Saturday, 2 June 2012

Did Vampires Exist in Antiquity?

In his seminal work, Treatise on Vampires and Revenants (1751), Calmet was adamant that although there may have been reports of troublesome revenants in the past and ‘pretended vestiges of vampirism’ in antiquity, nothing could compare to the vampires of the eighteenth-century Europe:

Antiquity certainly neither saw or knew anything like it.  Let us read through the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Latins; nothing approaching to it will be met with…In the twelfth century also, in England and Denmark, some resuscitations similar to those of Hungary were seen.  But in no history do we read anything similar, so common, or so decided, as what is related to us of the vampires of Poland, Hungary and Moravia.

Calmet also noted that:

Some learned men have thought they discovered some vestiges of vampirism in the remotest antiquity; but all that they say of it does not come near what is related of the vampires.  The lamia, the striga, the sorcerers whom they accused of sucking the blood of living persons, and of thus causing their death, the magicians who were said to cause the death of newborn children by charms and malignant spells, are nothing less than what we understand by the name of vampires; even were it to be owned that these lamia and striga have really existed, which we do not believe can ever be well proved.

In the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a second-century philosopher and reputed miracle-worker, Philostratus tells us that one of Apollonius’ pupils, Menippus from Corinth, invited Apollonius to his forthcoming wedding.  But when Apollonius met the intended bride, he realized that she was in fact an otherworldly being that had taken on semi-physical form in order to prey upon her youthful paramour.  Warning Menippus of the danger, Apollonius noted that:

You are a fine youth and are hunted by fine women, but in this case you are cherishing a serpent and a serpent cherishes you…this fine bride is one of the vampires [i.e. an empousa], that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins.  These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite but especially to the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with delights those whom they mean to devour in their feasts…she admitted that she was a vampire [empousa] and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies because their blood is pure and strong

Although translators often use the term ‘vampire’ to portray the intended bride, in the Greek text, the actual word used is empousa, synonymous with the term lamia, a shape-shifting demonic being from the underworld, akin to a succubus, that fed upon the flesh and blood of the living, particularly the young and virile. Therefore, it is evident that Philostratus is referring to an elemental being rather than a reanimated cadaver. 

According to the writers of antiquity, the shades of the dead were similarly attracted to spilt blood and would eagerly lap it up in order to gain a temporary measure of corporeality.  In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Odysseus sailed to the land of the Cimmerians where the Acheron and Styx flowed from Hades into the sea.  There he undertook a necromantic ritual, involving a trench filled with blood, to call forth and question the shade of Teiresias, a noted Theban prophet:

When with my prayers and invocations I had called on the peoples of the dead, I seized the victims [a ram and black ewe] and cut their throats over the trench.  The dark blood flowed, and the souls of the dead and gone came flocking upwards from Erebus [the underworld]; brides and unmarried youths, old men who had suffered much, tender girls with the heart’s distress still keen, troops of warriors wounded with brazen-pointed spears, men slain in battle with blood-stained armour still upon them.  With unearthly cries, from every quarter, they came crowding about the trench until pale terror began to master me…As for myself, I drew the keen sword from beside my thigh, seated myself and held back the strengthless presences of the dead from drawing nearer the blood before I had questioned Teiresias.

The tale of Philinnion and Machates, first recorded in the Mirabilia of Phlegon of Tralles in the mid-second century, plainly does describe a reanimated corpse. According to the text, Philinnion, the daughter of Demostratus and Charito, tragically died but six months later returned to her former home and slept with Machates, a guest staying there.  When she departed the next morning, Philinnion left him a gold ring and other tokens of her affection.  However, her former nurse had witnessed the encounter and the next day reported the affair to Philinnion’s parents who then questioned Machates.  Surprised at their insistence that the girl who had been with him was in fact their deceased daughter, he agreed to fetch them when Philinnion returned.  So the following night, Machates sent for her parents who rushed in to embrace their long dead daughter but were speedily rebuked by the revenant:

Mother and father, it is unfair of you to have begrudged me spending three days with the guest in my father’s house.  I was causing nobody any trouble.  As a result of this you will aggrieve afresh, because of your interference, and I shall return to my appointed place.  For it is by the will of the gods that I came here.

Thereupon, Philinnion fell back onto the bed, once again a lifeless corpse.  Soon enough, rumours spread throughout the town about the strange occurrence and crowds began to flock to the house.  Alarmed by the uproar, the authorities decided to re-open her tomb.  But where Philinnion’s body should have been was an empty niche, save for an iron ring and gold cup given to her by Machates as tokens of his affection, confirming the identity of the corpse at the house as Philinnion.  Subsequently, her corpse was dragged outside the city limits and cremated while Machates later committed suicide from the shame of it all.

Although ‘vestiges of vampirism’ can be found in antiquity and so too vivid tales of lamias and ghosts that hunger for blood, there is no mention of reanimated corpses per se returning from the grave specifically to feed upon the living.  Philinnion could certainly be considered a reanimated corpse, given that her tomb was apparently empty and her body became a lifeless corpse again once vacated by what was presumably her deceased soul.  Furthermore, it was unrequited love, rather than malice towards the living that supposedly fuelled Philinnion’s return, unlike the lamia mentioned previously, especially since the former had permission from the gods to be there.  Unfortunately, there is no mention of the supposed condition of her reanimated corpse and whether it showed any evidence of putrefaction, given that her corpse had reputedly been buried in the tomb for six months.  But given that Machates made no complaint about the condition of Philinnion’s naked body, it could be assumed that her so-called corpse was indistinguishable from a normal living body.  

Therefore, Calmet is correct in his assertion that antiquity neither saw nor knew anything like the grotesque, blood-drinking undead-corpses of eighteenth-century Europe.


Calmet, A. Treatise on Vampires and Revenants, 1751 (trs.) H. Christmas, 1850 (Reprint: Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1993)
Grimal, P. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)
Homer, The Odyssey (trs.) W. Shewring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
Life of Apollonius of Tyana (trs.) F. Conybeare (London: Heinemann, 1912)
Ogden, D. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

No comments:

Post a Comment