The Vampire on the Isthmus: A Halloween Tale

It is hard to know why ancient writers found Corinth and its territory a region suitable for placing ghosts, witches, and vampires, and whether the region was any more haunted than other towns and countrysides of the ancient world.  The destruction of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC made the city a gloomy ghost town for a century – or at least that is how some Roman writers and modern authors have imagined it: “I felt the ghosts of Corinth watching me” (Steven Saylor).  But the transient character of the Isthmus and the ‘foreign’ elements of the local population also contributed in some ways to stories of spooky beings like the Phoenician vampire bride of Corinth. 

I first discovered Philostratus’ account of the vampire bride while conducting dissertation research related to the Roman Isthmus.  In his 3rd century AD account, Philostratus tells how a Lycian philosopher named Menippus was nearly devoured by his vampire bride on his wedding day, saved at the last moment by the miracle worker Apollonius of Tyana.  The story interestingly brings together many associations of ancient Corinth—Kenchreai , the Isthmus, the center of Hellas, foreign populations (Lycian and Phoenician), associations with philosophy, suburbs of Corinth, the (illusive) pleasures of Aphrodite, and the wealth of the city—that relate illusive beings to transient places.  The following passage from Philostratus VA 4.25 was translated by F.C. Conybeare:

“Now there was in Corinth at that time a man named Demetrius, who studied philosophy and had embraced in his system all the masculine vigor of the Cynics. Of him Favorinus in several of his works subsequently made the most generous mention, and his attitude towards Apollonius was exactly that which they say Antisthenes took up towards the system of Socrates: for he followed him and was anxious to be his disciple, and was devoted to his doctrines, and converted to the side of Apollonius the more esteemed of his own pupils.

Among the latter was Menippus a Lycian of twenty-five years of age, well endowed with good judgment, and of a physique so beautifully proportioned that in mien he resembled a fine and gentlemanly athlete. 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.

For as he was walking all alone along the road towards Cenchraeae, he met with an apparition, and it was a woman who clasped his hand and declared that she had been long in love with him, and that she was a Phoenician woman and lived in a suburb of Corinth, and she mentioned the name of the particular suburb, and said: “When you reach the place this evening, you will hear my voice as I sing to you, and you shall have wine such as you never before drank, and there will be no rival to disturb you; and we two beautiful beings will live together.”

The youth consented to this, for although he was in general a strenuous philosopher, he was nevertheless susceptible to the tender passion; and he visited her in the evening, and for the future constantly sought her company as his darling, for he did not yet realize that she was a mere apparition.

Then Apollonius looked over Menippus as a sculptor might do, and he sketched an outline of the youth and examined him, and having observed his foibles, he said: “You are a fine youth and are hunted by fine women, but in this case you are cherishing a serpent, and a serpent cherishes you.”

And when Menippus expressed his surprise, he added: “For this lady is of a kind you cannot marry. Why should you? Do you think that she loves you?”

“Indeed I do,” said the youth, “since she behaves to me as if she loves me.”

“And would you then marry her?” said Apollonius.

“Why, yes, for it would be delightful to marry a woman who loves you.”

Thereupon Apollonius asked when the wedding was to be. “Perhaps tomorrow,” said the other, “for it brooks no delay.” 

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 ye 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 vampires, 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.”

And the lady said: “Cease your ill-omened talk and be gone”; 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 pretended to weep, 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 a vampire, 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.

I have related at length, because it was necessary to do so, this the best-known story of Apollonius; for many people are aware of it and know that he incident occurred in the center of Hellas; but they have only heard in a general and vague manner that he once caught and overcame a lamia in Corinth, but they have never learned what she was about, nor that he did it to save Menippus, but I owe my own account to Damis and to the work which he wrote.”

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Categories: Corinth in the Mind, Isthmus, Periods, Roman, Philosophy, Religion, Roman, Sites, Kenchreai, Texts

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