Empusa (Ancient Greek: Ἔμπουσα, Empousa, of unknown meaning) is a demigoddess of Greek mythology. In later incarnations she appeared as a species of monsters commanded by Hecate (known in English as an empuse).
She is often associated or grouped with the demigoddesses Lamia and Mormo, who were likewise related as a kind of spectres in later mythology (the lamias and mormolyceas, respectively).
As a demigoddess
Empusa was the beautiful daughter of the goddess Hecate and the spirit Mormo. She is based on vampires, which the idea came from. She feasted on blood by seducing young men as they slept (see sleep paralysis), before drinking their blood and eating their flesh. Empusa is pictured as wearing brazen slippers and bearing flaming hair. By folk etymology, her name was said to mean “one-footed” (from Greek *έμπούς, *empous: en-, one + pous, foot). This gave rise to the iconography of a one-legged hybrid, with a donkey’s leg and a brass prosthetic leg.
Later and modern usage
In later Greek mythology, her role was reduced to a species of spectre called an empuse or empusa (pl. empusae). The empusae were sent by Hecate to guard roads and devour travelers (Hecate was also the goddess of roadsides). According to Philostratus, empusae ran and hid, uttering a high-pitched scream, at the sound of insults. The empusae are best known for their appearance in Aristophanes’s The Frogs, in which they scared Dionysus and Xanthias on their way to the underworld.
The term is still used to refer to a shapeshifting hobgoblin said to pester Greek shepherds in the form of a dog, ox, or mule (perhaps harkening back to the classical representation).
Empusa is referenced in Rudyard Kipling’s narrative poem, Tomlinson.
Empusa is a character in Faust: Part Two by Goethe. She appears during the Classical Walpurgis Night as Mephisto is being lured by the Lamiae. She refers to herself as cousin to Mephisto because she has a donkey’s foot and he has a horse’s.
Empusa is the name of the ship used by Count Orlok to travel to Wisborg in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).
Empusa is a main antagonist turned heroine in the novel Grecian Rune by James Matthew Byers. They may look like humans at first.
In the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, they first appear in The Battle of the Labyrinth as servants of Hecate, who had by that time joined the Titan Army. The first empousa, who claimed to be freed from Pandora’s pithos when it had been opened, appeared in the next book, The Last Olympian. They reappear in The House of Hades (the penultimate book of The Heroes of Olympus, a spin-off series of Percy Jackson & the Olympians) as servants of the primordial goddess Gaea. One of them, Kelli, happens to be the same one Annabeth Chase killed in The Battle of the Labyrinth. Another one, Serephone, is clearly fearful of Hecate, and distrustful of Kelli, who is now working against their mistress. They are defeated by one of their old employers, the Titan Iapetus.
In the British webseries “I Am Tim,” the Empusa is a female demon who is defeated by the hero, Tim Helsing in Series 1, episode 2. The demon has the ability to turn into fire at will and is eventually defeated by using an amulet and saying sacred words which a character “looks up on wikipedia” on his iPhone.
The Empusa are enemies in the video game God of War: Ascension. They appear as half-women, half-insect, possibly due to the name ascribed to a certain group of mantids.
Empusa (along with Lamia and Mormo) is one of the three witches in the Film ‘Stardust’ (dir. Matthew Vaughn). She is played by Sarah Alexander. In Neil Gaiman’s book the witches are not given individual names.