Vampires are some of the most famous creatures of the horror, and now romance, genres. The folklore of countless cultures around the world features some sort of vampire figure, and Greece’s Vrykolakas is no different.
The Greek vampire is an undead, fearsome creature that becomes more powerful the longer it is allowed to feed. Belief in the Vrykolakas was widespread in Greece, particularly in rural regions, up until the mid twentieth century, but many still believe in the creature to this day.
Both the term “Vrykolakas” and the figure itself likely come from neighboring Slavic countries, where vampire legends are widespread and are featured prominently in folklore.
The Slavic word “varkolak” is the root of many terms for vampire-like figures throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans; actually meaning “werewolf,” it came to represent vampires in most Slavic countries.
Although the Vrykolakas shares many similarities to Slavic vampires, there are some differences. The Greek vampire does not drink blood, but it feasts on the flesh and liver of its victims, much like contemporary zombie figures.
Ancient Greek creatures that resemble vampires
There are also many creatures from ancient Greek mythology that also resemble vampires — the Empusae, Lamia, Mormo, and the Striges.
The Empusae were shapeshifters who often took the form of beautiful women. They had one leg of brass that was controlled by Hecate, a mysterious ancient Greek witch goddess.
The creatures seduced and fed on the bodies of young men in Greek mythology.
Similarly, the Lamia is a spine-chilling ancient Greek female shapeshifter who consumes human flesh, particularly children.
Perhaps most famously, Lamia was portrayed in Greek playwright Aristophanes’ fifth-century B.C. comedy “Peace.”
The ancient commentaries on Aristophanes’ play explain the role Lamia played in Greek mythology. She was a queen of what is now Libya who was beloved by Zeus, the greatest of all the Greek gods.
When Zeus’ wife Hera robbed her of her children from this union, Lamia went on a killing spree, destroying every child she could lure into her power. Athenian mothers were even known to use her as a threat to frighten children who were misbehaving.
The “mormo,” or “fearful one,” resembles Lamia, as she is also a female spirit that is said to consume children. To this day, Greek mothers and caretakers invoke the creature to frighten errant children.
The Strix (plural Striges) referred to a flesh-eating mythical bird that resembles a mix of an owl and a bat. The bird creature is nocturnal, with a large, pointed beak and fearsome claws. It is said to eat infants, and is even thought to be a witch in disguise.
The Vrykolakas in Greek folklore
In Greek folklore, there are many ways that one could transform into a Vrykolakas. Most often, people who were excommunicated from the Church for sacrilegious behavior and those who were buried in unconsecrated ground were believed to transform into vampires.
During World War II, Greece suffered the Great Famine, during which 300,000 people starved to death. The sheer number of dead during the time caused cemeteries to overflow, and many people were forced to bury their loved ones outside graveyards, in mass graves.
This caused great distress across the country, as belief in the Vrykolakas was so ingrained in many Greeks, some feared that their relatives would become vampires because they were not buried in cemeteries.
Tragically, some families were so scared of the horrific transformation that they even beheaded the corpses of their loved ones before burial to avoid them ever becoming vampires.
In some regions, people believed that eating the meat from a sheep that had been wounded by a wolf or a werewolf could cause the vampiric transformation.
Legend states that the body of the Vrykolakas, although dead, does not decay, but becomes quite stocky and takes on a healthy, ruddy complexion due to its diet of flesh and blood. This is quite different than modern descriptions of vampires as pale and sickly in appearance.
Those with red hair and light eyes were often suspected of being vampires as they resembled Slavic peoples, whose folklore was full of such figures.
Vampires in Greece were thought to bring great destruction to villages. They were described as nomadic figures that roamed the country in search of victims to torment and feed upon.
In many stories, a Vrykolakas is even described as bringing diseases and epidemics to villages across Greece. He is said to kill his victims by sitting on them or crushing them as they sleep and later feeding on their flesh and organs, particularly the liver.
Many have attributed this legend to sleep paralysis, a condition that causes sufferers to lose control of their muscles for a short period just after waking or falling asleep.
Those who have sleep paralysis often hallucinate and describe seeing figures and other frightening images around them.
The most persistent Greek vampire legend, one that many still believe in rural Greece today, involves knocking on doors. In Greek folklore, the Vrykolakas roams around villages knocking on doors and calling out the names of those who live there.
If no one answers the initial knock, the vampire will go on to the next house without causing harm. If someone opens the door, the Vrykolakas will cause them to die a few days later — and they too will become a vampire.
This is why, in a few Greek villages today, residents will only answer their door after a second knock — never after the first.
In order to kill the Vyrkolakas, one must attempt to destroy its body by impaling, beheading, or cremating the vampire while it sleeps in its grave. This only occurs on Saturdays.
By destroying the body of the creature, it is believed that the person is freed from living eternally as the Vrykolakas, and can now rest.
Evidence of belief in vampires throughout Greece
Archaeologists have discovered many graves across Greece, particularly from the Ottoman period, that demonstrate how widespread the belief in vampires was throughout the country.
A tomb found on the island of Lesvos during the Ottoman period contained a body with nails piercing through its neck, pelvis, and feet, pinning it to its grave.
In order to keep vampires away, Greeks had a variety of apotropaics (Ancient Greek for “turn away”), or items and practices used to keep supernatural creatures such as vampires away.
Burying a corpse face down, or putting scythes near the grave to prevent any demons or evil spirits from entering the body, were thought to prevent transformation into a vampire in Greece.
Greeks would also place a small wax cross and pieces of pottery with the words “Jesus Christ Conquers” in the grave to ward off evil. This practice resembles the ancient Greek tradition of placing a coin in the corpses mouth both to pay their toll across the river Styx and to ward off evil spirits.
Garlic, and the omnipresent evil eye, are also widely used to ward off evil spirits and the Vrykolakas to this very day in Greece.