The setting sun painted the sea crimson as it sank below the horizon. The young Jesuit missionary François Richard was standing on the upper deck, taking it all in. The sky was now dark, and the ship was following the silver moonglade of the waxing crescent. A dark shadow emerging from the waters was now visible from afar. The Frenchman could feel his heart beating faster in his chest as the ship approached its final destination. He could clearly see the steep black cliff that welcomes visitors to the island.
“Were the rumors true? Is this what reaching the gates of hell feels like?”, he wondered as he clenched his cross in his fist.
The year was 1657 and François was on a mission to establish the Catholic doctrines in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. He had heard a lot about the local Christian Orthodox population. His predecessors had warned him of the occult beliefs of the islanders of the Aegean Sea. They had a tendency to engage in pagan practices, which had survived for thousands of years.
“Who knows what chthonic deities have been evoked…”, he mumbled as he debarked.
At the port, he was greeted by a friendly local who would guide him to the inn. His luggage was already tied carefully on the back of a donkey and he, as the few others who had reached this eerie land, started the ascending procession towards the village. The moon and the stars were the sole sources of light. The night sky, however, had a peculiar illumination. He could see the narrow path unfolding in front of him clear as day. The landscape was rocky and steep, barren from trees and flowers.
The communication with the local was limited; thankfully, he had started learning Greek a year prior, as part of his preparation for this trip. Once they reached the top of the dark cliff, the local pointed towards the north, showing him a small village full of pristine white houses. The church of Saint Irene, with its distinct blue dome, was standing next to the cliff. That would be his place of residence for some time. And he would document all of his experiences in his diary.
A Demonic Island
Four centuries later, the travelogue of François Richard remains intact in Paris. It holds all the secrets of his experiences travelling around Greece, including his ominous stay at the volcanic island of Thera or simply Saint Irene (Santorini), as many Catholics called it at that time.
Today, Santorini is perhaps the most popular Greek island, welcoming millions of tourists each year. If anything, it is associated with romance, with its crimson sunset being considered the most scenic in the world. Most visitors, however, are unaware of the other side of Santorini, as it was documented by the French priest in 1657.
According to Richard and other travelers of that time, the island was not only suffering from severe droughts, pirate attacks, and poor resources, but it was also the playground of demonic spirits. The ominous smell of sulfur was believed to signify the moment these evil spirits exited the gates of Hades from the caldera; the remains of the deadly volcanic eruption that ended the Minoan civilization before Christ was born.
Locals would try to ward them off by painting their domes, doors, and windows blue. Some would say that the spirits would get disoriented – the blue color looked identical to the one of sky and the waters of the Aegean Sea – others believed that blue was a healing color that keeps negative energies away. The demons of Santorini would reportedly cause misfortunes and damages to properties. The most dangerous part of having them around, however, was the danger of bringing the dead back to life.
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Vampires of Santorini
On the dry land of Santorini, decomposition was usually slow. This, combined with superstitious beliefs from the 17th century, created the perfect breeding ground for vampire legends. In Greek, vampires are known as “vrykolakes”. They may or may not drink blood, but they definitely do not look like the Hollywood vampires.
The vrykolakes of Santorini would sometimes appear as ghostly figures. Other times, they would roam the streets with their decomposing bodies and their mouths wide open, resembling zombies. Since the sights of the undead were so common back then, the locals were world-renowned vampire slayers, with the priests often excavating recent graves to nail the corpses to the coffin. Other times, burning their hearts was a necessary procedure to keep the monster away.
François Richard believed that all the paranormal activity was proof that the island was an unholy place, due to the locals’ heresies. He even attributed natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes and sulfuric exhalations, as God’s punishment. This belief was reinforced by another missionary a few years later. Giuseppe Maria Sebastiani visited the “island of demons” in 1689. In his travelogue, he stated that he saw ghosts hanging from the cliffs, throwing rocks at nearby vessels. He also believed that every cavity of the island was full of sulfur – the gas that is mostly associated with evil spirits.
According to most Catholic missionaries who witnessed these events, the vampires were a result of demonic possession. Human spirits were not the ones residing the decomposed bodies. Something sinister did; something that had escaped the gates of Hell. That belief did not exactly match the one of the locals. The Therans assumed that those who committed crimes or died before fulfilling their purpose in life, were bound to roam the Earth as lost spirits. The dead would seek vengeance, and their close family members were their first targets. That is why a proper burial following the Orthodox traditions and a long period of mourning were necessary.
Vampires in Greece are nothing new. In fact, such stories date back to ancient Greek mythology – a topic we have discussed in the past on Helinika’s platform. What few people know is that many of the popular summer destinations in Greece have a ghoulish side – dark myths and legends that survived for centuries. The busy nightlife and flocks of tourists have scared the vampires away from Santorini. But this may not be the case for the countless other mysterious islands of Greece, which you can explore in our dedicated article.