The Bones Are Their Dollars: Ghosts in the Ancient World 

“Hail thou One, who shinest from the moon. Grant that this one may come forth among thy multitudes who are at the portal. Let [me] be with the Light-god. Let the Duat be open to [me].” – The Book of Coming Forth by Day

“We’ve been going about this all wrong. This Mr. Stay Puft’s okay! He’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble!” – Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters

As promised, this week I thought we’d use the spooky season as an excuse to talk about ghosts and other spirits in the classical world (since we already discussed demons last year). From beliefs of the afterlife to latent imprints of the wrongfully deceased, our species has always had a lingering suspicion that the dead might not be entirely gone and a whole crop of interesting ideas and practices have sprung up around that.

Ghosts or wandering spirits are present in one form or another in most ancient cultures, in part because most older civilizations had some concept of an afterlife, or at least, the idea that some part of a dead person could continue on after death. Some of this comes from the ancient world’s almost-universal practice of ancestor cults, where living relatives would seek to honor and care for the deceased in a religious framework that offered a respect the dead only a step below that offered to the gods. Abandoning one’s ancestors was another form of blasphemy and the living feared that the dead, freed from the rules that governed the real world, might be able to invoke supernatural harm on the insufficiently filial. On perhaps a more mundane level, since most ancient cultures prior to Christianity didn’t promise that the afterlife would be particularly better than the real world, the living tended to harbor the belief that the dead were by nature envious of them and would harm the living out of jealousy or spite. Even in cultures with underworlds thought to be essentially mirror-images of the real world like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians seemed to have simultaneously had a vested interest in keeping the dead out of the world of the living (except when specifically invited).

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that ghosts, called gidim (Sumerian: 𒄇) were created at the moment of a person’s decease. Gidim would take on the personality and appearance of the dead person before traveling to Irkalla, the underworld. There, the queen of the underworld, the goddess Ereshkigal, would assign the gidim to a place and they would continue to lead a shadow life similar to living on earth. Interestingly enough, one’s actions in life had no bearing on this placement, but based on the continued abundance of grave goods in Mesopotamian culture, it is believed that the dead might be able to bribe their way into better treatment. Which made it arguably better to die rich and bad than poor and good. However, as perhaps evidenced by their name, which is thought to be a compound word meaning “sick demon” or “approaching blackness”, a gidim’s existence was generally less cheerful than living in the real world. Irkalla is usually described as a dark, dreary cavern on par with the Greek underworld, and the dead had only dust to eat and drink, which made it vital for them to have caring relatives to offer libations at their graves. It seems as though the living couldn’t do much about Irkalla’s menu, but libations poured down specially-made clay pipes at least ensured the dead would receive real drinks. Thirsty gidim would pester the living with illnesses and misfortune until their demands were met.

[Babylonian ghost tablet]

Currently, the oldest drawing of a ghost we have is a 3,500 old Babylonian spell tablet, which suggests that gidim occasionally arose for another reason besides the lack of a good six-pack. This tablet, currently housed in the British Museum and pictured above, shows a bound male ghost being led by a young woman, and the spell on the reverse is designed to send a lonely male gidim back to the underworld with a couple of beers and a nice ghostly girl to keep him company, presumably so he won’t keep bothering the family about his defunct Tinder account. The Guardian recently did a really fun little piece about this tablet, which you should definitely read.

On the other hand, one could make the argument that to become a “ghost”, i.e. a roaming spirit, was the entire point of the Egyptian conception of the afterlife. Rather than a punishment, to have full control over the seven parts of the Egyptian soul was best manifested in a dead person’s ability to move freely in this world and the Duat. That’s why the more correct translation of the Book of the Dead’s title is The Book of Coming (Going) Forth by Day, or The Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. Most of the spells from the papyrus texts we have are designed to bind the various parts of the soul to one’s body, both so one is whole in the afterlife (where, like their Mesopotamian neighbors, one will live a second life similar to the one lived in the world), but also to provide the soul a tether to the body so it can travel out of the tomb and back into the real world if desired. This trans-realm travel could be for benevolent or malignant purposes, and we have plenty of evidence of temple offerings made by living relatives to the dead asking for everything from blessings to assistance with legal disputes.

[An Egyptian votive offering vase asking a deceased relative for help winning a court case]

The three parts of the soul that seem most tied to this sort of activity are less well known than, say, the ka (one’s life-force), or even the ba (one’s personality). Chief among them was the sah (s) the spiritual representation of the physical body, which also probably fits best with our modern conception of a ghost. If properly bonded with the body and therefore in full control of itself, the sah could leave the Duat as an avenging spirit, either for one’s relations or against them. One might think that the answer would be to not prepare a dead relative according to ritual, so as to cut their post-life power out from underneath them. But because the Egyptian soul was so particulate, it seems like there was an understandable fear that a loose, potentially malevolent part like the sah might get trapped in its physical tomb in the real world and still be able to wreck havoc—much like the wandering spirit in the Babylonian tablet. The Egyptians had an extensive working relationship with their dead, perhaps more so than the average ancient civilization, but that doesn’t mean that the living wanted their lives dictated by the deceased. As one might expect, Egyptian has many words for the dead, but there is a definite difference in intent between a text referring to them as the sedjeri (“the happy dead”) and anku (“ghosts of the dead”). A good example of this is a letter found in the tomb of a woman from the Middle Kingdom, whose sah appears to have been haunting her husband:

What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should have come to this evil pass? What have I done to thee? But what thou hast done to me is to have laid hands on me although I had nothing wicked to thee. From the time I lived with thee as thy husband down to today, what have I done to thee that I need hide? When thou didst sicken of the illness which thou hadst, I caused a master-physician to be fetched … I spent eight months without eating and drinking like a man. I wept exceedingly together with my household in front of my street-quarter. I gave linen clothes to wrap thee and left no benefit undone that had to be performed for thee. And now, behold, I have spent three years alone without entering into a house, though it is not right that one like me should have to do it. This have I done for thy sake. But, behold, thou dost not know good from bad.

Another part of the soul involved in spiritual hijinks was the shut (šwt), a person’s shadow. Because casting a shadow in life is something people always do (unless they’re vampires), the Egyptians saw their shadows as just another part of them that could survive death. The shut was seen as a servant of the god Anubis, and is often shown with him in texts, but it was also something that could emerge from a tomb and move about in the daylight, possibly living a sliver of its old existence, although it would be a weaker version (or a mere shadow, ha) of its old self. In the Duat, a shut serving the gods might also take the form of an ostrich-feather sun shade, which for the gods would be a sign of their heavenly royalty, and for the shut, as something designed to cast a shadow.

[Two bas (depicted as birds with human heads) outside of a tomb from which a shut is emerging]

The third part of the soul known for walking abroad was the akh (ḫ), or the essence of a person’s intellect. The akh was seen as the properly united ka and ba in the afterlife, and is arguably what living relatives were feeding when they left offerings of food at a deceased’s tomb; regular feeding being required by the dead to literally keep body and soul together. Perhaps expectedly, as you can see in the picture below, the akh was depicted in hieroglyphs looking very much like an ibis, the bird associated with the god of wisdom, Thoth. The akh was also seen as a transfigured version of the deceased and therefore associated with light in general, which is perhaps why akh is also an Egyptian word for “star”. As an aside, I love plurals in Middle Egyptian, because usually the way to pluralize something in the language is simply to repeat the word to indicate “more of this”, as we saw with Gengen-Wer’s name (gengen = “Honking [gen] a lot”). In this vein, “stars” in Egyptian is akhakh—literally just “more than one star”. Anyway, the soul akh seems to have operated with a lot of the same skill set as the sah, capable of aiding or harming the living, but it appears that only a neglected tomb without the proper offerings and care would cause the akh to take up haunting. Once roused, an akh could bring nightmares and sickness to a household, as well as just unattached feelings of guilt until its demands were met. 

[Hieroglyph for akh]

The Greek conception of ghosts (shades; in Greek, σκιά) is one that changed slowly over time, perhaps because of ancient Greece’s increased contacts with the cultures of Egypt and the Middle East through the millennia. Shades appear in the works of Homer, often as weak vapors or smoke, but have little interaction with the living of their own volition. Of course in The Odyssey, Odysseus travels into Hades to seek the advice of Tiresias and he interacts with many of the dead, but fear of them is minimal. Our hero fears the lands of the dead because they’re creepy, not because he thinks the dead will harm them. Like the Mesopotamians, the early Greeks do seem to agree that the dead are envious of the living, as epitomized by Odysseus’ interaction with the shade of Achilles. Odysseus laments that the great warrior is dead, but surely it is a comfort to Achilles to know that his renown echoes to every corner of the world and his name will always be remembered. Shade Achilles is quick to quash this idea though, and replies, “Say not a word…in death’s favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above the ground than king of kings among the dead”, implying that if even Achillas isn’t having a good in the underworld, no other Greek is likely to fare much better.

Later on, moving into the 5th century BC, the character of shades seems to have undergone a cultural shift into something much more in line with the Egypto-Mesopotamian line and shades became much more capable of influencing the living world. Cemeteries became places to be avoided, as shades were thought to hover near their bodies, and large, public funerals became more common in an attempt to placate the jealous dead. Families would hold ritual feasts for their dead relatives, with the clear understanding to the shades being that afterwards they were to leave the living alone until the next year, and libations or sacrifices were used to fill the gaps in between. This becomes reflected in the literature of this period, which rather than Homer’s impotent and melancholy shades, gives us the vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia cycle, who is so powerful that she can awaken the Erinyes to demand justice from them. 

[Clytemnestra awakens the Erinyes]

By the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks had also begun to subscribe to the quasi-Mesopotamian idea that one might be able to bargain their way into a better afterlife. But rather than bribery, it was thought that special, elite people (let’s be frank, men) might gain exemption from the gloomy shadow existence of Hades and instead dwell in a separate divine sphere. No doubt taking a cue from the early myths of Heracles, it seems to have been decided that the best way to achieve this was by becoming a god. The traits that denoted godhood aligned most closely with the Homeric ideas of heroism, which is why Alex and his ilk could be megalomaniacal mass murderers and think they were getting tickets to Super Heaven. Plutarch tells us that this was probably the only reason Alexander stopped literally losing his mind when Hephaestion died is that the oracle of Zeus-Ammon (the Greek conception of the Egyptian god Amun) assured the conqueror that his favorite had achieved this exalted state: “Alexander’s grief for him exceeded all reasonable measure. He ordered the manes of all the horses and mules to be cut off in sign of mourning, he struck off the battlements of all the neighbouring cities, crucified the unhappy physician, and would not permit the flute or any other musical instrument to be played throughout his camp, until a response came from the oracle of Ammon bidding him honour Hephæstion and offer sacrifice to him as to a hero.” (Parallel Lives, 72). Plutarch would also relate to us the story of a haunted bathhouse in his hometown of Chaeronea, which had to eventually be boarded up in an attempt to contain the loud moaning of a shade who had been murdered on or near the premises.

And as usual, the Roman idea of ghosts, which they also referred to as shades (Latin: umbra) is kind of a grand amalgamation of all of these thoughts. The ancient Romans were a little more wary of the dead out of the gate as compared to the Greeks, which fits with their more animistic native religion and its preoccupation with liminal boundaries and spirits. We’ve already discussed the Lemuria and the Parentalia, two of the Roman festivals dedicated to keeping the dead happy and in their place, but the Romans weren’t afraid of launching vengeful shades at each other if necessary. Taking a piece of pottery or lead with a curse written on it and placing it in a grave or tomb would supposedly sic a ghost on an enemy, and if that didn’t work, one could always resort to the ever-popular defixio (curse tablets), which worked for getting shades on your side as much as the gods.

[Athenodorus and the Shade]

Aside from Plutarch’s Greco-Roman ghost story, we also have one from the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, which describes the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus buying a house that turns out to be haunted. Being a philosopher, Athenodorus decides to see the supposed shade for himself and sets up his writing desk in the room where the shade is said to appear so he can stay up late enough to catch it. The shade appears as a man bound in chains, and directs Athenodorus outside to a spot on the grounds of the house. The next day, Athenodorus has the spot excavated and a shackled skeleton is found. He gives the skeleton proper burial rites and the hauntings in his house cease.

But, as with any tangential connected to Roman religious beliefs, for every ghost-hunting believer, there were plenty of skeptics as well. The writer Lucian (c. 25 AD- after 180) wrote The Lover of Lies, or The Doubter, specifically to parody these beliefs. The protagonist of the story, Tychiades, is describing a visit he made to a sickly friend’s house where all the other guests are suggesting various folk remedies to help their host recover. When Tychiades expresses disbelief at the efficacy of these medicines, the other guests try to persuade him by telling supernatural and increasingly ridiculous stories, one of which is the earliest version of the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Which might mean that Lucian inadvertently summoned a shade so powerful it now owns half the world’s entertainment properties.

[And you all thought Chernabog was the villain in Fantasia…]
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