Do Greeks believe in the undead? Are there Greek zombies and vampires? Let’ see what Greek folklore has to say.
Between sunset and the first crow of the rooster, the nighttime hides many secrets with its thick, dark veil. Folktales from all around the world warn people of the hidden dangers that lurk in the dark. For this year’s Halloween special, we will explore what the Greek folklore says about some of the most dangerous creatures that dig themselves out of the Earth’s soil as soon as the sun dips below the horizon.
Note: this article contains information also found in the article “Ancient Greek Vampires” and “Vampires in Santorini? Mysterious Greek Islands”.
Read more: Do Greeks Celebrate Halloween?
Folktales About Greek Zombies and Vampires | Greek Undead
October 1886. It was a gloomy fall night at a Greek stone-built village. The farmers had returned home, and all the family members -from the grandparents to the youngest children- now gathered next to the fireplace to share their humble dinner. They chatted and laughed out loud while narrating the funniest incidents of the day. But for one family, that night was rather silent. They had recently lost a family member and, as the customs dictated, they avoided any loud expressions of positive emotions. At least for the first forty days after his death, until his soul would finally depart. And that night was no more than the sixth after his death.
The truth is that their relative lived abroad for the past ten years and they barely knew him. Let’s call this relative Yannis. Yannis had recently returned to the small village much richer and much greedier than he had ever been. Rumor had it that he acquired his wealth with illegal, even violent methods. After coming back home, he lived alone in a shed at the outskirts of the village and only visited his cousin’s house from time to time.
It didn’t take long until his body was discovered in the woods under suspicious circumstances. Did a local or a stranger end this man’s life? The rumors were endless, but no one cared enough to investigate his death. Yannis had more enemies than friends and his living relatives focused on offering him a proper burial, according to the Greek Orthodox Christian customs.
The Night of the Undead in… Greece
It was getting darker and darker in the village and the families were now preparing for bed. They could hear the wind blowing through the chimneys and the rain drops falling on the clay brick rooftops. It would be a stormy night. But for the mourning family, that night was going to be a nightmare.
It all started with three knocks on their wooden front door. The people at that time were wise enough to know that nightly visitors are usually bad news. They were no doctors in the family and no one could provide help in an emergency. So, they ignored the knocks. And the ones that followed. And the stones that hit the clay brick rooftops. That was when the head of the family slowly approached one of the front windows and carefully peeked through the white curtains. What he saw made him gasp. Just five meters away from him stood a tall dark figure that slowly approached the neighboring house. It seemed frustrated and made growling noises. It stood on its two legs like a human being and its jaw was hanging loose. Although the being disappeared into the dark, no one could sleep on that night. They prayed for the morning sun to come soon.
When the Rooster Crows…
Once they heard the first crow of the rooster, the locals gathered in the central square to discuss what had happened during the previous night. Their stables were vandalized, and some farmers were missing some of their animals. The local priest suspected the worse. Their village was targeted by a dead man who couldn’t find peace. Probably Yannis who was known for being evil and who had probably found a tragic death. Yannis had turned into a vrykolakas – the Greek equivalent of a zombie – often associated with vampires as well.
The vrykolakas were once humans who couldn’t rest after their death, turning into creatures of the night. Their bodies were semi-decomposed. Their mouths hanged open and their flesh was stretched and shiny – just not in the “Twilight” movie version. There was nothing appealing about these creatures who escaped from their graves every night to bring chaos to the world of the living. They could easily kill animals and humans alike, targeting unlocked pens or travelers wondering alone with no place to spend the night. What they crave the most is blood, what makes people alive, and their first target was always the home of their living relatives.
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Vourvoulakes, Vrykolakes, Katachanades… | Greek Folklore
Similar stories exist all around Greece and neighboring countries. In the island of Crete, they are known as “katachanades” or “vourvoulakes”. In other Aegean islands, he is known as “tympaniaios”, “vroukolakas” but mostly as “vrykolakas”. If you have watched Helinika’s video on Greece’s most mysterious islands, then you may already know how much islanders used to fear these creatures.
The Greek word “necrophobia” – meaning “fear for the dead”- is often associated with this fear. Deserted islands turned into feared necropolises, since the locals would travel there to bury their dead. The vrykolakas cannot cross rivers, lakes, or the sea; therefore, the water element is a great protection from the undead.
In many parts of Greece, ancient, medieval, but even more recent tombs of vrykolakas have been discovered. Or at least of people whom others believed where in danger of becoming a vrykolakas. These included excommunicated members of the Orthodox Church, sinful people, or people who didn’t receive a proper burial or who were not forgiven by their relatives for their mistakes. But keep in mind that every region has its own beliefs regarding this topic.
The tombs of the suspected vrykolakas have various marks on them. Huge nails, stones, or vases have been used to block people from exiting their tombs. These items have been found in tombs across the country. According to the modern Greek folklore, destroying such a creature can be very difficult and should only be done during the day, after the first crow of the rooster, with the help of someone born on a Saturday. People born on that day are believed to have a higher tolerance towards the paranormal after all. They help remove the heart of the sleeping vrykolakas, while the priest prays for God’s protection. The body of the undead is then trapped into its forever home with the use of various items.
Are Vrykolakas real?
Folklore researchers understand that such beliefs exist in different parts of the world but they attribute them to necrophobia, along with the burial customs or the geological conditions in certain areas that cause abnormal decomposition. In Greece, the fear of the dead turning against the living exists since antiquity.
Do you remember how frightened brave Odysseus was once he offered blood to the souls of the dead in the Odyssey? Ancient Greeks always made sure that their dead loved ones were buried properly and they dedicated the days of the Anthesteria festival to the departed. In modern Greece, we have the Psychosabbaton, a religious tradition we have seen in a previous video.
Whether these folktales are true or not remains a mystery. Do you believe in them? Have you perhaps heard a similar story from Greece or another country? Leave your comments down below.
Feel free to leave questions/remarks…