A glimpse into the world of Greek spooks

“The Greek landscape is full of ghosts» declares John L. Tomkinson in his newest book, «Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires and other Exotica» (Anagnosis 2004), where he plumbs the dark world of exotica (xotica for short), the beings that haunt, traumatize and enchant the human dwellers of the land. Here are creatures from the darkest recesses of the Greek folk imagination: female monsters, or lamies, ravenous for human blood; hairy and cloven-hooved kallikantzaroi running riot over the 12 days of Christmas; and ogres, or drakoi, with their families and all remarkable for their size, brutishness, stupidity and taste for human flesh. Divided (intentionally?) into 13 chapters, the book attempts a categorization of the bewilderingly large number of different xotica in a land where almost every landmark had its own spirit, some benign, some malevolent, and some, like the beautiful nereids, enticingly dangerous. Tomkinson draws on vivid folklorists’ and travellers’ accounts (there’s a bibliography at the back) to describe the size, appearance, favorite haunts and possible provenance of these fearsome creatures. He reveals a dangerous, insecure world where fear and cruelty are rife. The unscrupulous trapped people’s shadows in the foundations of a new building (victims were doomed to die); sinisterly, the practice may have arisen from real human sacrifices. A paralyzed child would be left naked on a marble altar slab all night to see if natural or supernatural agencies were the cause. If the child died, the nereids were to blame. Not even the dead could rest in peace. A multitude of reasons, including conception on an important religious festival, could turn them into vrykolakes, or vampires, after death. Fortunately, holy water, prayers and black-handled knives (read the book for how) were often efficacious against this turbulent spirit world. Hearth fires would keep the kallikantzaroi from descending the chimneys. Vampires, or rather the corpses, would be dug up and burnt. And the musically ambitious could force the nereids to improve their talent. Tomkinson provides not only a good overview of folk beliefs but also thought-provoking explanations, plus explicit linkages to ancient Greek customs and belief. This amount of information could have done with some further organization, and certainly an index. More careful editing would have expunged typos and some awkward phrasing, which are not so numerous as to detract from this roller-coaster ride through the world of spooks.

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