“I know how men in exile feed on dreams” – Aeschylus

Resettlement to a Greek island...how bad could it be?
Resettlement to a Greek island…how bad could it be?

18th Century moralist Luc de Clapiers once said, “The greatest evil which fortune can inflict on men is to endow them with small talents and great ambition.”  I’m reasonably certain he wasn’t using “talents” euphemistically.  Anyway, it’s not the size of the talent, it’s the application.  Once the ladies stop laughing at us, consider that since the dawn of civilization humanity’s most noble ambition seems to have been to rid the world of evil, yet our talent for identifying evil has always been overused and underdeveloped.  We routinely magnify small affronts while minimizing mass acts of horror, and when we think we’ve pinpointed the source of our woes, we boldly want to deal with them en masse.  We want the threat removed both physically and existentially.  Impatience and fear almost always outweigh wisdom and compassion.  It’s probably glandular.  We are on the whole ambitious creatures (we went right from mud huts to ziggurats), consequently it rarely seems enough to simply face those cumulative day to day evils that surround us and fill us with hate, fear, and the accumulation of which generally make the average human’s life nasty, brutish, and short.  No sir, we dream big and our nightmares are of similarly epic proportions.  We don’t think so small as to want to remove evil from our hearts and minds for as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  Failing this we want to remove evil from our presence.  What genocide, internment, concentration camp, forcible resettlement, or pogrom has not had its origins in the desire to find the core from which we believe evil flows, extricate it from society, and place it elsewhere, even when that elsewhere is in the grave?  We crave that impermeable barrier, that unpassable mountain range, that theological border fence that will stop evil from tempting the devils of our lower nature, corrupting our children, or taking our jobs.  Evil must be quarantined, and when the Greeks of the 17th Century A.D. faced a Vrykolakas (vampire) infestation, this is precisely the solution they opted for.

When the world was more sparsely populated, the monsters were exiled to the dark forests, driven to the high mountains, and unceremoniously ushered out into the desert wastelands, beyond the bounds of civilization.  17th Century Greece, on the other hand, was getting a little crowded.  The mountains were getting less impassable, the forest slightly less dark, and the deserts, well they were still deserts.  Just stay out of them as a rule.  Goth, Huns, and Slavs thundered down upon the Greek Peninsula from the 4th-7th Century A.D. as the Western Greco-Roman world collapsed.  The Byzantines asserted their control from the 8th-15th Century A.D., but Greece was fractured into areas variously claimed by Greeks, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Genoese.  By the 15th Century A.D., the Ottomans had taken over.  While the Ionian islands largely escaped Ottoman domination, Aegean islands like Santorini were firmly in their grasp.  Historians often consider the 16th-17th Century as another “Dark Age” for Greece, as even though they sided with pretty much anybody who wanted to fight with the Ottomans (which the Ottomans tended to look askance at and put down bloodily), there was very little chance of getting out from under the thumb of the mighty Ottoman Empire. Now technically, Greece has always had a vampire problem, what with being just the beat of a bat’s wings from Transylvania and all, it’s no surprise that the Greek version called the Vrykolakas (derived from the Bulgarian word vǎrkolak) was considered to be a degenerate subspecies of the more common Balkan werewolf-vampires in that it didn’t have any lupine features.  Curiously, Vrykolakas aren’t thought to have much interest in human blood either.  They just hate you and want you dead.  Like several of my ex-girlfriends, assuming they were undead. I can neither confirm nor deny this fact, but I have my suspicions.  Mostly, the Vrykolakas rise from the grave, wander about, calling out names of loved ones, knock on people’s doors (if you answer on the first knock they turn you into another Vrykolakas – important travel note: when in Greece, only answer the door on the second knock) and are credited with a mixed bag of poltergeist activity, epidemic spreading, and suffocating people in their sleep. Seems a tad unfocused for the walking dead.  This sort of vague, overgeneralized attribution of “badness” is how uncharitable rumors get started.  Who spilled the milk?  A Vrykolakas, of course.  Who slaughtered the cattle?  A Vrykolakas, certainly.  Who controls international banking?  Well, obviously a conglomerate of Vrykolakas.

The Greeks had a few hundred bad years by the 17th Century, and one can only put up with so much of this supernatural nonsense.  The modern solution seems patently obvious when it comes to pesky revenants.  Stake through the heart, bullet to the brain pan, exorcism, and such.  The problem with that was the average Vrykolakas was probably your deceased former neighbor or friend that, according to the mythology, had the lack of foresight to be buried in unconsecrated ground, get excommunicated, do something horribly sacrilegious, or eat the meat of a sheep wounded by a wolf.  Yesterday they were selling you a nice veal cutlet or babysitting your kids.  Today they are part of a class of preternatural critters bent on your destruction.  Evidently, it’s in the genes. Vrykolakas are just born-again bad.  And anyone can eventually become a Vrykolakas, given the right set of mortal mis-steps.  Undoubtedly, it started with a little vigilante justice, but the Greeks quickly discovered the exceedingly pertinent fact that Vrykolakas are really hard to root out and kill.  A Bishop on the nearby island of Hydria concocted the final solution to the Vrykolakas question, which turned out to be deportation to the island of Therasia in the Santorini group of Aegean islands.

The island of Hydria was formerly infested with these monsters, until finally a friendly bishop transferred them to the unoccupied isle of Therasia in the Santorin group, where they still roam at night, but can do no harm, as they cannot cross the salt water to their old haunts. “To send vampires to Santorin,” is said to be as common a proverb among the islands of the Aegean, as “to send owls to Athens” was throughout ancient Greece (Hyde, 1923, p183-184).

There were actually two schools of thought as to why one “sends the vampires to Santorin” (a common Greek idiom that has come to mean “to do something redundant”), one of which was that there were already so many vampires wandering in the Santorini Isles that it obviously had some sort of vampiric appeal and the undead brutes would stay there (1) because they are unable to cross saltwater, and (2) they would be less inclined to cause trouble for the living if they could form a pathetic little Vrykolakas community with others of their kind.  Basically, it was a Vrykolakas ghetto where vampires could be effectively quarantined.  The uninhabited island of Therasia was preferred, but any old unoccupied island in the Santorin group would do.  “Tournefort in 1701 was eye-witness of the laying of such a Vourkolakas, who haunted the island of Myconos, and whose body was not only transferred to the neighbouring islet of St. George, but was there consumed with fire” (Rodd, 1892, p194).  Serious scholars have pointed out that the soil in the Santorini area is not conducive to rotting a corpse in, and this may have contributed to its popularity among the vampiric set.

The modern name is derived from its dedication by the Latins to St. Irene; Tournefort, who sometimes calls the island Sant-Erini, mentions nine or ten chapels of that saint as existing there. The classical myth of its origin described it as sprung from a clod of earth presented to the Argonauts by Triton.  In modern times, as the nature of the soil prevents bodies from decomposing easily, it is regarded as the especial home of the Vampire, for according to this superstition, when the soul of a man after death has assumed this malignant form, his body refuses to decay. So widely is the partiality of vampires for Santorin recognised, that the Hydriotes and Cretans believe that they can permanently get rid of those obnoxious visitors, if they can once be transported thither. The same notion has probably caused it to be regarded as a place of purgatorial suffering (Tozer, 1890, p109).

It has been said that “one of the best accounts of the superstition was written by a Jesuit residing in the island, to whom the resurrection of these vampires seemed an unquestionable, if also inexplicable, phenomenon of by no means rare occurrence (Lawson, 1910, p363-364), and has come down to us through the Jesuit priest’s correspondent Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721), bishop of Avrenches.  In these firsthand accounts, it’s clear that something more insidious was being done to the Vrykolakas than exile to a pretty, sun-drenched Aegean island.  Once there, mutilation and burning was involved.

One finds in his Reminiscences many interesting passages relating to the vampires by the Greek Archipelago. “Many strange things,” he says “are told of the broucolagnes, or vampires of the Archipelago. It is said in that country that if one leads a wicked life, and dies in sin, he will appear again after death as he was wont in his lifetime, and that such a person will cause great affright among the living.” Huet believed that the bodies of such people were abandoned to the power of the devil, who retained the soul within them for the vexation of mankind. Father Richard, a Jesuit, employed on a mission in these islands, provided Huet with details of many cases of vampirism. In the Island of St. Erini, the Thera of the ancients occurred one of the greatest chapters in the history of vampirism. He says that these people were tormented by vampires, that they were constantly disinterring corpses for the purpose of burning them.  Huet states that this evidence is worthy of credence as emanating from a witness of unimpeachable honesty, who has had ocular demonstrations of what he writes about. He further says that the inhabitants of these islands after the death of a person, cut off his feet, hands, nose, and ears, and they call this act acroteriazein. They hang all these round the elbow of the dead. It is noteworthy that the bishop appears to think that the modern Greeks may have inherited the practice of burning bodies from their fathers in classical times, and that they imagine that unless the corpse is given to the flames, all cannot be well with the soul of the deceased (Spence, 1920, p214).

French Benedictine monk Augustin Calmet (1672-1757) sneeringly suggested that this treatment of the Vrykolakas was an indication that his contemporary “Greeks are no great Grecians, and that nothing but ignorance and superstition prevails among them” (Calmet, 1769, p258), but presumably he did this from a safe distance, where answering the front door on the first knock was not likely to be fatal.  Our species likes to believe that walls and distance are protection against evil.  It’s why we came up with walls in the first place, that is, to keep the evil neighbors and wild beasts on the other side.  It must have come as quite a shock when we started to realize that we weren’t all that safe from evil inside our wall or across our ocean, and then we typically rush to identify easily recognizable groups of “others”, people we can easily distinguish by their darker color, or different religion, or the way they wear their hair in the bizarre conviction that if we can just put enough water, or fencing, or barbed-wire between us and them, life would be idyllic.  We have come to believe that hand-to-hand, personal grappling with evil is unnecessary, that society can “manage” evil, for as C.S. Lewis observed we “live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin’. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern”.  Also, when vacationing in Greece, always remember to wait for the second knock.

Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757. Dissertations Upon the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons, And Ghosts: And Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, And Silesia. Translated From the French. London: Printed for M. Cooper, 1769.
Hyde, Walter Woodburn, 1871-1966. Greek Religion and Its Survivals. Boston, Mass.: Marshall Jones Company, 1923.
Lawson, John Cuthbert, b. 1874. Modern Greek Folklore And Ancient Greek Religion: a Study In Survivals. Cambridge: University press, 1910.
Rodd, Rennell, 1858-1941. The Customs And Lore of Modern Greece. Second edition. London: D. Stott, 1892.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. An Encyclopedia of Occultism: a Compendium of Information on the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism and Mysticism. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1920.
Tozer, Henry Fanshawe, 1829-1916. The Islands of the Aegean. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1890.