The young, nineteenth century businessman, Jonathan Harker lies on a bed in the middle of a dark, medieval, eastern European castle. Slowly, from the bed sheets, a beautiful woman arises like Aphrodite from the foam. Her hair is long and done up like a hetaira, her lips – lush, red, and her seductive gaze barely hides her sinister intentions much in the same way her hair and jewels barely hide her naked breasts. Slowly another one arises, and than another. They paw at Mr. Harker, subdued with a mix of fear and pleasure. They slowly nibble all over his body until one of them takes a bite.
Dracula suddenly bursts in, scolding his adoring harlots in their native Transylvanian tongue for trying to feed on one of his guests. One of them, in a sly, seductive, whine, asks if he has nothing for them, to which he smiles, turns around, and holds up a screaming infant. The cameraman spares us the horror of what happens next, but the horror written all over Jonathan’s face says it all.
This scene is, of course, taken from Francis Ford Coppolla’s adaptation of the famous, nineteenth century novel, Dracula. Yet, while many people either shuddered or licked their lips over this scene, few probably realized that its imagery had its origins over two thousand years before Bram Stoker so much as walked on two legs.
Ancient Greece is the birthplace of Western Civilization. From modern science to politics, from philosophy, to modern ideals of beauty, all of this is owed to the Greek world. Yet what Greece didn’t bare herself, she introduced to the West from other countries. The vampire is not a Greek invention. Primary sources show it probably had its birth in Babylon, or even further east, but there is absolutely no proof that any other civilization on what is today the European continent had any mythology of the vampire before the Greeks.
Before the mythology of the vampire can be tackled, it’s necessary to come up with a working definition of what it actually means to be a vampire. Webster’s online dictionary defines the vampire as the reanimated body of a dead person, believed to have come from the grave at night and suck the blood of persons asleep. This definition, however, is inadequate. Blade, the comic hybrid-vampire slayer of the undead is made a vampire after his mother, pregnant with him at the time, is bitten by a vampire, while one of the other vampires in the movie describes himself as someone who has been a vampire all his life, scoffing at those who were once human as not being “pure bloods”. For this reason, it’s far better to go with Dictionary.com’s definition which states that vampires are preternatural beings, living on the subsistence of blood (though the site is inaccurate in stating that the victims were necessarily sleeping, as they frequently weren’t).
Ancient Greece had three, though, by no means, clear, representations of the vampire. The first, the lamiai, whose name can be translated as lone shark, served as the most murderous of the three, tantalizing men with her beautiful form only to devour them for their youthful blood. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedia’s describe her, much like Medusa, as having the upper body of a woman, and the lower body of a serpent, but aside from a vague reference in The Life of Apollonious there seems to be no primary source evidence, either in the form of art or literature, to justify this. Phlegon’s Book of Marvels, in fact, simply describes her by the Webster’s Dictionary definition as a reanimated corpse.
The empousai and mormos, on the other hand, don’t seem to have been as dangerous. The empousai, who often had a rather comical and clumsy appearance which will be described in more detail later, could be easily scared off with insulting language, while the mormos, seem to be little more than the ancient bogeymen used to scare children.
The lines between these creatures, however, are often blurred, as the lamia also showed a hypersensitivity to words. Also, in Life of Apollonious, the Corinthian Lamia is referred to as both a Mormo and Empousa in different passages. Because all three of these names are often used to describe blood sucking, supernatural beings, all three can be thought of as the ancient versions of vampires.
There are three myths concerning different lamiai; the myth of the Lamia Lybis, the myth of the Lamia Korinthia, and the myth of the Lamia Philinnion. Though not necessarily referred to as lamia, empousa, or mormo, the witches in the The Golden A*s also show traits that are undeniably vampire-like, and therefore belong in this essay as well.
According to “Women of Classical Mythology”, the first lamia, a queen of Libya, attracted the attention of Zeus, for whom she bore children. Hera, in her usual fit of jealousy, kidnapped the offspring of her husband’s adulterous affair. This drove Lamia into a fit of rage, which, much like Golem from Tolken’s famous Lord of the Rings, both psychologically and physically turned her into a monster with distorted features, possibly resembling a shark, hence her name. C. Kekney, and Barbara K. Gold say she had the ability to change form, usually into that of a beautiful woman, which made her a far more attractive venus fly trap for the prey she seemed to enjoy in first and second century A.D. literature – young men.
Probably driven by a sense of jealousy for what she no longer had, she preyed on and devoured the children of others, though, according to C. Keckney, if held long enough, she would release them. This child devouring reference may come from a line in Horace where he speaks of releasing a child from the stomach of a lamia, or it might come from the blurring of the Lamia with the Mormo, which were want to prey on children. This also could’ve been influenced by the Babylonian myth of Lilith, a similar child killing seductress.
A second lamia appears as the villain in Philostratus’s, Life of Apollonius of Tyrana. The story revolves around the character, Menippos, a stereotypically, well cultured, though boyishly naïve protagonist, love struck by a mysterious foreign woman, much to the chagrin of his teacher, Apollonius. Immediately smelling the danger that the young man is walking into, Apollonius warns him, possibly figuratively, possibly not, that he is “cherishing a serpent”, yet Menippos is so in love with this woman that he decides to marry her the next day. Apollonius, however, uses this typically happy occasion to pounce on the unsuspecting demon, demanding that she reveal her true intentions. After an emotional denial, the demon eventually breaks down, admitting that only devouring the man for his blood interested her.
The Golden A*s is a very similar tale of seduction at the hands of a blood thirsty, demonic being. The protagonist, Aristomenus, takes his aging friend, Socrates in. Socrates tells him that he has just been robbed, but that a mysterious woman has just taken him in and cheered him up both verbally and sexually. The narrator than reveals this being to the reader in the next chapter as the witch, Meroe, known for turning her various rivals, both in love and in business, to various beasts. Never want to let her prey go, like so many other vampires in both in ancient, medieval, and modern legends, Meroe tracks Socrates to Aristomenus’s home where, showing her vampire nature, she cuts his throat with a sword, and drains his blood into a bowl, later clogging his neck with a sponge. Aristomenus witnesses all of this, but, the next morning, seeing that his friend appears well, writes it off as a dream. The two leave the house together, both interested in having had the same dream, yet the reality of both of their experiences is finally revealed when, bending over to drink from a stream, the sponge falls from Socrates’s neck, resulting in his demise.
Not all of these stories are quite so bloody, though. Phlegon of Tralles’s second century A.D. Book of Marvels recounts the story of the third lamia - Philinnion. Having died months before, she is spotted sitting besides a man, Makhates, in the guest room of her parents’ home. One can only assume her intentions. The nurse who spotted her runs down to tell her mother, but her mother writes her off as a lunatic. Curiosity and coercion, however, get the best of her, and she decides to go up herself and peer into the room. Noticing her daughter’s clothes and seeing her daughter’s vague image, her belief grows, though doesn’t quite kill her skepticism. She resolves to wait until the next morning to look again, but, to her disappointment, the mysterious woman is gone. Makhates, disbelieving of this young woman being anything besides a young woman, tells mother that she visits him at the same time every night. Philinnion shows up at the designated time, but, for an inexplicable reason, is disgusted with her mother and father’s presence. She scolds them for “grudging” her “being”, stating she came “not without divine will”. The second the last word leaves her lips she falls dead where she sits. There are no direct hints that the lamia in this story had any desire to harm her “victim” nor is the reader given an explanation as to why she was so disgusted with her parents’ presence, though this may have to do with the missing earlier part of the manuscript.
The vampire even finds its way into comedy, as it’s ironically here that we get the most vivid physical description of the empousai – in Aristophanes The Frogs. Traveling to Hades to bring Euripedes back from the dead, Dionysius, dressed as Herakles in a very mock heroic fashion, along with his far braver servant, Xanthias, encounters an empousa. This “most ferocious monster” frequently changes shape, first becoming a bull, than a mule, then the loveliest of girls, before becoming a dog again, and then finally having a head ablaze with fire, one leg of copper, and the other of cow dung.
The purpose of comedy is to take the lofty and debase it into the vulgar – i.e., the Earthly, physical, and bodily. Scatalogical references, therefore, should be expected, yet these aren’t limited to the comical views of these creatures. In The Golden A*s, Meroe, along with her equally demonic, female companion, urinates on both Socrates and Aristomenus. The author doesn’t spare the reader any detail, as he describes how the two suffocated him with their buttocks while performing the awful deed.
In a less bodily though more blasphemous way, vulgarity seems to serve the same purpose that the cross serves in Christian era, vampire lore. Apollonius, in Life of Apollonious of Tyana, upon the realization that he has encountered an empousa, heaps abuse on it and instructs his company to do the same. Yet the empousa is often so sensitive to words that even simple demands can either send it on its way, or break it down emotionally. In The Frogs, the brave servant Xianthias, scares away the Empousa with a simple “go thy way” while his pompous, coward of a master, cowers in fear. Again in Life of Apollonious of Tyana, Apollonious forces the Lamia to reveal its true form simply by pressuring her to admit what she truly is.
The empousai are frequently mentioned as being the minions of the Hecate. Barbara K. Gold states that the empousai were part of Hecate’s entourage while theoi.com echoes this statement by saying they were her companions. In his book, C. Kekeny goes as far as to say “empousa” was a last name for Hecate.
While it is tempting to associate these demons with the goddess of the night, witchcraft, and ghosts, not one of them provides any primary source evidence to justify any of their claims. In fact, not one site, from the highly unscholarly Wikipedia to books written by top historians provide any evidence to justify that these pre-Christian vampires had any direct relationship with Hecate. Gold provides absolutely no primary source citations, probably thinking that what she was stating was just common knowledge, while theoi.com can only provide one pre-modern era manuscript stating that the empousai were directly linked with Hecate – the Suidas s. v. Empousa; a tenth century manuscript, and no more of a primary source on ancient Greece than a twenty-first century biography of William Wallace.
Gold states that the empousai were a form of propaganda. In order for “good” to exist, according to her, there must also be an evil for it to compare itself to and say, “that is what I am not.” Women in the ancient world were expected to be good, nurturing mothers, faithful and dependable wives, and practically invisible beings, quietly going about their proscribed social roles. To her, the empousai serve as a “counterweight” to this – i.e, an evil invented purely for the sake of giving the good something to identify itself as not being. They are vicious child killers, shape shifters (a symbolic antithesis to those who stay faithful to their proscribed social roles), and demons who are voracious in their sexually murderous appetites for young men.
Gold’s arguments are not without reason. The lamiai, empousai, and mormos, are all female, unlike in Middle Eastern/Judeo-Christian lore were male demons (incubi) and various fallen angels mate with human females. But to put Greek religion and mythology into such a simplistic, good versus evil, black and white, Judeo-Christian framework is just looking at the ancient world through modern goggles. Ancient deities, particularly in ancient Greece and Rome, frequently acted in ways that were not only contrary to the mores of society, but outright villainous. Take, for instance, Hephaestus, the antithesis of the strong, able-bodied Greek male; or Ares, the epitome of hubris. Hera served as the arch villain to so many of Zeus’s offspring, particularly Heracles; and even the king of the gods himself, Zeus, became the villain in the myth of Prometheus.
Greek male chauvinism can’t be ruled out in the mythology of the lamiai, empousai, and mormos. Women were second class citizens with little status above slavery. Upper class women were only expected to leave their homes for appropriate reasons, and it is therefore understandable why Greek males would look down on a woman who could so freely travel not only from city to city, but from shape to shape. Female sexuality also seems to have been something that could’ve easily mortified the ancient Greek male. Plutarch, for instance describes the horror that Athenian men felt knowing that Spartan women played sports in the nude.
Religion, however, didn’t necessarily serve as propaganda to keep this social constraint in place. If it did, than why is it that so many of the goddesses transcended the very roles of womanhood that the Greeks held so dearly? Athena, for instance, doesn’t have many stereotypical female characteristics. She is a goddess of war, often portrayed with the frill, spear, shield (often with a gorgon’s head on it) and sometime even portrayed in battle, as she is in the late sixth century, Athenian black figure vase, in the Tampa Museam of Art. Much like her male counterparts she is also capable of great violence, mainly due to crimes against her temples. For desecrating a temple of hers she casts a deadly plague upon the Lokrians who can only appease her with an annual sacrifice of two maidens over the course of two-thousand years.
A more brutal example of Greek religion’s ironic feminism was Artemis. According to the Callimachus Hymn, the young girl, Artemis, asks her father Zeus to let her retain her maidenhood all her life, a far cry from the tradition of marrying girls of at the tender age of thirteen. Much like the empousai she lacks a fixed place in society, asking to be assigned to no particular city, as she will only visit the cities of men when women call her name during the pangs of childbirth. Though a protector of girls up to the age of marriage, she doubled as a destroyer, and showed no qualms about killing children. When the Queen of Thebes, Niobe, bragged that she had more sons and daughters than Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, the two siblings slaughtered her children with a hail of arrows.
On the opposite end of the mighty war goddess, and wild huntress, is the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Her actions, however, are no less rebellious against the mores of Greece. The antithesis of the chaste virgin, sculptors frequently portray her in the nude (unlike Artemis or Athena), or with her clothes either draping off of her, or so tight that they leave little to the imagination. In some cases she blatantly flaunts her body, as in the case of the Aphrodite Kallipygos, where the goddess purposefully lifts her gown to brandish her buttocks. Nor did she have much fidelity – something that would’ve been rule number one for women in the ancient Greek world. Though married to the good-natured but homely smith god, Haphaestus, she longs for the handsome, though hubris filled, god of war, Ares, and sleeps with him in her husband’s bed. Much like her father, Zeus, and even the various Greek vampires, Aphrodite shows no qualms about sleeping with mortals, and uses the very trickery that Gold claims would’ve been such an evil to women in the ancient Greek world. Like the lamiai in the previously mentioned tales, Aphrodite represents herself as a mortal, when seducing the handsome young sheppard, Ankhises, only revealing her identity after the deed. Despite being female, she is never punished any differently (if at all) for her liaisons, than any of the male gods. While her mortal lover, Adonis, is killed by Ares, this is little different from the torment which the descendants of Zeus’s mortal loves have to bear at the hands of Hera. She runs off untouched after her affair with Ares, and many stories suggest that she became his consort, or even his bride, after her split with Haphaestus. Ancient paintings and writings frequently pair the two. Though her daughter, Harmonia, the product of her adulterous affair, is punished with the ill fate of all her descendants, this is as much retribution against Ares as it is against her.
Going by the logic of Ms. Gold, each one of these women should be vilified as ugly old hags and demons, existing solely for the sake of giving patriarchal Greeks a righteously destructible villain – but this isn’t the case. All of these goddesses are held in the highest esteem, receiving the chants and hymns of Homer, being the object of cults all over the Greek world, and even, in the case of Athena, being the namesake of one of the most culturally influential cities in history.
The argument that the vampires were necessarily the antithesis of the ideal female also has a shaky base when held up for closer inspection. Gold points out the empousai’s child murdering habits as proof of her unnurturing qualities, but, isn’t it her very love for her children that drives her to these acts? Also, some myths state that lamia had numerous children herself who weren’t killed by Hera. Ptolemy Hephaestion states she mothered Akhilleus (“lipless one”), whom Aphrodite turned into a shark after he challenged her to a beauty contest, while Pausaniaus makes her the mother of Herophile Sibylla, the first woman to chant oracles. Those who write these creatures off simply as monsters also need to remember that, in the case of the Libyian Lamia, she was the love object of Zeus, the highest of gods, and, at least to Hesiod, the harbinger of justice.
The counterweight hypothesis also falls apart when considering how little of an impact these monsters had on the Greek mind. While certainly having enough popularity to be known from at least the time of Aristophanes all the way through the High Middle Ages, there are very few primary literary sources available on them and what few exist don’t seem to take them very seriously. Most pieces of ancient literature give them a couple of lines at best, and even then, refer to them in a purely comparative, hypothetical way. In On Curiosity Plutarch gives about a paragraph to a lamia, and only talks about her for the sake of comparing their eye removal talents to the hypothetical blindness of men. Horace uses the Lamia for similar reasons, comparing the extraction of a child from her stomach as a metaphor for a proper artistic technique. More than a couple of texts refer to the fear of these demons as little more than childhood fantasies. In the sixth century poem, The Distaff, by Erinna, the poetess, talks about her fears of the mormo, but uses the indicators “then” and “when we were little ones” to tell her readers that these were fears limited to her childhood. Plato also hints at this fear being limited to childhood when he says “children are frightened with mormolyttomai” in his Phaedo. Cicero, in De Natura Deorum outright derides the idea of the “creatures of the underworld” presumably empousai, lamiai, and/or mormos as being anything more than fiction, and even says that these monsters are no longer believed in his first century B.C. Roman world.
Visual resources yielded no results for the Lamia, Empousa, or Mormos. While the Greeks were certainly want to put various monsters into the visual arts, such as the Cyclops races, finding any on the empousai, lamiai, or mormos is a nearly impossible task. Theoi.com had absolutely none, while internet image searches gave only modern renditions of these creatures, probably based on the scant pieces of evidence (or lack there of), which so many of the modern tales of these creatures is based on.
A metaphorical social realism, at least from a distinctly Greek point of view, may have actually been part of the motivating force behind the creation of these creatures and other monsters. Men, having been the hunters and warriors since prehistoric times, would’ve had physical prowess on their side. This feature is reflected in many of the male monsters who rely purely on physical strength to pulverize the heroes of Greek mythology and literature. Giants, for instance, are usually male. Agrius and Ores, the man-eating, half man, half bear giants; Antaeus, the Libyan giant strangled to death by Heracles; and Cacus, the fire-breathing giant, are all male, and rely on their size and brute force to devour their victims. Many of these giants were probably mythological metaphors for the barbarous races surrounding the pre-polis, and polis Greeks. The Cyclops are described as a group of lawless shepherds who no longer serve under Zeus.
Most women wouldn’t have had such military training and therefore probably would’ve had to rely on other means, besides the purely physical. Female monsters, likewise, don’t usually rely on pure physical strength to overpower their victims. The sirens lure them with song, while various witches such as Calypso use enchantments and spells. The lamiai, likewise, don’t typically force their victims with brute strength. As we have seen in such stories as The Golden A*s and Life of Apolonius of Tyrana 4, they often lure their unsuspecting male victims in with promises of love, marriage, and sexual favors.
Lamiai, empousai, and mormos, were therefore, probably not representatives of how women ought to be, but of how many of the ancient Greeks believed they actually were. In fact, they seem to be little more than continuations of the vile origins of womanhood created in the Theogony. According to Hesiod, Zeus created women as a curse on men for Prometheus’s crime of trying to steal fire. This woman, who would become the mother of all women, shared both the monstrous and seductive imagery that easily could’ve been exaggerated into the myths of such monsters as the sirens, lamiai, empousai, and mormos. Fashioned by Pallas Athena, this first woman struck awe into the mortals and even the gods with her beauty, yet she wore adornments resembling the terrible monsters of land and sea so much so that they seemed to be “living and able to roar”. Like the vampires, the first women also had the duty of destroying man, albeit in a financial rather than physical manner. Hesiod describes her as being ill-suited to poverty’s curse and well-suited to the joys of plenty. In other words, much like the stereotypical sitcom wife – e.g., Peggy Bundy from Married with Children – the typical Greek woman sought to waste away her husband’s livelihood on trivial extravagances.
Cultures outside of Greece also could’ve had their influences on the lamiai, empousai, and mormos. While some, such as Lilith, almost certainly had a direct influence on these creatures, others can be credited with supplying images of violent, blood lusting, females that Greece’s own passive, oppressed women couldn’t have supplied. Babylon may have been a particular treasure chest of these monsters, with creatures such as Tiamat, the evil dragon goddess of the sea, and Lilith, described in an incantation bowl as being a demon who makes men’s hearts go astray and kills children, both boys and girls.
Blood-lusting war goddesses of Egypt could’ve also influenced Greece’s more violent representatives of femininity. The lioness-headed goddess, Sekhmet, had such a fearful and destructive nature that the Egyptians could only placate her with an elaborate ritual involving seven hundred statues of her. Priests were required to perform the same ritual to a different one of the statues everyday of every year.
Knowing their penchant for chauvinism, there is little doubt that the Greek would’ve guessed the impact his civilization had on the rest of the world. “Who else could’ve brought democracy, science, and philosophy to the rest of the world,” he might have said, “those superstitious Egyptians, freedom-hating Persians, or barbarous Celts?” Yet what would he have said knowing that his culture also helped bring in a far darker, though equally fascinating aspect of human culture? Perhaps he would’ve been proud for having such an impact, perhaps he would’ve been shocked, or perhaps, much like Cicero, he would’ve scoffed at us and walked away, wondering how such a supposedly enlightened culture could’ve taken such a fascination in something that was for him little more than a childish bogey