Vampires, Ghosts, and Spirits on Santorini: The Affectivity of a Sulphuric Landscape

By Lavinia Gambini (@GambiniLavinia)  

Today known for its luxury tourism, high-end ‘destination weddings’, and romantic ‘Instagrammability’, Santorini was for seventeenth-century Westerners a ‘demonic’ island.[1] Early modern travellers to the Aegean encountered an unsettling landscape: they met a fragmented island torn into pieces by the many seismic and volcanic activities that had struck Santorini throughout the centuries.[2] Santorini’s red and yellow, sulphuric lava soil appeared to be touched by ‘infernal’ fires. We can imagine how early modern contemporaries smelt the sulphur, coughed when inhaling the volcanic exhalations, and marvelled at the ‘burnt’ layers of lava rock exposed by its mesmerising cliffs. From this sensory experience with the insular landscape, Western travellers to the Aegean believed that otherworldly powers were in action on Santorini.[3]

Scholars of pre-modern approaches to the material world have shed light on the affective properties that contemporaries often ascribed to materials. In the early modern age, materials such as lapis lazuli, gold, and coral were believed to have powers that could influence the human body and soul.[4] Investigating these affective properties is a way of reconstructing how early modern contemporaries understood the material world: as a sphere where inanimate matter acted back on humans. This is also true for materials that composed landscapes. These materials possessed affective properties which dictated how humans interpreted and experienced those same landscapes. In early modernity, landscapes were never human-made cultural and imaginative products alone, but the outcome of a sensory engagement with matter. Thus, through their material properties, landscapes contributed to shaping their own meaning and interpretation.[5]

From the sensory experience of volcanic Santorini, early modern people concluded that the island was shaped by forces that lie ‘outside’ of the order of nature.[6] Early modern descriptions of Santorini include the 1657 travelogue of Jesuit missionary François Richard about his time spent there.[7] Richard addressed the preternatural phenomena that he had observed on the island: amongst other events, he remembered the dramatic earthquakes that had hit Santorini in 1650. Richard described these earthquakes and the correlated ‘subterranean fires’ (volcanic activities) as of non-natural origin. These events had been provoked by God’s wrath against the heresies committed by the islanders. God had used the sulphuric exhalations of Santorini as a punishment: the exhalations made some islanders turn blind, give birth to monsters, and die of asphyxiation.[8] To Richard, the numerous earthquakes that had hit Santorini throughout the centuries were all Godly punishments for heresies.[9] Santorini was an island prone to heresy, evidenced by its material composition, environmental behaviour, and affective properties. The landscape of and sensory experience with Santorini suggested that this was a place of damnation.

Contemporaries reported otherworldly presences on Santorini. The missionary Giuseppe Maria Sebastiani (d. 1689), published a 1687 travelogue of his journey through the Aegean.[10] Initially, he was sceptical towards Santorini’s alleged ‘devilish’ nature. After spending a night on this ‘island of Demons’, he reported witnessing ghosts untying the ships anchored in the harbour and throwing rocks from the cliffs onto passing ships.[11] In his bedchamber, he saw unexplainable lights. Sebastiani explained that every cavity of Santorini was filled with sulphur which produced ‘spirits’ responsible for the magical lights.[12] Similarly, Richard reported the presence of “broukolakaς” (in English known as vrykolakas). Comparable to vampires or zombies, vrykolakas were created by demons when possessing dead bodies. Through possession, demons created the illusion that dead people would still be wandering amongst the living. To fight vrykolakas, one should exhumate the buried body, perform an exorcism, and extract the heart which would be dismembered and burned.[13]

Some of Richard’s Jesuit companions reported the presence of vrykolakas on neighbouring islands.[14] However, Richard believed that there was an exceptional link between the environment of Santorini and the increased appearance of vrykolakas. When God punished the inhabitants, the sulphuric exhalations created many vrykolakas.[15] He explained that vrykolakas were linked to the extraordinary environments of Santorini and the Arabian Desert alone.[16] Santorini was a unique environment that revealed the influence of otherworldly agents. Its interpretation as an island of damnation was not exclusively imposed by the human gaze but the product of a negotiation between humans, nature, and matter. The interpretation of Santorini was deduced from the sensory experience with volcanic rocks, soil, and fumes. In these dangerously affective materials, contemporaries found the evidence of Godly damnation materialised. 

Image: Santorini as viewed from the island Nea Kameni. User:Hhss8228/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] This blog post is based on research from the author’s MPhil dissertation.

[2] See for the Minoan earthquake the catalogue dedicated to the inspiring exhibition on Santorini and Pompei held in 2019-2020 at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome: Massimo Osanna, Demetrios Athanasoulis (eds.), with Luigi Gallo and Luana Toniolo, Pompei e Santorini: L’eternità in un giorno (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider: 2019).

[3] Tim Ingold, ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, World Archaeology 25:2 (1993), 152–174, here 155.

[4] For lapis lazuli, Spike Bucklow, ‘New Age Old Masters’, Studies in Conservation 51: 2 (2006), 267–272, here 268–269.; for coral, Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 130–132; for the idea of colours acting as affective ‘pharmakon’ on the human body and soul, Karin Leonhard, ‘Painted Poison: Venomous Beasts, Herbs, Gems, and Baroque Colour Theory’, Netherlands Yearbook of History of Art / Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 61:1 (2011), 116–147, here 119–120.

[5] For landscapes as cultural and imaginative products, Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Fontana Press, 1995).

[6] For the early modern boundaries between the ‘natural’, ‘preternatural’, and ‘supernatural’, Lorraine Daston, , ‘The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe’,Configurations 6:2 (1998), 149–171, here 154–155; Lorraine Daston, ‘Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe’, Critical Inquiry 18:1 (1991), 93–124, here 98–99, 106; Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 164–166, 172.

[7] François Richard, Relation de ce qvi s’est passé de plvs remarqvable à Sant-Erini Isle de l’Archipel, Depuis l’établissement des Peres de la Compagnie de Iesvs en icelle. Auec la declaration de plusieurs choses memorables touchant le rit & la creance des Grecs de ce temps, & trouchant les feux sous-terrains qui sortirent du fond de la mer l’an 1650. Auec plusieurs prodiges (Paris: Chez Sebastien Cramoisy Imprimeur ordinair du Roy & de la Reine, & Gabriel Cramoisy, 1657).

[8] Ibid., 384–389.

[9] Ibid., 18–23.

[10] Giuseppe Maria Sebastiani, Viaggio, e nauitagtione di Monsignor Sebastiani, F. Givseppe di S. Maria, Dell’Ordine de’ Carmelitani Scalzi: Prima Vescovo di Hierapoli; e poi di Bisignano; et hoggi ci Città di Castello: nell’andare, e tornare dall’Arcipelago (Rome: Domenico Ant. Ercole, 1687).

[11] Ibid., 78–79.

[12] Ibid., 85–86.

[13] Richard, Relation, 210–213.

[14] Ibid., 211–215.

[15] Ibid., 386–387.

[16] Ibid., 216.

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