The Walking Undead: Ghost Stories and Hauntings from the Ancient World

In light of this festive part of the year (Halloween is my favorite holiday!), I have decided to make a little post highlighting some of the best scary stories from antiquity into a short post.  Suspend disbelief–these stories are not historically true, but imagine…imagine if they were… how might you find yourself acting in a similar situation?  What if this happens to you?

The Dead Shall Rise from the Graves

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the verse from Matthew 27.52, ‘and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many.’  Imagine that; dead rising from the local necropolis, or from the Mount of Olives where where old tombs stand, and–in their skeletal forms they roamed the city of Jerusalem.  And there are those today who still believe this actually happened.  One must wonder what Roman centurions had to have thought?  But there are other stories, far more troubling.

Like the story found in 2 Kgs 13:21, ‘And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.’  The surprise of the fellows!  Imagine you just tossed a dead man into a tomb and, upon his lifeless corpse touching the bones of a dead prophet he opened his eyes, stood, and looked back at you?

And one cannot forget the eerie threats of the Goddess Ishtar…’I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living.’  (Ishtar to the gatekeeper of the underworld, ‘Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World’, lines 19-20, trans. E.A. Speiser, ANET, p. 107)  Let us hope that these are idle threats…

Haunted Houses and Haunted Persons

Pliny is the first to offer us a tale of the haunted house.  Athenodorus was not at all prepared…

There was in Athens a house, spacious and open, but with an infamous reputation, as if filled with pestilence. For in the dead of night, a noise like the clashing of iron could be heard. And if one listened carefully, it sounded like the rattling of chains. At first the noise seemed to be at a distance, but then it would approach, nearer, nearer, nearer. Suddenly a phantom would appear, an old man, pale and emaciated, with a long beard, and hair that appeared driven by the wind. The fetters on his feet and hands rattled as he moved them.

Any dwellers in the house passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. The nights without rest led them to a kind of madness, and as the horrors in their minds increased, onto a path toward death. Even in the daytime–when the phantom did not appear–the memory of the nightmare was so strong that it still passed before their eyes. The terror remained when the cause of it was gone.

Damned as uninhabitable, the house was at last deserted, left to the spectral monster. But in hope that some tenant might be found who was unaware of the malevolence within it, the house was posted for rent or sale.

It happened that a philosopher named Athenodorus came to Athens at that time. Reading the posted bill, he discovered the dwelling’s price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion, yet when he heard the whole story, he was not in the least put off. Indeed, he was eager to take the place. And did so immediately.

As evening drew near, Athenodorus had a couch prepared for him in the front section of the house. He asked for a light and his writing materials, then dismissed his retainers. To keep his mind from being distracted by vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he directed all his energy toward his writing.

For a time the night was silent. Then came the rattling of fetters. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen. Instead he closed his ears by concentrating on his work. But the noise increased and advanced closer till it seemed to be at the door, and at last in the very chamber. Athenodorus looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him. It stood before him, beckoning with one finger.

Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that the visitor should wait a little, and bent over his work. The ghost, however, shook the chains over the philosopher’s head, beckoning as before. Athenodorus now took up his lamp and followed. The ghost moved slowly, as if held back by his chains. Once it reached the courtyard, it suddenly vanished.

Athenodorus, now deserted, carefully marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he asked the magistrate to have the spot dug up. There they found–intertwined with chains–the bones that were all that remained of a body that had long lain in the ground. Carefully, the skeletal relics were collected and given proper burial, at public expense. The tortured ancient was at rest. And the house in Athens was haunted no more.

And Lucian (Philopseudes 30-31) offers another story, similar to this one in many respects, about a house in Corinth:

“Well,” he said, “if you ever go to Corinth, ask where the house of Eubatides is, and when it is pointed out to you beside the Cornel Grove, go there and tell the door-keep Tibeios that you wish to see where the Pythagorean Arignotos bested the spirit and made the house habitable from then on…the house was uninhabitable for a long time…because of a terrifying phenomena, and any person who tried to live there soon fled, panic-stricken, pursued by some fearful and menacing phantom. So the house was starting to collapse, and the roof was falling in, and in short there was no one brave enough to enter it.

When I heard this, I gathered up my books—for I have quite a few Egyptian books about this very subject—and went to the house at the hour when people usually go to sleep. My host tried to turn me back, and all but physically restrained me when he learned where I was going—to face a known evil, he thought. I went in alone, taking a lamp, and put the lamp down in the largest room. Sitting on the ground, I was reading peacefully, when the spirit appeared, thinking he was approaching just any man, and hoping to frighten me just as he had the others. He was filthy and long-haired and blacker than darkness itself. Standing over me, he made an attempt on me, attacking from all sides to see if he could conquer me, changing himself now into a dog, now into a bull or lion. But I had ready the most horrible Egyptian curse, and speaking in the Egyptian tongue I drove him away and bound him in a corner of a dark room. Observing where he sank down, I rested for what was left of the night.

Early in the morning, when everyone had given up hope and expected to find a corpse like the others, I came out entirely unexpected, and went to Eubatides with the good news that he could live once more in the house, which was now purified and freed from fear. Then, taking him and many others—they followed along because the incident was so marvelous—I led them to the place where I had seen the spirit sink into the earth, and I urged them to dig with hoes and shovels. Doing this, they found, buried nearly six feet down, a rotting corpse, with only bones remaining in order. After we dug it up and buried it, the house from then on ceased to be troubled by phantoms.

But haunted houses are not the only place spooky phantoms reside. Some spirits, it seems, have returned for other purposes…

Herodotus recounts a story where the tyrant of Corinth, Periander, hopes of learning about a deposit a friend had given. He inquires of an oracle to bring up his wife to learn about this. The haunting story is recounted below (Histories 5.92g):

 Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counseled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner. Whatever act of slaughter or banishment Cypselus had left undone, that Periander brought to accomplishment. In a single day he stripped all the women of Corinth naked, because of his own wife Melissa. Periander had sent messengers to the Oracle of the Dead on the river Acheron in Thesprotia to enquire concerning a deposit that a friend had left, but Melissa, in an apparition, said that she would tell him nothing, nor reveal where the deposit lay, for she was cold and naked. The garments, she said, with which Periander had buried with her had never been burnt, and were of no use to her. Then, as evidence for her husband that she spoke the truth, she added that Periander had put his loaves into a cold oven. When this message was brought back to Periander (for he had had intercourse with the dead body of Melissa and knew her token for true), immediately after the message he made a proclamation that all the Corinthian women should come out into the temple of Hera. They then came out as to a festival, wearing their most beautiful garments, and Periander set his guards there and stripped them all alike, ladies and serving-women, and heaped all the clothes in a pit, where, as he prayed to Melissa, he burnt them. When he had done this and sent a second message, the ghost of Melissa told him where the deposit of the friend had been laid.

But not all stories are so benevolent…  In the book of 1 Samuel, Saul is about to lose his kingdom to the Philistines. Knowing that Yahweh has left him, Saul seeks the council of a soothsayer.  The story has been remembered as the Witch of Endor…
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.
Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”

“There is one in Endor,” they said.

So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”

But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”

Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this.”

Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”

“Bring up Samuel,” he said.

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”

The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”

The woman said, “I see a ghostly figurecoming up out of the earth.”

“What does he look like?” he asked.

“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.

Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”

“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”

Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has departed from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”

And with that chilling statement ‘tomorrow you and your sons will be with me’, the spirit of Samuel announced the doom of Israel.  And so it came to pass…

Another fortune telling ghost can be found in Euripides’ play Hecuba, 30-54. The ghost of Priam’s son Polydorus, butchered at the hands of false friends, goes to his mother in a dream, recounting to her the horrors that are to befall her.

Disembodied now, I hover as a wraith over my mother’s head, riding for three long days upon the air, three hopeless days of suffering and fear since she left Troy and came to Chersonese. Here on the shore of Thrace, in sullen idleness beside its ships, the whole Achaean army waits and cannot sail. For Achilles’ ghost appeared, stalking on his tomb, wailing, and stopped the ships as they stood out for sea on the journey home. He demanded my sister Polyxena as a prize, the blood of the living to sweeten a dead man’s grave….On this day destiny shall take my sister down to death. Ah you, poor mother, you must see your two last children dead this day, my sister slaughtered and my unburied body washed up on shore at the feet of a slave. These were the favors I asked of the gods below—to find my mother and be buried by her hands—and they have granted my request. Now I go, for there below I see my mother coming, stumbling from Agamemnon’s tent, still shaken by that dream in which she saw my ghost.

In letter 83, Pliny tells another ghost story… below are his words.

I am extremely desirous therefore to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and that they have a real form, and are a sort of divinities, or only the visionary impressions of a terrified imagination. What particularly inclines me to believe in their existence is a story which I heard of Curtius Rufus. When he was in low circumstances and unknown in the world, he attended the governor of Africa into that province. One evening, as he was walking in the public portico, there appeared to him the figure of a woman, of unusual size and of beauty more than human. And as he stood there, terrified and astonished, she told him she was the tutelary power that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, to enjoy high honors there, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die. Every circumstance of this prediction actually came to pass. It is said farther that upon his arrival at Carthage, as he was coming out of the ship, the same figure met him upon the shore.

The forgotten dead, buried improperly, are often never at full rest.  Stories abound, like those who haunted the houses in Athens and Corinth, of the spirits of the dead haunting their plots until given proper rites.  It is said of Caligula by Suetonius (Cali., 59)….
His body was carried privately into the Lamian Gardens,1 where it was half burnt upon a pile hastily raised, and then had some earth carelessly thrown over it. It was afterwards disinterred by his sisters, on their return from banishment, burnt to ashes, and buried. Before this was done, it is well-known that the keepers of the gardens were greatly disturbed by apparitions; and that not a night passed without some terrible alarm or other in the house where he was slain, until it was destroyed by fire.
Cicero (Div. 1.57) recounts the following tale of a friend who visited another in a dream to inform him of his death…
Two friends from Arcadia who were taking a journey together came to Megara, and one traveller put up at an inn and the second went to the home of a friend. After they had eaten supper and retired, the second traveller, in the dead of the night, dreamed that his companion was imploring him to come to his aid, as the innkeeper was planning to kill him. Greatly frightened at first by the dream he arose, and later, regaining his composure, decided that there was nothing to worry about and went back to bed. When he had gone to sleep the same person appeared to him and said: ‘Since you would not help me when I was alive, I beg that you will not allow my dead body to remain unburied. I have been killed by the innkeeper, who has thrown my body into a cart and covered it with dung. I pray you to be at the city gate in the morning before the cart leaves the town,’ Thoroughly convinced by the second dream he met the cart-driver at the gate in the morning, and, when he asked what he had in the cart, the driver fled in terror. The Arcadian then removed his friend’s dead body from the cart, made complaint of the crime to the authorities, and the innkeeper was punished.

So remember, readers, that the dead have been reported to have walked the grounds of the living.  Remember…so in case you find yourself walking alone at night, and if by chance you happen upon a specter of the dead, you may just survive it….


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