One of the beauties of writing my kind of mysteries is that not all that happens between the book covers need be explained. I’m drawn to the paranormal, and I like to hint at it in my work, so I was happy to discover when I lived in Greece that it boasts one of the richest veins of ghostly tales I’ve ever encountered.
The origins of those tales lie in antiquity, when the ancient Greeks built oracles and temples to consult and communicate with the dead. The historian Homer wrote of “classes” of ghosts, including the restlessaoroi—those who were dead before their time—and the bitter agamoi, who died before they were married. In The Iliad, the hero Achilles was haunted by his brother-in-arms Patroclus, who appeared to him weeping and begging for proper funeral rites.
And in modern Greece, ghost stories thrive. In Sfakia, Crete, every May 17th, a defeated army named the drosoulites, or dew-shadows, marches from the castle at dawn. The island of Santorini has a long-standing association with vampires, and Daveli’s Cave near Athens is famed for its many unexplained and eerie phenomena.
The Greeks can be superstitious (I remember my husband once pushed me into a shop doorway to avoid a woman reputed to be a witch) and reports of contemporary manifestations meet with general acceptance.
On a small island some years ago, the bus I was on passed a house whose owner had recently died. “Did you hear?” a black-clad grandmother asked the other passengers. “Evangelia walked this way the other day, and she met Stamatis.” There was a collective intake of breath, and all on board—including the driver—made three crosses over their hearts to bless and protect themselves. Most of them had attended Stamatis’s funeral only days before, and if he’d been seen, it could only mean one thing—that Stamatis had become a revenant.
In the not-too-distant past, a revenant was known as a vrykolakas, a word some say is derived from a Slavic word for “wolf” or “pelt.” In very isolated areas of Greece, it’s translated as “werewolf.” Others suggest the word’s roots lie in “cesspool” and that it denotes something rotten. By tradition, the vrykolakas’s body swelled up and was hard, and could be tapped like a drum. Somewhere between vampire and zombie, these apparitions roamed by day or night, defecating and urinating in food, assaulting people and waking them from their sleep.
If a village suffered unexplained illness or deaths, graves were opened to find any “drum-like” bodies, and if one was found, it was chopped up and cremated. Anyone born or conceived on one of the great church festival days was susceptible to becoming a revenant (the Orthodox Church bans sexual intercourse on these days), as were those who died violent deaths or committed suicide, or anyone whose corpse was passed over by a cat.
One might, also, be cursed: May the earth not receive him, or May the ground reject him, were all the words necessary to bring about the undead state. And while it may be many years since Greece has seen a true vrykolakas, the myth of the beast persists in the current use of the term for a child-molester.
My mother-in-law told me of another clan of unpleasant otherworldly visitors—the aloustines, who appear in the first six days of August, either at noon or midnight. Beautiful, long-haired women who love to dance, they come from the sea (their origins must surely be in water-nymphs or mermaids) and snatch men to partner them—which doesn’t sound so bad, except the aloustines announce their presence with the stench of decomposing flesh.
These tales and legends inspire and inform certain aspects of my writing, and one of those ancient temples to the dead would make a dark and sinister setting for a novel. But so often, truth can be as strange as fiction. When I was living in the islands, I knew an English girl who was keen to move out of the house she was renting because of a series of disturbances in the night. When she was fast asleep, unseen hands would pull off the bed-clothes. Is it possible the vrykolakes aren’t so far away after all?
Anne Zouroudi was born in England and has lived in the Greek islands. Her attachment to Greece remains strong, and the country is the inspiration for much of her writing. She now lives in the Derbyshire Peak District. She is the author of six Mysteries of the Greek Detective: The Messenger of Athens (shortlisted for the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award for Breakthrough Authors and longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize), The Taint of Midas, The Doctor of Thessaly, The Lady of Sorrows, The Whispers of Nemesis and The Bull of Mithros.