The Vrykolakas of Greek Folklore
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I know what you're thinking: "I don't know how to pronounce that." Unless, of course, you speak Greek or perhaps a Slavic language that has a similar word. Don't go look it up because you're likely to run into this, which is an absolute nightmare of robotic voice pronunciation destruction.
I like to know how to pronounce things, and I want to be able to do it. I tracked down several native Greek speakers saying the word and replayed them dozens of times, trying to mimic it. Words just stick better in my brain that way. After that, I decided to record my own version so anyone reading this would have a quick way to learn so you don't have to read this piece and insert "v-something" in your head every time you see the word.
How to Pronounce Vrykolakas (Greek: βρυκόλακας)
Follow along with me as I say "vrykolakas" in a 100% completely believable Greek accent¹, even though I only began saying the word today.
For English speakers, think of it as four syllables: vree-ko-la-kas.
¹ Lies. Also, it's possible that I said the word with a Japanese accent. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I'm not a native Greek speaker, nor do I know the first thing about Greek. But I love languages, and I think my recording is a fair representation of the word to my non-Greek trained ears. Certainly better than that first link above with the robot voice.
If you're a native Greek speaker and want to volunteer your voice to put on my website let me know, and I'll be happy to upload it and link it.
Now that you can say a rough approximation of the word, go ahead and let out a blood-curdling scream while running around your house, locking all of your doors, because you're about to learn of a monster who wants to eat you, particularly your tasty, tasty liver. I was going to link to the nutritional facts of a human liver, but I can't seem to find them. I don't know why. I did find calories, at least.
What Is a Vrykolakas?
The vrykolakas (say it with me!) are undead creatures with some similarities to vampires. The best thing I can do for you here is to put you in the seat of a victim to understand better.
Since most of you reading this don't live in remote villages, let's go with a modern setting. You can thank me later if you can't sleep tonight.
An Encounter With a Vrykolakas
You are sitting at home in your living room. It's dark out; you've had dinner, and your belly is pleasantly full of pepperoni pizza as you lounge around on your sofa, flipping through Netflix to find something to watch. They've introduced about a dozen new categories since you last looked. You take a deep breath, settling your butt down into your seat cushion. You can still smell yeasty pizza crust and tomato sauce hanging in the air. A truck rumbles past your house, and the sound disappears into the distance.
Suddenly, there's a knock at your door. Someone's calling your name from outside.
"Coming!" You call out as you hop up and jog toward your front door. A surprise visitor! Who could it be?
You throw the deadbolt and swing open the door, letting in a rush of cool night air. You peer out the door to find only your lonely welcome mat. You grab the doorframe with one hand and poke your head outside, leaning this way and that—searching.
You close your door, twist the deadbolt back into place, and settle in for the rest of the evening. Before you know it, it's midnight. You couldn't commit to a movie because they're so long, but you accidentally watched 3 hours of back-to-back 20-minute episodes of a sitcom you missed a decade ago. You turn off the TV and stumble through your bedtime routine and under your bed covers. You fall asleep snuggled in your bed as you think of everything you need to do tomorrow—hopefully, you can get it all done early enough to finish your Netflix binge.
Your eyes flash open.
Moonlight casts soft shadows through your window.
You try to take a breath.
The putrid stench of summer roadkill hits your nose. You gag, feeling the sting of spicy pepperoni hit the back of your throat.
Can't breathe. You gasp for air.
Pressure on your chest, crushing.
Your lungs burn.
Pain shoots into your rib cage as something cracks.
You gasp, realizing the silhouette of a person is sitting on you.
You reach out.
Your palm connects with cold, bloated skin like an overfilled water balloon.
"Get off!" you squeak out.
You kick, punch, slap, buck. You can't move it!
It raises a shadowed hand with wicked claws into the air. The hand plunges at you. Sharp nails pierce, rip through your skin.
You scream as your belly explodes with pain.
The fingers skitter around inside you, nicking and slicing organs, feeling about, closing on something. No! Squeezing, aching.
Your jaw drops open in horror as you realize one of your organs has just been torn out. The clawed hand pushes a meaty blob into the dark figure's gaping mouth. With a squish and a rip, it begins to chew. Thick liquid oozes out, slowly dripping onto your bed.
Blood. Your blood.
Your vision dims around the edges, then goes dark. For a moment, you can hear the steady pitter-patter of your blood hitting your bed sheet before your hearing goes, and then, nothing.
You are dead.
When the coroner finally arrives, days after your neighbors complain of a funky smell messing up the barbecue they tried to invite you to, your body is found in your bed, minus your liver. It is, of course, determined to be a death of "natural causes / died during sleep."
The story above is a bit of an amalgamation of folklore surrounding vrykolakas. I'll expand on this more down below, but according to lore in some Greek villages, you are safe if you don't answer the first time—so be sure and wait on a second knock. Now, if you're an introvert like me, this story would have gone a different way.
The Same Encounter, Only This Time You're an Introvert
You smash the button on the remote, trying to find something worth your time on Netflix.
Setting the remote down, you grab your phone and open your door cam app. It's going to be another soon-to-be-ex-friend (they've violated your text-before-calling-and-don't-ever-show-up-unannounced rule), a poorly misguided neighbor who thinks you actually answer your door (fools), or a salesperson who can just GTFO right now. You frown as your free hand feels around for the nearest blunt or sharp object, landing on a fat dictionary.
A glance at your live view in your door cam app shows it's another undead. You sigh, drop the dictionary, and pick up your remote. You exit Netflix, open up Amazon Prime Video, and then pop on some Buffy the Vampire Slayer to brush up on your staking skills.
"Hey, kitty, there's another undead outside, so don't go hissing too loudly. You know what, actually, get over here so we can both rock out to the Buffy theme song."
Your cat jumps onto your lap and begins to make biscuits. It meows up at you, expecting scritches and treats.
Congratulations, you are alive.
The next time you see one of those online articles alluding to introversion as a disorder (written by an extrovert attempting to force their worldview onto everyone), just remember that your disdain for typical social encounters keeps your liver inside your own body and keeps the undead outside your house.
If you go searching around for vrykolakas, you may find some say the vrykolakas come from Ancient Greek folklore. After trudging through initial regurgitations of the same information using the old copy/paste method of lazy content marketing, I was able to find other sources of information that weren't plagiarizing one another.
The word "vrykolakas" may have been borrowed from Slavic languages and may only go back to around the 1600s, or perhaps a little before that. Eyewitness accounts and folklore surrounding these undead creatures vary wildly and have somewhat melded over time with the typical vampire tropes we all know. Keep in mind, though, that vrykolakas aren't the same thing as vampires.
How to Not Become a Vrykolakas
Obviously, you don't want to become one of these creatures. I've put together this handy checklist that tells you what to avoid, so you don't become one of these vampire-like monsters.
Vrykolakas—Don't Do These
- Live a sacrilegious way of life
- Get excommunicated
- Be buried in unconsecrated ground
- Eat meat from an animal wounded by a wolf or werewolf
- Become a werewolf, then get killed (this may turn you into a vrykolakas)
I found a few references regarding vrykolakas in Greece during World War II, but not really much in first-hand accounts or stories. It's difficult to imagine what living through that kind of war was like, but it would have been a truly terrifying experience even without vrykolakas. Throw in some undead crawling out of trenches, villages, and overfilled cemeteries, and you've got a recipe for an actual living nightmare (not to mention one hell of a fiction story idea.)
What To Do If You Encounter Vrykolakas
First, try not to. Aside from that, it's important to note here that you may not recognize a vrykolakas until it's too late. While some accounts describe them as bloated walking corpses, others describe them as very normal-looking people until they kill you. There are a few stories about how to re-kill a vrykolakas, but as we all know about the undead, you better make sure it stays re-dead if you manage to re-kill one.
Therefore, I would suggest that if you are unlucky enough to encounter a vrykolakas but lucky enough to know it is one before it kills you, then you do ALL of the following: locate it on a Saturday afternoon when it is resting in its grave, exorcise it, impale it, behead it, chop the whole thing into tiny pieces, and cremate every part.
How to Prevent Vrykolakas
Did you know there's an entire field of protective magic called 'apotropaics'? Apotropaic magic derives its name from the Greek word αποτρέπειν, meaning "to ward off." If you've ever heard of warding off the evil eye, you're already familiar with the concept, at least in passing.
While I couldn't find apotropaic magic built for vrykolakas, I was able to locate several recommendations to prevent the reanimation of the recently deceased. Most of these are straightforward and don't require special knowledge. Remember that these techniques are for the general undead, so your mileage may vary with vrykolakas.
- Bury the corpse upside-down
- Place a scythe or sickle near the grave
- Place a silver coin in the mouth
Historical Accounts of Vrykolakas
Although the vrykolakas don't seem to be ancient, there's plenty of evidence of belief in the undead in Ancient Greece, going back to at least as early as 4,000 BCE. Archaeological digs have uncovered bodies with their heads or chests pinned down with incredibly heavy stones to trap the bodies in their graves. Imagine trying to move a rock like that into position thousands of years ago. It's a lot of work, and you'd really need a good reason.
The oldest account of the somewhat modern idea of vrykolakas comes from 1718 in A Voyage into the Levant by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. The whole thing is a fascinating read, but if you'd like to skip straight to the part about vrykolakas, then check out pages 103 to 107 on Google Books. The "s" characters look a lot like "f" to me, by the way.
You can also read a few more historical accounts at By Light Unseen.
Want to learn about Ancient Greek vampires and a bit more about vrykolakas? Check out this video by Helinika - Greek Language, History & Culture on YouTube. You can also hear the word "vrykolakas" from someone who speaks Greek. 🇬🇷
And remember, if you aren't lucky enough to be introverted, you can still survive a close encounter with a vrykolakas by never answering your door on the first knock (or, you know, simply never answering your door).