BMCR 2013.09.20

La fata dai piedi di mula: licantropi, streghe e vampiri nell’Oriente greco

, La fata dai piedi di mula: licantropi, streghe e vampiri nell'Oriente greco. Milano: EncycloMedia Publishers, 2012. 127. ISBN 978887514336. €12.00 (pb).

This book is a concise sourcebook on Byzantine folklore, a topic Tommaso Braccini has already treated in a more scholarly way.1 Instead of providing a comprehensive list or the basic translations of the Greek sources, Braccini presents rather the ancient stories in a fresh and attractive way, making the book very accessible to non-specialist readers, in keeping with the series. All the references mentioned in each chapter are available at the end of the book (in the section “Fonti e approfondimenti”, which also includes a bibliography of modern works). This book focuses on the fantastic and daemonic creatures of Byzantine folklore, particularly those whose origins can be traced back to classical Antiquity. The persistence of this heritage in the Greek Middle Ages suggests a strong continuity between ancient Greek religion and Byzantine beliefs, despite the apparent distance between these two worlds.

In ten short chapters (introduced by a “Premessa”), Braccini explores the world of the exotikà with its supernatural and dangerous beings that are literally thought to “come from outside”, living at the borders of the human and Christian community (p. 15). They may be considered as an image of “otherness” in Byzantine culture, but, as Braccini argues in his “Premessa” (p. 17-18), these creatures may also be considered as esotikà, that is “coming from inside”, though anyone may meet/encounter them in daily life. Braccini draws attention to the fact that many creatures we find in Byzantine testimonies were already present in the ancient Greek sources, but they were interpreted as daemons within the new Christian perspective (p. 15).

The chronological parameters of the research are not explicitly stated and the period taken into account seems to be very broad: the author considers late ancient testimonies as the apocryphal Saint John’s Act, usually dated to VI c. A.D., as well as more recent authors (the most recent is Leone Allacci who lived in XVII c.) and their relationship with modern Greek folklore. The order in which ancient texts are discussed is not chronological, but thematic: every chapter focuses on a single figure of ancient folklore (vampires, witches etc.).

In the first chapter, the physical nature of daemons is taken into account, such as it is exposed in the Testament of Solomon, a pseudepigraphical work ascribed to King Solomon. One may describe it as a sort of handbook of demonology that probably goes back to Late Antiquity. The second chapter, one of the most interesting ones in the book, is devoted to the ancient statues and their magical powers; it deals with the Byzantines’ relationship to the classical past of their city, as well as the new meanings attributed to memories and ruins from the past.2

Pagan statues were often considered as alive and treated as magical objects; they could have a malevolent influence especially during conflicts. In the third chapter, Braccini approaches a fundamental issue in the field of the history of religions with the stories concerning sacrifices (especially human sacrifices) offered to strengthen the bases of a crumbling building whose construction was impeded by evil deeds. Such stories with the victims of the sacrifice becoming a sort of “protective spirit” for the building, called stoicheia (p. 45), obviously reminds us of the story of Mastro Manole, analyzed by Mircea Eliade in his Commentaries on the Legend of Mastro Manole (Bucharest 1943) and thus provides a precursor for this wide-spread theme in the Balkans. Unfortunately, Braccini does not mention the works of Eliade, which would have been of great interest to his inquiry.

Nereids are the main characters of chapter 4 (“Le passioni delle Nereidi”): these dangerous and beautiful female creatures, related in particular to water, may be either benevolent (by giving musical skills to mortals), or malevolent (by killing or kidnapping newborns or young people). For Braccini, these daemonic creatures are the direct descendants of the Nymphs of classical Antiquity (p. 51; his discussion is however too concise, such that the relationships between ancient divinities and medieval daemons remains obscure). Chapters 5 (“Le trasformazioni di lamie e draghi”), 6 (“L’appetito delle streghe”), and 7 (“L’invidia di Gello”) take into account many other daemonic female beings, such as Lamia, Gello, and the witches ( strigai). All these creatures shared similar characteristics, such as their metamorphic abilities and their inclination to anthropophagy. Above all they were considered to be very threatening towards newborns and children, causing their deaths and/or the deaths of their mothers in childbirth. In this case, the parallels with ancient “daemons” such as Gello, mentioned by Sappho, or Lamia are particularly striking, as Braccini remarks.

Chapters 8 (“I dodici giorni dei kallikantzaroi ”) and 9 (“I furori dei licantropi”) are devoted to masculine supernatural creatures of various names, kallikantzaroi, babutzicari, but also kynokephaloi (a kind of werewolf or anthropophagous ogre). Kallikantzaroi and babutzicari were ugly daemons – more naughty than bad – who wandered the earth during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. Children who died untimely or were born during these twelve days could become Kallikantzaroi. Braccini posits that these creatures may have some links with the mask parade of the Kalendae that was usually accomplished at the beginning of the year. Chapter 10 (“La vitalità dei morti”) is entirely devoted to a particular kind of creatures that Braccini considers to be the ancestor of modern vampires, 1 the vrykolakes. The reader may be surprised to learn that ancient vampires were not fond of blood, but they were rather some kind of zombies. Their body, after death, did not undergo the normal process of decay: for this reason, vrykolakes were not “enough dead” and they wandered among living beings, causing different kind of trouble, even death. The incorruptibility of their corpses was explained as a result of excommunication during their lives. Braccini rightly points out that this kind of belief was an instrument of power for the Orthodox Church, which exploited the ancient and widespread tradition of the restless dead to strengthen its power.

To sum up, Braccini’s book is a very useful one, because it treats the rarely explored field of Byzantine folklore. The non-specialist reader (a definition that in this case includes the great majority of scholars in Classics) will find in this book a sort of handbook of the Byzantine imaginary, as well as a lot of very useful and precise references to the Byzantine sources, otherwise not very easy to find. Moreover, Braccini’s book will make Classicist scholars, especially those interested in the history of religion, well aware of the continuity one may find between the beliefs of Classical Antiquity and those of modern Greek folklore (explored well in old-fashioned books such as that of Lawson3) passing through the Greek Middle Ages. Nevertheless, some important references to modern works are missing (such as Eliade in the chapter on the stoicheia, or Meuli and Cocchiara in the chapter on the mask parade Kallikantzaroi): it would have then offered a wider discussion on such complicated and problematic categories as “daemons”, “survival” and “continuity”. But here the problem may be with the collection of the publication whose public is too wide to allow for such debates.


Perché Pan non muore – introduzione di Maurizio Bettini, 7
Una premessa, 15
I volti dei demoni, 19
I volti delle statue, 35
I sacrifici degli stoicheia, 45
Le passioni delle Nereidi, 51
Le trasformazioni di lamie e draghi, 59
L’appetito delle streghe, 69
L’invidia di Gello, 73
I dodici giorni dei kallikantzaroi, 81
I furori dei licantropi, 93
La vitalità dei morti, 101
Fonti e approfondimenti, 117


1. Braccini is also the author of Prima di Dracula. Archeologia del vampiro, Bologna, Mulino, 2011, a work that traces the origin of the vampire back to Byzantine folklore.

2. For this topic see also James, Liz. “‘Pray Not to Fall into Temptation and Be on Your Guard’: Pagan Statues in Christian Constantinople.” , Gesta 35.1 (1996): 12-20 and Flood, Finbarr Barry. “Image against Nature: Spolia as Apotropaia in Byzantium and the dār al-Islām.” The Medieval History Journal 9 (2006): 143-66.

3. Lawson, John, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: a study in survivals, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1910.