Darrell J. Pursiful

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Vampire Vednesdays: Sasabonsam

Ashanti Sasabonsam figure

A sasabonsam is also called an asabonsam or asanbosam, a creature from Ashanti folklore. Reports of their presence in Jamaica go back to the eighteenth century.

Some people consider this creature to be a form of vampire because of its association with bats: it is able to take the form of a huge, bat-like creature (5’ tall, 20’ wingspan) with red fur, pointed ears, iron teeth, and iron hooks on feet and wings. In this form, it steals people from above and carries them away. Even when not in this form, though, the sasasabonsam is a horrible clawed and fanged monster.

As might be suspected given their hook-feet, sasabonsams are awkward on the ground. They live in the trees, dangling their limbs from the branches to snatch unwary travelers. They don’t seem particularly interested in drinking blood, but they will gladly devour the flesh of anyone who falls into their clutches. They can also inflict people with a wasting disease simply by looking at them with their deathly glare.

They sometimes work with obayifos, who are said to have the ability to summon them. On the other hand, it is sometimes said that obayifos work at the behest of sasabonsams, so the question of who is really in control in this relationship is a matter of dispute.


Vampire Vednesdays: Classic Vampires

The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones (1897)

The quintessential undead bloodsucker is associated with central and eastern Europe. It is known by numerous names: strigoi or strigoi mort in Romanian, izcacus in Hungarian, and a vampir (by various spellings) in Slavic languages.

Not to be confused with Hollywood depictions of Dracula and his ilk, the classic vampire’s main weapon is shapeshifting, of which it is a true adept. It is not necessarily stronger or faster than an ordinary human, but it is nevertheless a formidable foe. These creatures like to socialize with their own kind, though never in groups larger than twelve, but they are not generally inclined to cooperate with each other.

When vampires first rise in undeath, they are disoriented and unaware of their powers. Many of the expected weaknesses we associate with the undead operate in force for these “young” bloodsuckers. They must return to their coffins during the day and are especially prone to obsessive counting. At this stage, peasants can generally make short work of them. They are averse to holy objects (crosses, consecrated Host, etc.). They can be immobilized by a hawthorn stake through the heart. They are repelled by garlic, wild rose, hawthorn, and wolf’s bane. After about a hundred days, however, young vampires shake off their initial disorientation and become much more dangerous. They freely roam without being bound to their coffins, though if their burial shroud is ever lost or destroyed, they lose their powers.

Classic vampires eventually ranged far from their original homeland. The earliest European vampire legend, for example, involved a certain Conde Estuch, a creature of this type who originated in central Europe but operated in Catalonia.

There are several kinds of monster from surrounding regions that mostly conform to the “classic vampire” model, though with notable variations. Here are a few of them:

Blutsauger: This is a vampire from Bavaria and other parts of southern Germany. It is in nearly every respect identical to its Slavic counterpart.

Estrie: First attested in the 1460s, this Jewish female vampire may be a later development from the ancient lilit. They are not impeded by holy objects or places, and their preferred shapeshifting forms are birds (especially screech owls) and cats.

Mullo: This vampire of Roma folklore dresses all in white and has long, white hair that reaches to its ankles.

Obur: This rare Turkic vampire is especially attested in the Caucasus region. In life, it was a powerful wizard that gained its powers from consuming human blood. (Therefore, some oburs would better be classified as “living vampires.”) In death, it continues to prey on the living.

Strega: This Italian term can mean both witch and vampire. It commonly shapeshifts into an owl.

Strigoi Mort: This Romanian vampire, also called a moroi in rural areas, sometimes drains life energy rather than blood. It has poltergeist-like telekinetic powers.

Upir: This vampire from Poland and Russia has a barbed tongue instead of fangs.

Ustrel: On rare occasions, children become vampires. According to Bulgarian legend, this can happen when a child born on Saturday dies before being baptized. Ustrels (or istrals) lack the social skills to conceal their true nature. They are generally too weak to prey on humans, but will feed on livestock and other animals. These creatures are also known in parts of Poland.

Vrykolakas: Vrykolakas (both singular and plural) are native to Greece. They are similar to strigas, but most often drain life energy rather than blood.

Vampire Vednesdays: Jianshi

Still from “Mr. Vampire” (1985)

Jianghi is the Chinese form of the name of these Asian vampire-like monsters. They are also known as cuong thi (Vietnamese), gangshi (Korean), kyonshi (Japanese) and hantu pocong (Malay and Indonesian). They are sometimes created through arcane magic, and wear a paper talisman on their forehead containing their sealing spell. (One story about their origin is that, when someone dies far from home, it is easier for a Taoist priest to conduct a ritual to animate the corpse and “march” it to its proper burial place.) More often, however, they are created through an improper burial, suicide, or spirit-possession. Though they might rest in a coffin during the day, it is also common for them to hide in dark places such as caves.

They might have the appearance of a recently-deceased corpse or be horrifying to see—with greenish-white skin, long white hair, rotting flesh, etc. Their distinguishing feature, however, is rigor mortis, when results in them having to hop about rather than walking like an ordinary mortal. Their name, in fact, translates to “stiff corpse.” In the popular imagination, jiangshi dress in the robes of Qing dynasty bureaucrat. In general, they have more in common with popular depictions of zombies than vampires. Numerous Chinese “vampire movies” feature jiangshi and those who must contend with them.

Jiangshi feed on their victim’s qi or “life energy,” killing them in the process. The most powerful among them become ba or “drought demons” with shapeshifting powers and the ability to cause draughts and plague.

Vampire Vednesdays: Cihuatéotl

A Cihuatéotl from the Codex Borgia

Like the previously described tlahuelpocmimi, these creatures (plural cihuateteo) are female vampire-like creatures from Aztec folklore. Their name translates to “divine mother,” likely a euphemism meant to avert their attention. They range from very beautiful to hideous in appearance, with skeletal faces and skin as white as chalk, but almost always are seen in a flowing shroud-like garment.

Cihuateteo are created when a woman dies in childbirth, and they have an irrational desire to seek vengeance by stealing the life of women and children. They hunt either alone or in packs, demons of the night who haunt crossroads, cause madness, and induce men to adultery. The association with crossroads may be a European innovation, as crossroads have been associated with witches at least as far back as Hecate in Greek mythology.

These beings servants of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of evil, lust, and sorcery. They are considered minor deities and have their own feast days on the Aztec calendar. The male counterparts of the cihuateteo are the macuiltonaleque, men who died in battle and now wander battlefields as cadaverous figures dressed in the garb of ancient warriors.

In some accounts, they mate with human men and give birth to vampiric children. In any event, they are known to incite murder, lasciviousness, and drunkenness.

Finally, cihuateto tend to live in the jungle and always keep to dark places. During the day, they often take refuge in funeral caves.

Vampire Vednesdays: Obayifo

Joe Thomissen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Obayifos (called asiman by the Dahomey people) are “living vampires” created when an evil spirit takes possession of a person and causes him or her to commit evil deeds. Obayifo is an Akan word often translated “witch” or “sorcerer.” Though originating in Africa, they are also found in South America and the Caribbean, especially Jamaica.

These creatures have shifty eyes and an obsession with food, especially cacao beans. When it comes to blood, they are picky eaters: they won’t eat blood that tastes bitter, so it’s a good idea to eat a diet rich in things like garlic if you want to be unappetizing to an obayifo. They feed on fear and despair but will also steal the blood of children. Strangely enough, they also like fruits and vegetables. When deprived of blood, they’ll simply suck the juice from fruits and vegetables to hold their hunger in check until they can feed again.

Obayifos are averse to the holy in the form of West African sacred symbols and spiritual practitioners. They emit a telltale light from the armpits and anus. They often hunt by transforming into a ball of blue light, in which form they can fly through the air. In some stories, they achieve this form by sloughing off their skin and reclaiming it later.

Finally, these creatures are able to possess a mortal victim and bend it to their will.

Only a person of great holiness can discern the true identity of an obayifo.

Vampire Vednesdays: Mosquito Folk

These creatures of the Pacific Northwest are called ts’iihchuk by the Haida people. The Twilight saga notwithstanding, there are precious few “vampire” myths in North America, and no Native American vampire-like creature bares the slightest resemblance to Edward Cullen and company. In their true form, they are vaguely insect-like, with spindly limbs and huge, black eyes. They are masters of disguise, however, and easily blend in with the human population.

Mosquito folk are so-called because they suck blood and other bodily fluids out of their victims by means of a thorn-like proboscis that normally hides within their mouths. They can do this with incredible speed. A common story tells of a mosquito person insinuating itself into a gathering where adults are passing around a baby to play with and admire. The mosquito person sucks out the infant’s brain so quickly that no one notices, and when it passes the baby on to the next person, it is already dead.

These creatures serve as a reminder that vampire-like creatures don’t always easily fit into the living-or-undead paradigm. The most that can be said of mosquito folk is that they used to be human, but their evil deeds turned them into eldritch horrors. But did this transformation happen in life or only at death? Or was the transformation what killed them?

Monsters of this nature are the least like popular conceptions of “vampires.” Within their own cultural contexts, they are often called “witches” or “ogres” instead. But they are in some sense driven by an insatiable, demonic hunger, and thus by the broadest of definitions might justifiably be called “vampiric.”

A similar creature is known among the indigenous peoples of the South American rainforests, and both creatures have sometimes been compared to the Puerto Rican “vampiro de Moca,” perhaps a relative of the chupacabra.

Vampire Vednesdays: Vetaal

Ernest Griset, “Vikram and the Vampire,” 1870

A vetaal (also baital, betal, vetala, etc.) is a hostile spirit of the dead from Indian folklore. Much like the ancient Mesopotamian edimmu, it is created when someone dies without the proper funeral rights. With no body of its own, it possesses the corpses of humans or animals in which to move about and feed on the blood of humans. Any corpse so possessed ceases to decompose for as long as the vetaal is present. Vetaals can also possess living creatures. They must remain within a corpse during the day, and reveal a monstrous visage with weird, glowing blue eyes when they feed. They have amazing physical strength and a paralyzing bite.

Vetaals have an uncanny knowledge of the past, present, and future, and sorcerers may seek to capture them and turn them into slaves for divinatory purposes.

Despite their evil nature, vetaals have also been known to guard the village where they spent their physical life and even to befriend humans and assume a mentoring role over them.

Vetaals can be appeased with gifts or scared away with certain arcane spells, but they are especially vulnerable to silver weapons. The only way to get rid of them for good is to perform the proper funerary rites on their behalf.

Vampire Vednesdays: Tlahuelpuchi

This “living vampire” is called tlahuelpuchi or tlahuihpochtli in the Nahuatl language, a term meaning either “glowing haze” or “illuminated youth.” They are so-called because they emit a telltale light when they hunt in their shapeshifted form. In Spanish, this is rendered as “luz que se mueve,” “luminosidad andante,” or similar. The plural form is tlahuelpocmimi. In Spanish, they are sometimes simply called brujas or “witches.” Another term describing a similar creature is tlaciques (both singular and plural).

Tlahuelpocmimi hail from central Mexico, specifically the small state of Tlaxcala. They are associated with the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, the “smoking mirror,” god of the nocturnal sky, ancestral memory, time, and change through conflict.

They can be of either sex, though females are more powerful than males. They are adept shapeshifters, usually attacking in the form of a vulture or wild turkey. They also sometimes enter a victim’s house in the form of a mist. It is said that when they shapeshift, they leave the lower part of their bodies behind.

Tlahuelpocmimi are victims of a curse. They grow up normally until their monstrous nature becomes evident at the onset of puberty. They live with their human family, which guards their secret out of shame and fear, and many believe that if a family member destroys them, then they will become the next to inherit the family curse.

These vampire-like creatures have their own society parallel to that of humans. They form pacts with one another so as not to infringe on each other’s hunting grounds. They also forge pacts with shamans not to turn on them. In fact, they sometimes do a shaman’s bidding in exchange for this protection.

These creatures possess many of the weaknesses associated with classic vampires, and it’s not clear whether or not this is the result of cultural cross-pollination from Europeans. They are, for example, averse to the holy and to objects of silver (some say any metal). They are repelled by garlic, onions, and mirrors. Like other vampires, these creatures cannot normally cross a threshold unbidden. If, however, they first fly over the house in the shape of a cross, this impediment is removed.

Tlahuelpocmimi are driven to feed on children, and some say they must feed at a regular interval (once per month, once per week, etc., depending on the source) or die. When they feed, they always kill their victims.

Vampire Vednesdays: Edimmu

I thought I’d take the Wednesdays leading up to Halloween to talk about various vampire-like creatures in world mythology. “Vampire” is a slippery term in the modern world, however. Strictly speaking, vampires come from eastern Europe. Period.

But there are, however, creatures from around the world that might be considered “vampire-like”—if only because popular culture has made “vampire” a point of reference that most people understand.

When I say “vampire-like,” I’m describing a creature that possesses certain points of affinity with the classic eastern European vampire. Some are drinkers of blood—though others are cannibals or else consumers of human life force, breath, or qi. Some are undead—but others are still among the living, and some are eldritch horrors in human form. None of them live up to every vampire trope, but all of them live up to a few of them, enough that we might reach for the language of vampirism to describe their basic nature.

We’ll begin today with the edimmu. These creatures barely conform to most people’s understanding of the term “vampire,” though some consider them among the earliest examples of a vampire-like monster.

In ancient Mesopotamia, these creatures were classified as utukku or rabisu, words that refer to a class of spirits that have escaped the underworld, either demons or ghosts. More specifically, they were members of a subset of utukku comprised of the ghosts of those who died without proper funerary rites. Though first documented 4,000 or more years ago, they continued to be evoked in Syriac and Palestinian magical spells under the name of the sebitti or “seven maskim [ensnarers, evil spirits]” into the Christian era. These seven were apparently of a superior nature from rank and file edimmu, said to be the brothers of the fearsome goddess Lamashtu.

Edimmu are barely corporeal beings of living shadow. Their natural form is a moving shadow or an invisible, rushing wind. They can, however, fashion for themselves an ectoplasmic body, which often appears as a walking corpse or a winged demon. They are also sometimes able to take possession of a living host.

A fair number of scholarly articles identify the edimmu with a class of spirits known as “watchers,” “vigilant ones,” or “wakeful ones” (Aramaic iyrin; Greek egregoroi; Slavonic grigori), known mainly from Jewish apocalyptic writings. By late antiquity, the watchers were described in several Jewish sources. In 1 Enoch, for example, one learns that their great appetites, including for human flesh, makes them violent.

Some edimmu feed on the life energy of humans, but others are overtly blood-drinkers. This penchant for blood is attested from the oldest Akkadian records down to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not content to harass human beings, these horrific creatures also seek to destroy the works of human civilization, scorching the land and killing animals as well as people. At the same time, they sometimes entice the devotion of humans by divulging to them arcane knowledge. There are a few stories in which they seduce human women.

What Is the Greek Word for “Elf”?

I’ve recently found myself in a writing critique group that has made me think about medieval/D&D-type fantasy kindreds in the context of the classical world. Specifically, what would you call such beings if you were discussing them not in English (or any other northern European language) but in Greek?

The short answer: It isn’t as easy as it looks, but there are some options.

Steven A. Guglich’s Veil Saga is shaping up to be a centuries-spanning tale of magic and intrigue. The bit of it that I’ve been reading/critiquing lately takes place in the fourth century AD, which means the characters are discussing elves, goblins, etc., in the language of that time and place: namely, Koine Greek. (Koine Greek is halfway between the Classical Greek of Socrates and the Byzantine Greek of the Middle Ages.) I’m thoroughly enjoying the tale, but the language nerd in me wants to know: How does one say “elf” (or goblin, or whatever) in Greek?

Here are my thoughts.


Let’s start with the easiest one. A dwarf is a νᾶνος (nanos). That term can be applied both to someone with the physical condition of dwarfism as well as to the mythological creature. If you wanted a term that exclusively referred to a mythological creature, I’d vote for δάκτυλος (daktylos), a race of rustic nature spirits who were skilled in metal-working.


The closest I can get is μορμώ (mormo, plural mormones), meaning “fearful ones” or “hideous ones.” This is the term for a Greek bogey-woman. A more fearful version might be a μορμολυκεῖον (mormolykeion) or “wolf-bogey.”

There are a couple of other options here, though. A κόβαλος (kobalos, whence we get “kobold”), for example, is a roguish, gnomish sort of being, a shapeshifting companion of the god Dionysus. If you’re looking for a good Greek word for “kobold” or “gnome,” you can scarcely go wrong with kobalos.

A bit further afield, a κέρκωψ (kerkops) is a thieving, monkey-like creature. In mythology, there were only two of them, but the image might fit the bill depending on what your goblins are like.


This is where I started my musing, and it is in some ways the most difficult to pin down, mainly because people have different ideas about what elves actually are (mythologically speaking).

If you imagine elves as faery woodland creatures cavorting in a meadow, then you can’t go wrong with either σάτυρος (satyros) or πάν (pan) for a male and νύμφη (nymphe) for a female. (And yes, Greeks would use pan, plural panes, as a common noun.)

In English lore, elves, fairies, and nymphs and satyrs were all pretty much the same thing. Loads of Old English translations of Greek and Roman classics translated Greek σάτυρος or Latin faunus as aelf, “elf.”

At the same time, when Greek-speakers became more aware of the legends of their northern neighbors, they coined a new term for these fairy beings to distinguish them from those in their own mythology. In Byzantine Greek, such a being was called a χοτικό (xotiko), from earlier ἐχοτικόν (exotikon), literally “outlandish thing.” If the characters in Steven’s story are using this word in the fourth century, they are among the very first to do so.

If, however, you think of elves as more like friendly toymakers than eldritch wonders, you’ll probably have to default to nanos. If the most important distinguishing characteristic of elves in your mind is their diminutive size, you might want to consider…


The Greeks did have a word for a very small humanoid: πυγμαῖος (pygmaios) or “pygmy.” This comes from the word for cubit, a length of about 18″—although pygmies weren’t always that short in mythology. As I noted in a previous post, the term “pygmy” has some unfortunate baggage that makes it largely unusable in modern English. But for Greek-speakers in the ancient world, you might be able to get away with it.

So, if elves or goblins ever use their magic to send you back to ancient times, you can use this handy cheatsheet to explain your predicament to bystanders. You’re welcome.