A Botanist, a Butcher and a Body: Encountering an Eighteenth-Century Vrykolakas

By Lisa Smith, W&M Contributor

From 1700-1702, French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort journeyed through the Greek islands and Constantinople. The following tale is his account of a Greek revenant (vrykolakas) on the island of Mykonos (A Voyage into the Levant, vol. 1, 1718).

The story begins with the unsolved murder of a local “ill-natur’d and quarrelsome” peasant. Two days after burial, the man’s apparition was seen walking around the town at night. He “rumbled about Peoples Goods, put out their lamps, griped tem behind, and a thousand other monky Tricks”—a source of amusement until the “better sort of People” began to complain. Important townsfolk, monks and priests soon came to a conclusion: they would say a mass and pull out the corpse’s heart to drive out the demon.

The town butcher, “an old clumsy fellow”, was the one in charge of removing the heart. Tournefort noted that the butcher initially opened the corpse at the belly, then groped around the entrails in search of it, until someone suggested he instead try the chest cavity. It was a smelly process and the observers burned frankincense to cover it. This was an error, according to Tournefort, describing that “the smoke mixing with the Exhalations from the Carcass, increas’d the stink, and began to muddle the poor people”. The result? “Their Imagination, struck with the spectacle before them, grew full of Visions.” Suddenly, “they were incessantly bawling out Vroucolacas”—a cry of horror that spread rapidly throughout the town.

The butcher reported that the body was still warm and insisted that the blood smeared on his hands was bright red. Those who had carried the corpse recounted that the body was not stiff. Tournefort sceptically added that “I don’t doubt they would have sworn it did not stink, had not we been there”. Tournefort and his companions tried to explain why the decomposing entrails might have felt warm, commenting that the blood on the butcher’s hands didn’t seem especially red. But nobody listened.

The town authorities decided to burn the heart on the sea-shore, but the haunting continued, until everyone was “frighted out of their senses”. The vrykolakas took to beating people, breaking doors, windows and roofs, tearing clothes and, worst of all, emptying all the bottles and vessels around. “’Twas the most thirsty Devil!” commented Tournefort.

Confronted with this “Epidemical Disease of the Brain” (something I’ve blogged about previously), the botanist and his friends held their tongues, knowing that they were likely to be accused of being atheists or infidels. Although they recommended that the local authorities keep watch for the “vagabonds” behind the troubles, the solution was increasingly clear to the townspeople. They had not properly disposed of the body. On January 1, 1701, the Devil finally met his match in the townspeople who lit a “Bonfire of Joy” to burn the corpse. Peace was finally restored to Mykonos.

The account tells us much about folklore beliefs in the region. The vrykolakas has much in common with both the vampires of eastern Europe and the ghosts of western Europe. Like vampires, the revenant had been a difficult person in life; the only way to be rid of the problem was through correctly disposing the body. The vrykolakas was also typical of many early modern vampires in that blood drinking was not a part of the story (although the revenants were often thought to have great hunger and thirst, as this one did…). Like ghosts, the revenant potentially had some form of unfinished business—although nobody seemed bothered about finding the murderer.

Tournefort also reveals much about the growing division between popular belief and scientific knowledge, particularly in terms of evidence. The botanist and butcher both looked at the body, but had very different explanations. The botanist identified problems in butcher’s examination and conclusions, and could provide an obvious rational explanation (vagabonds) for most of the problems. The butcher, in contrast, interpreted the case within an entirely different worldview, entirely supported by the lay and religious authorities, in which the troublesome living inevitably made for troublesome dead.

Tournefort, of course, appears as a logical and rational person to our modern eyes. But for the people of Mykonos, his explanation made no sense. It was Tournefort who would have seemed “full of Visions”!

Lisa Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800) and recently taught a course on natural and supernatural worlds in early modern Europe. She also blogs weekly on history of medicine and science at her Sloane Letters Blog.