Anyone familiar with Greek myth knows that any hero worth his salt had to make a visit to the underworld. However, the afterlife was not an unfamiliar concept to any of the cultures of the ancient world. In fact, ancient peoples were probably more sure that the soul survived bodily death than some in the modern world. The details of the afterlife differed from culture to culture, but there are consistent themes. The afterlife was a place ruled by specific laws and souls could only roam the earth if given specific permission from the gods for special circumstances. These usually included murder, where the murderer went unpunished, improper funeral rites or death where the body was never recovered, for example drowning. The return of these spirits was not a welcome thing for the relatives involved, in fact many of our funeral customs stem from the desire to protect family members from an unquiet ghost. These include covering mirrors, wearing black and lighting candles around the body.
If a ghost did appear to a person on earth, it was up to that person to right the wrong so the ghost could continue on to the afterlife. In ancient Mesopotamia, these visitations manifested themselves as sickness. The scholar Robert D. Biggs writes, “The dead – especially dead relatives – might also trouble the living, particularly if family obligations to supply offerings to the dead were neglected. Especially likely to return to trouble the living were ghosts of persons who died unnatural deaths or who were not properly buried – for example, death by drowning or death on a battlefield” Mesopotamian doctors asked the patient before treatment if they had any sins to confess, and if so that was part of the treatment as they believed sickness was the outward manifestation of sin- much like in the Old Testament. The one of the earliest written stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a trip to the afterlife and a ghost.
Improper funerary rites are a big theme as to why ghosts returned to earth. This was especially true in ancient Egypt. A ghost is also said to return if the deceased found out about a hidden sin of the living or a need for justice. The person being haunted had to plead their case to the ghost for relief, and if that didn’t work have a priest intervene to judge between the living and the dead. On the flip side, if funerary rites were performed properly a spirit could take a guardian role over the living- much like a guardian angel. However, Egyptian myth is very clear about the difference between a protective peaceful spirit dwelling in the afterlife and a vengeful ghost returned to earth.
Ghosts are prominent figures in both Greek and Roman myth as most heroes have to go to the Underworld to get a glimpse of their destiny or make sure they were on the right path. However, ghosts came into play for the everyday person as well. As with other cultures, the theme of unfinished business and improper burial ran through the appearance of ghosts. Again, benevolent family spirits could protect their living relatives, usually appearing in dreams to their progeny. As with most thing Roman, ghosts were more organized and followed strict rules. They could only appear at certain times of night and must be seen with some kind of light. Only ghosts of loved ones were allowed to appear in dreams. To placate evil spirits, the Romans celebrated Lemuria. According to Ovid, this festival had been celebrated since Romulus murdered Remus, and the murdered twin’s spirit haunted early Rome. The Romans also left crossroad offerings to Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads who was present when souls entered or left bodies. She had the power to prevent ghost from visiting the living, but if she wanted revenge she could send them on their way.
Romans even had reports of a traditional haunted house. A letter from Pliny the Younger to his friend Licinius Sura described what modern ears would recognize as sounding like a poltergeist. He writes “The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of weapons and chains. First they came from afar, but then they were heard nearby. Soon there appeared a filthy, emaciated old man with scraggly hair and beard. He had chains on his hands and feet.” As with most haunted houses, the residents sold the place and headed for the hills. The ghost was satisfied when a traveling philosopher saw the for sale sign and stayed the night. The ghost appeared to him and led him to the chained remains of a man. Once the body had been given proper burial, the visitations stopped. He also told the story of a ghost who cut the hair of his freedman, Marcus, while he slept. Pliny took this as a sign he escaped prosecution as Roman tradition said persons under public accusation let their hair grow. Emperor Domitian died soon after this occurrence and in the emperor’s desk drawer were articles of impeachment against Pliny.
The similarities of supernatural behavior and beliefs cross multiple cultures, and in future posts we will examine the similarities in the Far East as well as in the Americas.
Sources available on request