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  • Roman Vampires? May 15, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Vampires in antiquity? Certainly, a creature that appears in Philostratus’ third-century Life of Apollonius of Tyana is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s best or at least some of the 1970s Hammer House cast-offs.

    Philostratus tells us of Menippus a young, twenty-five year old philosopher ‘so beautifully proportioned that in appearance he resembled a fine and gentlemanly athlete’. But poor Menippus had contracted a dangerous alliance: ‘Now this Menippus was supposed by most people to be loved by a foreign woman, who was good-looking and extremely dainty, and said that she was rich; although she was really, as it turned out, not one of these things, but was only so in semblance.’

    The story behind Menippus’ affair was a curious one. He had met this ‘foreign’ woman one evening on the road. She had claimed that she was in love  and had offered herself to him (along with generous quantities of wine). The youth consented for ‘although he was in general a strenuous philosopher, he was nevertheless susceptible to the tender passion [i.e. sex]; and he visited her in the evening, and from then on constantly sought her company as his darling.’

    Luckily, the great philosopher Apollonius was there to sort Menippus and his paramour out. First, Apollonius – an author we must imagine of many Philosophy Books – goaded Menippus into marriage with the mysterious dame and, then, he turned up to ruin the ceremony… Philosophers, it seems, have changed little in the last two thousand years.

    Apollonius, therefore, waited for the occasion of the wedding breakfast, and then, presenting himself before the guests who had just arrived, he said: ‘Where is the dainty lady at whose instance you are come?’ ‘Here she is’, replied Menippus, and at the same moment he rose slightly from his seat, blushing. ‘And to which of you belong the silver and gold and all the rest of the decorations of the banqueting hall?’ ‘To the lady’, replied the youth, ‘for this is all I have of my own’, pointing to the philosopher’s cloak which he wore. And Apollonius said: ‘Have you heard of the gardens of Tantalus, how they exist and yet do not exist?’ ‘Yes’, they answered, ‘in the poems of Homer, for we certainly never went down to Hades.’ ‘As such’, replied Apollonius, ‘you must regard this adornment, for it is not reality but the semblance of reality. And that you may realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the empousas, that is to say of those beings whom the many regard as lamias and hobgoblins. These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially to the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feasts.’

    The empousa (a species of ghost who haunted roadways – reminiscent of previous posts on Roman werewolves) tried to bluff her way out: ‘Cease your ill-omened talk and begone’; and she pretended to be disgusted at what she heard, and in fact she was inclined to rail at philosophers and say that they always talked nonsense. When, however, the goblets of gold and the show of silver were proved as light as air and all fluttered away out of their sight, while the wine-bearers and the cooks and all the retinue of servants vanished before the rebukes of Apollonius, the phantom wept, and prayed him not to torture her nor to compel her to confess what she really was. But Apollonius insisted and would not let her off, and then she admitted that she was an empousa, and was fattening up Menippus with pleasures before devouring his body, for it was her habit to feed upon young and beautiful bodies, because their blood is pure and strong.

    Philostratus’ Life is a curious text, half novel, half history based – allegedly – on a work by one of Apollonius’ students Damia (who may or may not have existed). Either fiction or fiction-fact there is a precious glimpse here of belief in a vampire-like beast in the eastern half of the Empire.

    Any other ancient vampires? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com