The infrequent and rambling thoughts of Paul Howse...

Ancient Ghosts Part 2

Family mourning the deadLast week I put up the first part of a chapter from my MA thesis – and here’s the next bit!

V.ii. The Hostile Ghost

Some ghosts appear purely for revenge.  These ghosts are motivated by anger, and have thus been unable to pass to the lands beyond.  Such instances occur in Suetonius’ tale of Nero,[1] where after murdering his mother, he was plagued by her ghost in his dreams, and had to resort to a necromancer to appease her.  This shows amply how this form of ghost could have manifested itself in the belief system of the day through guilt.  Indeed, Suetonius uses the words

Neque tamen conscientiam sceleris …aut statim aut umquam postea ferre potuit, saepe confessus exagitari se materna specie verberibusque Furiarum ac Taedis ardentibus.  Quin et facto per Magos sacro evocare Manes et exorare temptavit.

However, not being in good conscience of the crime …neither at once nor ever after was able to bear, often confessing to be harassed by his mother’s phantom and the whips and burning torches of the Furies.  He even attempted to summon and entreat her ghost by rites performed by magicians (to forgive him).

We may see in this the relationship between guilt and haunting.  Suetonius makes a direct correlation between the way Nero felt about the murder of his mother and his subsequent harassment from her ghost.  The same has already been mentioned about the class of dead who had died before their time.  Those left behind feel guilt, either for inaction, or for the act of destroying life.  It is interesting to find necromancers as a means of appeasing that sense of guilt, of facilitating the emotional recovery of the bereaved through an apparent meeting of the living with the dead.  Here we may see one function of the ancient necromancer in his society.  Guilt concerning the dead is a common reaction, especially when they have died young.  Because the infant mortality rate was so high in this period, we may see that the necromancer’s art would have been in high demand.  Their social function was not, therefore, limited to the interrelation of power, but also of emotional benefit.

Other examples of the angry ghost occur in Ovid’s Fasti, where the dead allow their descendants to suffer because their propitiatory rites were not performed.[2] This shows some nuance to the perceived relationship between the living and the dead.  The duties carried out for the dead were not seen as just for the purposes of maintaining a relationship with one’s ancestors, or to honour the memories of those past, nor out of maintained grief, but a large part is due to the fear of the dead.  As we have seen, the spirits of the dead were close to Roman culture.  Belief in their influence and the several rituals observed where the dead were supposed to take part were fundamental to Roman culture, and took up a lot of effort and time.  The dead were also potent, and could cause terrible trouble, even death.  Thus, the actions taken for the benefit of the dead were not conducted solely out of respect and duty, but out of genuine fear.

There are also humorous accounts of the angry ghost, showing that the beliefs in this phenomenon, or at least the tales were widespread at this time.  Comedy is funny when it shows normal life in a different light.[3] Two cases of this are most readily thought of; firstly, Lucian’s “The Dead Come to Life”, otherwise known as “The Fisherman.”  In this play, the protagonist is visited by the ghosts of the ancient philosophers, who are angry at the comments he has made about philosophy in a previous play.  “The Dead Come to Life” appears to have been written as an answer to the backlash by philosophers of his day about his previous play, “Philosophies for Sale.”[4] The protagonist argues that he is not against the ancient masters, but the modern philosophers who argue about nothing, and thereby sully the great name of philosophy.  This is a case where the dead are said to rise because their name was not reverenced properly.  However, we must not read too much into this evidence, as it is a play written for comedic value, and properly understood natural or supernatural laws would not have to apply if they got in the way of the story.  Probably the most we may learn from this evidence is that the belief that the phenomenon of the dead visiting the living to exact revenge was a known well enough, at least as a literary motif, that comedy could be made of it.

Ghost stories often betray a certain social conservatism.  Juvenal wrote

Today not even children – except those small enough to get a free public bath – believe all that stuff about ghosts, or underground kingdoms and rivers, or black frogs croaking in the waters of Styx, or thousands of dead men ferried across by one small skiff.[5]

It is problematic to try to piece together the factuality of this statement, as it is couched in a satirical drama, where truth is less important than laughs.  Although this evidence could be read as proof that belief in the existence of the afterlife was waning during the first and second century, there is no other evidence to support such a claim.  Indeed, the plethora of curse tablets from this era and other necromantic physical remains seems to argue the opposite, let alone the literary allusions to the afterlife.  These evidences should not be overcome by one or two off-hand remarks about disbelief.  What we can make of these evidences is that there were certain members of the community who disbelieved in the afterlife, and considered the stories merely children’s tales.  It appears that the tales quoted by Ovid, or created by him, are a reaction to this set of people.[6] Their disbelief, and hence their refusal to follow the prescribed rituals concerning the propitiation of the dead were considered dangerous to the entire community, in much the same way as one person’s impiety against the gods was considered dangerous to the entire community.  The story in the Fasti of the angry, unpropitiated ghosts hints at the indiscriminate destruction they created, not targeted at the persons who wronged them.[7] Thus, we may see that these stories of the reprisals of the dead often carry a message of social conservatism.

Sometimes the stories also carry a message of justice.  In one such story, a man and his friend both take rooms at an inn.[8] In the middle of the night, the man dreams his friend is talking to him, telling him that the innkeeper is murdering him and the man must prevent it.  The man awakes, considers it a nightmare, and returns to sleep.  He is then visited by the apparition a second time, and told that since he had not saved him on the first warning, he should now avenge his murder, by catching the innkeeper as he tries to dispose of the body.  This the friend diligently does.  In this story we may discern a message for the audience: that the very act of injustice creates the means for the perpetrator’s own destruction.  This theme of “just deserts” is a recurring theme when it comes to the dead; the witches in Horace’s poem are cursed by the boy they murder, who promises to revisit them after he has died and cause no end of strife for them.[9] A third story that is similar is the cursing of Aeneas by Queen Dido upon her suicidal pyre.[10] She promises suffering and torment for the wrongs she perceives herself to have suffered on behalf of Aeneas.  She is also seen to use a magical rite to ensure that her promise may be kept – she burns a wax figure, or “voodoo doll” of Aeneas on the pyre with her, along with his personal possessions, which we may term “ousia” for the purposes of defining the magical significance.  Indeed, these stories have more in common with each other than at first glance, for they also have the anomaly present of the person about to die committing a deed of magic or necromancy.  In the first story, the man who is about to be killed succeeds in sending a dream to his friend before actually dying.  In the second, it is the act of the boy committing his ghost to the destruction of his destroyers, whereas Dido curses the person she hates with a magical ritual and promise of otherworldly retribution.  It is evident from this that the Romans believed in the ability for a normal person to accomplish otherwise unexplainable feats during a moment of desperation.[11] Thus the character of a ghost was often called on in literature to inflict justice upon the antagonists.


[1] Suetonius, Nero XXXIV 3-5.

[2] Ovid, Fasti, II.547-556.

[3] Aristotle’s Poetics argues that imitation is the essence of pleasure in art, including comedy.  See Howatson, p.450.

[4] A.M. Harman, The Works of Lucian vol.3, p.vii.

[5] Juvenal, Satire II, 148ff.

[6] Ovid, Fasti II.549-556.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cicero, De Divinatione I.27.

[9] Horace, epode V.

[10] Virgil, Aeneid bk.4.

[11] Georg Luck, “Witches and Sorcerers in Classical Literature” pp.121-2.

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