the body of a suspected vrykolakas being scalded with boiling water rather than burned.

Greece stands as one of the oldest and most important centers for vampire lore. Its idea of the vampire, having passed through a complicated process of development, remains strong today and continues as a resource for understanding the impact of the vampire myth. In addition, Greece also has contributed significantly to the emerging image of the modern fictional vampire.


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