Sunday, June 28, 2015


Maria Patera, Figures grecques de l'épouvante de l'antiquité au présent: peurs enfantines et adultes. Mnemosyne supplements: monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 376. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. xxxi, 405. ISBN 9789004278370. €150.00.

Reviewed by Tommaso Braccini, Università di Torino (

Version at BMCR home site


Maria Patera's book on "Greek figures of fear from Antiquity to the present" provides a good example of a modern approach to a field of study of great interest, Greek popular beliefs, that has been long tainted by ideological preconceptions. As the author herself states (p. 74-76), the study of Greek folklore in its historical evolution, from ancient to contemporary times, was born in the nineteenth century with the primary aim to identify and highlight "continuities" and "survivals", mostly from a nationalist perspective. In recent decades, the need has emerged to be more cautious: in the words of Margaret Alexiou, "the key to continuity lies, not in lack of change… nor to any peculiar features inherent in Greeks—whether genetic or cultural—but to the diversity and adaptability of the tradition, and to the constant interaction between literary and popular culture." 1

Patera's book fits into this latter perspective, focusing on the figures of four well-known bogeys attested from antiquity to contemporary times. Drawing on her doctoral thesis and previous articles, the author adroitly combines a critical approach with a thorough analysis of sources, providing in this way reasoned and comprehensive views on the figures under consideration.

The first chapter (p. 1-105) is dedicated to Lamia and the lamias. The etymology is traced back (p. 4) to Greek terms like lamyros, "voracious", and therefore Patera considers unlikely the derivation of Lamia from the Mesopotamian demon Lamashtû, of which she highlights the differences with the Greek figure. (Hypotheses of an Eastern origin, by the way, are also discarded in the case of the other bogeys discussed in the book.) Afterwards there is a detailed discussion of the ancient sources, which puts into light the ridiculous and farcical features attributed to this creature; they have this trait in common with the ogres of fairy tales, who are often defeated and driven away because of their foolishness. The author is very careful when it comes to the identification of Lamia with some enigmatic creatures found in vase depictions, as has often been done before: these identifications are dismissed (convincingly, in my opinion) as "hypothetical" and "contradictory" (p. 68), with the partial exception of the monster represented on a black-figure skyphos of the fourth century BC, now in a private collection in London (fig. 6). The comparative approach to modern Greek folklore, of which the author shows a very extensive knowledge, is particularly well-balanced. An especially interesting case (p. 84-85) is that of a famous legend about Lamia gathered in Arachova in the XIXth century and clearly comparable to the story, set in the same place, narrated by Antoninus Liberalis (Metamorphoses, 4). Patera pointedly notes that in this case we can not speak of "survivals" but rather of "renaissance", i.e. of a modern revival of the ancient tradition following the intervention of a scholar who, in all probability, recounted Antoninus' tale to the modern inhabitants of the area.

The author also warns against taxonomizing at all costs the modern creatures of the supernatural (exotika), which often overlap with each other; in particular, Patera is rather critical (p. 94-95) of interpretations framing Lamia into the category of aoroi, "dead ahead of time". In the author's view, the different hypostases of Lamia (including plural lamias), ancient and modern, present as a unifying feature their fundamental otherness from humanity and human space, and their voracity.

The second chapter (p. 106-144) is dedicated to Mormo, another famous childhood bogey, for which (unlike Lamia) it is very difficult to reconstruct a mythology. Only some meager scraps of information are retrievable from the scholia to Aelius Aristides' Panathenaicus (102.1-3, 8-13) and from a fragment of Erinna (1b.25-27 Diehl). Also, the connection of Mormo to mormolykeion, another term for bogeys that was also used to refer to theatrical masks, is difficult to decipher. This identification between bogey and mask, however, has interesting parallels in world folklore: the author refers to Latin and French occurrences (pp. 142-143), while for an Italian reader there is an immediate reference to masche, the witches of Piedmontese and Ligurian folklore, whose name is thought to be related to Italian "maschera" (akin to English "mask").

The third chapter (p. 145-248), dedicated to the various hypostases of the child-killing demon Gello-Gulou, is particularly important. The author expresses skepticism about the alleged connection of the female Greek figure to the male Sumerian-Akkadian demon Gallû, and she's also critical (p. 147) of a recent interpretation of Psellus' short treatise De Gillo, according to which Gello, just like Lamia, had a hermaphroditic nature. The review of the sources is very comprehensive and accurate. Among many other things, Patera deals with modern and contemporary exorcisms against Gulou (along the lines of Richard Greenfield's milestone contribution on the subject 2), and with chapter 13 of the Testament of Solomon, dedicated to the Gulou-like demon Obyzouth. The author moreover reports that one of the first references to Gulou's trademark "twelve names and a half" appears in the late-Byzantine satirical text known as Spanos (1332-1337 Eideneier), dating between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (p. 205). Faced with this great variety of testimonies, which have parallels in Slavic, Romanian and Semitic cultures, the author avoids drawing diffusionist family trees, let alone recreating an "original myth". Rather, Patera identifies Gello/Gulou and similar figures as the embodiment of universal fears; moreover, she avoids postulating an absolute identity between the Gello mentioned by Sappho (fr. V. 168A) and Gulou, the demon feared in contemporary Greece. The latter, in the author's view, took shape in the early centuries of the common era, thriving especially in the later Orthodox "unofficial" tradition.

The fourth chapter (p. 249-290) deals with Empousa and with Onoskelis, a beautiful female demon (provided, however, with donkey legs) that has often been considered a later embodiment of the former. The author notes that Empousa is not a real childhood bogey, being rather connected with Hecate and perhaps the Mysteries, as she argues with an accurate analysis not only of the famous passage from Aristophanes' Frogs, but also of the rumors about Aeschines' mother Glaucothea, awarded with the unpleasant nickname of Empousa. According to Patera's view, this figure, too, being compromised by paganism, could not seep into the Christian world, where some of its characteristics (such as donkey legs, lasciviousness and dangerous seductiveness) were indeed inherited by Onoskelis.

In her conclusions (p. 291-299), the author observes that the four entities dealt with in this book are certainly not identical: neither diachronically, taken in their various hypostases over the centuries, nor synchronically, as if they were synonyms for a single figure of fear. The only thing they share is being bogeys, dismissed and marginalized in literary sources. This, however, doesn't mean that, at least in some cases, they were not really feared. Patera in fact persuasively notes that there is definitely a discrepancy between most of our sources (expressing, as a rule, the view of adult males) and the primary audience of the bogeys, typically haunting (or meant to haunt) women and children.

A useful appendix follows (p. 301-322), with Greek text and translation of the most important sources, along with a catalogue of the manuscripts containing exorcisms against Gulou. A very extensive bibliography (p. 323-375) is followed by an Index nominum, an Index rerum and finally an Index Graecum (sic!).

Given the very wide time span and the many sources examined in this volume, it is to be expected that at some point the discussion may not be fully up-to-date or that there may be some inaccuracies. For instance, the idea that the Euripidean verses pronounced by Lamia did not appear in a tragedy of the same name but in the prologue of the Busiris, presented as a recent conclusion (p. 10 n. 37), has been already rejected on very sound bases in the recent edition of Collard and Cropp.3 The attribution to John Damascene of the short writings De strygibus and De draconibus (p. 151-152, 167) has been questioned: they may be rhetorical progymnasmata dating from the eleventh century.4 The repeated statement (p. 176-178) that no manuscript of the Testament of Solomon shows the name of Gulou conflicts with the fact that codex N (Jerusalem, Orthodox Patriarchal Library, Hagiou Saba 422; see p. 118 in McCown's edition) presents the composite name ὀβηζθγελαουθ; as Greenfield has already observed, this name seems to contaminate that of the demon Obyzouth with that of Gulou (thus supporting, by the way, Patera's views about the overlapping of these two figures). As a complement for the bibliography, it should be noted at least that the story of the "Hero of Temesa", dealt with in reference to Lamia (p. 21-24), is the subject of a specific monograph by Monica Visintin.5 It is regrettable that there are no references to the catalogs of types of Greek fairytales, edited by Georgios Megas and his collaborators, which in some cases could have proven useful for a deeper understanding of the figures under consideration.6 In a similar way, Patera's intriguing hints at folkloric comparison would have benefited from references to Thompson's Motif-index.7

Throughout the volume misprints are few: for instance, on p. xxvii, l. 7, read "Iles" for "Isles"; on p. 149 n. 20, read Monacensis Graecus for Monacensi Graeco; on p. 166, l. 7, read "mont" for "mot"; and on p. 232, ll. 28-29, read De invidia for De invidiae.

These minor inconveniences do not detract from the importance of this book, which is a welcome addition to the library of anyone who is interested in Greek folklore from antiquity to modern times. The sound judgment and good sense showed by Maria Patera in dealing with problematic issues such as "survivals", alleged Eastern origins, iconography and taxonomy of the various figures of fear, are indeed exemplary models for all those wishing to undertake similar studies.


1.   M. Alexiou, "Modern Greek Folklore and its Relation to the Past: the Evolution of Charos in Greek Tradition", in The "Past" in Medieval and Modern Greek Culture, ed. by Sp. Vryonis jr., Malibu 1978, 221-236: 230.
2.   R. Greenfield, "Saint Sisinnios, the Archangel Michael and the Female Demon Gylou; the Typology of the Greek Literary Stories," Byzantina 15 (1989), 83-142.
3.   Euripides, Fragments: Aegeus-Meleager, ed. and transl. by Ch. Collard and M. Cropp, Cambridge (MS) – London, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 558-559 (fr. 472m).
4.   See at least Ch. Roueché, "The literary background of Kekaumenos", in C. Holmes - J. Waring (eds.), Literacy, education and manuscript transmission in Byzantium and beyond, Brill 2002, 111-138: 130-135.
5.   M. Visintin, La vergine e l'eroe: Temesa e la leggenda di Euthymos di Locri, Bari, Edipuglia, 1992.
6.   E.g. some incidents related to Gulou, such as her being described as the sister of saint Sisinnios, who in turn vanquishes her with the help of a mysterious λάβραξ κύων, "voracious dog" (p. 164, 195-196, 199-200, 209, 226), could be connected with the famous modern Greek tale of the strigla-sister, AT315A, for which see Επεξεργασία παραμυθιακών τύπων και παραλλαγών: I, AT 300-499, ed. by A. Angelopoulous – A. Brouskou, Athina 1999, 279-313.
7.   The motif of the grotesquely pendulous breasts of some supernatural creatures like Lamia (p. 83, 228) finds correspondance, for instance, with Thompson's headings F232.2, F441.2.1.2, F460.1.2, F531.1.5.1; G123.

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