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Scary Books: Greek And Roman Ghost Stories
: Lacy Collison-morley

The belief that it was possible to call up the souls of the dead by

means of spells was almost universal in antiquity. We know that even

Saul, who had himself cut off those that had familiar spirits and the

wizards out of the land, disguised himself and went with two others to

consult the witch of En-dor; that she called up the spirit of Samuel at

his request; that Samuel asked Saul, "Why hast thou disquieted me, to

ng me up?" and then prophesied his ruin and death at the hands of the

Philistines at Mount Gilboa. We find frequent references to the practice

in classical literature. The elder Pliny[44] gives us the interesting

information that spirits refuse to obey people afflicted with freckles.

There were always certain spots hallowed by tradition as particularly

favourable to intercourse with the dead, or even as being actual

entrances to the lower world. For instance, at Heraclea in Pontus there

was a famous [Greek: psychomanteion], or place where the souls of the

dead could be conjured up and consulted, as Hercules was believed to

have dragged Cerberus up to earth here. Other places supposed to be

connected with this myth had a similar legend attached to them, as also

did all places where Pluto was thought to have carried off Persephone.

Thus we hear of entrances to Hades at Eleusis,[45] at Colonus,[46] at

Enna in Sicily,[47] and finally at the lovely pool of Cyane, up the

Anapus River, near Syracuse, one of the few streams in which the papyrus

still flourishes.[48] Lakes and seas also were frequently believed to be

entrances to Hades.[49]

The existence of sulphurous fumes easily gave rise to a belief that

certain places were in direct communication with the lower world. This

was the case at Cumae where AEneas consulted the Sybil, and at Colonus;

while at Hierapolis in Phrygia there was a famous "Plutonium," which

could only be safely approached by the priests of Cybele.[50] It was

situated under a temple of Apollo, a real entrance to Hades; and it is

doubtless to this that Cicero refers when he speaks of the deadly

"Plutonia" he had seen in Asia.[51] These "Plutonia" or "Charonia" are,

in fact, places where mephitic vapours exist, like the Grotto del Cane

and other spots in the neighbourhood of Naples and Pozzuoli. The priests

must either have become used to the fumes, or have learnt some means of

counteracting them; otherwise their lives can hardly have been more

pleasant than that of the unfortunate dog which used to be exhibited in

the Naples grotto, though the control of these very realistic entrances

to the kingdom of Pluto must have been a very profitable business, well

worth a little personal inconvenience. Others are mentioned by Strabo at

Magnesia and Myus,[52] and there was one at Cyllene, in Arcadia.

In addition to these there were numerous special temples or places where

the souls of the dead, which were universally thought to possess a

knowledge of the future, could be called up and consulted--e.g., the

temple at Phigalia, in Arcadia, used by Pausanias, the Spartan

commander;[53] or the [Greek: nekyomanteion], the oracle of the dead, by

the River Acheron, in Threspotia, to which Periander, the famous tyrant

of Corinth, had recourse;[54] and it was here, according to Pausanias,

that Orpheus went down to the lower world in search of Eurydice.

Lucian[55] tells us that it was only with Pluto's permission that the

dead could return to life, and they were invariably accompanied by

Mercury. Consequently, both these gods were regularly invoked in the

prayers and spells used on such occasions. Only the souls of those

recently dead were, as a rule, called up, for it was naturally held that

they would feel greater interest in the world they had just left, and in

the friends and relations still alive, to whom they were really

attached. Not that it was impossible to evoke the ghosts of those long

dead, if it was desired. Even Orpheus and Cecrops were not beyond reach

of call, and Apollonius of Tyana claimed to have raised the shade of


All oracles were originally sacred to Persephone and Pluto, and relied

largely on necromancy, a snake being the emblem of prophetic power.

Hence, when Apollo, the god of light, claimed possession of the oracles

as the conqueror of darkness, the snake was twined round his tripod as

an emblem, and his priestess was called Pythia. When Alexander set up

his famous oracle, as described by Lucian, the first step taken in

establishing its reputation was the finding of a live snake in an egg in

a lake. The find had, of course, been previously arranged by Alexander

and his confederates.

We still possess accounts of the working of these oracles of the dead,

especially of the one connected with the Lake of Avernus, near Naples.

Cicero[57] describes how, from this lake, "shades, the spirits of the

dead, are summoned in the dense gloom of the mouth of Acheron with salt

blood"; and Strabo quotes the early Greek historian Ephorus as relating

how, even in his day, "the priests that raise the dead from Avernus live

in underground dwellings, communicating with each other by subterranean

passages, through which they led those who wished to consult the oracle

hidden in the bowels of the earth." "Not far from the lake of Avernus,"

says Maximus of Tyre, "was an oracular cave, which took its name from

the calling up of the dead. Those who came to consult the oracle, after

repeating the sacred formula and offering libations and slaying victims,

called upon the spirit of the friend or relation they wished to consult.

Then it appeared, an unsubstantial shade, difficult both to see and to

recognize, yet endowed with a human voice and skilled in prophecy. When

it had answered the questions put to it, it vanished." One is at once

struck with the similarity of this account to those of the

spiritualistic seances of the famous Eusapia in the same part of the

world, not so very long ago. In most cases those consulting the oracle

would probably be satisfied with hearing the voice of the dead man, or

with a vision of him in sleep, so that some knowledge of ventriloquism

or power of hypnotism or suggestion would often be ample stock-in-trade

for those in charge.

This consulting of the dead must have been very common in antiquity.

Both Plato[58] and Euripides[59] mention it; and the belief that the

dead have a knowledge of the future, which seems to be ingrained in

human nature, gave these oracles great power. Thus, Cicero tells[60] us

that Appius often consulted "soul-oracles" (psychomantia), and also

mentions a man having recourse to one when his son was seriously

ill.[61] The poets have, of course, made free use of this supposed

prophetic power of the dead. The shade of Polydorus, for instance,

speaks the prologue of the Hecuba, while the appearance of the dead

Creusa in the _AEneid_ is known to everyone. In the _Persae_, AEschylus

makes the shade of Darius ignorant of all that has happened since his

death, and is thus able to introduce his famous description of the

battle of Salamis; but Darius, nevertheless, possesses a knowledge of

the future, and can therefore give us an equally vivid account of the

battle of Plataea, which had not yet taken place. The shade of

Clytemnestra in the _Eumenides_, however, does not prophesy.

Pliny mentions the belief that the dead had prophetic powers, but

declares that they could not always be relied on, as the following

instance proves.[62] During the Sicilian war, Gabienus, the bravest man

in Caesar's fleet, was captured by Sextus Pompeius, and beheaded by his

orders. For a whole day the corpse lay upon the shore, the head almost

severed from the body. Then, towards evening, a large crowd assembled,

attracted by his groans and prayers; and he begged Sextus Pompeius

either to come to him himself or to send some of his friends; for he had

returned from the dead, and had something to tell him. Pompeius sent

friends, and Gabienus informed them that Pompeius's cause found favour

with the gods below, and was the right cause, and that he was bidden to

announce that all would end as he wished. To prove the truth of what he

said, he announced that he would die immediately, as he actually did.

This knowledge of the future by the dead is to be found in more than one

well-authenticated modern ghost story, where the apparition would seem

to have manifested itself for the express purpose of warning those whom

it has loved on earth of approaching danger. We may take, for instance,

the story[63] where a wife, who is lying in bed with her husband,

suddenly sees a gentleman dressed in full naval uniform sitting on the

bed. She was too astonished for fear, and waked her husband, who "for a

second or two lay looking in intense astonishment at the intruder; then,

lifting himself a little, he shouted: 'What on earth are you doing here,

sir?' Meanwhile the form, slowly drawing himself into an upright

position, now said in a commanding, yet reproachful voice, 'Willie!

Willie!' and then vanished." Her husband got up, unlocked the door, and

searched the house, but found nothing. On his return he informed his

wife that the form was that of his father, whom she had never seen. He

had left the navy before this son was born, and the son had, therefore,

only seen his father in uniform a very few times. It afterwards came out

that her husband was about to engage in some speculations which, had he

done so, would have proved his ruin; but, fortunately, this vision of

his father made such an impression on him that he abandoned the idea


Lucan[64] describes how Sextus Pompeius went to consult Erichtho, one of

the famous Thessalian witches, as to the prospects of his father's

success against Caesar, during the campaign that ended in the disastrous

defeat at Pharsalia. It is decided that a dead man must be called back

to life, and Erichtho goes out to where a recent skirmish has taken

place, and chooses the body of a man whose throat had been cut, which

was lying there unburied. She drags it back to her cave, and fills its

breast with warm blood. She has chosen a man recently dead, because his

words are more likely to be clear and distinct, which might not be the

case with one long accustomed to the world below. She then washes it,

uses various magic herbs and potions, and prays to the gods of the lower

world. At last she sees the shade of the man, whose lifeless body lies

stretched before her, standing close by and gazing upon the limbs it had

left and the hated bonds of its former prison. Furious at the delay and

the slow working of her spells, she seizes a live serpent and lashes the

corpse with it. Even the last boon of death, the power of dying, is

denied the poor wretch. Slowly the life returns to the body, and

Erichtho promises that if the man speaks the truth she will bury him so

effectually that no spells will ever be able to call him back to life

again. He is weak and faint, like a dying man, but finally tells her all

she wishes to know, and dies once again. She fulfills her promise and

burns the body, using every kind of magic spell to make it impossible

for anyone to trouble the shade again. Indeed, it seems to have been

unusual to summon a shade from the lower world more than once, except

in the case of very famous persons. This kind of magic was nearly always

carried on at night. Statius[65] has also given us a long and

characteristically elaborate account of the calling up of the shade of

Laius by Eteocles and Tiresias.

Apuleius,[66] in his truly astounding account of Thessaly in his day,

gives a detailed description of the process of calling back a corpse to

life. "The prophet then took a certain herb and laid it thrice upon the

mouth of the dead man, placing another upon the breast. Then, turning

himself to the east with a silent prayer for the help of the holy sun,

he drew the attention of the audience to the great miracle he was

performing. Gradually the breast of the corpse began to swell in the act

of breathing, the arteries to pulsate, and the body to be filled with

life. Finally the dead man sat up and asked why he had been brought back

to life and not left in peace."

One is reminded of the dead man being carried out to burial who meets

Dionysus in Hades, in Aristophanes' _Frogs_, and expresses the wish that

he may be struck alive again if he does what is requested of him. If

ghosts are often represented as "all loath to leave the body that they

love," they are generally quite as loath to return to it, when once they

have left it, though whether it is the process of returning or the

continuance of a life which they have left that is distasteful to them

is not very clear. The painfulness of the process of restoration to life

after drowning seems to favour the former explanation.

These cases of resurrection are, of course, quite different from

ordinary necromancy--the summoning of the shade of a dead man from the

world below, in order to ask its advice with the help of a professional

diviner. As religious faith decayed and the superstitions of the East

and the belief in magic gained ground, necromancy became more and more

common. Even Cicero charges Vatinius[67] with evoking the souls of the

dead, and with being in the habit of sacrificing the entrails of boys to

the Manes. Tacitus mentions a young man trying to raise the dead by

means of incantations,[68] while Pliny[69] speaks of necromancy as a

recognized branch of magic, and Origen classes it among the crimes of

the magicians in his own day.

After murdering his mother, Nero often declared that he was troubled by

her spirit and by the lashes and blazing torches of the Furies.[70] One

would imagine that the similarity of his crime and his punishment to

those of Orestes would have been singularly gratifying to a man of

Nero's theatrical temperament; yet we are informed that he often tried

to call up her ghost and lay it with the help of magic rites. Nero,

however, took particular pleasure in raising the spirits of the dead,

according to the Elder Pliny,[71] who adds that not even the charms of

his own singing and acting had greater attractions for him.

Caracalla, besides his bodily illnesses, was obviously insane and often

troubled with delusions, imagining that he was being driven out by his

father and also by his brother Geta, whom he had murdered in his

mother's arms, and that they pursued him with drawn swords in their

hands. At last, as a desperate resource, he endeavoured to find a cure

by means of necromancy, and called up, among others, the shade of his

father, Septimius Severus, as well as that of Commodus. But they all

refused to speak to him, with the exception of Commodus; and it was even

rumoured that the shade of Severus was accompanied by that of the

murdered Geta, though it had not been evoked by Caracalla. Nor had

Commodus any comfort for him. He only terrified the suffering Emperor

the more by his ominous words.[72]

Philostratus[73] has described for us a famous interview which

Apollonius of Tyana maintained that he had had with the shade of

Achilles. The philosopher related that it was not by digging a trench

nor by shedding the blood of rams, like Odysseus, that he raised the

ghost of Achilles; but by prayers such as the Indians are said to make

to their heroes. In his prayer to Achilles he said that, unlike most

men, he did not believe that the great warrior was dead, any more than

his master Pythagoras had done; and he begged him to show himself. Then

there was a slight earthquake shock, and a beautiful youth stood before

him, nine feet in height, wearing a Thessalian cloak. He did not look

like a boaster, as some men had thought him, and his expression, if

grim, was not unpleasant. No words could describe his beauty, which

surpassed anything imaginable. Meanwhile he had grown to be twenty feet

high, and his beauty increased in proportion. His hair he had never cut.

Apollonius was allowed to ask him five questions, and accordingly asked

for information on five of the most knotty points in the history of the

Trojan War--whether Helen was really in Troy, why Homer never mentions

Palamedes, etc. Achilles answered him fully and correctly in each

instance. Then suddenly the cock crew, and, like Hamlet's father, he

vanished from Apollonius's sight.