The infrequent and rambling thoughts of Paul Howse...

Ancient Ghosts Part 3

A ghost rattling his chains in a ghostly fashionAnd now, dear reader, I present for your reading pleasure Part 3 of our series, Ancient Ghosts! Please remember this dates from 2002, and represents my level of learning at that earlier time. Enjoy!

V.iii. The Helpful Ghost

Ghosts also occur in the role of advisory spirits.  This is most prevalent in the case of necromancy, where the spirit is forced to provide information to the necromancer through magical means.  Several instances of this may be seen in literature as well as the magical texts.  Some of these examples include the Golden Ass, where a corpse of a murdered person is reanimated so that it may be questioned over who committed the murder.[1] Another instance is the Pharsalia,[2] where Pompey’s son wishes to inquire into the future.  A final example is from Cassius Dio, where Antoninus was enchanted by the enemy he faced, and imagined himself to be chased by his father and brother armed with swords.  He called up spirits in order to find a remedy against this problem, thus showing the nature of necromancy as a quest for knowledge and guidance.  However, spirits did not give him favourable answers, but let him know that his doom was at hand.[3] Therefore, even under necromantic ceremony, ghosts at times could act unpredictably.  However, there are also cases where the dead provide information or advice through their own volition.  One case of this is occurs in De Divinatione,[4] where it states that Gaius Gracchus received visits from his deceased brother in dreams, who told him of his impending death.  There is also the case of the travelers, where one appears to the other in a dream, asking for help against his murderer, and eventually showing the place where he may be caught.[5] This may be motivated by a wish for justice and righteous anger by the deceased spirit, but it also shows a concern for the living member of his party, lest he fall foul of the same murdering innkeeper.  We may thus see that some ghosts in literature are motivated by a wish to help the living, and thus appear to give advice and information.  This shows the continued relationship the dead had with the living, being able to give advice and advance warning to their living relatives and friends.

V.iv. The Enigmatic Ghost

Then there are those ghosts that are difficult to define.  Part of any ghostly story is an element of the supernatural, which by definition is beyond understanding.  This was one of the first tenets of being a magician, the character who dealt with the dead, in the ancient world; to make sure the clients thought you had understanding which they didn’t.  Such things as voces magicae and the peculiar nature of many of the spells argue that a large part of the magician’s art was obfuscation.[6] Ghostly phenomenon follows the same rules.  As a supernatural phenomenon, they are beyond understanding.  Several instances bear this out, such as the story of a girl, dead for six months, returning to sleep with her lover.  Her parents walk in on this, and the girl “dies” again.[7] Another such indefinable story is told by Pausanias.[8] Here the ghosts of those who fell on the field of Marathon are said to appear at times, re-fighting the famous battle at night.  Here we may see the contradiction in beliefs concerning the “glorious” dead, such as those that fall on a battlefield.  On one side, they are considered martyrs for their country, yet on the other, they the restless dead.  It is this interpretation that Pausanias subscribes to in this story.  Such instances as this are difficult to describe in terms of purpose or meaning, and just serve to show that the literary form of the ghost was not always connected to moral teaching or general belief.  Often these stories are merely there to chill the bones.


[1] Apuleius, The Golden Ass, II.28-30.

[2] Lucan, Pharsalia, 6.413-830.

[3] Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXVIII.15.2-6.

[4] Cicero, De Divinatione I.xxvi.

[5] Ibid, I.xxvii.

[6] Flint, p.47ff.

[7] Phlegon of Tralles, cited by Lacy Collison-Morley, pp.65-71.

[8] Pausanias, Description of Greece, Attica, xxxii.3-5.

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