‘Vampires’ in Ancient Literature

Legends of supernatural beings walking the earth, consuming the flesh and blood of mortals can be found within numerous cultures dating back many centuries. Whilst today, these traits are associated with the entity of a vampire, in ancient times the idiom ‘vampire’ did not exist[1]; the consumption of blood and similar activities were associated with demons or spirits of who would consume the flesh and blood of the living. Ancient Greek and Roman literature contain several precursors to the modern vampires, though none were considered undead; such creatures included ghosts with a thirst for blood, the lamia, and the strix. Through the evaluation of ancient epic poems, plays and histories, it is evident that, whilst not taking on the guise of a traditional vampire, creatures within these pieces of literature, such as demons and the deceased, are depicted as possessing vampiric qualities.[2] Thus, it can be seen that the presence of such creatures reveals that legends of vampires were abundant throughout various forms of ancient literature.

Undoubtedly the most notorious precursor to the modern vampire, the lamia[3] of ancient Greek mythology derives from the story of a Libyan woman who soon regressed into a demon with a desire for devouring young men.[4] Lamia was a slightly indistinct individual from the subordinate stratum of Greek mythology. Initially the picturesque daughter of a Libyan king, she was seduced by Zeus; consequently, she bore children to the king of the gods.[5] However, Hera, the wife of Zeus, driven by envy, murdered the children of Lamia.[6] The Libyan princess, taken by grief and anger, devoted the rest of her existence to devouring and feasting on children, as is recorded by Diodorus Siculus:[7]

For when all the children born to her had died, weighed down in her misfortune and envying the happiness of all other women in their children, she ordered that the new-born babies be snatched from their mothers’ arms and straightway slain.[8]

 In other accounts, following in line with many Greco-Roman myths of ancient times involving female monsters[9], the Lamia is often described as a seductive, vampiric creature who preys on handsome young men.[10] The most famous example of this depiction of the lamia is found in Philstratus’s Life of Apollonius. Within this manuscript a lamia emerges as a captivating Phoenician enchantress, who enthrals a youth, Menippus, to such an extent that a marriage is hastily arranged.[11] However, on the wedding day, Apollonius reveals to Menippus his fiancés true identity and her intent to devour her new husband shortly after their union:[12]

You must believe these decorations too to be such, for they are not substantial, but merely to appear so. So that you may accept what I say, the good bride is one of the  lamiai. These female creatures fall in love, and they crave for sex, but most of all for human flesh, and they use sex to ensnare the men upon whom they wish to feed.[13]

It is immediately evident within this anecdote that the lamia used seduction as a means of ensnaring her victim of whose flesh she would consume.[14] Throughout this fascinating tale, the closest construction of a traditional vampire the ancient world has to offer is found; the lamia is depicted as a sort of monster, devouring the living and possessing a serpentine aspect that can be closely placed along side the fangs of a traditional vampire.[15] In such ways, it is revealed how the lamiae resembled the traditional vampire; their power and persona surpassed mere magic and enchantments of the ancient witches they were often compared to, and they were overtly associated with cannibalism, the reaping of human blood, and death.[16] Thus, it can be seen that the lamia portrayed in ancient writings, such as Philstratus’s Life of Apollonius, possess traits similar to that of the traditional vampire, consequently revealing that there was extensive evidence for legends of vampires in ancient literature.

Greek mythology provides yet another example of creatures possessing vampiric qualities in ancient literature; portrayed throughout ancient legends as a devourer of children and young men, the strix of ancient Greece and Rome were considered to be creatures of ill omen.[17] Said to be a nocturnal bird, frequently depicted as an owl, the strix was alleged to beget bad luck and feast on the flesh and blood of humans, much like a traditional vampire.[18] Such a creature is depicted within Ovid’s Fasti, a collection of chronological ordered records of official and religiously sanctioned events:

They fly at night and target children still unweaned, | Snatch them from the crib and defile their bodies. | They are said to gorge on milk-fed flesh with their beaks | And to cram their throats with gulps of blood. | Screech-owl is their name; and the cause of the name | Is their hideous screeching at night.[19]

The strix demons depicted in Ovid’s Fasti[20] differ from the traditional vampire in the sense that they were creatures that had evolved into owl-like creatures, rather than the product of a being who had once been dead and had risen.[21] However, whilst they are not revenant, the strix demon is heavily representative of the traditional vampire and the lamia; Ovid described the strix as exhibiting traits shared by these two creatures, such as consumption of human flesh and blood.[22] This representation of the strix demon reveals the anthropophagism of this vampiric creature, devouring it’s victims whilst still alive.[23] Therefore, the presence of vampiric strix demon, considered to be a precursor to the traditional vampire, throughout ancient works reveal how there is extensive evidence for legends of vampires in ancient literature.

Greek vampiric entities are once again seen throughout ancient writings in the form of the dead. Often in literature, the deceased would appear as either ghosts of their former selves or as cadavers, unable to contact the living. However, it was often believed that blood, given from a living being, would allow the dead to regain a semblance of life, mirroring the abilities of a traditional vampire. Within Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey, the spirits of the dead in Hades are too insubstantial to communicate with the living and, consequently, must drink blood, a form of sustenance, in order to regain their lost consciousness, judgement and power of speech.[24] This is best illustrated in the case of Odysseus’s mother Anticleia, who is unable to recognise or communicate with her son upon first contact. When Odysseus questions Tiresias in the underworld as to how he can stimulate his mother’s ghost to communicate with him, the prophetic shade provides unequivocal instructions: [25]

It’s an easy word I will say to you and put into your mind; |  whichever of the departed dead you allow to approach the blood, that one will speak | truthfully to you; but anyone you refuse will go back again.[26]

However, merely approaching the blood is not enough; upon Tiresias’s depature, Anticleia ‘[comes] forward and [drinks] the dark blood’[27], and it is only through consuming this life force that she is able to recognise and address Odysseus.[28] Whilst the concept of feeding upon blood in order to communicate is prevalent throughout this passage, the idea goes further in suggesting that, similar to a vampire, blood was considered to be a life force, a notion supported by the writings of Pliny the Elder: ‘There is great vitality … in the blood, and when it is discharged from the body, it carries the life with it…’[29] Accordingly, the living who gave the blood had to die a little, and the dead would regain a small amount of life.[30]

Within the Odyssey, Odysseus restores a minute amount of life to the souls he consults by way of offering them blood to drink. Subsequently he himself correspondingly loses a limited quantity of his own life, a consequence revealed by Circe who informs him, on his return, that he had died and, thus, would die twice.[31] It is through this that the ghosts of the Odyssey are seen to be vampiric in the sense that the consumption of blood provides them with strength and confers upon them some semblance of life.[32] Evidently, this transferal of life through blood that is representative of the relationship between vampires and their prey. Much like vampires drain the blood of a human to regain life, Odysseus’s blood and life level are brought into a hydraulic equilibrium with that of the shades, so that communication can occur.[33] Thus, it is shown that the ghosts represented throughout the Odyssey possess traits similar to those of a traditional vampire, accordingly providing evidence for legends of vampires in ancient literature.

Similar ideas about blood as a life force when consumed underpin Apollodorus’s Library, a set of three books of which provides a complete summary of traditional Greek mythology and heroic legends.[34] It is recorded within section 10 of book three that Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek religion, that ‘having … received from Athena the blood that flowed from the veins of the Gorgon, … he used the blood … [to raise] the dead’.[35] Within this tale, blood is once again seen to be a vital force, restoring life to those who were deceased. Just as Odysseus’s blood restores a portion of life to the ghosts of Hades, Asclepius is able to restore the life of the dead through the offering of blood from the veins of the Gorgon.[36] Subsequently, it is this act that reveals the existence of the deceased’s vampiric qualities. Thus, it is revealed through the deceased that appear in Homer’s Odyssey and Apollodorus’s Library, and their life sustaining relationship with the living characters, that legends of vampires were copious throughout ancient literature.

In the end, it can be seen that creatures depicted throughout various forms of ancient literature were portrayed as possessing vampiric qualities. The documentation of ancient works, such as those of Diodorus Sicululus, Philstratus, and Ovid, respectively depict demonic creatures, being the lamia and strix, of who desire to devour and consume the flesh and blood of young men, much like that of the traditional vampire. Similarly, the works of Homer’s Odyssey and Apollodorus’s Library provide yet another account of the decreased exemplifying vampiric traits, in particular the transfer of life through blood. Thus, from the evaluation of various forms of ancient works depicting such creatures, it is revealed that legends of vampires were abundant throughout various forms of ancient literature.

Ancient Works
Apollodorus. The Library. Translated by Sir James George. London, Heinemann, 1921.
Diodorus Siculus. The Biblioteca Historica. Translated by John Skelton. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by A. T. Murray. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Ogden, D. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Ovid. The Fasti of Ovid. Translated by James George Frazer. London: Heinemann, 1931.
Philostratus. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Translated by Christopher Jones. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Translated by H. Rackham. London: Heinemann, 1963.

Modern Sources
Ciraolo, L. & Seidel, J. (Eds.). Magic and Divination in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Dickie, M. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. London: Routledge, 2008.
Heath, J. “Blood for the Dead: Homeric Ghosts Speak Up”. Hermes 133 (4), 2005: 389 –  400.
Leinweber, D. W. “Witchcraft and Lamiae in ‘The Golden Ass’”. Folklore 105. UK: Taylor & Francis Group, 1994: 77-82.
Luck, G. Ancient Pathways and Hidden Pursuits: Religion, Morals and Magic in the Ancient World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Ogden, D. Greek and Roman Necromancy. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Ogden, D. Night’s Black Agents: Witches, Wizards, and the Dead in the Ancient World. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2008.
Oliphant, S. G. ‘The Story of the Strix: Ancient.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 44. UK: The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, 1913: 133-49.

[1] The word Vampire did not appear in literature until AD c.1700. In the traditional sense, a vampire is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a corpse supposed, in European folklore, to leave its grave at night to drink the blood of the living by biting their necks with long pointed canine teeth’. However, this form of the vampire did not exist until c.12th century AD, thus ancient connotations of the vampire present only the basic traits of a traditional vampire.
[2] The essential characteristics of a traditional vampire, aside from originating from a deceased person, is their habit of sucking the blood of the living and relying on this as a form of sustenance.  Thus, for the purpose of this essay, ‘vampiric qualities’ will refer to traits including the craving for flesh, seduction of their victim and the need for blood as a life source.
[3] The name ‘Lamia’ derives from the Greek word for ‘gullet’, and was given to this specific demon, as she would kill human children.
[4] Leinweber, 1994: 77.
[5] Ciraolo & Seidel, 2002: 98.
[6] Accounts from ancient writers such as Horace in Ars Poetica (l.340) say that Hera forced Lamia to devour her own children.
[7] Leinweber, 1994: 79.
[8] Diodorus Siculus 20.41.3-5:
[9] Such as the Empusae and Mormolyces.
[10] Ogden, 2002: 69.
[11] Ibid: 65.
[12] Leinweber, 1994: 81.
[13] Philostr. V A. 4.25.
[14] Luck, 2000: 115.
[15] Ogden, 2008: 162.
[16] Luck, 2000: 100.
[17] Oliphant, 1913:145.
[18] Ciraolo & Seidel, 2002: 61.
[19] Ovid, Fasti 6.135-140
[20] A similar depiction can be found in the Pseudolus of Plautus (ll. 819 – 821).
[21] Luck, 2000: 150.
[22] Oliphant, 1913:135.
[23] Ibid: 139.
[24] Ogden, 2001: 242.; In the epic, when Odysseus journeyed into Hades, he was made to sacrifice a black ram and a black ewe so that the shades there could drink its blood and communicate.
[25] Ciraolo & Seidel, 2002: 45.
[26] Homer Od. 11.146 – 149.
[27] Homer, Od. 11.152 -153.
[28] Heath, 2005: 395.
[29] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 11.90
[30] Ogden, 2001: 254.
[31] Dickie, 2008: 75.; Homer, Od. 12.22 -23.
[32] Leinweber, 1994: 90.
[33] Dickie, 2008: 89.
[34] Leinweber, 1994: 95.
[35] Apollodorus, Library, 3.10.3
[36] Ogden, 2001: 176.


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