For Halloween month, our blog posts focus on the presence of the dead among us, such as vampires, zombies, ancestors, and other types of Undead. Our authors specialize in mortuary practices across Greece, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. While the Undead are often treated superficially in popular culture, these researchers press us to think about the deeper social and spiritual meanings behind ancient beliefs and practices that attempt to manage the persistent presence of the dead amongst the living
Content Warning: This blog contains images of skeletal human remains. Please read more about Peopling the Past’s approach to the study and display of human remains here
The Origin of the Modern Vampire
The vampire most people think of at Halloween today is an immortal risen to drink the blood of the living, frightening but also tragic or romantic. Though it may seem ancient, this vampire was actually the creation of 19th century authors who reimagined older tales. Byron’s contribution on that famous literary evening in 1819 on the shores of Lake Geneva – when Mary Shelley created the artificial human named Frankenstein’s monster after the wayward doctor who built him from stolen body parts – was a vampire story. Later that century it was Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula that kindled the imagination of generations of writers and came to define the modern vampire of books, plays and films. Over the last five decades the novels of Anne Rice, the Twilight series in book and film, and tv creations like Vampire Academy or What We Do in the Dark have ensured that new generations know the story. They also inspire archaeological imaginations: every year brings stories of excavated “vampires” that attract the attention of the media. Although some of these are exaggerated or misinterpreted, the vampire is a creature of folklore far older than Dracula, and the rites intended to lay it to rest did leave behind burials that reflect these beliefs. Such a burial is the source of this tale. . .
The Vampire in Folklore
The fear that the dead may return from the grave is old and widespread, and many cultures have revenant folklore – one study documents tales of the walking dead from places ranging from Indonesia to Scotland (Forth and Kukharenko 2012). In Balkan and central European folklore one of the most common revenants is the vampire (vrykholakas in Greek). This was a very different entity from the vampire of fiction: a corpse reanimated after death by a demon, leaving its grave to trouble the living. Vampires might kill people (often by breathing on them or calling their names rather than drinking their blood), cause them or their livestock to fall sick, or terrify them in the night by banging on walls and throwing household objects. In fact, almost any series of unfortunate events could be blamed on them. In another departure from the literary vampire, people didn’t usually become vampires by being bitten. A vampire might be someone seen as leading a sinful or irregular life; sadly, this included some people suspected simply because they were unusual.
Vampires could also be created through events that disrupted the proper funeral rites, such as an error in reciting the prayers or an animal leaping over the corpse while it was laid out. If a corpse at risk of vampirism was identified before it was buried, preventive measures could be taken. These included driving stakes or nails into its midsection, cutting off the head or “stopping” the breath by placing a sharp object on the neck, placing something (sometimes the corpse’s own head!) between the feet, or holding the burial down with large rocks.
Sometimes a run of bad events led people to suspect that a vampire was active in their area and recent graves would be opened and checked. A vampiric corpse would be swollen, with blood seeping from the mouth and reddish or blackened skin. Today we’d see this as the classic appearance of early decomposition and say that in essence a normally decaying corpse was being blamed for whatever events were distressing people (Barber 1988), but in the past these signs were seen as evidence of unnatural resistance to decay. The newly discovered vampire might be dealt with by putting stakes through the body, cutting off the head and burying it elsewhere, or even burning it, and life would hopefully return to normal.
Greek burial practices offered further opportunities for a vampire to be suspected, as graves were and still are often only rented for short periods of time and emptied for a new occupant after four or five years. Traditionally, the old bones were gathered, cleaned (usually by the women of the family), and placed in a small wooden box in the cemetery’s charnel house. Local conditions differ and indeed people decay at different rates, so sometimes graves were opened to reveal not only bones but soft tissue. In the past, this could be read as a warning that the soul had not left properly and that the dead individual might be a threat to the living.
The Story of the Mytilene Vampire
Hector Williams: We were conducting excavations at a site near the North Harbour of the city of Mytilene on the northeastern island of Lesbos when we encountered an Ottoman cemetery of the 18th-19th century that had been repurposed after the Greek recovery of the island in November of 1912. All the other dozens of burials had been simple interments in the earth with the deceased wrapped in a shroud (we found the rusty traces of the pins that held the shroud together). One corpse had received very different treatment: a grave lined with stones had been dug into the fill of the 4th century BCE city wall that ran through the site and a body had been placed in a pine coffin in the grave. At its neck, pelvis and ankles we found twenty-centimeter (eight inches) long curved iron nails, presumably driven through the corpse to keep it in the tomb. Several large heavy stones had been placed on the lid of the coffin to doubly ensure it did not escape.
Sandra Garvie-Lok: As an osteologist, I was asked to examine the skeleton to see what could be said about the life behind this burial. Along with Dr. Anastasia Tsaliki I examined the bones and determined that the body that had caused so much apparent concern was that of a man, likely 40 to 50 years old. He had moderate osteoarthritis and poor dental health – both typical for others his age in this cemetery – and his bone stable isotopes suggest local origins and a typical diet. His bones are fragile and fragmented, but the preserved areas show no visible damage from the nails. In the case of the neck and pelvis this may be because the nails passed through soft tissue, missing most of the bone. In the case of the ankles the nail may actually have been laid between the feet.
Together, Dr. Tsaliki and I compared this burial to another of the same era from Lesbos which had also been buried with three large nails (Garvie-Lok and Tsaliki 2020). That was also an older man, but in his case a facial injury and infection would have given him a distinctive appearance. While that man may have been targeted as a “vampire” for his disquieting difference, the body from the Ottoman cemetery likely came under suspicion for something we can’t see today – anything from something he did during his life to an error in his funeral prayers.
What can we learn from archaeological burials like these and the folklore behind them? One lesson is that unusual burials may provide evidence for beliefs surrounding death, even when these beliefs are discouraged (both Christian and Ottoman authorities condemned the rites intended to dispel vampires). Another is that in an uncertain and threatening world, people may need to feel they have found a concrete problem and taken action. Sometimes, having a vampire to blame may help.
Barber, Pual (1988): Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. Yale University Press. ISBN:0300048599.
Forth, Gregory and Svitlana Kukharenko (2012): Animals crossing: Analytical observations on a cross-culturally ubiquitous mortuary belief. Folklore 123:152-178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2012.682475
Garvie-Lok, Sandra and Anastasia Tsaliki (2020): The “vampires” of Lesbos: Detecting and interpreting anti-revenant ritual in Greece. In The Odd, the Unusual, and the Strange: Bioarchaeological Explorations of Atypical Burials, edited by Tracy Betsinger, Amy Scott & Anastasia Tsaliki, p. 292-311. University of Florida Press. ISBN: 1683401034
I’m a professor in the University of Alberta Department of Anthropology. I’m a bioarchaeologist, studying archaeological human remains to learn about life in the past. Most of my work has been in Greece and China, exploring the impact of major social changes on everyday life. My research uses stable isotope analysis and skeletal pathology to reconstruct diet, health and residential mobility. I’m also interested in mortuary customs, especially symbolism surrounding the corpse.
Hector Williams was raised in Churchill (Manitoba), Polar Bear Capital of the World (according to National Geographic) and did his first degree in Classics at the University of Manitoba. He then did his MA and PhD at the University of Chicago as well as studying at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He has excavated at Kenchreai, Corinth, Samothrace, Mytilene and Stymphalos in Greece and at Anemurium in Turkey. He also has an interest in the exploration of the Canadian Arctic and has twice gone through the Northwest Passage. He set up the Canadian Institute in Greece in 1981 and directed it til 1984. He also been President of AIA Canada, the Vancouver Maritime Museum Society, and the Vancouver Institute as well as serving on many boards and committees of academic and not for profit organizations.