The vrykolakas (Greek βρυκόλακας, pronounced [vriˈkolakas]), also called vorvolakas or vourdoulakas, is a harmful undead creature in Greek folklore. It has similarities to many different legendary creatures, but is generally equated with the vampire of the folklore of the neighbouring Slavic countries. While the two are very similar, blood-drinking is only marginally associated with the vrykolakas.
The word vrykolakas is derived from the Slavic word vǎrkolak. The term is attested in other South Slavic languages such as Serbian vukodlak, ultimately derived from Proto-Slavic vьlkolakъ, see Polish wilkołak, and cognates can be found in other languages such as Lithuanian vilkolakis and Romanian vârcolac. The term is a compound word derived from вълк (vâlk)/вук (vuk), meaning "wolf" and dlaka, meaning "(strand of) hair" (i.e. having the hair, or fur, of a wolf), and originally meant "werewolf" (it still has that meaning in the modern Slavic languages, and a similar one in Romanian: see vârcolac). It is also noteworthy that in the eighteenth century story Vrykolokas by Pitton de Tournefort, he refers to the revenant as a "werewolf" (loups-garous) which may have also been translated as bug-bears, a strange word that has nothing to do with bugs nor bears, but is related to the word bogey, which means spook, spirit, hobgoblin, etc. However, the same word (in the form vukodlak) has come to be used in the sense of "vampire" in the folklore of Western Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro (while the term "vampir" is more common in Eastern Serbia, and in Bulgaria). Apparently, the two concepts have become mixed. Even in Bulgaria, original folklore generally describes the vârkolak as a sub-species of the vampire without any wolf-like features.
The Greeks traditionally believed that a person could become a vrykolakas after death due to a sacrilegious way of life, an excommunication, a burial in unconsecrated ground, or eating the meat of a sheep which had been wounded by a wolf or a werewolf. Some believed that a werewolf itself could become a powerful vampire after being killed, and would retain the wolf-like fangs, hairy palms, and glowing eyes it formerly possessed.
The bodies of vrykolakas have the same distinctive characteristics as the bodies of vampires in Balkan folklore. They do not decay; instead, they swell and may even attain a "drum-like" form, being very large, they have a ruddy complexion, and are, according to one account, "fresh and gorged with new blood". People with red hair and gray eyes at this time in history were thought to be vampires according to accounts near the region of modern Serbia. The activities of the vrykolakas are nearly always harmful, verging from merely leaving their grave and "roaming about", through engaging in poltergeist-like activity, and up to causing epidemics in the community. Among other things, the creature is believed to knock on the doors of houses and call out the name of the residents. If it gets no reply the first time, it will pass without causing any harm. If someone does answer the door, he or she will die a few days later and become another vrykolakas. For this reason, there is a superstition present in certain Greek villages that one should not answer a door until the second knock. Legends also say that the vrykolakas crushes or suffocates the sleeping by sitting on them, much like a mara or incubus (cf. sleep paralysis) — as does a vampire in Bulgarian folklore.
Since the vrykolakas becomes more and more powerful if left alone, legends state that one should destroy its body. According to some accounts, this can only be done on Saturday, which is the only day when the vrykolakas rests in its grave (the same as with Bulgarian vampire legend) This may be done in various ways, the most common being exorcising, impaling, beheading, cutting into pieces, and especially cremating the suspected corpse, so that it may be freed from living death and its victims may be safe.
Ancient Greeks believed that the dead are able to reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather ‘undead.’ Burials of suspected revenants have been discovered throughout the ancient Greek world. The earliest examples are from Cyprus and date to the Neolithic period (ca. 4500–3900/3800 BCE). At Khirokitia, flexed bodies buried in pit graves were pinned by millstones that were placed on either their heads or chests in order to trap the body in its grave. Similar burials were found at Argolid. In the necropolis of the city of Kamarina, two burials were found which were different from the rest: the first contains an adult of indeterminate sex and stature. The head and feet of the individual are completely covered by large amphora fragments. The heavy amphora fragments found were presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising. The second burial contains a child approximately 8 to 13 years old, also of indeterminate sex and stature. Five large stones were placed on top of the child’s body. These stones were used to trap the body in its grave.
On Attica, found a limekiln served as a gravesite for two dismembered individuals. The first body belonged to a woman who was cut in half, with both halves placed parallel to one another in the prone position. Buried with her was a small jar containing a single coin from the reign of Emperor Constantine and a portion of the dismembered left leg of an adult male. After deposition, the skeletons were deliberately sealed in the limekiln by large rocks.
At Lesbos, a Turkish cemetery from the Ottoman period contained an isolated tomb of an adult who was pinned at the neck, pelvis and both feet with 20 cm nails. On another burial from the same island dating to the same period contained a man over the age of 60. He was found in a cist grave and had three bent 16 cm spikes mixed in with his bones.
Apotropaics are objects or practices that were intended to prevent a recently deceased loved one from turning into an undead revenant, or to occupy a revenant sufficiently enough that he will not harm the living. Burying a corpse upside-down was widespread, as was placing earthly objects, such as scythes or sickles, near the grave to satisfy any demons entering the body or to appease the dead so that it would not wish to arise from its coffin. This method resembles the Ancient Greek practice of placing an obolus in the corpse's mouth to pay the toll to cross the River Styx in the underworld; it has been argued that instead, the coin was intended to ward off any evil spirits from entering the body, and this may have influenced later vampire folklore. This tradition persisted in modern Greek folklore about the vrykolakas, in which a wax cross and piece of pottery with the inscription "Jesus Christ conquers" were placed on the corpse to prevent the body from becoming a vampire. Other methods commonly practised in Europe included severing the tendons at the knees or placing poppy seeds, millet, or sand on the ground at the grave site of a presumed vampire; this was intended to keep the vampire occupied by counting the fallen grains at the rate of one grain per year, indicating an association of vampires with arithmomania. Similar Chinese narratives state that if a vampire-like being came across a sack of rice, it would have to count every grain; this is a theme encountered in myths from the Indian subcontinent, as well as in South American tales of witches and other sorts of evil or mischievous spirits or beings.
Vrykolakas and the West
The first Western accounts of belief in vrykolakas are from the mid 17th century, in compositions by authors such as the Greek librarian of the Vatican Leo Allatius (De quorundam Graecorum Opinationibus, 1645), and Father François Richard (Relation de l'Isle de Sant-erini, 1657), who tend to confirm the stories. The 1718 account of French traveller Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who witnessed the exhumation and "slaying" of a suspected vrykolakas on the island of Mykonos in 1701, became more famous. The Greek vrykolakas were identified as the equivalent of the Slavic vampire already during the Eighteenth century vampire controversy, as exemplified in Johann Heinrich Zedler's Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon (1732–1754).
It has become normal, in translating vampire movies and the like into Greek, to translate "vampire" as "vrykolakas". Presumably Modern Greeks raised on Hollywood vampire movies would be just as likely, if not more so, to think of Dracula, instead of the traditional Greek monster, when a vrykolakas is mentioned.
One of the few instances of the vrykolakas or vorvolaka being used in popular art and media is in the film Isle of the Dead. Directed by Mark Robson, the film centres around a group of people on a small island, whose lives are threatened by a force that some believe to be the plague, and others believe to be the work of a vorvolaka.
Archaeological excavations on Lesbos at its capital Mytilene have uncovered two vrykolakas burials in early cemeteries. Both were middle aged men buried in special crypts with 20 cm spikes through neck, groin and ankles, a typical Balkan method of dealing with a suspected revenant. The British Vice Consul, Charles Newton, in his "Travels and Discoveries in the Levant" mentions an island off the coast of Lesbos on which the Greeks of his time (1850s) buried their vrykolakadhes.
Books and novels
Several books and novels has been written by western authors on Vrykolakas. Recent development in this area is Adventures in Death and Romance: Vrykolakas Tales authored by historian Monette Bebow-Reinhard. Superposition by David Walton, Pyr Books 2015. In contemporary literature, Dimitris Lyacos's postmodern play With the People from the Bridge handles the theme of Vrykolakas in the context of greek folklore and tradition. Characteristically, the female undead character in the book is apotropaically handled on a Saturday.
- "MAY THE GROUND NOT RECEIVE THEE". An Exploration of the Greek Vrykolakas and His Origins by Inanna Arthen (1998) The article contains a detailed historical overview of known beliefs and attested vrykolakas reports.
- "Greek Accounts of the Vrykolakas" by D. Demetracopoulou Lee. From The Journal of American Folklore, No. 54 (1941) A collection of vrykolakas accounts, supplied by Greek immigrants in the United States.
- Vampires, Burial, and Death-Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber (1988) Vali-Ballou Press, Birmingham, NY. p 26.
- Петровић, Сретен. Српска митологиjа Archived 2009-03-31 at the Wayback Machine.
- Иваничка Димитрова. Българска народна митология. С.1983.стр. 163-164 Archived 2016-02-27 at the Wayback Machine.. Compare alsohey the description in Naiden Gerov's Dictionary of the Bulgarian Language ("Речник на блъгарский язик“) (1895–1904)
- Summers, Montague (2001). The Vampire in Lore and Legend. Courier Dover Publications. p. xiv. ISBN 978-0-486-41942-8.
- Вампир. Из "Народна вяра и религиозни народни обичаи", Д. Маринов, 1994, БАН. Първо издание 1914.
- http://www.imir-bg.org/imir/books/myusyulmani-Teteven.pdf Archived 2007-06-29 at the Wayback Machine. Кюркчиева, Ива. 2004. Светът на българите-мюсюлмани от Тетевенско - преход към модерност
- Иваничка Димитрова. Българска народна митология. С.1983.стр. 153- 159 Archived 2007-10-24 at the Wayback Machine.
- "Walking Dead and Vengeful Spirits". popular-archaeology.com. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death, pp. 50–51.
- Lawson, John Cuthbert (1910). Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 405–06.
- Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death, p. 49.
- (Spanish) Jaramillo Londoño, Agustín (1986) . Testamento del paisa (7th ed.). Medellín: Susaeta Ediciones.
- "Excerpted from: A Voyage Into the Levant...(etc) by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. 1718. English edition, London: printed for D. Midwinter, etc. 1741. Volume I, pp. 142-148". Archived from the original on 2007-01-07. Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- Sir Charles Thomas Newton; Sir Dominic Ellis Colnaghi (1865). Travels and Discoveries in the Levant. Day & Son, Limited. pp. 212–13.