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The Belief In Ghosts In Greece And Rome






Ghost stories play a very subordinate part in classical literature, as
is only to be expected. The religion of the hard-headed, practical Roman
was essentially formal, and consisted largely in the exact performance
of an elaborate ritual. His relations with the dead were regulated with
a care that might satisfy the most litigious of ghosts, and once a man
had carried out his part of the bargain, he did not trouble his head
further about his deceased ancestors, so long as he felt that they, in
their turn, were not neglecting his interests. Yet the average man in
Rome was glad to free himself from burdensome and expensive duties
towards the dead that had come down to him from past generations, and
the ingenuity of the lawyers soon devised a system of sham sales by
which this could be successfully and honourably accomplished.[25]

Greek religion, it is true, found expression to a large extent in
mythology; but the sanity of the Greek genius in its best days kept it
free from excessive superstition. Not till the invasion of the
West by the cults of the East do we find ghosts and spirits at all
common in literature.

The belief in apparitions existed, however, at all times, even among
educated people. The younger Pliny, for instance, writes to ask his
friend Sura for his opinion as to whether ghosts have a real existence,
with a form of their own, and are of divine origin, or whether they are
merely empty air, owing their definite shape to our superstitious fears.

We must not forget that Suetonius, whose superstition has become
proverbial, was a friend of Pliny, and wrote to him on one occasion,
begging him to procure the postponement of a case in which he was
engaged, as he had been frightened by a dream. Though Pliny certainly
did not possess his friend's amazing credulity, he takes the request
with becoming seriousness, and promises to do his best; but he adds that
the real question is whether Suetonius's dreams are usually true or not.
He then relates how he himself once had a vision of his mother-in-law,
of all people, appearing to him and begging him to abandon a case he had
undertaken. In spite of this awful warning he persevered, however, and
it was well that he did so, for the case proved the beginning of his
successful career at the Bar.[26] His uncle, the elder Pliny, seems to
have placed more faith in his dreams, and wrote his account of the
German wars entirely because he dreamt that Drusus appeared to him and
implored him to preserve his name from oblivion.[27]

The Plinies were undoubtedly two of the ablest and most enlightened men
of their time; and the belief in the value of dreams is certainly not
extinct among us yet. If we possess Artemidorus's book on the subject
for the ancient world, we have also the "Smorfia" of to-day, so dear to
the heart of the lotto-playing Neapolitan, which assigns a special
number to every conceivable subject that can possibly occur in a
dream--not excluding "u murtu che parl'" (the dead man that speaks)--for
the guidance of the believing gambler in selecting the numbers he is to
play for the week.

Plutarch placed great faith in ghosts and visions. In his Life of
Dion[28] he notes the singular fact that both Dion and Brutus were
warned of their approaching deaths by a frightful spectre. "It has been
maintained," he adds, "that no man in his senses ever saw a ghost: that
these are the delusive visions of women and children, or of men whose
intellects are impaired by some physical infirmity, and who believe that
their diseased imaginations are of divine origin. But if Dion and
Brutus, men of strong and philosophic minds, whose understandings were
not affected by any constitutional infirmity--if such men could place so
much faith in the appearance of spectres as to give an account of them
to their friends, I see no reason why we should depart from the opinion
of the ancients that men had their evil genii, who disturbed them with
fears and distressed their virtues ..."

In the opening of the _Philopseudus_, Lucian asks what it is that makes
men so fond of a lie, and comments on their delight in romancing
themselves, which is only equalled by the earnest attention with which
they receive other people's efforts in the same direction. Tychiades
goes on to describe his visit to Eucrates, a distinguished philosopher,
who was ill in bed. With him were a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean,
a Platonist, and a doctor, who began to tell stories so absurd and
abounding in such monstrous superstition that he ended by leaving them
in disgust. None of us have, of course, ever been present at similar
gatherings, where, after starting with the inevitable Glamis mystery,
everybody in the room has set to work to outdo his neighbour in
marvellous yarns, drawing on his imagination for additional material,
and, like Eucrates, being ready to stake the lives of his children on
his veracity.

Another scoffer was Democritus of Abdera, who was so firmly convinced of
the non-existence of ghosts that he took up his abode in a tomb and
lived there night and day for a long time. Classical ghosts seem to have
affected black rather than white as their favourite colour. Among the
features of the gruesome entertainments with which Domitian loved to
terrify his Senators were handsome boys, who appeared naked with their
bodies painted black, like ghosts, and performed a wild dance.[29] On
the following day one of them was generally sent as a present to each
Senator. Some boys in the neighbourhood wished to shake Democritus's
unbelief, so they dressed themselves in black with masks like skulls
upon their heads and danced round the tomb where he lived. But, to their
annoyance, he only put his head out and told them to go away and stop
playing the fool.

The Greek and Roman stories hardly come up to the standards required by
the Society for Psychical Research. They are purely popular, and the
ghost is regarded as the deceased person, permitted or condemned by the
powers of the lower world to hold communication with survivors on earth.
Naturally, they were never submitted to critical inquiry, and there is
no foreshadowing of any of the modern theories, that the phenomenon, if
caused by the deceased, is not necessarily the deceased, though it may
be an indication that "some kind of force is being exercised after death
which is in some way connected with a person previously known on earth,"
or that the apparitions may be purely local, or due entirely to
subjective hallucination on the part of the person beholding them.
Strangely enough, we rarely find any of those interesting cases,
everywhere so well attested, of people appearing just about the time of
their death to friends or relatives to whom they are particularly
attached, or with whom they have made a compact that they will appear,
should they die first, if it is possible. The classical instance of this
is the well-known story of Lord Brougham who, while taking a warm bath
in Sweden, saw a school friend whom he had not met for many years, but
with whom he had long ago "committed the folly of drawing up an
agreement written with our blood, to the effect that whichever of us
died first should appear to the other, and thus solve any doubts we had
entertained of the life after death." There are, however, a number of
stories of the passing of souls, which are curiously like some of those
collected by the Society for Psychical Research, in the Fourth Book of
Gregory the Great's Dialogues.

Another noticeable difference is that apparitions in most
well-authenticated modern ghost stories are of a comforting character,
whereas those in the ancient world are nearly all the reverse. This
difference we may attribute to the entire change in the aspect of the
future life which we owe to modern Christianity. As we have seen, there
was little that was comforting in the life after death as conceived by
the old pagan religions, while in medieval times the horrors of hell
were painted in the most lurid colours, and were emphasized more than
the joys of heaven.





Next: Stories Of Haunting

Previous: The Power Of The Dead To Return To Earth



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