There's a new meme gumming up my Facebook news feed this week. It boasts the extraordinary claim that ancient Greeks thought redheads turned into vampires when they died. Of course, the originators of the meme never point to a source that can document this supposed fact. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, while describing the Budini people as predominantly redheads, never mentions the belief that they turned into vampires. No we're just supposed to take the meme at face value, tag our redheaded Facebook friends and have a laugh over it. The thing is, the claim that ancient Greeks thought turned into vampires when they died is absolutely not true.
Contrary to popular belief, redheads weren't exactly uncommon in ancient Greece. It would seem that the ancient Greeks associated those with red hair as being Thracians, who lived to the North of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks did indeed regard Thracians as barbarians and were considered by Plato to be high spirited and war-like. It's not hard to believe that ancient Greek citizens may have made up a number of legends regarding these redheaded barbarians, whom many regarded as bloodthirsty to begin with.
While the notion of vampirism has been around since at least the rise of Mesopotamia, the modern-day concept of vampires are firmly rooted in medieval legends. Still, the ancient Greeks did have a belief in creatures that could be thought of as less sophisticated vampires. Specifically, ancient Greek myths referred to the Empusae, Lamia, and Striges. Over time the first two terms became general words to describe witches and demons respectively. Empusa, the daughter of the goddess Hecate was a demonic, bronze-footed creature who feasted on blood by transforming into a young woman and seducing men as they slept before drinking their blood. The Lamia preyed on young children by sucking their blood in their beds as they slept at night. Striges feasted both on children and young men and were later regarded as spirits who were too evil to enter the afterlife.
So, where did this claim that the ancient Greeks thought redheads turned into vampires when they died come from? It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the originator of the meme probably confused ancient anti-Thracian propaganda with ancient legends of the Stirges. And a healthy amount of misunderstanding and/or poetic license and you've got a recipe for numerous postings on Facebook.