The Empusa: Beautiful Monsters of Greek Mythology

When we read the ancient Greek legends and stories, we come across not just the Greek gods and goddesses but also many creatures that sound like they have come right out of a horror story. Or, more accurately, the horror stories that came about later were likely inspired by these mythical creatures of old. Certainly, the Greeks did not lack in imagination when it came to dreaming up the many nightmare monsters that populate the Greek myths. One example of these monsters was the Empusa.

Who were the Empusa?

The Empusa, also spelt Empousa, was a certain kind of shapeshifting creature that existed in Greek mythology. While she often took the form of a beautiful woman, the empusa was in reality a most ferocious monster that supposedly preyed on and ate young men and children. The descriptions of an empusa vary. 

Some sources say that they could take on the forms of beasts or beautiful women. Some sources say that they had one leg made of copper or bronze or the leg of an ass. Aristophanes, the Greek comic playwright, writes for some bizarre reason that the empusa had one leg of cow dung in addition to the copper leg. Instead of hair, they were supposed to have flames wreathed around their heads. This latter sign and their mismatched legs were the only indications of their inhumane natures.

The Daughters of Hecate

The empusa had a special connection to Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft. In some accounts, the empusai (plural of empusa) are said to be the daughters of Hecate. But like all other fearsome daimones of the night, whether they were the daughters of Hecate or not, they were commanded by her and answered to her.

Hecate was a rather mysterious goddess, descended possibly from two of the Greek Titans or from Zeus and one of his many lovers, and the goddess of different domains like witchcraft, magic, necromancy, and all kinds of ghostly beings. According to the Byzantine Greek Lexicon, the empusa was a companion of Hecate and often traveled alongside the goddess. The Byzantine Greek Lexicon, written by A. E. Sophocles and dating upto about the 10th century AD is one of a few texts we have where the empusa is mentioned directly in conjunction with Hecate. 

Given that her domain was witchcraft, the unworldly, and the macabre, it is quite possible that the term ‘daughters of Hecate’ was only a nominal title given to the empusai and not based on any kind of mythology as such. If such a daughter did exist, it is likely that the entire race of beings were joined into one figure bearing the name of Empusa who was said to be the daughter of Hecate and the spirit Mormo. 

Who were the Daimones?

The word ‘demon’ is something that is familiar enough to us today and has become well-known since the spread of Christianity. But it was not originally a Christian word and came from the Greek word ‘daimone.’ The word existed as far back as when Homer and Hesiod were writing. Hesiod wrote the souls of the men from the golden age were benevolent daimones on Earth. So there existed both good and fearsome daimones. 

They could be the guardians of individuals, the bringers of catastrophe and death, deadly demons of the night such as Hecate’s army of ghostly beings and the spirits of nature such as satyrs and nymphs.

Thus, the manner in which this word would translate in the modern day is probably less ‘demon’ and more ‘spirit’ but what exactly the Greeks meant by it remains vague. At any rate, one category was certainly Hecate’s companions in magic and witchcraft.

Some Other Monsters of Greek Myths

The empusa was far from the only one of the Greek demons who took the form of a woman and preyed on young men. Indeed, the Greeks were not lacking in such kinds of monsters at all. Some of the other fearsome daimones that were part of Hecate’s cohort and are often identified with the empusa are the Lamiai or Lamia and the Mormolykeiai or Mormolyke.

Lamiai

The Lamiai are believed to have grown out of and developed from the concept of the empusa. Probably an inspiration for modern myths about the vampire, the lamiai were a kind of specter who seduced young men and feasted on their blood and flesh afterwards. They were also believed to have serpent-like tails instead of legs and were used as a scary story to frighten children into behaving well.

The origins of the lamiai and by extension the empusa could have been the Queen Lamia. Queen Lamia was supposed to be a beautiful queen from Libya who had children with Zeus. Hera reacted badly to this news and killed or kidnapped Lamia’s children. In rage and grief, Lamia started devouring any child that she could see and her appearance changed to that of the demons named after her. 

Mormolykeiai

The Mormolykeiai, also known as the spirit mormo, are demons who are again associated with eating children. A female phantom whose name might mean ‘frightful’ or ‘hideous,’ Mormo might also have been another name for Lamia. Some scholars consider this horror of Greek mythology to be the queen of the Laestrygonians, who were a race of giants that ate the flesh and blood of humans.

The Rise of Christianity and Its Effects on Greek Myth

With the rise of Christianity in the world, many of the stories from Greek mythology were absorbed into the Christian stories. Christianity seemed to find the Greek myths morally lacking and had several moral judgements to make about them. One interesting story is about Solomon and a woman who turns out to be an empusa. 

Solomon and the Empusa

Solomon was once shown a female demon by the devil since he was curious about their natures. So the devil brought Onoskelis from the bowels of the world. She was extremely beautiful other than her lower limbs. They were the legs of a donkey. She was the daughter of a man who hated women and so had brought to life a child with a donkey. 

This horrific urge, which the text is clearly using to condemn the depraved ways of the pagan Greeks, had caused the demonic nature of Onoskelis. And so, she lived in holes and preyed on men, sometimes killing them and sometimes ruining them. Solomon then saves this poor, unfortunate woman by ordering her to spin hemp for God which she continues to do for all of eternity. 

This is the story told in The Testament of Solomon and Oneskelis is quite universally taken to be an empusa, a demon in the form of a very pretty woman with legs that do not quite fit the rest of her body.  

How They Relate to the Monsters of Today

Even now, we can see echoes of the empusa in all the flesh and blood eating monsters of today, whether that be vampires, succubi, or the popular folk tales of witches who devour little children. 

The Gello of Byzantine Myth

‘Gello’ was a Greek word that was not often used and nearly forgotten, used in the 5th century by a scholar called Hesychius of Alexandria. A female demon who brought death and killed virgins and children, there are several different sources to which this being could be traced. But what is clear is her similarities with the empusa. Indeed, in later years, Gello, Lamia, and Mormo became fused into one similar concept.

It is the Byzantine concept of the Gello that was adapted into the idea of the stryggai or witch by John of Damascus in On Witches. He described them as beings that suck the blood from the little bodies of infants and the modern concept of witches who steal away children and eat them that have been so popularized by our media was born there. 

Charms and amulets to ward off gello were sold in the dozens in the 5th to 7th centuries and some of those amulets have survived to the present-day. They may be seen at the Harvard Art Museum

Evil Witches, Vampires and Succubi

Nowadays, we are all aware of a fascination for monsters in literature and mythology. These monsters may be the evil and ugly witches from our children’s fairy tales that steal away young children and eat their flesh and bones, they may be the vampires who wander around disguised among human beings and feast on the blood of the unwary, or the beautiful succubi who lures in the unwary young man and sucks his life out. 

The empusa is somehow an amalgamation of all of these monsters. Or perhaps all of these monsters are different facets of the one and the same demon from ancient myth: the empusa, the lamiai. 

The Empusa in Ancient Greek Literature

There are only two direct sources for the empusa in ancient Greek literature and that is in Greek comic playwright Aristophanes’ The Frogs and in Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus. 

The Frogs by Aristophanes

This comedy is about the journey Dionysus and his slave Xanthius undertake into the underworld and the empusa that Xanthius sees or appears to see. It is unclear whether he is only trying to scare Dionysus or he actually does see the empusa, but he describes her forms as a dog, a beautiful woman, a mule, and a bull. He also says that she has one leg of brass and one leg made of cow dung. 

Life of Apollonius of Tyana

By the time of the later Greek age, empusa had become well-known and had acquired the reputation that they considered young men to be highly prized food. Menippos, a handsome young student of philosophy, comes across an empusa in the form of a lovely woman who claims to have fallen in love with him and whom he falls in love with. 

Apollonius, traveling from Persia to India, manages to figure out the true identity of the empusa and drive it away by calling out insults to it. When he makes the other travelers join him, the empusa runs away from all the insults and hides. Thus, it seems that there is a method, albeit a rather unexpected one, of defeating the man-eating monsters.

Modern Folklore About The Empusa

In modern folklore, while empusa as a term does not exist in everyday language anymore, gello or gellou does. It is used to reference slender young women with multiple feet, looking around for prey. Oral lore of an empusa-like figure seems to have survived into the modern day and age and become part of local legends.

How Are the Empusa Defeated?

When we think about witches, vampires, werewolves, and other such monsters, there usually exists an easy method of killing them. A bucket of water, a stake through the heart, silver bullets, any of these will do the trick to get rid of a specific brand of monster. Even demons can be exorcized. So how do we get rid of an empusa?

Other than emulating Apollonius, there does not really seem to be any way to drive away an empusa. However, with a little bit of bravery and an arsenal of insults and curses, driving away an empusa does seem a whole lot easier than killing a vampire. At least it is something to try if you were to come across one in the middle of nowhere sometime in the future.

The Interpretation of Robert Graves

Robert Graves came up with an explanation for the character of Empusa. It was his interpretation that Empusa was a demigoddess. He believed that her mother was Hecate and her other parent was the spirit Mormo. As Mormo appears to be a female spirit in Greek myth, it is unclear how Graves came to this conclusion. 

Empusa seduced any man that she encountered sleeping by the side of the road. Then she would drink his blood and eat his flesh, leading to a trail of dead victims. At one time, she attacked who she thought to be a young man but who actually turned out to be Zeus. Zeus then flew into a rage and killed Empusa. 

However, Graves’ version of any Greek myth should be taken with a grain of salt as it does not usually have other sources to back it up.

Empusa in Modern Fiction

Empusa has appeared as a character in several works of modern fiction over the years. She was mentioned in Tomlinson by Rudyard Kipling and appears in Goethe’s Faust, Part Two. There, she refers to Mephisto as a cousin because he has the leg of a horse, similar to her leg of a donkey.

In the 1922 film Nosferatu, Empusa is the name of a ship. 

In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the Empousai as a group fight on the side of the Titan army, as the servants of Hecate. 

Empusa in Stardust

In the 2007 fantasy film Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman’s novel and directed by Matthew Vaughn, Empusa is the name of one of the three witches. The other two witches are named Lamia and Mormo. These names do not appear in the novel of the same name.

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