The vrykolakas, pronounced "vree-KO-la-kahss", or vri'kolakas, variant vorvolakas, is a monster in modern Greek folklore. It has similarities to many different legendary creatures. For example, it is like a ghost, in that it is a haunting spirit of the dead. Legends also say it crushes or suffocates the sleeping by sitting on them, much like a mara or incubus (demon). The vrykolakas also has many affinities with the werewolf, but most sources equate it with the vampire.
The Greeks traditionally believed that a person could become a vrykolakas after death due to a sacrilegious way of life, an excommunication, or a burial in unconsecrated ground, but especially by eating the meat of a sheep which had been wounded by a werewolf. Some believed that a werewolf itself could become a powerful vampire after being killed, and would retain the wolf-like fangs, hairy palms, and glowing eyes it formerly possessed.
The word vrykolakas comes from the Bulgarian върколак "(vŭrkolak)" meaning "werewolf" (which is also the origin of the Romanian]] varcolac - a fabulous creature that feeds off the Sun and Moon).
The vrykolakas knocks on the doors of houses and calls out the name of the residents. If it gets no reply the first time, it will pass without causing any harm. If someone does answer the door, he or she will die a few days later and become another vrykolakas. For this reason, there is a superstition present in certain Greek villages that one should not answer a door until the second knock.
Since this creature becomes more and more powerful if left alone, legends state that one should impale, behead, and cremate a suspected body as soon as possible, so that the it may be freed from living death and its victims may be safe.
The traditional tales of the vrykolakas are only vaguely similar to those of the vampire, but the two have long been equated.
An interesting description of the process by which a victim of vampire becomes a vrykolakas from a priest on the island of Crete was published in 1898 :
- "It is a popular belief that most of the dead, those who have lived bad lives or who have been excommunicated....become vrykolakes; that is to say, after the separation of the soul from the body there enters into the latter an evil spirit which takes the place of the soul....it keeps the body as its dwelling place, and it runs swift as lightning wherever it lists....And the trouble is that it does not remain solitary, but makes everyone, who dies while it is about, like to itself, so that in a short space of time it gets together a large train of followers. The common practice of the vrykolakes is to seat themselves upon those who are still asleep and by their great weight to create an agonizing sense of oppression. There is great danger that the sufferer might himself expire, and himself too be turned into a vrykolakas....This monster, as time goes on, becomes more audacious and blood-thirsty, so that it is able to devastate whole villages."
This quote is found in "Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion" by John Lawson, and in "The Vampire in Europe" by Montague Summers.
Some area of Greece don’t consider the lack of corpse corruption as a sign of vampirism for they believe a vampire will reveal itself after 40 days since the burial.
To get rid of a vrykolakas the corpse has to be exorcized by a priest between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, when the vampire must stay in its coffin. The priest will perform the ritual while boiling oil and vinegar, then pouring them into a hole in the grave. If the vampire problem is not solved, the ritual must be repeated or the body will have to be exhumed and cut into pieces.
Greek Island of Santorini is considered worldwide as the place mostly inhabited by vampires. The reasons may be traced to its volcanic soil, which allegedly preserves the dead too well, or to the Greek tradition to move suspected vampire corpses to islands due to the believe vampires could not cross water. Santorini, one of the Cyclades Islands, became one of the dumping grounds. Montague Summers claimed he was shown a suspected vampire corpse getting prepared for the exorcism in a church.
The term "vrykolakas" is also used to werewolves, people who assume the form of a wolf and go out on bloodlust hunts. Once it returns to its human form the werewolf is said to be exhausted. After death, a "vrykolakas" becomes a vampire and can shapeshift into dog or hyena as well as into wolf form. It is said to haunt battlefields, sucking the dying breaths out of fallen soldiers.
It has become common in translating vampire movies and the like into Greek, to translate "vampire" as "vrykolakas". Presumably Modern Greeks raised on Hollywood vampire movies would be just as likely, if not more so, to think of Dracula, instead of the traditional Greek monster, when a vrykolakas is mentioned.
One of the few instances of the vrykolakas or vorvolaka being used in popular art and media is in the film Isle of the Dead, starring horror icon Boris Karloff. The film, directed by Mark Robson and produced by legendary horror producer Val Lewton, centres around a group of people on a small island, whose lives are threatened by a force that some believe to be the plague, and others believe to be the work of a vorvolaka.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves and Other Monsters
- Baring-Gould, Sabine The Book of Werewolves
- Du Boulay, Juliette The Greek Vampire: A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death]
- Summers, Montague The Vampire in Europe