Gory, gruesome, and grotesque: two ancient vampire tales

It is Hallowe’en today, and as I have not blogged much recently, a post appearing on here on this very occasion must feel like someone has returned from the dead just in time for this ominous date . . . rest assured that I am not quite dead yet: life has been busy, but this blog will continue to haunt you . . . . . .

I have posted occasional Hallowe’en stories before. But today’s selection will take you one step further still into the gory, gruesome, and grotesque world of ancient story-telling – presenting you with two narratives, unrelated, that, once combined, contribute to the very foundations of vampire folklore.

First of all, we need someone coming back from the dead to haunt the living – and to fall apart when put in the spotlight. The model par excellence for that is the tale of Philinnion, reported in Phlegon of Tralles‘s Book of Marvels. Phlegon’s version of the story begins somewhat out of the blue, however, so let us start with the later, shorter account of Proclus:

“Persons who died and returned to life . . . The case par excellence is Philinnion, during the reign of Philip [of Makedon]. The daughter of the Amphipolitans Demostratos and Charito, she died as a newly-wed. Her husband had been Krateros. In the sixth month after her death she returned to life and for many nights in a row secretly consorted with a young man, Makhates, because of her love for him. He had come to Demostratos from his native city of Pella. She was detected and died again after proclaiming that what she had done was done in accord with the will of the Khthonion (Underworld) Gods. Her corpse was seen by everyone as it lay in state in her father’s house. In their disbelief at what had happened the members of her family went to the place that had earlier received her body, dug the place up and found it to be empty. The events are described in a number of letters, some written by Hipparchos and some written by Arrhidaios (who was in charge of Amphipolis) to Philip.”

Proclus, Platonis Rem Publicam Commentarii 2 (source here)

So now for Phlegon’s rather more disturbing, extensive report (Phlegon, Book of Marvels 2.1, transl. Hansen):

The nurse went to the door of the guest room, and in the light of the burning lamp she saw the girl [Philinnion who died and had been entombed many months before] sitting beside Makhates. Because of the extraordinary nature of the sight, she did not wait there any longer but ran to the girl’s mother screaming, ‘Kharito! Demostratos!’ She said they should get up and come with her to their daughter, who was alive and by some divine will was with the guest in the guest room.

When Kharito heard this astonishing report, the immensity of the message and the nurse’s excitement made her frightened and faint. But after a short time the memory of her daughter came to her, and she began to weep; in the end she accused the old woman of being mad and told her to leave her presence immediately. But the nurse replied boldly and reproachfully that she herself was rational and sound of mind, unlike her mistress, who was reluctant to see her own daughter. With some hesitation Kharito went to the door of the guest room, partly coerced by the nurse and partly wanting to know what really had happened. Since considerable time–about two hours–had now passed since the nurse’s original message, it was somewhat late when Kharito went to the door and the occupants were already asleep. She peered in and though she recognised her daughter’s clothes and features, but inasmuch as she could not determine the truth of the matter she decided to do nothing further that night. She planned to get up in the morning and confront the girl, or if she should be tool ate for that she intended to question Makhates thoroughly about everything. He would not, she thought, lie if asked about so important a matter. And so she said nothing and left.

At dawn, however, it turned out that by divine will or chance the girl had left unnoticed. When Kharito came to the room she was upset with the young man because of the girl’s departure. She asked him to relate everything to her from the beginning, telling the truth and concealing nothing.

The youth was anxious and confused at first, but hesitantly revealed the girl’s name was Philinnion. He told how her visits began, how great her desire for him was, and that she said she came to him without her parents’ knowledge. Wishing to make the matter credible he opened his coffer and took out the items the girl had left behind–the golden ring he had obtained from her and the breast-band she had left the night before.
When Kharito saw this evidence she uttered a cry, tore her clothes, cast her headdress from her head and fell to the ground, throwing herself upon the tokens and beginning her grief anew. As the guest observed what was happening, how all were grieving and wailing as if they were about to lay the girl into her grave, he became upset and called upon them to stop, promising to show them the girl if she came again. Kharito accepted this and bade him carefully keep his promise to her.

Night came on and now it was the hour when Philinnion was accustomed to come to him. The household kept watch wanting to know of her arrival. She entered at the usual time and sat down on the bed. Makhates pretended that nothing was wrong, since he wished to investigate the whole incredible matter to find out if the girl he was consorting with, who took care to come to him at the same hour, was actually dead. As she ate and drank with him, he simply could not believe what the others had told him, and he supposed that some grave-robbers had dug into the tomb and sold the clothes and gold to her father. But in his wish to learn exactly what the case was, he secretly sent his slaves to summon Demostratos and Kharito.

They came quickly. When they first saw her they were speechless and panic-stricken by the amazing sight, but after that they cried aloud and embraced their daughter. Then Philinnion said to them : ‘Mother and father, how unfairly you have grudged my being with the guest for three days in my father’s house, since I have caused no one any pain. For this reason, on account of your meddling, you shall grieve all over again, and I shall return to the place appointed for me. For it was not without divine will that I came here.’ Immediately upon speaking these words she was dead, and her body lay stretched visibly on the bed. Her father and mother threw themselves upon her, and there was much confusion and wailing in the house because of the calamity. The misfortune was unbearable and the sight incredible.

The event was quickly heard through the city and was reported to me. Accordingly, during the night I kept in check the crowds that gathered at the house, since, with news like this going from mouth to mouth, I wanted to make sure there would be no trouble.

By early dawn the town assembly was full. After the particulars had been explained, it was decided that we should first go to the tomb, open it, and see whether the body lay on its bier or whether we would find the place empty. A half-year had not yet passed since the death of the girl. When we opened the chamber into which all deceased members of the family were placed, we saw bodies lying on biers, or bones in the case of those who had died long ago, but on the bier onto which Philinnion had been placed we found only the iron ring that belonged to the guest and the gilded wine cup, objects that she had obtained from Makhates on the first day.

Astonished and frightened, we proceeded immediately to Demostratos’s house to see if the corpse was truly to be seen in the guest room. After we saw the dead girl lying there on the ground, we gathered at the place of assembly, since the evens were serious and incredible.

There was considerable confusion in the assembly and almost no one was able to form a judgment on the events. The first to stand up was Hyllos, who is considered to be not only the best seer among us but also a fine augur; in general, he has shown remarkable perception in his craft. He said we should burn the girl outside the boundaries of the city, since nothing would be gained by burying her in the ground within its boundaries, and perform an apotropaic sacrifice to Hermes Khthonios (of the Underworld) and the Eumenides [Erinyes]. Then he prescribed that everyone purify himself completely, cleanse the temples and perform all the customary rites to the Khthonion (Underworld) Gods. He spoke to me also in private about he king and the events, telling me to sacrifice to Hermes, Zeus Xenios and Ares, and to perform these rites with care. When he had maide this known to us, we undertook to do what he had prescribed. Makhates, the guest whom the ghost had visited, became despondent and killed himself.

If you decide to write about this to the king, send word to me also in order that I may dispatch to you one of the persons who examined the affair in detail. Farewell.”

Of course, grim as those stories may be, there is not enough blood-sucking yet! This is where Ovid’s report of the striges, otherworldly bird-like creatures (whose name, striges, is often translated as ‘screech-owls’), comes in.

In the sixth book of his Fasti, Ovid writes:

There are greedy birds, not those that cheated Phineus’ maw of its repast, though from those they are descended. Big is their head, goggle their eyes, their beaks are formed for rapine, their feathers blotched with grey, their claws fitted with hooks. They fly by night and attack nurseless children, and defile their bodies, snatched from their cradles. They are said to rend the flesh of sucklings with their beaks, and their throats are full of the blood which they have drunk. Screech-owl is their name, but the reason of the name is that they are wont to screech horribly by night. Whether, therefore, they are born birds, or are made such by enchantment and are nothing but beldames transformed into fowls by a Marsian spell, they came into the chambers of Proca. In the chambers Proca, a child five days old, was a fresh prey for the birds. They sucked his infant breast with greedy tongues, and the poor child squalled and craved help. Alarmed by the cry of her fosterling, the nurse ran to him and found his cheeks scored by their rigid claws. What was she to do? The colour of the child’s face was like the common hue of late leaves nipped by an early frost. She went to Cranaë and told what had befallen. Cranaë said, “Lay fear aside; thy nursling will be safe.” She went to the cradle; mother and father were weeping. “Restrain your tears,” she said, “I myself will heal the child.” Straightway she thrice touched the doorposts, one after the other, with arbutus leaves; thrice with arbutus leaves she marked the threshold. She sprinkled the entrance with water (and the water was drugged), and she held the raw inwards of a sow just two months old. And thus she spoke: “Ye birds of night, spare the child’s inwards: a small victim falls for a small child. Take, I pray ye, a heart for a heart, entrails for entrails. This life we give you for a better life.” When she had thus sacrificed, she set the severed inwards in the open air, and forbade those present at the sacrifice to look back at them. A rod of Janus, taken from the white-thorn, was placed where a small window gave light to the chambers. After that, it is said that the birds did not violate the cradle, and the boy recovered his former colour.

Ovid, Fasti 6.131-168 (transl. J. G. Frazer – G. P. Goold)

And on that cheerful note: happy Hallowe’en, everyone!

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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2 Responses to Gory, gruesome, and grotesque: two ancient vampire tales

  1. Ken Ostrand says:

    Latin — Aut dulcia aut dolum

    Modern Greek: φάρσα ή κέρασμα

    Ancient Greek: δόλος ἢ μισθός



  2. Thank you for those ancient sources.
    Today and tonight, we are facing the encounter of two cultures. Federal states and communities with protestant tradition remember the Lutheran Reformation. Catholic traditions refer to allhallows.

    Liked by 1 person

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