By Light Unseen
"May the Ground Not Receive Thee"
An Exploration of the Greek Vrykolakas and His Origins

by Inanna Arthen (1998)

Part Two

Paul Lucas, Voyage au Levant, 1705: This author reports that dead men are occasionally reported to roam around on Corfu, even in broad daylight, entering houses and generally frightening people. The "authorities" then exhume the body of the reported revenant, cut it up into small pieces and burn them, which solves the problem. (cited by Summers 1929, 259)

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, A Voyage Into the Levant, 1718: This very famous eyewitness account is humorously skeptical. The author, making a botanical and ethnographical tour of Greece and Asia Minor, reported on a panic on Mycone in 1700. An annoying local resident was murdered, and soon afterwards was reported by survivors to be stalking the village as a vrykolakas, harassing people in their homes, emptying wine barrels, and causing much disturbance of a poltergeist nature. Locals insisted that the man be disinterred, and when this was done, all witnesses proclaimed that the body was as fresh as life and incorrupt, although de Tournefort and his associates begged, with held noses, to disagree. The corpse's heart was removed, and the body was reinterred, but the vrykolakas' mischief (which de Tournefort does not describe in detail) only increased. Finally the body was taken to another island and cremated, but secretly, since this was apparently against Orthodox canon and the local priest feared official reprimand. With that extreme measure, all phenomena ceased, according to de Tournefort's account. (cited from original)

William Martin Leake, Travels in Northern Greece, 1835: Leake only records that a belief in the vrykolakas persists and that the revenant was dealt with by being exhumed, exorcized, cut into pieces and burned. But he notes that by this time, priests who authorized or participated in such work were in danger of being severely reprimanded by their superiors. (cited by Summers 1929, 253)

These stories make it evident that there was a high degree of variation among how vrykolakes were expected to act. The shoemaker is not the only gentle revenant reported; Lawson describes one who returned to plow his former employer's fields at night, doubling the work done and almost killing the oxen, until jealous neighbors exhumed the vrykolakas and burned him. Another simply cohabited with his widow until she became pregnant and rather disloyally turned him in. While several vrykolakes behaved like poltergeists, one was reported by an author writing in 1888 to sit on his victims' chests and smother them, the classic "nighthag" phenomenon (Masters, 80). Along with all this diversity, the hard and thorny road to becoming a vrykolakas had just as many turns. Lawson lists the following types of people in most danger of becoming revenants:

(1) Those who do not receive the full and due rites of burial.
(2) Those who meet with any sudden or violent death (including suicides), or, in Maina, where the vendetta is still in vogue, those who having been murdered remain unavenged.
(3) Children conceived or born on one of the great Church-festivals, and children stillborn.
(4) Those who die under a curse, especially the curse of a parent, or one self-invoked, as in the case of a man who, in perjuring himself, calls down on his own head all manner of damnation if what he says be false.
(5) Those who die under the ban of the Church, that is to say, excommunicate.
(6) Those who die unbaptised or apostate.
(7) Men of evil and immoral life in general, more particularly if they have dealt in the blacker kinds of sorcery.
(8) Those who have eaten the flesh of a sheep which was killed by a wolf.
(9) Those over whose dead bodies a cat or other animal has passed.
(Lawson 375-376).
Summers adds that on Crete people whose baptism ceremony had been incorrectly performed were at risk, and on Cephalonia marriage to one's Koumbaros (a god-relation) doomed one to become a vrykolakas (Summers, 1929, 267). There were surely other local taboos that have gone unrecorded. Frequently mentioned are the curses pronounced not only as part of excommunication rites, but as part of vernacular speech: "May the earth not receive him", "May the ground not consume him", "May the black earth spew thee up", "May thou remain incorrupt", "May the ground reject thee" (Lawson, 388). These curses, besides almost condemning the recipient to become a vrykolakas in so many words, are nearly identical to the oaths found in ancient literature.

But among all of these is a distinct pattern: a violation of right order, a deliberate flouting of natural or divine law either by oneself or one's kin. It was this flouting that reversed the natural flow between normal states of being and trapped the vrykolakas in the liminal point between life and death, belonging to neither. Such an unnatural state created a hardship not only for the individual, but for everyone associated with him or her. Until the body was fully "dissolved", grave rites could not be relinquished. The supernatural harassments of the vrykolakas were an enactment of this condition of extreme discomfort.

Excommunication itself, although often cited as the principal cause of vrykolokes disturbances, by no means appears in the majority of the accounts. One reason for this is that the Orthodox Church was reluctant to be held responsible for deliberately unleashing such pests upon their flocks. At the same time, they were anxious to maintain the belief in the efficacy of excommunication as a punitive measure. This led to several canonical distinctions being drawn among types of incorruptible bodies. Bodies that were only tympaniaios, "drum-like", were not revenants in the same sense as the vrykolakas and did not roam abroad to disturb the living. Richard quotes a nomocanon from the Church of St. Sophia at Thessalonica describing four types of uncorrupted bodies and their causes:

He who has left a command of his parents unfulfilled or is under their curse has only the front portions of his body preserved.
He who is under an anathema looks yellow and his fingers are wrinkled.
He who looks white has been excommunicated by divine laws.
He who looks black has been excommunicated by a bishop.
(Lawson, 370)
Along with wanting to make excommunication appear scary to individuals but not antithetical to the whole social order, the Orthodox Church frowned deeply on its clergy participating in such barbaric practices as exhuming and incinerating human remains. Already, by 1701, de Tournefort mentions the nervousness of the papas on Mycone about being present at the cremation of the vrykolakas there. A writer named W.R. Paton of Calymnos, Turkey, wrote a letter to the editors of Folklore discussing three manuscript confessor's manuals he owned, which he guessed were less than three hundred years old. According to this writer, the manuals give a penance to be imposed on anyone who burned a vrykolakas. They cite the same four distinctions named by Richard but add a fifth: "if a corpse is found in a tomb in good preservation, but hairless, it may or may not be excommunicated. To discover the truth, it must be dug up and put in a maiden tomb. If, after some time, it falls to pieces, it is all right. If not, it is excommunicate" (Paton, 276). The manuals assert that no such things as vrykolakes exist, but that the devil fools people into believing in them so that they will damn themselves by exhuming and burning the bodies of the dead. Summers states, "To the Orthodox it is little less than sacrilege to consume with fire 'a body on which the holy oil has been poured by the priest when performing the last rite of his religion over the dying man.'" (Summers 1929, 250). Before this extreme measure was taken, prayer, exorcism, applications of boiling water, oil or vinegar, and dismemberment followed by reinterment were tried.

When it came to dealing with vrykolakes, the Orthodox Church was not in an enviable position.

Stories about the vrykolakas are still told, although it may be safe to say that a belief in them does not profoundly inform the worldview of the average Greek citizen today. In the 1930's, Dorothy Demetracopoulou Lee collected some stories from Greek immigrants living in the United States. These stories contained some intriguing details. Two of them spoke of the vrykolakes having only one side and being "hollow", which brings to mind the first item in the nomocanon about those under parental curse only having their front sides preserved. Two stories carried some suggestion of the association between the vrykolakas and the werewolf. Although various kinds of mischief were reported, one informant firmly stated, "No, I never heard of a vrykolakas drinking blood." Although one vrykolakas was burned, most of the stories give no way of dealing with them at all. Finally, one story mentions that the vrykolakas was a shoemaker, giving us a total of three anecdotes about shoemakers who became vrykolakes, which is something of a mystery.

Occult writer Konstantinos reported an original vrykolakas story he heard from an elderly Greek friend of a family member. This account was told to the woman by her mother, who claimed to have been a direct eyewitness to the events in 1922. Again, the incident took place in Pyrgos. A young husband, suffering from depression, hanged himself. He was excommunicated, as a suicide, and buried outside the churchyard, despite pleas from his wife. The young wife became withdrawn and silent. After two months, the village experienced poltergeist-like activity: people reported their beds being shaken and the sensation of being bitten at night, after which they became ill. In the course of a week of this phenomena, two died. Then the suicide's widow confessed to the priest that her dead husband had been making conjugal visits to her during that same time. The dead man was pronounced a vrykolakas, and plans were made to exhume him, dismember his body, remove his heart and burn the remains. According to the story as told, the body was found shriveled, hardened and covered with skin, with its heart still beating. It was burned, but the story concludes with the widow giving birth to a monstrous baby which dies at birth. In short, this folktale includes nearly every detail from the various vrykolakas traditions, and according to the author, was still being told "as fact" in Pyrgos in the mid-1970's (Konstantinos, 52-58).

Between 1957 amd 1962 Eva and Richard Blum collected folklore from natives of rural Greece, including beliefs then currant about the vrykolakes. Like the stories collected by Lee, these contain interesting details showing how the belief has evolved over time. One informant said, "when a cat jumps over the dead they will return as revenants, but now these things do not exist because we are revenants ourselves" (Blum and Blum, 54). Several accounts provide rational explanations for reported revenants by telling of people who were only in a coma or "sleep" from which they awoke, or claiming the deceased took too much medicine that prevented their bodies from decaying. The notion that a vrykolakas may be discerned by the holes it leaves in its grave, and laid to rest by praying over the holes, or pouring boiling water or vinegar down them, is not found in earlier tales and may be an introduction from European belief. European vampires were said to emerge through such holes by some kind of dematerialization, but vrykolakes traditionally were not. Several stories mention a vrykolakas returning to cohabit with his wife, "annoy" her or even to marry a virgin. Although vrykolakes don't drink blood, they do, in one account, suck goats dry of milk and can only be killed by gunpowder. Two stories doom those who "make the gesture of the five fingers" to be vrykolakes, as well as liars and those who disobey their parents.

The Blums write,

That the dead are now alive is not pure joy; their presence continues and elaborates the scrutiny of the one by the many and adds invisible authorities to those sees as a result a number of well-defined steps in which the families, the priests, and the whole community participate; steps which gradually separate the living from the dead for the sake of each. It is a process fraught with emotion; grief, fear, loneliness, and perhaps hatred and triumph for some as well. It is a delicate series of manoeuvers involving awesome powers; no wonder it may sometimes go awry. (Blum and Blum, 224)
The beliefs still mentioned in present-day Greece concerning the correct performance of funeral ceremonies--that the deceased may become a vrykolakas if something is passed over the body, even inadvertently, for example (du Boulay, 223)--show the fragility of this sense of order. The vrykolakas at all times expresses the violence of rebellion--rebellion against death, against fate, against authority, even against propriety. The vrykolakas behaves in a way not so much perverse as inverse: urinating and defecating in food, throwing people out of bed in the middle of the night, being interested in sex even though it is dead, assaulting the innocent without provocation. Where the social order is thrown out of kilter, the natural order will be as well. Offending God and the divine laws are only a part--granted, a vital part--of the whole picture. Responsibility for one's spoken word seems to be equally important. Caring for one's dead is equally important. Respect for one's elders is equally important. The rules that seem to govern the appearance of vrykolakes in a community are little less than the rules for an orderly life, and they are despised only at the risk of the whole community. By ignoring these rules, doors are opened to the shady realm between Heaven and Hell, where the vrykolakas and its fellow exotica still wait for a chance to invade the human world. Perhaps it is just this concern for order, after all, that has given Greece such a imperishable metaphor for disorder run amok. Stewart notes that in modern Athens, the word vrykolakas is used to refer to a child molestor (Stewart, 190), surely the most fearsome monster in American society as well. Perhaps such monsters are the way our subconscious minds call us to pay attention to order, or pay the consequences.


Blum, Richard and Eva Blum. The Dangerous Hour: The Lore of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

Danforth, Loring M. The Death Rituals of Ancient Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

du Boulay, Juliet. "The Greek Vampire: A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death". Man, n.s. 17(2):219-238, June 1982.

Lawson, John Cuthbert. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1964.

Lee, Dorothy Demetracopoulou. "Greek Accounts of the Vrykolakas". Journal of American Folklore, 54:126-132 (1941).

Konstantinos. Vampires: The Occult Truth. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1996.

Masters, Anthony. The Natural History of the Vampire. New York: Berkeley Publishing Corp, 1972.

Paton, W.R. "Sacrifices to the Dead". Folklore 5 (1894). 275-278.

Stewart, Charles. Demons and the Devil: Moral Imagination in Modern Greek Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. orig. ed. 1928. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire in Europe. orig. ed. 1929. Wellingboro, Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press Ltd, 1980.

Tournefort, Joseph Pitton de. A Voyage Into the Levant. London: printed for D. Midwinter, etc, 1741.