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The Power Of The Dead To Return To Earth






Though there is no period at which the ancients do not seem to have
believed in a future life, continual confusion prevails when they come
to picture the existence led by man in the other world, as we see from
the sixth book of the _AEneid_. Combined with the elaborate mythology of
Greece, we are confronted with the primitive belief of Italy, and
doubtless of Greece too--a belief supported by all the religious rites
in connection with the dead--that the spirits of the departed lived on
in the tomb with the body. As cremation gradually superseded burial, the
idea took shape that the soul might have an existence of its own,
altogether independent of the body, and a place of abode was assigned to
it in a hole in the centre of the earth, where it lived on in eternity
with other souls.

This latter view seems to have become the official theory, at least in
Italy, in classical days. In the gloomy, horrible Etruscan religion, the
shades were supposed to be in charge of the Conductor of the Dead--a
repulsive figure, always represented with wings and long, matted hair
and a hammer, whose appearance was afterwards imitated in the dress of
the man who removed the dead from the arena. Surely something may be
said for Gaston Boissier's suggestion that Dante's Tuscan blood may
account to some extent for the gruesome imagery of the _Inferno_.

Cicero[1] tells us that it was generally believed that the dead lived on
beneath the earth, and special provision was made for them in every
Latin town in the "mundus," a deep trench which was dug before the
"pomerium" was traced, and regarded as the particular entrance to the
lower world for the dead of the town in question. The trench was vaulted
over, so that it might correspond more or less with the sky, a gap being
left in the vault which was closed with the stone of the departed--the
"lapis manalis." Corn was thrown into the trench, which was filled up
with earth, and an altar erected over it. On three solemn days in the
year--August 25, October 5, and November 8--the trench was opened and
the stone removed, the dead thus once more having free access to the
world above, where the usual offerings were made to them.[2]

These provisions clearly show an official belief that death did not
create an impassable barrier between the dead and the living. The
spirits of the departed still belonged to the city of their birth, and
took an interest in their old home. They could even return to it on the
days when "the trench of the gods of gloom lies open and the very jaws
of hell yawn wide."[3] Their rights must be respected, if evil was to be
averted from the State. In fact, the dead were gods with altars of their
own,[4] and Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, could write to her
sons, "You will make offerings to me and invoke your parent as a
god."[5] Their cult was closely connected with that of the Lares--the
gods of the hearth, which symbolized a fixed abode in contrast with the
early nomad life. Indeed, there is practically no distinction between
the Lares and the Manes, the souls of the good dead. But the dead had
their own festival, the "Dies Parentales," held from the 13th to the
21st of February, in Rome;[6] and in Greece the "Genesia," celebrated on
the 5th of Boedromion, towards the end of September, about which we
know very little.[7]

There is nothing more characteristic of paganism than the passionate
longing of the average man to perpetuate his memory after death in the
world round which all his hopes and aspirations clung. Cicero uses it as
an argument for immortality.[8]

Many men left large sums to found colleges to celebrate their memories
and feast at their tombs on stated occasions.[9] Lucian laughs at this
custom when he represents the soul of the ordinary man in the next world
as a mere bodiless shade that vanishes at a touch like smoke. It
subsists on the libations and offerings it receives from the living, and
those who have no friends or relatives on earth are starving and
famished.[10] Violators of tombs were threatened with the curse of dying
the last of their race--a curse which Macaulay, with his intense family
affection, considered the most awful that could be devised by man; and
the fact that the tombs were built by the high road, so that the dead
might be cheered by the greeting of the passer-by, lends an additional
touch of sadness to a walk among the crumbling ruins that line the Latin
or the Appian Way outside Rome to-day.

No one of the moderns has caught the pagan feeling towards death better
than Giosue Carducci, a true spiritual descendant of the great Romans of
old, if ever there was one. He tells how, one glorious June day, he was
sitting in school, listening to the priest outraging the verb "amo,"
when his eyes wandered to the window and lighted on a cherry-tree, red
with fruit, and then strayed away to the hills and the sky and the
distant curve of the sea-shore. All Nature was teeming with life, and he
felt an answering thrill, when suddenly, as if from the very fountains
of being within him, there welled up a consciousness of death, and with
it the formless nothing, and a vision of himself lying cold, motionless,
dumb in the black earth, while above him the birds sang, the trees
rustled in the wind, the rivers ran on in their course, and the living
revelled in the warm sun, bathed in its divine light. This first vision
of death often haunted him in later years;[11] and one realizes that
such must often have been the feelings of the Romans, and still more
often of the Greeks, for the joy of the Greek in life was far greater
than that of the Roman. Peace was the only boon that death could bring
to a pagan, and "Pax tecum aeterna" is among the commonest of the
inscriptions. The life beyond the grave was at best an unreal and
joyless copy of an earthly existence, and Achilles told Odysseus that he
would rather be the serf of a poor man upon earth than Achilles among
the shades.

When we come to inquire into the appearance of ghosts revisiting the
glimpses of the moon, we find, as we should expect, that they are a
vague, unsubstantial copy of their former selves on earth. In Homer[12]
the shade of Patroclus, which visited Achilles in a vision as he slept
by the sea-shore, looks exactly as Patroclus had looked on earth, even
down to the clothes. Hadrian's famous "animula vagula blandula" gives
the same idea, and it would be difficult to imagine a disembodied spirit
which retains its personality and returns to earth again except as a
kind of immaterial likeness of its earthly self. We often hear of the
extreme pallor of ghosts, which was doubtless due to their being
bloodless and to the pallor of death itself. Propertius conceived of
them as skeletons;[13] but the unsubstantial, shadowy aspect is by far
the commonest, and best harmonizes with the life they were supposed to
lead.

Hitherto we have been dealing with the spirits of the dead who have been
duly buried and are at rest, making their appearance among men only at
stated intervals, regulated by the religion of the State. The lot of the
dead who have not been vouchsafed the trifling boon of a handful of
earth cast upon their bones was very different. They had not yet been
admitted to the world below, and were forced to wander for a hundred
years before they might enter Charon's boat. AEneas beheld them on the
banks of the Styx, stretching out their hands "ripae ulterioris amore."
The shade of Patroclus describes its hapless state to Achilles, as does
that of Elpenor to Odysseus, when they meet in the lower world. It is
not surprising that the ancients attached the highest importance to the
duty of burying the dead, and that Pausanias blames Lysander for not
burying the bodies of Philocles and the four thousand slain at
AEgospotami, seeing that the Athenians even buried the Persian dead after
Marathon.[14]

The spirits of the unburied were usually held to be bound, more or less,
to the spot where their bodies lay, and to be able to enter into
communication with the living with comparative ease, even if they did
not actually haunt them. They were, in fact, evil spirits which had to
be propitiated and honoured in special rites. Their appearances among
the living were not regulated by religion. They wandered at will over
the earth, belonging neither to this world nor to the next, restless and
malignant, unable to escape from the trammels of mortal life, in the
joys of which they had no part. Thus, in the _Phaedo_[15] we read of
souls "prowling about tombs and sepulchres, near which, as they tell us,
are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed
pure ... These must be the souls, not of the good, but of the evil,
which are compelled to wander about such places in payment of the
penalty of their former evil way of life."

Apuleius[16] classifies the spirits of the departed for us. The Manes
are the good people, not to be feared so long as their rites are duly
performed, as we have already seen; Lemures are disembodied spirits;
while Larvae are the ghosts that haunt houses. Apuleius, however, is
wholly uncritical, and the distinction between Larvae and Lemures is
certainly not borne out by facts.

The Larvae had distinct attributes, and were thought to cause epilepsy or
madness. They were generally treated more or less as a joke,[17] and are
spoken of much as we speak of a bogey. They appear to have been
entrusted with the torturing of the dead, as we see from the saying,
"Only the Larvae war with the dead."[18] In Seneca's _Apocolocyntosis_,[19]
when the question of the deification of the late Emperor Claudius
is laid before a meeting of the gods, Father Janus gives it as his
opinion that no more mortals should be treated in this way, and that
"anyone who, contrary to this decree, shall hereafter be made,
addressed, or painted as a god, should be delivered over to the
Larvae" and flogged at the next games.

Larva also means a skeleton, and Trimalchio, following the Egyptian
custom, has one brought in and placed on the table during his famous
feast. It is, as one would expect, of silver, and the millionaire
freedman points the usual moral--"Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for
to-morrow we die."[20]

The Larvae were regular characters in the Atellane farces at Rome, where
they performed various "danses macabres." Can these possibly be the
prototypes of the Dances of Death so popular in the Middle Ages? We find
something very similar on the well-known silver cups discovered at Bosco
Reale, though Death itself does not seem to have been represented in
this way. Some of the designs in the medieval series would certainly
have appealed to the average bourgeois Roman of the Trimalchio
type--e.g., "Les Trois Vifs et les Trois Morts," the three men riding
gaily out hunting and meeting their own skeletons. Such crude contrasts
are just what one would expect to find at Pompeii.

Lemures and Larvae are often confused, but Lemures is the regular word
for the dead not at rest--the "Lemuri," or spirits of the churchyard, of
some parts of modern Italy. They were evil spirits, propitiated in early
days with blood. Hence the first gladiatorial games were given in
connection with funerals. Both in Greece and in Rome there were special
festivals for appeasing these restless spirits. Originally they were of
a public character, for murder was common in primitive times, and such
spirits would be numerous, as is proved by the festival lasting three
days.

In Athens the Nemesia were held during Anthesterion (February-March). As
in Rome, the days were unlucky. Temples were closed and business was
suspended, for the dead were abroad. In the morning the doors were
smeared with pitch, and those in the house chewed whitethorn to keep off
the evil spirits. On the last day of the festival offerings were made
to Hermes, and the dead were formally bidden to depart.[21]

Ovid describes the Lemuria or Lemuralia.[22] They took place in May,
which was consequently regarded as an unlucky month for marriages, and
is still so regarded almost as universally in England to-day as it was
in Rome during the principate of Augustus. The name of the festival Ovid
derives from Remus, as the ghost of his murdered brother was said to
have appeared to Romulus in his sleep and to have demanded burial. Hence
the institution of the Lemuria.

The head of the family walked through the house with bare feet at dead
of night, making the mystic sign with his first and fourth fingers
extended, the other fingers being turned inwards and the thumb crossed
over them, in case he might run against an unsubstantial spirit as he
moved noiselessly along. This is the sign of "le corna," held to be
infallible against the Evil Eye in modern Italy. After solemnly washing
his hands, he places black beans in his mouth, and throws others over
his shoulders, saying, "With these beans do I redeem me and mine." He
repeats this ceremony nine times without looking round, and the spirits
are thought to follow unseen and pick up the beans. Then he purifies
himself once more and clashes brass, and bids the demons
leave his house. When he has repeated nine times "Manes exite paterni,"
he looks round, and the ceremony is over, and the restless ghosts have
been duly laid for a year.

Lamiae haunted rooms, which had to be fumigated with sulphur, while some
mystic rites were performed with eggs before they could be expelled.

The dead not yet at rest were divided into three classes--those who had
died before their time, the [Greek: aoroi], who had to wander till the
span of their natural life was completed;[23] those who had met with
violent deaths, the [Greek: biaiothanatoi]; and the unburied, the
[Greek: ataphoi]. In the Hymn to Hecate, to whom they were especially
attached, they are represented as following in her train and taking part
in her nightly revels in human shape. The lot of the murdered is no
better, and executed criminals belong to the same class.

Spirits of this kind were supposed to haunt the place where their bodies
lay. Hence they were regarded as demons, and were frequently entrusted
with the carrying out of the strange curses, which have been found in
their tombs, or in wells where a man had been drowned, or even in the
sea, written on leaden tablets, often from right to left, or in queer
characters, so as to be illegible, with another tablet fastened over
them by means of a nail, symbolizing the binding effect it was hoped
they would have--the "Defixiones," to give them their Latin name, which
are very numerous among the inscriptions. So real was the belief in
these curses that the elder Pliny says that everyone is afraid of being
placed under evil spells;[24] and they are frequently referred to in
antiquity.





Next: The Belief In Ghosts In Greece And Rome




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