Saturday, February 17, 2024



“She appeared to be a Greek in all the ripe charms of womanhood. Her hair flowed down her shoulders in long graceful curls, crowned by a little scarlet cap, embroidered with gold, and further ornamented by a tassel of purple silk.”

The Vampire of Vourla – 1845


While the West generally associates Vampires with the Slavic borderlands of Europe, this has not always been so. Scholars maintain that initial reports of vampirism entering Western Europe during the early modern age originated from Greece, focusing primarily on the particularly Greek undead ‘vrykolakas’, a term deriving from the Slavic and originally meaning “wolf-hair”. When reports of vampire incidents in Austrian-controlled Serbia reached Western media in 1732, the European public turned to the established Greek archetype, to interpret the accounts from the East. The association persisted in Western Europe until the turn of the nineteenth century.

According to Vampire scholar Alvaro Garcia Marin, prompted by his recent rediscovery of the lost Greek Vampire tale: “The Vampire of Vourla,” one could argue that the modern literary vampire emerged within the conceptual framework of Hellenism and Philhellenism, two interconnected discourses whereby Hellenism asserted the inherent human superiority of ancient Greek civilization across all domains, positing the modern West as its legitimate heir, and Philhellenism advocated for the political independence of modern Greeks, emphasizing their status as ethnic descendants of classical Hellenic culture—a contemporary incarnation with the potential for revival once liberated from their Eastern oppressors.

In the early western vampire tales set in Greece, such as John William Polidori’s, 1819 novella "The Vampyre," partly set in Greece, one can witness a fusion of Western and Greek elements and the tension between the discourses. Polidori, a critic of Philhellenism, also cautioned Europeans about the broader perils associated with the compulsion towards Hellenism. His vampire emerges at the intersection of an imaginary Greece influenced by Graecophilia and the classical West, becoming a transitional creation that surpasses its origins and impacts both contemporary Europeans and modern Greeks, leading to their respective downfall. Here, the Vampire is as subversive an element to the West as the Greeks themselves who were trying to overturn the established order and seek their own independence.

Lord Byron became acquainted with the concept of vampires while on his Grand Tour. His poem “The Giaour,” which notable for its inclusion of vampires. After recounting how the giaour killed Hassan, the Ottoman narrator predicts that in punishment for his crime, the giaour will be condemned to become a vampire after his death and kill his own dear ones by drinking their blood, to his own frightful torment as well as theirs:

“No breath of air to break the wave

That rolls below the Athenian's grave,

That tomb which, gleaming o'er the cliff

First greets the homeward-veering skiff

High o'er the land he saved in vain;

When shall such Hero live again?”


In the same poem, Byron also meditated on the fate of Greece in vampiric terms:

“Tis Greece - but living Greece no more!

So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,

We start - for soul is wanting there.

Hers is the loveliness in death,

That parts not quite with parting breath;

But beauty with that fearful bloom,

That hue which haunts it to the tomb-“


The association of Greece with vampires was deeply provoking for Hellenists, seeing the bloodthirsty horror of the undead as polluting the classical harmony of the Greek stereotype and thus undermining western identity. For this reason, in later vampire works, attempts were made to dissociate Greece from vampires. Thus in James Robinson Planché's 1820 melodrama, "The Vampire," the setting was removed from Greece and instead transported to the Slavic world strategically poised between civilization and barbarism. In Alexandre Dumas's 1849 novel, "Les mille et un fantomes" (One Thousand and One Ghosts), the undead entity Kostaki, causing terror in the Carpathians, is described as being only a quarter Greek.


This evolution and the tensions inherent in the appropriation of stereotypes can be evidenced in the “Vampire of Vourla,” published in 1845 in “the Chaplet.” Set in the coastal village of Vourla near Smyrna, the story revolves around a British sailor, Somers, who is captivated by the local vampire Heira, who possesses an "exquisite beauty" and communicates "in the purest Ionic dialect." Such is her allure that Somers comes to her again and willingly and allows her to feast on his blood until he wastes away.


Marin comments that the vampire Heira’s distinctly Greek physique transcends the boundaries between the past and present, life and death, serving as a connection across the seemingly unbridgeable divide between ancients and moderns, as well as the significant differences in various stages of conventional historical chronology. However, despite evoking the Philhellenic stance of modern Greece, this corporeal fusion of historical periods, symbolizing the long-desired revival of Classical Greece, is primarily laden with monstrous implications. In this context, resurrection takes the form of vampirism—a brutal assault on the living.


In like manner, Marin argues that the "Vampire of Vourla" reinterprets Hellenism and Greek identity, emphasizing a re-monsterization that contradicts the ideals of that era. Accordingly, the transformation of Heira into an animal at the story's conclusion, as she shape-shifts to extract the final drops of the victim’s blood, reinforces this narrative. The story implies that accessing classical Greece in its envisioned purity is an unattainable goal. Whether in the past or present, alongside harmony, beauty, and civilization, the Hellenic ideal will always carry elements of monstrosity, barbarism, violence, and an oriental dimension. While the story de-Orientalizes Greekness, challenging and resisting the provincializing strategies seen in earlier narratives, it also complicates normative portrayals of Greece as a Western cultural entity by highlighting the disconcerting, even uncanny aspects involved in its modern ‘recovery.’


“Vampire of Vourla,” acts also as a commentary on colonialism. As Marin observes, commentary both this story and that of Polidori acknowledge the colonial implications of Hellenism concerning the modern Greek populations of Southeastern Europe, as well as the Hellenic ideal itself. Western Philhellenes, by claiming ancient Hellas as their heritage, sought to actively appropriate a cultural and material legacy to sustain their global dominance and place modern Greece under their colonial tutelage. In Polidori's novel this insight is encoded in the transnational vampire's two-sided predation on both a modern Greek and a British woman. In “Vampire of Vourla” on the other hand, attention is subtly drawn to the striking similarities between the British sailor’s predatory sexual behaviour and Heira's vampiric violence. Thus, the vampire's onslaught is triggered, or at least enabled, by the British sailor’s approach to local women and his fervent desire to fully possess the Greek lady at any cos, paralleling Britain's ambition to exert political control over the East.

In his seminal article “The Significance of the Vampire of Vourla to Nineteenth Century Vampire Fiction”, Marin cogently argues that the "Vampire of Vourla," an anonymous text, deliberately challenges common Philhellenic assumptions, bringing their darker aspects to light. Accordingly, gender and power roles undergo consistent confusion and inversion. Initially, the British sailor Somers believes he has initiated the courting process and is in control of it. However, Heira soon reveals that she attracted him to her, stating: "did I not know your abiding-place, you would not now be here", and more significantly, she departs from the expected passive, feminine role to adopt an active, typically masculine stance. She objectifies the British sailor Somers, asking "you swear to love no other,—to be all mine?" and symbolically penetrates him with her dagger. This reversal extends to the colonial relationship, as the Greek woman representing Greece demands and controls, in her own terms, that Somers mixes his blood with hers, eventually annihilating the British man by draining his life-blood—a possibly inverted metaphor of economic exploitation.


Viewed from this perspective, Marin postulates that contrary to the pervasive trope of disempowerment and dematerialization that reduced Greece to a de-realized historical revenance, vampirism, embodied by spectralisation in the story, provides a means to re-empower the Greek female and, consequently, Greece itself through an alternative, ghostly agency. This agency allows them to retaliate against the colonial attack. Heira's final assault on the British sailor upon the British warship in animal form mirrors, albeit constrained by a sneaky, monstrous outline, the sailor’s (and the British Navy's) intrusion into her land and home. These intricate strategies reveal the duplicitous nature of the tale, oscillating between a condemnation of the colonialist violence inherent in (Phil)Hellenism, cautioning against the enduring risks associated with Greekness and the lingering spectre of history and a pervasive apprehension regarding the potential of reverse colonisation.


The revenants of western perceptions of Hellenism still haunt our own identity discourses, sucking the life blood out of a culture dependent both for its self-esteem and vitality upon subjective interpretations of its putative past. “The Vampire of Vourla,” thus acts as a pertinent metaphor for the haemorrhaging fault lines within the modern Greek identity construct.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 February 2024