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

by Inanna Arthen (1998)

In the field of vampirology, few cultures in the world have a vampire folklore tradition as long-standing, as rich and as carefully analyzed by scholars as Greece. Although the most famous mass panics recorded in seventeenth and eighteenth century annals occurred in Eastern Europe, and although Slavic countries in general and Romania in particular have a varied and creative tradition of vampire folklore, the persistence of the belief in Greece surpasses that of any other nation. For a scholar taking a broad perspective of the phenomenon, this raises an obvious question: why? What is peculiar to the Greek culture and society that has led to the maintenance of vampire beliefs and reported incidents right up to the first half of this century? Are there more reasonable explanations than the claim of older writers that the Greeks are overly superstitious, or the Occam's Razor solution that perhaps Greece simply has a lot of vampires? An examination of these beliefs, their ancient origins and the way in which the Greek Orthodox church has both encouraged and discouraged them may shed some light on the issue.

Before diving into this question, it will be helpful to explain just exactly what is meant by the term "vampire" as applied by English speakers to anything related to Greece.

The English word "vampire" is a Slavic borrowing and is found in almost identical (certainly homophonic) form in Russian, Polish, Serbian, Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian, along with similar related words. Its origin is uncertain, but the OED suggests that it may be related to the Turkish uber, "witch". "Vampire" entered the English language during the eighteenth century panics in Eastern Europe and is first cited by the OED in 1734. Modern vampirologists now sweep under the aegis of this term a wide variety of ancient myth, traditional folklore, "fairy-tales" and other crafted oral tradition, unexplained phenomena, sociology, and occult theory. Cogent to a discussion of Greek vampires are two particular types of being to which the term "vampire" is applied. The first, common to ancient myth worldwide, is the wholly inhuman, supernatural being that preys most especially upon infants, children, women in all stages of pregnancy and early motherhood, and young people on the cusp of sexual maturity and marriage. "Child-killing demons" often are included in this category, as well as sexually alluring creatures such as the lamia. The second type of being is a revenant, a human who has died and returned from the grave in physical form--whether literally in his own corpse or in some sort of materialized second body is open to interpretation--to perform actions that have physical effects on the living and their environment, including the begetting of children and the inflicting of death. Whether such revenants necessarily drink blood, as we will see, is not always clear. Blood-drinking per se is not a requirement for a "vampire". However, beings defined as "vampires" do, in some way or another, take sustenance or vitality from living creatures.

In Greece, belief in the second type of vampire--the corporeal revenant who preyed upon or plagued the living--developed only after the arrival of Slavic immigrants beginning in 587. But although the various themes that coalesced into that most unquenchable of all folk vampires, the vrykolakas, are heavily influenced by foreign concepts, they found a rich soil in the traditions of ancient Greece. Three such traditions clearly play a role in developing later beliefs. First, the belief in supernatural creatures that drank blood and attacked human beings to obtain it; second, the belief that under certain conditions, bodily return from death was possible, although greatly feared; and third, that blood itself contained power sufficient to allow the dead to cross the gulf that separated them from the world of the living.

The Mormo and the Empusas were child-killing demons who attended upon the Goddess Hecate (Summers 1929, 2-3). Stewart notes them in his glossary of exotica (Stewart, 251-252) only to mention that they have not survived into contemporary tradition except, in the case of the Mormo, as a "bogeyman" for threatening unruly children. Similar to them were the Gelloudes and the Stringla, female monsters that were said to specifically suck the blood of children and kill them (Stewart, 252-253). Almost every human culture has such a myth, a personification of the unknown (to this day, in the form of SIDS) killer of children in their cradles at night, or their mysterious "failure to thrive" and wasting away. Yet the horror of these monsters lay not in their inhumanity but in their perversion of the human. Child-killing demons are almost invariably female, the evil mother that kills instead of nurtures, devours instead of feeds. These demons often are also presented as seductresses, preying on young men as well as children. In other words, they are not only evil mothers, but evil wives--wanton, promiscuous and devouring. Summers cites the well-known story from Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana (Summers 1929, 3-5), about Menippus, the eager suitor who is barely prevented from marrying an Empusa, or Lamia. She is forced to confess that she was "fattening up" Menippus, "because it was her pleasure to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong" (Summers 1929, 5). Stringles also were sometimes equated with the seductive Lamiae (Summers 1929, 8).

But far more fearful than these exotica were the fates that might befall oneself during the passage from the state of life to the state of death. Lawson examines at great length the theme found in Greek tragedy of corporeal return to avenge blood-guilt--a hidden theme due to the conventions of the Greek stage, but nevertheless clearly discernable. A detailed look at Lawson's arguments is beyond the scope of this paper. However, Lawson reports that oaths are found in Greek literature binding both the speaker and others to being rejected by the earth, being turned out of Hades by Tantalus, and of remaining incorruptible after death. Euripides' Hippolytus, for example, says to his father, "in death may neither sea nor earth receive my flesh, if I have proved false" (Lawson, 418). Lawson proposes that, for example, Aeschylus in Choephori

presents a true climax. As the victim is to be excluded in his lifetime from all intercourse with the living, so in his death, by the withholding of that dissolution without which there is no entrance to the lower world, he is to be cut off from communion with the dead. He is to die with none to honor him with the rites due to the dead, none to love him and shed the tears that are their just meed, but even in that last doom which consumes all others is damned to be withheld from corruption. (Lawson, 422-423).
Even a modern reader almost shudders. The importance of proper burial rites in ancient Greece is well-known, and the greatest shame of all was to leave even one's enemies unburied, to "not even throw handfuls of earth upon their dead bodies" as Pausanias accused Lysander (Summers 1928, 83). Antigone suffered capital punishment for fulfilling this obligation to her kin against royal decree. But the precise consequences of ignoring this obligation are less well documented. Few ghosts or revenants haunt surviving Greek literature. Lawson argues at great length that the conventions of Greek drama permitted such return only to be hinted at. Outside of this sphere, the sole extant story of a corporeal Greek revenant is so famous that it is cited in nearly all of my books: the return of Philinnion, a young woman, for nightly liaisons with an unwitting guest of her bereaved parents (Lawson, 413-415, among others). Yet the reason for Philinnion's restlessness is never explained, she appears in no way horrific or demonic, and in fact her poor lover is so besotted by her that when she has been laid to final rest by cremation, he commits suicide.

Lawson, however, argues that bodily return was tacitly expected and feared in the case of blood-guilt and vengence. He points out that in ancient times murderers frequently mutilated their victims by cutting off their hands and feet and tucking them under the corpse's armpits, or binding them to its chest with a band (Lawson, 435). One rationale for this action that suggests itself is that such mutilation prevents the murdered victim from returning bodily to avenge itself on the murderer--who would, in turn, become a revenant wandering cursed between life and death. In this discussion, Lawson presents the roots of two primary later vampire beliefs: that vampires are fierce marauders, and that their victims become vampires as well. He says,

the character of these Avengers approximates very closely to that of the modern vrykolakes. True, there is one fundamental difference; the ancient Avenger directed his wrath solely against the author of his sufferings...the modern vrykolakas is unreasoning in his wrath and plagues indiscriminately all who fall in his way. (Lawson, 458).
Lawson lists the qualities that Avengers and vrykolakes share:
Modern stories there are in plenty, which tell how the vrykolakas springs upon his victim and rends him and drinks his blood; how sheer terror of his aspect has driven men mad; how, in order to escape him, whole families have been driven forth from their native island to wander in exile; how death has often been the issue of his assaults; and how those whom a vrykolakas has slain become themselves vrykolakes. (Lawson, 458-459)
Lawson goes on to suggest that when Aeschylus makes the Erinyes such horrific, bloodthirsty pursuers of Orestes, when they should have been goddesses worthy of worship, he is casting a proxy role upon them. They are substitutes for the actual Avenger that could not be properly shown in Greek drama. Their qualities of blackness, ferocity, bloodthirstyness and horror are those of the vrykolakes.

Lawson's close comparison of the characteristics of ancient Avengers and the Furies, or Erinyes, with the characteristics of modern vrykolakes may not be as revealing as he believes. He claims that these common themes indicate that both ancient writers and modern folklore derive from the same older tradition, while it might be argued that the modern folklore took its imagery directly from ancient literature and not from some common source.

Nevertheless, the modern Greek vampire gains a rather respectable pedigree. Long before the Slavs and Greek Orthodoxy, the ancient Greeks recognized that with extraordinarily bad fortune, one might be trapped indefinitely in a liminal state in which one's soul could not become free from one's body, one's body could not dissolve and free itself from earth, and one was forever doomed to roam trapped, yearning or ravening, between life and death. The only release was the forced "dissolution" of cremation, as was done to Philinnion. To be left unburied was to be flung upon the surface of the cold earth, to be cursed as "incorruptible" (however obvious it was that unburied bodies rotted). To be left unmourned and without proper rites was to invite the soul to linger around its former home and possibly reanimate it. Lawson concludes a discussion of terminology for such restless dead,

Thus then the problem of ancient nomenclature of revenants is solved, and the results are briefly these: all revenants were originally called, alastores, "Wanderers"; but subsequently that name was restricted only to the vengeful class of revenants, to which the names miastores and prostropaioi had always belonged; and for the more harmless and purely pitiable revenants no name remained, but men said of such an one simply, "He wanders." (Lawson, 484)

Finally, the most well-known ancient text describing the power of fresh blood to revivify the dead occurs in the Iliad, when Odysseus fills a pit with sheeps' blood to feed the shade of the seer Tiresias. Once the ghost has drunk the blood, he is able to speak. After Odysseus has spoken with the seer, other ghosts also drink the blood and converse with him, but when he attempts to embrace one, the shade of his mother, she disappears (Summers 1929, 22). For the non-corporeal, even blood can only do so much. Nevertheless, the results it effects in returning some powers of life to the disembodied are profound.

The word vrykolakas itself is a borrowing from Slavic and is derived from root words meaning "wolf" and hair or pelt (Lawson, 377). It originally appears to have meant "werewolf" or lycanthrope, and still carries this meaning in isolated local regions of Greece. The Greeks did not adopt the word "vampire" from the Slavs to indicate a revenant, although oddly, vompiras is occasionally found as a term of contempt. Lawson concludes from this that the Greeks already had an active tradition of a fierce type of revenant and applied the new word to that. If they had borrowed the entire concept of undead vampires from the Slavs, they would have borrowed the name for them as well. However, all the arguments in this area remain shakey. It is unclear why the Greeks replaced their own words for a fierce Avenger with a new word for werewolf, and whether or not this represented the introduction of a unique new folkloric tradition or the evolution of an old one. The point made by several writers that the transferral of the word occurred because of the documented Slavic belief that werewolves became vampires after death, also seems unsupported by any evidence in Greek tradition specifically. Occasionally, a child whose siblings died mysteriously would be (rather cruelly) named a "vrykolakas" by its mother (Summers 1929, 219), and there are a few stories of "living vrykolakes" that behaved as lycanthropes. But the etymological leap from werewolf to vampire is obscure. Moreover, there is certainly a broad gap in the evidential record between the ancient texts cited above, and the first descriptions of the Greek vrykolakas as a full-fledged and active belief. The earliest mention of the vrykolakas is made by Leo Allatius in 1645 (by coincidence, possibly, his work was published just as all of Eastern Europe was about to explode into a century of its own vampire panics).

I would like to summarize some well-known, and less well-known, vrykolakas stories chronologically in order to bring out some of their significant aspects.

Leo Allatius (Leone Allacci), De quorundam Graecorum Opinationibus, 1645: According to Allatius, the word vrykolakas derives from words meaning cesspool. The vyrkolakas is an evil and wicked person who may have been excommunicated by a bishop. Its body swells up so that all its limbs are distended, it is hard, and when tapped it thrums like a drum. For this reason it is called tympaniaois, "drumlike". The devil animates such bodies and causes them to roam about at any time of day or night. On Chios, residents will not answer until a caller has called their name twice, because the vrykolakas is believed to only be able to call once, and if it is answered, its victim will die within twenty-four hours. If seen during the day, the vrykolakas is so horrible that witnesses die of fright--unless they speak to the monster, which immediately disappears. If a village has an epidemic of deaths or illness, the inhabitants open graves searching for a body in the "drumlike" condition described. If one is found, it is cremated. Allatius claims to have witnessed the discovery of such a body in a tomb while a boy in Chios, but he does not say what was done with the body. (cited by Summers 1928, 223-229)

Father Francois Richard, Relation de l'Isle de Sant-erini, 1657: Richard argues that the devil keeps certain bodies incorrupt and animates them. Under his command they are able to wander around, enter houses, strike people mute with fear, and assault them, even killing them. When a village is beset by such a vrykolakas, Richard says, they huddle together all in one house for protection, and apply to their Bishop for permission to exhume the suspect. This is done on a Saturday, the only day when a vrykolakas may rest in its grave. If the body is found "fresh and gorged with new blood", it is "exorcised" with prayer until it dissolves before their eyes. If prayer is ineffective, the body is cremated.

Richard tells the story of the gentle vrykolakas Alexander, in the village of Pyrgos, who had been a shoemaker. He returned from the grave to mend his children's shoes, carry water for the family and chop their firewood. Although his family's reaction to this is not noted, his neighbors were finally frightened enough to exhume and cremate his body, after which his visits ceased. Other vrykolakes were reported on Amorgos roaming fields in broad daylight, eating green beans.

A much fiercer vrykolakas was Patino, a merchant from Patmos who died on a buying trip to Natolia and revived in his coffin while being shipped home. His wife had him buried with full honors, and he then began appearing in houses in the area, violently assaulting people and causing damage. Prayers and exorcisms were fruitless in stopping the haunting. Patino's body was ordered sent back to Natolia, but the thoroughly spooked sailors charged with its transport stopped on the first island they passed and burned it, which ended the phenomena. Richard notes elsewhere that vrykolakes were commonly thought to be unable to cross salt water, and they were often dispatched on uninhabited islands.

Richard's final story is very similar to that of de Tournefort [see below] in a number of interesting respects. A "usurer" of Santorini named Ianettis reformed in the last year of his life, and died asking his wife to pay his remaining debts, which she did not do. Ianettis began haunting his village with very similar poltergeist-like activity as the Mycone vrykolakas: yanking the bedclothes off of sleeping people, waking up the priests for matins, emptying wine kegs, and generally abusing and terrorizing people. He visited the Mother Prioress of a Dominican convent, awakened her by rolling her rosary on the floor, jeered at her prayers and as a parting joke, threw her shoes into the water cistern. His body was finally exhumed, and Richard examined it and reported that it displayed no signs of unusual incorruption, but was badly decayed. The body was exorcised for a full day and then dismembered and reinterred, but the vrykolakas' activity did not stop until his wife made good his debts. (translated and cited by Summers 1929, 229-240)