About
Greek Creature

Empusa

Empusa was a kind of spirit, often likened to a phantom or ghost, with the ability to assume different shapes. Sometimes she transformed into a terrifying creature to frighten travelers; other times she appeared as a beautiful woman to seduce young men and feed on their flesh.

By Avi Kapach4 min read • Last updated on Apr. 28th, 2022
  • No. Empusa was a creature who belonged to the world of popular or folk religion, similar to Lamia or Mormo. She was comparable to what we would now call a “spirit” or “demon”—that is, a malevolent divine being—though the Greeks did not have a specific term to describe her or her kind.

  • Empusa was able to change her shape and therefore had no fixed appearance. It was said that she manifested herself to travelers with mismatched legs, one made of bronze and the other of cow dung. But she could also appear as a cow, a mule, a dog, or, when she wished to seduce and devour young men, as a beautiful woman.

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.” 

#Etymology

The etymology of the name “Empusa” (Greek Ἔμπουσα, translit. Émpousa) is uncertain; it is presumably pre-Greek.1

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Empusa

    Ἔμπουσα (translit. Émpousa)

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [em-POO-suh]

    /ɛmˈpu sə/

#Alternative Names

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 Hecate2 or with Lamia,3 another spirit.

#Attributes

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:

XANTHIAS

Of course. Wait! I think I hear a noise.

DIONYSUS

Where, where is it?

XANTHIAS

Behind you.

DIONYSUS

Get behind me!

XANTHIAS

But now it’s in front.

DIONYSUS

Get in front then!

XANTHIAS

And now, by Zeus, l see a monstrous beast.

DIONYSUS

What kind?

XANTHIAS

O horrible! it takes all kinds of shapes,

Now it’s an ox, and now a mule, and now

A lovely woman.

DIONYSUS

Where is she? I’ll go meet her.

XANTHIAS

Wait, now it’s not a woman, but a bitch.

DIONYSUS

Why, this must be Empusa.

XANTHIAS

Ah! her whole face burns like fire.

DIONYSUS

Does she have a leg of bronze?

XANTHIAS

By Poseidon, yes—and the other is cow dung,

Be sure of it.4

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.5

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.6

Empusa was associated above all with the night, though she could also appear during the day.7 She was closely connected with the Underworld goddess Hecate and was included among the ghostly beings who followed in her wake.8 

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.9

#Pop Culture

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).

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Very few ancient sources mention Empusa; the main ones are listed below. Further sources and citations can be found in the notes above.

Greek

  • Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 385 BCE): There are references to Empusa in a few of Aristophanes’ plays, especially the Frogs (285ff).

  • Philostratus (ca. 170–ca. 247 CE): The Life of Apollonius of Tyana gives us a few glimpses of how Empusa (or the empusas) were viewed in later antiquity.

#Secondary Sources

Bloch, René. “Empusa.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e330200.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Mikalson, Jon D. “Empusa.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 505. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Smith, William. “Empusa.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 24, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DE%3Aentry+group%3D3%3Aentry%3Dempusa-bio-1.

Theoi Project. “Empousa and Lamia.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Phasma/Empousai.html.

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