Friday, October 27, 2017

Experiences With Greek Vampires (An Account from 1899)

JOHN ROBERT SITLINGTON STERRETT (1851-1914) was an American archaeologist, a Classical scholar, and a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He traveled extensively throughout Greece, Turkey, and the Near East (including the famed 1907-08 Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient) to explore Classical history. He also made some pioneering efforts in Hittite studies. On one of his travels to Greece, Sterrett came across the folk belief in vampires, which he, following other authorities, saw as a degraded echo of Classical mythology. In August 1899, he published the following account of his experiences with Greek vampires in The Nation.

By J. R. S. Sterrett

Amherst, August, 1899

Some years ago the writer, accompanied by a friend, was travelling on foot in Greece. One day, after sunset, we reached an isolated farmhouse, situated on the edge of what was then the great Copaic morass, immediately north of Orchomenus. We had been tramping through Greece for seven weeks; we were very footsore, and a long walk had made us unusually tired and hungry on that particular day. As we approached the house, we were greeted by the barking of a huge, and apparently very savage, dog, who made frantic efforts to break his chain in order to gratify his burning curiosity In regard to the two forlorn travellers. Had we known what was to follow, the dog would have inspired us with more respect, but we had seen many Grecian curs masquerading as lions, though at heart they were as cowardly as hares. So, trusting to knowledge born of experience with other dogs, we scarcely deigned to notice the vigorous protests of this savage beast. Arrived at the door of the farmhouse, we knocked once and again. Apparently the house had no Inmate. But after a time the door opened cautiously, and a burly Albanian peasant appeared in the doorway extending towards us a pair of tongs in which was held a live coal of fire. The extraordinary performance rendered us for the moment speechless with astonishment. The peasant, pale and apparently quivering with terror, stood but for a moment holding the coal of fire towards us. Then, without having uttered one word, be hastily closed the door in our faces and bolted it with care.

This behavior was as inexplicable to us at the time as it is, no doubt, to the reader now. But at any rate one thing was certain: the man had given us the strongest assurance that he regarded our room as better than our company. We were confronted by a condition, not a theory; we were literally worn out; we knew that the nearest village was about five miles distant; it was now dark, and we longed to be housed and fed. So we knocked at the door again, and yet again, but all within was as silent as the grave, In striking contrast with the deep-voiced bellowings of the dog behind us. But our friend of the tongs could not be Induced to come forth a second time and parley with us. Finally, we gave up in despair, and, wandering away past the uproarious cur, we sat down in sadness upon a neighboring bank to determine what was to be done under the distressing circumstances. To our great relief, we soon descried a half-grown boy approaching on a donkey, but to our queries as to the possibility of finding lodging for the night in the house he answered with a decided No, stating that he was the only Greek on the premises, and that the inmates were Albanians who were In no wise likely to entertain strangers. "But," said he, pointing to a hut of considerable size, "there is the dog's house. You can sleep there if you want to. But they always turn the dog loose at night, and if he finds you, he will eat you up, as sure as fate." Thus saying, he left us to confront an unamellorated condition; the door of the house opened to allow him to enter, but was closed and ostentatiously bolted after him.

In the course of our wanderings we had frequently been compelled to spend the night in the open air as best we might, but on former occasions we were not so tired, footsore, and hungry as we were on that particular evening. It was, therefore, a real hardship to be treated with a rude inhospitality that was wholly inexplicable to us, because, hitherto, we had received not merely hospitality, but marked attention even. However, under the circumstances, the only thing left for us to do was to take possession of the dog's house as the sole protection within our reach against the chilling dews of a Grecian spring night. That dog was something of an aristocrat, and his house was a veritable palace—for a dog; better, indeed, than many houses that are occupied by human beings. Upon entering we found, to our great regret, that the door was off its hinges, and, in spite of anxious effort, we could not adjust it in the pitchy darkness. The dog had been set free, and was now rampant, roaming to and fro and calling for our blood, with deep-mouthed bellowings that gave us concern, as I am free to confess. Taking all things into consideration, we had come to respect the dog, and it was with pain that we realized that we could not debar him from Impertinent intrusion upon our privacy. We propped the door up, but, had the powerful dog so wished, he could have entered without difficulty. In our unarmed condition, therefore, we were not wholly free from anxiety lest he might find an opportunity to eat us, according to the reassuring prophecy of the Greek boy.

But weariness bore heavily upon us, and, yielding to necessity, we laid us down, just as we were, in the dust that was ankle deep, and of that peculiar liquid variety produced by the action of Innumerable tramplings. The whole night through, the dog never once ceased his search for us; we could hear him now near at hand and now in the distance, but ever making night hideous with his bayings, which did not have for us the soothing, nerve-calming effect upon which Byron dwells. We had been reading that poet as we journeyed through Greece, and we were keenly alive to the irony of the words:

"'Tis sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark
Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home."

Fortunately for us, it did not occur to the dog to look for us in his own house, though he often came uncomfortably near, and so we dragged through the weary night without a visit from our canine friend, of whom, by this time, we stood in absolute terror. We arose at the peep of day, selecting for our exit a moment when the dog seemed to be baying in the distance, and attempted to gain the open country before he could discover us. Vain delusion, for we had not taken many steps before the dog became aware of that for which he had been searching fruitlessly the entire night, and made for us with the speed of the wind. His faithful, all-night hunt deserved to be crowned with success, but he was doomed to disappointment—at the very moment, too, when he had treed his game. Fortunately for us an inmate of the house was astir even before us, and, throwing himself upon the furious beast as he rushed past, he bore him to the ground and held him there. From the time of St. Paul down to the present day everybody in Greece has been inquisitive. Under the circumstances, the curiosity of our benefactor was natural enough, but still it was ridiculous In the extreme to see him lie there on the furious, struggling, howling dog, and ply us with a host of questions, many of which were wholly irrelevant. When finally he had satisfied his curiosity, he apologized for the treatment we had received at the hands of the rude Albanians, and bade us go—in God's name. We were not slow to obey, nor did we stop to satisfy our own curiosity as to how he came to be there in his peculiar garb, for he was stark naked.

In Greece the belief in vampires was once widespread, but it has been gradually dying away as education invades the remoter recesses of the land. Even in Athens one still sometimes hears: "May the vampire take you!"—a curse of diabolical nature. But the belief in vampires is now confined to the lower classes, and perhaps chiefly to the Albanians, of whom Von Halm relates that they entertain many other absurd superstitions, such as belief in the existence of men with tails—no doubt a reminiscence of the Satyr of classical mythology. Among us most people have but a vague and indefinite idea in regard to the vampire, his raison d’ĂȘtre, his haunts and habits. It seems that after death some people do not rest quietly in their graves, but come forth at night when the moon shines. They live by sucking the blood of men, and return to their tombs at the approach of dawn, after gorging themselves with human blood. There are two kinds of vampires: the blood-sucking and a less malignant variety. It is of the malignant vampire that Byron speaks when he writes:

"But first, on earth, as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place.
And suck the blood of all thy race."

The less malignant type of vampire amuses itself by playing tricks on people and by frightening them, but otherwise does them no harm. The more malignant vampire, on the contrary, is fond of the liver of its victims, whom it attacks in the form of a variety of animals or insects, such as cats, dogs, fleas, spiders, etc.

The best evidence that death has been caused by a vampire is the mark of a bite on the nape of the neck, though sudden death of any kind is regarded as its work. The fear of sudden death is said to be very great among the peoples with whom the vampire loves to dwell, for the reason that he who has been killed by a vampire himself becomes one. Allatius tells us that the vampire is not the soul of the deceased, but an evil spirit which enters the body of the dead person. He says:

"The corpse is entered by a demon, which is the source of ruin to unhappy men. For frequently, emerging from the tomb In the form of that body, and roaming about the city and other inhabited places, especially by night, it betakes itself to any house it fancies, and, after knocking at the door, addresses one of its inmates in a loud tone. If the person answers he is done for. If he does not answer he is safe. In consequence of this, the people of the Island of Chios never reply the first time, if any one calls them by night."

Fire is the surest protection against vampires. Behold, then, the key to the treatment to which we were subjected by the Albanian peasant. The poor creature had mistaken us for vampires. We did not discover this fact until after our return to Athens, when some friends, to whom we recounted our strange adventure, opened our eyes. We had not seen a vampire ourselves, but the Albanian saw two, and trembled.

It is a fearful thing to become a vampire, and people whose friends have died are always anxious to gain some certain knowledge as to the status of their beloved dead. The question, "How fares it with the spirit of my dead mother, father, husband, wife?" is a momentous one even to this day. In many places it is still customary to disinter the corpse after it has lain for a year in the grave, in order to solve the question as to whether the soul of the dead be in heaven or hell. I believe that this custom had its origin in the vampire faith, though I am not prepared to say that the vampire superstition is nowadays the confessed cause of the exhumation. The condition of the bones decides whether or no the spirit is in heaven or hell, but if the body be found in a good state of preservation, with the skin taut like a drum, then the dead person has become a vampire.

There are various causes for the change into a vampire after death. Chief among them is excommunication by Holy Mother Church, then great sins of any kind, the curse of parents, dealings with witches and witchcraft, eating the flesh of a lamb that has been killed by a wolf, the springing of a cat or a dog over a corpse before its burial, etc. Accordingly, it is easy to see that the clergy are clothed with a fearful power, for with the words, "Whatsoever ye bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven," in their mouths, they may hold a Damocles sword over the heads of an ignorant and superstitious peasantry, and thus wield a power which one shudders to think of, especially if the clergy be unscrupulous and the people faithful and pious. Nay, the days when the clergy availed themselves of this mighty power are almost within our touch. Not only throughout the Middle Ages, but down certainly to the first decades of this century, the vampire played a great role in the East, and the clergy not only did not hesitate to use this excellent means of moulding the ignorant to their will, but took pains to disseminate the belief that excommunicated persons who died without having been absolved from the curse of the Church, became ipso facto vampires after death. The superstition is not to be regarded in the light of a mere myth which the peasantry believed in without having their lives influenced thereby for good or for bad. Nor was the belief confined to the peasantry; it had a firm hold on all classes, tor we are told by learned and good men not merely that they know of this effect of excommunication by hearsay, but that they can vouch for it personally, because they have seen it with their own eyes. The Church claimed not only the power to excommunicate, hut also the right to absolve from the curse pronounced by the ecclesiastical authorities. This absolution might be pronounced at any time, either before or after the death of the excommunicated person. Consequently it was possible for a dead man to remain a vampire for a season, and still get to heaven after a time, provided his friends had money or influence enough to procure for him absolution at the hands of the Church.

In Crete the priests were regarded as being very skillful in exorcising the vampire. Friday night was the proper time for the ceremony, because on that night the vampire usually remained in his tomb, but occasionally he absented himself even on Friday nights; in that case the exorcism failed, or, in other words, the officiating priest did not feel that he had made money enough out of his victim. When other means of laying the demon failed, the corpse was burned. Tournefort, in his 'Relation d'un Voyage du Levant' (i., 131 ff.), gives an amazing account of the laying of a vampire-demon by cremation in the island of Mykonos. A quarrelsome peasant had been murdered in the fields. Two days after his burial It was known that he had appeared at night and played tricks on people. The priests sedulously spread the report, for it meant that masses would be said. On the tenth day after burial, solemn mass was said, the body was exhumed, and the heart was cut out by the village butcher—an operation attended by the escape of such noxious gases that the abundant use of incense was necessary. Every one was crying, "Vampire, vampire!" Some said that the blood was red; the butcher averred that the body was warm, others that the corpse was not stiff when carried out for burial—a sure sign that it was a genuine vampire. The heart of the corpse was burned on the seashore. But all this had no effect on the vampire, who continued his pranks as before; every one had some big tale to tell of his doings. It came, finally, to such a pitch that people abandoned their houses and encamped in the squares, and all were terrified at the approach of night. The priests reaped a rich harvest. All day long men were busy plunging swords into the grave, until a wise Albanian discovered that the hilts of the swords resembled a cross, and of all things the vampire fears the cross most because he can never leave his tomb as long as a cross is on it. He suggested the use of Turkish swords. But all was in vain; the vampire continued his wicked ways; the people were beside themselves with terror, and so many families emigrated to the neighboring islands that Myconos was threatened with depopulation. A great funeral pyre, consisting of wood, pitch, and tar, was erected on a jutting promontory of the island, and on it the remnants of the corpse were burned to ashes. The vampire was laid; Myconos had peace, and many ballads were composed in honor of the event.

The most available account of the vampire is that in Tozer's 'Researches in the Highlands of Turkey' (ii., 80 ff.), where the reader will also find the literature of the subject cited.

Source: J. R. S. Sterrett, “Vampires,” The Nation, August 31, 1899, 165-167.