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Extreme Public 'Hellth'

Published on October 30, 2008 by in History Bites

By: Susan-Marie Cronkite, PhD.

How to Keep a Good Vampire Down; Public Health with an Hallowe’en Theme….

“It was a dark and stormy night” [1]…. well, in fact, it was a bright and sunny day when we first uncovered the grave. We were excavating in the North Harbour or Epano Skala archaeological site in Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos, Greece [2]. The North Harbour area has been occupied for centuries first by the early Greeks, then by Roman conquerors, later by
Medieval Genoese merchants and landowners. It then came under Ottoman Turkish control in 1462 and finally it traveled full circle when in 1912 it returned to the control of modern day Greece. Since each succeeding culture built on top of the earlier remains the area retained traces of a Late Classical Greek city fortification wall (5th / 4th c BC), a Roman ale house and/or brothel (1st c BC/AD), an Ottoman period cemetery (18th / 19th c AD), a modern Greek soap factory (19th / 20th c AD), private single family dwellings (19th / 20th c AD) and a public lavatory (20th c AD).

The Ottoman cemetery was relatively poorly preserved due to damage caused by the construction of the overlying soap factory. It, however, contained approximately 60 preserved burials, all likely originally marked by head stones (no longer extant). Each grave consisted of a simple shallow inhumation. The bodies were wrapped in a burial shroud and placed in a shallow earthen grave, most only 1m (3 feet) deep. As it was an Ottoman cemetery, each body was aligned with their head facing Mecca.

In the north side of the cemetery, however, we came across a surprising find – a grave unlike any other found within the cemetery. This burial contained the skeleton of a good sized, middle aged man buried in a well constructed grave dug into the preserved remains of the aforementioned Late Classical city fortification wall. An area of the interior of the wall had been removed, leaving a shallow, stone-lined crypt. The body was first placed within a wooden coffin the lid of which was attached along all four edges by many small, iron nails. This coffin was then placed in the crypt and the whole grave buried. Even more surprising, during excavation three 20cm (8 inch) long, curving iron spikes were found in with the body – one at the neck, one at groin level and one at the ankles. The alignment of the spikes suggested that they had been hammered into the coffin through the lid, ensuring the coffin would never be opened.

What did this poor man do to merit such fear? Why did the villagers go to such lengths to ensure he would never escape from his coffin and harm the community ? In fact, we do not know, but comparison from similar burials documented in central Europe and the Balkans suggests that this individual was given such special and rather savage treatment because he was believed to be a vampire! [3]

There were many unpleasant and harmful spirits, demons and werewolves in Greek folklore but the belief in a corporal revenant only developed after the arrival of Slavic immigrants into Greece in the 6th c AD [4]. The ‘vampire’ of this culture blended with the Greek, creating a new Hellenic version. The vampire of Greek folklore differed greatly from that familiar to us from western literature; he was not the elegant, aristocratic, blood drinking, bat related Count Dracula invented by Bram Stoker. The Greek vampire instead stemmed from the peasant farming tradition and mainly tormented the farming, herding and village poor. He was not associated with bats, but instead with the wolf and this association was so close that some folktales record that a werewolf, when killed, transformed into a vampire retaining the canine fangs of the wolf in its new form. Blood drinking was not a requisite either, vampires instead had a range of behaviours from being simply annoying to lethal. Relatively benign behaviour included what could be called poltergeist-like activity such as suddenly throwing people from their beds in the middle of the night to causing night frights for the young, elderly and ill. More serious activity included spoiling food and making farm animals ill or non-productive. The worst type of vampire activity could be lethal from causing individual illness or village epidemics, to murder by suffocation during sleep or rending their victims apart and devouring both flesh and blood. Conversely, there were also helpful vampires. Folktales record a few instances of newlywed grooms or fathers with young children coming back to stay (and sleep) with their living wife or return to help raise the kids by providing food and fixing their shoes.

There were a wide variety of ways a person, male or female, could become a vampire including [5]:

  • not receiving full and proper burial rites
  • meeting with sudden or violent death, including murder, suicide and blood feud
  • dying due to a curse, especially if cursed by a parent or self-cursed
  • being excommunicated
  • living an unrepentant ‘evil’ life
  • eating the flesh of a sheep which had been killed by a wolf
  • a cat walking over your dead body
  • dying without being baptized
  • marrying certain family relations, including close relations or a God parent
  • dying with ‘unfinished business’

There is, however, another possibility for our burial – he may have been ill. Physical Anthropologist Dr. S. Garvie-Lok, during her preliminary study of the skeleton, found traces of what could be a small lesion on the inside of the cranium [6]. Maybe this individual actually scared the village population by “exhibiting abnormal behaviour” [7] hence inadvertently condemning himself to accusations of vampirism and the extra secure burial.

Vampires, even the friendly sort, had to be stopped because they were not natural, they were an anathema and would eventually cause harm to individuals and to the whole community. There were several ways to deal with a vampire. First, as in our example from Mytilene, villagers could make sure a suspected vampire never rose from its grave but if one did, it was necessary to identify the restless individual. Finding a vampire was generally quite easy – consisting simply opening and checking graves, starting with the most recent burials. If a newly interred body looked swollen and well fed, had hair and nail ‘growth’, was ‘blood-red’ (lividity) and had new skin ‘growth’ (all now well-known decomposition characteristics) it was identified as the newly awakened vampire. Once the vampire was identified, folklore lists several options for dealing with the individual – in Mytilene the body could be exhumed and re-interred on a small off-shore island, as vampires could not cross salt water [8]. In other Greek village folklore the body could be exhumed, gutted and the hands and feet removed so the corpse could no longer move about. The most extreme treatment was to exhume the body, remove the heart and then cremate only the heart or both the heart and the body. Cremation in itself, however, was a dangerous action that could actually cause another curse to fall upon the people and community involved because burning a body was outside the accepted boundaries of Orthodox belief, and under Ottoman rule it was punishable by a large monetary fine [9].

As an end note to the tale: we collected bone samples from many of the skeletons in the cemetery, including our special burial, to do DNA tests. Interestingly, viable collagen was found in all the samples except those taken from the ‘vampire’. Of course, this is likely due to the circumstances of the burial – water was able to wash through the stones of the ancient city wall and into the coffin removing the collagen from the bones as it went. It does, however, add to the mystique, doesn’t it….. ?!



Photo Courtesy Mytilene Project Archives, University of British Columbia.

[1] Project Gutenberg’s Paul Clifford, Complete, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (EBook #7735).
[2] The project was run by the University of British Columbia. Director: Dr. Hector Williams. Excavator: Dr Susan-Marie Cronkite.
[3] Williams, Hector, 2008. Medieval and Ottoman Mytilene, 6.
[4] Demetracopoulou Lee, 1941, “Greek Accounts of the Vrykolakas”, The Journal of American Folklore, no. 54.
[5] Arthen, 1998, “May the Ground Not Receive Thee”; An Exploration of the Greek Vrykolakas and His Origins, part II, 5 (via Lawson, J.C., 1964. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. New York: University Books, 375-376).
[6] Williams, Hector, 2008. Medieval and Ottoman Mytilene, 7.
[7] ibid.
[8] Newton, C. T., 1865. Travels and Discoveries in the Levant, vol. I. London: Day and Son, 213.
[9] Pitton de Tournefort, J., 1781. A Voyage into the Levant, vol I. London: Printed for D. Midwinter, 103-7; Arthen, part II, 1-5.


Arthen, Inanna, 1998, “May the Ground Not Receive Thee”; An Exploration of the Greek Vrykolakas and His Origins, parts I and II. Available on-line at: http://users.net1plus.com/vyrdolak/vrykolak.htm

Barber, Paul, 1988. Vampires, Burial and Death. New York: Yale University.

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward, 1840. Paul Clifford, Complete, Project Gutenberg (EBook #7735), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7735/7735.txt. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net.

Demetracopoulou Lee, D., 1941, “Greek Accounts of the Vrykolakas”, The Journal of American Folklore, no. 54. Available on line at: http://users.net1plus.com/vyrdolak/greekaccts.htm. Accessed: Oct. 20, 2008.

Newton, Sir Charles. 1865. Travels and Discoveries in the Levant, vol. I. London, Day and Son Limited. Available on line: http://anemi.lib.uoc.gr/php/pdf_pager.php?filename=/var/www/tkl-portal-neo//metadata/3/d/b/attached-metadata-67-0000003/161055_01.pdf&pageno=125&pagestart=1&width=1031&height=727&maxpage=201&lang=en. Accessed: Oct. 20, 2008.

Summers, M, 1928. The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. Republished 2008 by Forgotten Books (www.forgottenbooks.org). Available on line at: books.google.com/books?id=fpaCCyGuMqwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=vampire+kith+and+kin&lr=&as_brr=0&ei=PQH5SNK4EIH-sQOHtqymDA. Accessed: Oct. 20, 2008.

Williams, Hector, 2008. Medieval and Ottoman Mytilene. In Press.

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