Empusa was a shape-shifting spirit or phantom from Greek folk religion. She was connected with the grim Underworld goddess Hecate and was said to take on different shapes to frighten travelers. Sometimes she would appear with mismatched legs, one of bronze and another of cow dung. But she could also transform herself into a beautiful woman to lure young men to her bed, where she would feed on their flesh and blood (like a vampire or succubus).
In later antiquity, she was multiplied into an entire class of beings known as “empusae” or “empusas.”
The etymology of the name “Empusa” (Greek Ἔμπουσα, translit. Émpousa) is uncertain; it is presumably pre-Greek.
Empusa Ἔμπουσα (translit. Émpousa)
[em-POO-suh] /ɛmˈpu sə/
According to a late source, Empusa was also known as Oenopole (Greek Οἰνοπώλη, translit. Oinopṓlē) or Onocole (Greek Ὀνοκώλη, translit. Onokṓlē), meaning “Donkey-Legged.” Other sources identified her with the goddess Hecate or with Lamia, another spirit.
In Greek popular religion, Empusa belonged to a category of beings that can be described as “spirits” or even “demons”—malevolent creatures who preyed on innocent people. The Greeks themselves did not have a specific word for such beings. Sometimes they called them εἴδολα (eídola) or φάσματα (phásmata), terms that can be translated as “illusions,” “ghosts,” or “phantoms.”
Empusa had the power to change shape. She used this ability to frighten travelers who were unfortunate enough to cross her path, transforming herself into a cow, a mule, a female dog, or even a nightmarish creature with mismatched legs. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, a comedy of the late fifth century BCE, the god Dionysus and his slave Xanthias encounter the shape-shifting Empusa on their journey to the Underworld:
Of course. Wait! I think I hear a noise.
Where, where is it?
Get behind me!
But now it’s in front.
Get in front then!
And now, by Zeus, l see a monstrous beast.
O horrible! it takes all kinds of shapes,
Now it’s an ox, and now a mule, and now
A lovely woman.
Where is she? I’ll go meet her.
Wait, now it’s not a woman, but a bitch.
Why, this must be Empusa.
Ah! her whole face burns like fire.
Does she have a leg of bronze?
By Poseidon, yes—and the other is cow dung,
Be sure of it.
Other sources offered advice on how to combat Empusa: if a traveler insulted the monster, she would let out a terrible banshee-like shriek and run away.
Empusa could also assume the form of a beautiful young woman, which she did to seduce unsuspecting young men. After luring them to her bed, she would feed on their flesh and drink their blood—similar to a vampire or succubus.
Empusa was associated above all with the night, though she could also appear during the day. She was closely connected with the Underworld goddess Hecate and was included among the ghostly beings who followed in her wake.
By later antiquity, it seems that the formerly unique Empusa had become a whole category of beings (empusas in the plural); they were sometimes conflated with Lamia or the lamias.
Empusa can still be found in modern Greek folklore, where she is imagined as a slender woman with many feet (though she is not usually called Empusa anymore). She also occasionally appears in contemporary pop culture. Empusas can be found, for instance, in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and Empusa is one of the three witches in the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (though the name does not appear in the book upon which the film was based).