A few weeks ago, a letter arrived in my mailbox from the University notifying me that I had been “selected as the fall/winter 2014-2015 recipient of the York University Faculty Association Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship.”

The award was very substantial. However, I wasn’t quite sure what it was for. Usually I can figure it out, but this one left me stumped.

So I did what any rational person would do in such a circumstance. I googled it. Sarah Veale YUFA Imagine my surprise when I learned that this award is given to the student with the highest GPA in their faculty! (Each faculty has one.) In other words, I had the highest GPA of all students in the Liberal Arts and Professional Studies faculty—a division which houses over 20 programs and awards over 90 types of degrees and certificates. To further put that in perspective, York has 65,000 students overall, divided into eleven faculties. Somewhere along the line, I beat out an awful lot of people for this.

Usually this is the place where I thank my professors for helping me out along the way. While I am certainly grateful to my awesome profs, I hope they understand that I’ve worked really hard, so I’m going to take the credit for this one! Huzzah!

Make Him Powerless With the Horses: On Sports-Related Curse Tablets

Sports-related curses were extremely prevalent in the ancient world. In fact, it was assumed that those who competed in public contests regularly employed curses. Moreover, this was not just some literary fantasy—material evidence of lead curse tablets (defixiones or katadesmoi) bears this opinion out. To get specific, these curses were inscribed on lead tablets which were consigned to a strategic location, such as a water-well, a grave, or a victim’s main locus of operation. For example, a curse that targeted a chariot race might be buried in the arena, so as to have an immediate effect on its victim (Gager 18-21).

Needless to say, games were an important feature of ancient Mediterranean life, one which overlapped with other significant areas. Many religious festivals involved a competitive dimension where athletes, dramatists, and dancers competed for glory. One thinks here of the Athenian Dionysia, or even the Pan-Hellenic Olympic games as examples of civic-religious events that involved a sporting component. Christopher A. Faraone suggests that sporting curses are evinced as early as the writings of Pindar, a poet from the 5th Century BCE (Faraone 11). He cites Pindar’s Olympian, which depicts  a charioteer named Pelops calling on Poseidon to not just give him the advantage in a race, but to damage his opponent as well (Faraone 11).

When games became both more numerous and more frequent in the Roman era, so too did sports-related cursing…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

Is Cursing a Magical Act?

In a recent post at the Ancient Curses blog, I talked about the categorical difficulties inherent in the term “magic.” I took the view that many of the distinguishing features which scholars use to define magical practices often apply to normative religious phenomena in antiquity. Thus, when talking about the ancient world, it is not so easy to separate magic from religion. Indeed, many of these constructions are contextual.

It does seem, however, that some practices could be considered more “magical” than others. Cursing, with its definite goals and specific practices, would appear to be an instance of “real” magic.

However, even cursing turns out not to be so magical. In fact, curses were used by nearly everyone in antiquity, and were even somewhat common place. In this way, cursing was one practice among many that could be used to address difficult life circumstances. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to distinguish cursing from religion. The practice of cursing, thus, does not offer a clear-cut case of magic, but rather illustrates how problematic the category of magic is.

Read the Full post at!

Defining the Magical Practitioner in Antiquity

When we think of curses, we think of a magician, or even a witch, who’s up to no good in the dark of the night. Ancient literature teems with this figure: the witch of Endor, Medea, even followers of Jesus figure into this portrait of the evil magical practitioner (Gordon 253).

I want to set aside the specific question of cursing for a moment, and look at how we define the magical practitioner in antiquity. I would argue that we can’t define such a person—or at the very least, that it’s hard to pinpoint such a figure.

While I may not draw a hard and fast line between religion and magic, others have attempted to define what separated magicians from their religious counterparts. I want to look at some of these categories and determine whether or not they are useful for analysing magic in antiquity. In many ways, these categories reflect the similarities between the two spheres rather than any inherent differences.

Read the full post at Ancient Curses…

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Curses as Divine Authenticator: The Wrath of Moses in the Book of Numbers

Much of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) is devoted to Moses—who he was, his miraculous deeds, and stories which affirm his leadership in the Israelite community.

The Book of Numbers, in particular, highlights this last dimension of Moses’ leadership skills. Time and again, Moses is depicted as having a special relationship with the Hebrew god, one that reaches an intimacy not afforded to other Israelites or other worshipers.

I want to look at two examples where God curses those who dare to question Moses’ primacy: These events are recounted in Numbers 12 and 16, and detail what happens when Moses leadership is challenged…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

Announcing the Ancient Curses Project!

Ancient CursesI’ve been very fortunate in my time at York to work with some amazing professors who have encouraged me to research areas that are not always accessible to undergraduates. This year is no exception, and I am currently undertaking a directed research project on Curses and Curse Stories with Professor Tony Burke. Obviously, this fits in well with my general research interests and gives me the opportunity to pursue these phenomena from a variety of angles. Part of my course mark involves a digital humanities component. So yes, this means that there is a companion website to by research project. Of course there is. So without further ado, I am happy to announce! This website will serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it will act as a repository for the material I collect as I move through this project. As such, you will find handy resource guides to curses found in classical literature, Biblical stories, and other materials. It also provides research resources, such as bibliographies, online digital libraries, and other relevant websites. There is also a blog where I explore in more detail some of the more interesting curses I find and also sort through some of the issues which surround the study of curses. While some of the pages are admittedly sparse, the website is already up-and-running. Obviously, what’s there is a work-in-progress and I’ll be adding to it throughout the year (and maybe even thereafter). Here’s an excerpt form the first blog post:

This blog will mostly cover curses and curse stories as I encounter them in my research and attempt to understand the role of curses in ancient society. The study of cursing in antiquity is fraught with methodological issues. How do we define curses? Who practiced them? Why are similar phenomena labelled differently depending on the context? These are just some of the questions which confront those who study this area. The editorial colour which shades these practices must be noted, for what often lies underneath the rhetorical veneer are many shades of grey. My approach is a bit minimalistic: A curse, is a curse, is a curse. My view is that plenty can be said about curses and the societies that produced them without resorting to caricatures, hagiography, or convoluted taxonomy. Thus, this project will cover a large range of material in an attempt to comprehensively survey the subject matter and find points of convergence as well as roads of departure.  Among the sources are Near Eastern curses, literary curses (from classical and Biblical literature), and materials such as curse tablets and other forms of sympathetic malediction practices.

I hope you have the chance to stop by and let me know what you think of the site. In my opinion, the best part is the random curse generator on the sidebar—so you can get cursed anew with every visit.

Associations in the Greco-Roman World, a Sourcebook

GRAI wanted to bring your attention to a book that may be of some interest to readers of this blog. It’s by a professor I’ve worked with at York, Philip Harland, and since I was hired as a research assistant on this project, I can personally vouch for its contents!

The book, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations and Commentary, is the second volume in a series (The first volume can be found here). It collects inscriptions from Asia Minor and the north coast of the Black Sea and is a valuable resource for those seeking to understand antiquity from the ground up. Topically, this volume focuses on associations, a broad category which includes religious groups, trade guilds, and funerary associations among others.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction on the topic of religion and associations:

While immigrant, occupational, and familial associations are sometimes easier for the social historian to identify, others are less so. In particular, with many groups, all we know is that numerous individuals joined together regularly to form a society, to honour a particular deity, or to be initiated into the mysteries of a deity. And in many of these cases no further information is available concerning how these individuals may have been connected before the formation of the association. This latter situation has often led to the rather unhelpful scholarly category of the “cultic association” or “religious association,” with, in some cases, scholars debating whether or not this or that group was “religious” enough to be called a “cultic association,” or whether a particular group was merely a “club,” or a “political association,” or what have you. Although it is true that a given group may have focussed more on honouring certain deities than some other group, these distinctions are, now, largely unrecoverable for the historian. We shall see that immigrant groups, occupational guilds, neighbourhood associations, and others were similarly concerned with honouring the gods, so virtually all groups discussed in this work had a cultic function and were, in some sense, “cultic associations.” (Harland, 3)

What I think is really valuable about this text is that this material is not the most easily accessed of ancient sources—the translations can be tricky and the source material is often partial, and they lack the “star power” that our regular sources, such as Livy or even (ugh) Tertullian, possess. It is this latter aspect that I think provides the most value to scholars in that these inscriptions offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of those living in the Hellenistic era and Roman Empire.

If this sounds like your thing, you can get the book at the DeGruyter website, though be warned it’s quite pricey.

This being my blog, I am going to take a moment to highlight my important work on this book: I indexed sections IX and X, as well as did a bit of proofreading. Perhaps one day I will also have my own book of translations, but until then I’ll content myself with a nice mention in the acknowledgements section.

Satyrs and Maenads: Themes in the Mysteries of Dionysus

The Greek wine-god Dionysus was a popular figure, both in public religion as well as in more private settings, such as with his mysteries. Scholars look to many sources to understand his mysteries, with artistic evidence—such as that found on murals or vases—comprising one way to understand what his worshipers did and believed.

Common themes are often found in this art. There is Dionysus, who is wreathed in ivy and attended by fawn-skinned cloaked maenads, female worshipers who carry thyrsoi and fend-off the advances of satyrs, half-man/half-goat creatures of Greek mythology. These characters find themselves in a variety of situations, one of which is that of the “sleeping maenad.” The sleeping maenad appears on vases and in statues, and also on reliefs. The trope here is as follows: The maenad sleeps while some horny Satyrs look on—often with lewd results. We know the Satyrs are horny because they are depicted with giant erections. If you are squeamish about that last sentence, I recommend not reading any further because the rest of this post is totally not safe for work.

So the maenad sleeps and the satyrs do whatever they do. In one case, a Satyr gropes the thigh of an underwearless-maenad, as his stimulated companion eagerly looks on (ARV 188/68 at the Musée de Antiquitiés in Rouen—but you can find it closer to hand in Barbara Goff’s Citizen Bacchae, pg. 269). For those who are wondering, yes this was pretty rape-y, but it was the ancient world and you could do awful things to women back then. Sometimes the satyrs didn’t physically assault the sleeping maenad, which brings me to another situation which is, well, perplexing. I am referring to a relief found on a Roman sarcophagus which depicts this common theme of sleeping maenad/horny satyr. But this time there’s a twist: The satyr pleasures himself with a statue. See, um, below. Satyr

Here the maenad sleeps, and the Satyr watches on. But instead of taking a swipe at the lovely lass, he appears to be mounting himself on the erect penis of a statue behind him. Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. The Satyr is partially shielded by a curtain, which appears to be held by another Satyr, while grape leaves and pine cones decorate the scene, making a clear connection to Dionysus. The maenad reclines while another satyr emerges in the background, but she appears unscathed. The rest of the sarcophagus appears to depict some sort of nighttime revelry connected with the mysteries of Dionysus: there are torches, a woman carries the sacred basket on her head, and one man is unable to stand up without a bit of help—perhaps he was overpowered by some initiation rites or maybe he indulged in too much wine. Bacchanalia

This sarcophagus presents a great example of the problems which surround studying the mysteries in that it combines both mythological themes with actual human activities. Do the activities of the Satyr represent ritual activity? Are they simply part of the teachings that might have been revealed doing initiation? Did women play a passive role in these mysteries? And the big one: Was it only about sex or was it an allegory with a deeper meaning? That such a graphic image would be found on funerary item is shocking to our modern sensibilities. Regardless, these scenes were of great importance for the person to whom this sarcophagus belonged, and tapped into a theme that was widespread in antiquity: the horny satyr and sleeping maenad. I do not know if the “statue penetration” is a common theme as well, but here it gets play within what was an otherwise common story.

Iamblichus, Orientalism and Peer Review

The latest issue of the Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies was released this week. Quick scale-up: The Pomegranate is a peer-review academic journal, and features articles by scholars who study paganism and esotericism. It is one of the pillars which support the academic study of paganism and magic. Other journals that also come to mind here are Aries and Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft.

This issue is a special issue. For regular readers, they will notice that it is super-sized and features double the articles. But on a more personal note, this issue also features my first peer-review journal article.

This is a weird feeling for me because it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been published. As someone who spent several years as a professional writer, getting published isn’t new to me. I’ve had hundreds of by-lines in newspapers and magazines, and logged plenty of cover stories in my brief career. And those are great memories. Quite honestly they’re pretty awesome memories.

But this is peer review, and that’s a totally different beast with wildly different standards. It helped that I had Chas Clifton on my side to help guide me though the process, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect.

The peer review process is a blind process where one’s work is judged anonymously. The author is anonymous and the reviewers are anonymous. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

Basically you strip your paper of any indication of who the author is, so the reviewer can judge the work on its merits without any sort of personal biases getting in the way. It then goes out anonymously to reviewers. Obviously, it’s the reviewers hold all the power here, and they determine whether your article will see the light of day. A good review will point out areas for improvement, and suggest changes to be made for publication. But you could also be on the receiving end of a flat-out “no.” At which point you drown your sorrows in cheesecake, the umbrage of tears smearing the ink on your carefully wrought paper that you worked so, so hard on.

The take-away here? Peer review is a bit of a crapshoot. It’s also a bit nerve-wracking.

Anyway, my paper made it through (Hooray! Celebration—not sadness—cheesecake!). So now what?

Now you read it! This paper is a fresh version of a paper I posted a couple of years ago called “Orientalism in Iamblichus’ The Mysteries” (which was removed long ago for copyright reasons, etc.). This version features some additional discussion about the perception of magic in the Greco-Roman world, and is tightened up a bit more than the original

Here is the abstract:

Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries of the Egyptians is part of a larger Neoplatonic debate over the soundness of theurgical practices and Eastern ritual. The discussion of Egyptian practices in The Mysteries reveals the legitimating structures which underlie Iamblichus’ argument, specifically, an Orientalizing discourse which contributes to a larger esoteric market of knowledge. This is figured both through stereotypes of Egypt as a site of ancient mysteries, but also from a very real inaccessibility of Egyptian religion to the Greeks. This emphasis on timeless, secret knowledge converts Iamblichan theurgy, a disputed new system of Platonic thought, into a unit of social currency which confers worth, prestige and power upon its creator and sets it apart from the dominant mode of philosophical rationalism.

I would like to thank my reviewers for pointing out valuable ways to broaden my discussion, and providing a relatively smooth transition into academic publishing. Of course, I would like to thank Chas Clifton for all his help in making this happen, but more importantly, for his patience with my lousy footnoting (despite my best efforts!). Thanks are also due to my Professor, Phil Harland, for toughening me up and challenging my thinking about these issues—without his advice I wouldn’t have written such a good paper in the first place. And thank you to The Husband for being The Husband and generally supporting me, even when it means turning-in late to bed. Anyway, this is a really special experience for me, and I am very grateful and thankful for everyone who helped me get here. Huzzah!

Photo by nomadic lass.

The Linguistic Origins of Sacred Space

In the Roman Empire, sacred space was not limited to physical structures—the gods were everywhere, and nearly all facets of life were imbued with the sacred.

There were however, some spaces which were more sacred than others. These spaces were known as templum, a word that looks an awful lot like our modern “temple” but actually refers to a segment of space deemed sacred, rather than a building or something like that (to which the term aedes would apply).

In On the Latin Language, Varro attempts to explain where this term came from. He says the following:

The word templum is derived from the word ‘to gaze’ [tueri], and so likewise is the word ‘to contemplate’ [contemplare]…the notion that a temple [templum] is a consecrated building [aedes sacra] seems to have stemmed from the fact that in the city of Rome most consecrated buildings are temples… (Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10)

Varro’s explanation connects the word “templum” to the actions of augurs, who ultimately determine the boundaries of sacred space. They can do this in many ways, but here Varro details the establishing of sacred boundaries by trees, and how one sees the physical space between them. Basically, the auger eyeballs a specific space, chooses a few boundary points (in this case, trees), and designates that area as holy.  Easy peasy.

But…I think Varro is wrong. Ok, well not totally wrong. But not totally right, either.

Now, before we really get into this, I want to make clear that I am not a linguistic expert. I have a few years of Greek under my belt, but I still have a lot to learn and my translations are usually a bit bumpy. That said, I do know a few things, and I think they are applicable to this dilemma.

In Greek, the word for sacred space is τέμενος, a word whose root is τμ and is related to the idea of cutting or separating (verbal form: τέμνω). According to the most-holy-and-venerable LSJ, this word means “a piece of land cut off II. A piece of land dedicated to a god, the sacred precincts.”

We can see, in this use that a physical space is cut away from regular space, and given a special status. The idea is the same as the Latin one, this is an area set apart for things related to the gods.

Transliterated, τέμενος is temenos. Already, we see a shared word structure with temple—they both have the same “tm” (τμ) root! Furthermore, the act performed by the augurs in Varro’s description, can be seen as a “cutting apart” of sacred space from the secular. The key concept in both words is one of sacred demarcation. The question is: Is this conceptual sharing reflected in the root of the word?

I think it is. I certainly think it tells us more about the conceptualization of space than Varro’s explanation, which seems a bit circular to me. The Greek word τέμενος encapsulates not only the idea Varro is hinting at—that the word templum is related to other words of sacred space—but also shows the linguistic root at the heart of the concept.

Anyone who studies Latin and Greek will eventually notice similarities, despite the different alphabets used. It strikes me as strange that Varro didn’t put that together here. Perhaps there is a political reasoning behind his explanation that has to do with establishing Roman religious autonomy. Either way you slice it (ugh), sacred space in the Roman world was defined as a place physically separated, or cut away from regular space.

Varro’s attempts to determine the linguistic roots of templum show that the word had much in common structurally and conceptually with the Greek word τέμενος, which suggests that the idea of sacred space was similar throughout these parts of the ancient Mediterranean. While Varro may have some good instincts here about what the word templum means, it seems we can get a bit more clarity from going back to the Greek.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus.

Source: Varro, On the Latin Language, VII.8-10

ASE Wrap-Up: Aristocratic Vampires

While I’m not going to do a full report on the ASE Conference (other than to say it was a lot of fun and really awesome!), I do want to address a question that came up during my presentation, and hopefully provide some insight into an otherwise dissonant element of my overall argument that the historical vampire was “disenchanted” by vampire literature which represented the Balkans in contrast with western views of itself in the “modern” era. It was a good question, and deserves a bit of space here.

For those of you who haven’t been to an academic conference, this is what usually happens: After a paper is given, the presenter answers questions regarding the paper (or the topic). This is actually a very fun part of the conference in that the speaker has a chance to talk about their ideas with other scholars, get some feedback, and perhaps consider angles they hadn’t thought of previously. The tone is (usually) collegial, though sometimes it can get out of hand.

Now, I prepared in advance for several questions. Here are a few inquiries I did not field, but nevertheless prepared for:

Q: What happened to Arnod Paole?
A: He made several vampires before being staked, at which time he let out a most serious groan.

Q: Why were the Balkans viewed so pejoratively?
A: Their location within Europe made them susceptible to foreign empire, both Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, and their geographical position held many advantages for the great powers of Britain, France and Russia, who each sought to control access in the region. Thus, by demonizing a peoples they wanted to subject, they could more easily lay claims to power in the region.

Q: Who are you wearing?
A: Kmart Jaclyn Smith Collection…on sale.

But no, I got none of these questions. Instead, I was asked a very astute question which totally complicated my argument that the Balkan peasantry and “primitive” belief in vampires constituted a threat to the west. More specifically, I was asked why Balkan vampires in literature were all aristocrats.

Let me say first, I am not the quickest person on my feet. I think I answered with a bunch of “I don’t knows” and some half-ideas that went…somewhere, maybe. But now that I’ve thought about it, perhaps I can take a stab (ugh) at it here.

Talking about vampires at the ASE.

Stephen D. Arata, I think, provides the clearest reason for the aristocratic vampire. In his analysis of Dracula, he observes how the character of Dracula reverses one version of the orientalist travel narrative (634-639). In brief, this narrative involves a westerner who goes to an exotic locale in the East and “passes” for being a native. However, the converse is rarely true. While an Englishman, such as Richard Burton, can don a headscarf and be mistaken as indigenous, it is unlikely someone from the east could make the opposite journey and move about undetected (Arata 639).

Except in vampire novels. And this is what Arata argues is so terrifying about Dracula. The Count is not one of the backward peasantry, but well studied in the intellectual pursuits of the day. (For some reason, reading train schedules is especially important here.) Even more, when Dracula encounters westerners…he passes. People do not see him as a foreigner, but an aristocrat (Arata 638-639).

In other words, he threatens to break into the existing elite social order. The device of the vampire serves to show how foreign incursions into these areas will drain the vitality—or hegemony—from those currently on top (Arata, 630-632).

While my paper argued that vampires, or more specifically the sort of people who believe in vampires, represented a specific encounter between east and west in the “modern” era, the aristocratic vampire does complicate things. Certainly, literature from the time supports this socio-economic distinction, as western diplomats often accepted their elite eastern counterparts (Todorova 465-466). The vampire designates the sort of threat that can happen within these encounters—meetings which don’t easily stratify into “us-and-them” but rather align along social status. The threat is ambiguous, hard to detect, and undermines the existing hegemony.

We must keep in mind that while these fictional books did encode certain common messages, at the end of the day they were entertainment—and in this case were a form of literature that was intentionally designed to disturb the reader. On the one hand, the Balkan peasants serve as a foil, to remind the reader of how far they’ve come from “primitive superstitions” on the other hand, the aristocratic vampire suggests the threat not only still exists, but is omnipresent, undetectable, and able to infiltrate—and subvert—the highest realms of society.

I hope this helps clarify what is definitely a complicating feature of my argument. That said, the overall message—that the East contains ideas and beliefs that are dissonant with those of the West, I think still holds up, even if that threat is polarized in social status from those who give it credence.

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonialization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-645.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Signet Classics. 2007. Print.
Todorova, Maria. “The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention.” Slavic Review 53.2 (1994): 453-482.

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.