Vampires, Ghosts, and the Legacy of Antiquity

Next month, I’ll be talking at the ASE about Eastern European vampires. This is a big topic, and while my paper will focus on the vampire’s literary and rhetorical implications, many other issues have been discussed by scholars in relation to the undead. I thought we could investigate some of the more pressing questions which will not be presented in my paper here!

One big area of discussion which surrounds research on vampires is the distinction between vampires and revenants. In historical records, these categories refer to similar, but different phenomena, and much effort has been put into sussing out if they refer to the same creature or not (see pg. 3-4 of the Paul Barber article below for one interpretation). The conflict occurs between the vampire, seen as the stereotypical blood-sucking Dracula-type, and the revenant, which is thought to straddle the line between ghost and un-dead corpse.

Unlike the common spectre which will softly rattle your curtains while cooing “boooooo,” revenants, like vampires, have the very real ability to harm a person. The problem is that some depictions of revenants decidedly look more like ghosts or poltergeists whereas other veer more into full-on reanimated corpses bent on vengeance, pummeling their living ancestors for perceived wrongs and so on (Keyworth 244-247).

But are they a different monster? The distinction, as G. David Keyworth suggests, is more related to chronology than taxonomy (2006). These are not necessarily two different creatures, but rather two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Both come back from the dead to terrorize the living, the distinction seems to be whether or not its goal is to drink your blood.

I want to talk about cases where these distinctions between revenants and vampires overlap in the ancient world. In the following examples, the line between ghost and blood-sucker is similarly blurred.

Let’s start with ghosts. Ghosts held a special place for the living in antiquity, and appeasement seems to be the name of the game here. It was thought that proper homage needed to be paid to one’s ancestors, lest they come back and wreak havoc. There were domestic rites, such as casting beans on the ground to feed dead souls, which were performed in the household to stave off the so-called ‘malevolent dead’ (Turcan 31-32). A peaceful life meant keeping the dead posthumously happy.

What would happen when the dead crossed the threshold and entered the lives of the, well, living? These seemingly benign manifestations of the spirit-world also resulted in placating the dead in some way. When ghosts did speak to the living, it was often to complain about something those still on earth were or weren’t doing, making new demands from the great beyond (Johnston 97-98). In other words, ghosts could nag you from beyond the grave!

We can see how this belief could parallel later accounts of the revenant, a familiar spirit who unleashed woe on its living relatives. But what about blood-sucking vampires? Do we have precedent for blood-thirsty ghosts in antiquity? You betcha.

Our next example comes from the Odyssey, and features ghosts of the dead who feed, not on beans, but on blood. In Book 11, Odysseus goes to Hades, and meets with the ghosts of the dead who reside there. His first action upon entering Hades is to make a sacrifice:

“When with my prayers and invocation I had called on the peoples of the dead, I seized the victims [a cow and a ram] and cut their throats over the trench. The dark blood flowed, and the souls of the dead and gone came flocking upwards from Erebus…With unearthly cries, from every quarter, they came crowding about the trench until pale terror began to master me.” (Odyssey XI)

With the blood, Odysseus summons the souls of the dead and bribes them to answer questions. In fact he does not let them the ‘draw near to the blood’ until they’ve responded sufficiently, only then does he let them feast. This suggests that there is a connection between the dead and blood. These ghosts not only are drawn to fresh blood, but also consume it. This, too, can be seen as a precedent for later depictions of the vampire.

While we don’t see figures like Dracula in antiquity, we do see undead creatures who engage in behaviours similar to reports of vampirism in the pre-modern period. Malevolent spirits, ghosts hungry for blood, and the familial ties between the living and the dead all hint at later folklore about the undead, and serve to complicate the distinction between vampires and ghosts.

So were vampires ghosts? Were ghosts vampires? These days most of us can easily distinguish between a vampire and a ghost and would consider them two very different phenomena. Examples from antiquity, however, suggest a blurring of these distinctions which lasted until the modern era. This overlap in the supernatural has caused much consternation among scholars who study the undead, complicating what would otherwise be neat categories.

If you want to hear more about vampires of the bloodsucking variety, I encourage you to come to the ASE in New York next June. I’ll be speaking at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon and will go over the origins of some of the more famous vampires in early modern literature and their cultural implications. I hope to see you there!


Barber, Paul. “Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire,” Journal of Folklore Research 24.1 (1987): 1-32.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translation Walter Shewring. Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead- Corpse?” Folklore 117.3 (2006): 241-260.
Turcan, Robert. The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times. Routledge, 2000.


Photo by CrazyFast.

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