Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: The Vrykolakas

In exploring a number of lesser-known creatures from Greco-Roman mythology, we’ve seen how some of the modern monsters we’ve come to know and love originated in ancient myth and folklore. Sometimes the ancient and modern has been so far removed that it’s difficult to draw parallels from a surface glance (Ichthyocentaur, anyone?), while others are a little more direct in terms of their present-day fantasy-trope cousins.

Today, we explore one of these directly recognizable monsters…one whose origins have been lost throughout the millennia, but who appears ad nauseum in a modern-day form on television, in movies, books, comics, and on Halloween.

Before we get on with the program, some context for those of you who may be new to this article series! The series was designed to present both readers and writers with some historical background on current monsters in fantasy literature and film; both to help add a richness to the readers’ experience within the fantasy genre, and to perhaps inspire writers the next time they’re searching for a unique creature for their fantasy tale.

And now…the vrykolakas. (*cue creepy music*)

What’s a Vrykolakas?

Vampire and Woman PrintSimply put, it’s a folkloric Greek vampire.

Now, before anyone gets uppity, I know—they’re more complicated than that, and to phrase their description in such a way is indeed simplistic. But if we draw parallel lines from the undead of ancient myth through to their modern-day counterparts, we’re looking at an old, folkloric version of a present-day vampire. Technically, vrykolakas aren’t considered part of “ancient Greek” mythology, but Greece has a long tradition of vampires and necrophobia, and the precise origins of this creature are—as with most folkloric creatures—unknown.

It may also be worth mentioning that as recently as fifty years ago, some people in Greece still believed—and perhaps still do today—in the reality of these creatures. It’s also notable that they continue to differentiate the vrykolakas from what we know as a “modern” vampire. The main difference? The vrykolakas don’t have quite the taste for blood as, say, Lestat.

Should You See a Vrykolakas…

Actually, that header is a bit misleading. According to legend, you may not actually recognize that someone or something is a vrykolakas until it’s too late. Traditionally, Greeks have held the belief that an individual could be transformed into a vrykolakas after death, if certain conditions were met.

Tyre TombsA person who mocked the gods or lived a life of sacrilege, who was excommunicated by his family or community, who received burial in unconsecrated ground, or—perhaps strangest of all—who’d eaten meat from a sheep killed by a wolf or werewolf, might become a vrykolakas. Recalling that the Greeks have taken lycanthropy seriously since ancient times, it’s also thought that a werewolf can become a vrykolakas after death.

In terms of their appearance, a vrykolakas will look similar to vampires as described in Balkan folklore. These reanimated, former humans are free of visible decay, though they may appear swollen and engorged—as though they’ve just had a long, bloody drink—but not always! That’s where things can get tricky, though presumably if you know someone is dead and they show up at your next dinner party, you’d be a little suspicious.

As for werewolves? A werewolf-turned-vrykolakas will likely appear just as it did before death. (That said, the whole glowing eyes and hairy palms thing would still be hard to ignore.)

The Vrykolakas at Work

Nothing a vrykolakas does is beneficial! Should an individual happen to leave its grave and begin to wander about, someone is going to be harmed, annoyed, or killed. The creature might choose to wander around and just be a generally annoying presence (creepy man on the road at night, anyone?), or play tricks that result in harm.

Some Greek accounts explain that a vrykolakas can leave its grave every night with the exception of Saturday, and that it’s possible for some to change their shape (or enter an animal’s body, though this aspect assumes a spiritual element that’s less commonly referenced in accounts of the creature).

Vrykolakas by Artist UnknownOne common belief is that a vrykolakas will sometimes knock on doors at night, calling out the names of those inside. If there’s no response from within, the creature will continue on its way—but if someone answers, that person becomes tainted by association and will die within several days. And of course, also become a vrykolakas themselves. Even today, certain small Greek villages maintain the folkloric belief that no one should answer their door until a visitor has knocked twice.

Similar to Bulgarian folklore, the Greek vrykolakas may also suffocate its victims either by crushing or suffocating them in their sleep. It’s an intriguing parallel, because this expression of necrophobia doesn’t appear in ancient Greek myth but rather must have been assimilated into Greek folklore through a shared cultural fear.

Preventing the Vrykolakas

It’s common in ancient myth and folklore to find specific instructions that describe how to prevent a deceased individual from leaving their grave and making trouble, or how to help them find their way to the underworld. These objects or practices are called “apotropaics,” and include such things as burying a corpse upside-down, or placing a coin in the mouth of the deceased.

16th Century Plague Victim Skull VeniceThe ancient practice of placing an object in a corpse’s mouth is likely what influenced the development of later folklore surrounding vrykolakas—modern Greek folklore suggests that a wax cross and a piece of pottery inscribed with the phrase “Jesus Christ saves” must be placed in the mouth of the deceased (or elsewhere on the body, depending on the source) in order to guarantee that person won’t return as a vrykolakas.

Other vampire-prevention practices from European folklore, such as spilling grains on the ground at someone’s burial site, may be referenced in some Greek folklore as vrykolakas prevention practices as well.

And should these preventative methods fail, resulting in meeting a vrykolakas on the road, or in town? There are two primary methods of defeating it: Lightning or fire.

The Folklore, the Myth

While we know that the ancient Greeks believed in vampirism in various forms—see the first article in this series, The Lamia, for one example—it’s far less common to find preserved and written accounts of folkloric beliefs. Mythology tends to be written down and passed on through public storytelling traditions (oral or written) on a broad scale, while folklore is much more localized, quieter, and minimally shared with “outsiders.”

As a result, the first official Western account of belief in vrykolakas didn’t appear until the mid-17th century—however, the better known account only appeared in 1718, when a French traveler wrote about his experience witnessing the exhumation and slaying of a deceased individual suspected to be a vrykolakas.

Some archaeological excavations in Mytilene have uncovered what have been called “vrykolakas” burials, though the 20cm spikes placed through the ankles, groin, and neck of each body is reminiscent of Empusa by trinketBalkan folkloric burial processes used to prevent vampirism.

The Present, the Future

Because the Greek folklore surrounding this creature is a present-day reality—shifting, changing, growing with the people who believe in it—it can be tricky to respectfully include living folklore in fantasy literature. However, that shouldn’t mean that using a vrykolakas in one’s storytelling is off-limits. Rather, it’s perhaps all the more important to understand the rich history of necrophobia and vampiric creatures that began in ancient Greek mythology and has continued through to the Greek folklore of today.

Title image by trinket.


By Faith M. Boughan

Faith M. Boughan is a bibliophile, logophile, and unabashed caffeine addict. She grew up on Xanth novels, Gauntlet (on the Tandy1000, no less), and Star Trek: TNG (sustenance indeed!). Faith has put her Near Eastern Archaeology & Classical Studies degree to good use by ignoring it entirely and writing fiction instead. She has had several short stories published, and currently edits flash fiction for the online spec-fic ‘zine Abyss & Apex. When she’s not reading, writing, or playing video games, Faith teaches & performs Middle Eastern bellydance and Bollywood dance. She also posts about writing & books on her blog, Literary Coldcuts on Toasty Buns ( You can also find her on Twitter (, where she’s probably procrastinating, so feel free to yell at her to get back to work.

3 thoughts on “Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: The Vrykolakas”
  1. Thank you for illuminating me on the ever-present danger of the vrykolakas. Given all the unpleasant people I’ve met, I can understand why belief in them has been so long-lived, almost as long as the interminable lifeless scourge itself.

    I kept struggling with the word “necrophobia.” To me it reads a lot like “normality.” I suppose the difference would be in that some cultures embrace death more as a natural part of life. I’m thinking of the central America tradition of Dia de los Muertos. I would guess those cultures are less likely to have an evil, undead, stalker belief?

    1. I’m not as familiar with Central or South American traditions surrounding death and the related mythos… but that’s a really good question! I may have to look into that, because now I’m very curious…

  2. This was such a great read, and a bit more detailed than the other information that I’ve found. What I’m still curious about however, is what drives the VRYKOLAKAS, once it “rises” from its grave. General modern-mythology tells us that hunger and unquenchable thirst drive a Vampire to drink blood. Hence some depictions of Vampires (in films or tv) don’t eat regular “human food”, and are constantly craving something to satisfy them– that satisfaction being blood. Now, this is all hypothetical, as I don’t necessarily expect you to have the answer 🙂
    But, I just wonder if you have any insight as to why Vrykolakas are not as interested in blood, but they are driven to kill or harm others. Is killing the quenching of their thirst, and the lust for blood a result of their thrill-seeking desires? Or do they just thrive on mischief? And drink blood for the hell of it? 😛 I’m just brainstorming here, thanks for the rundown.

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