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The Belief In Ghosts In Greece And Rome

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

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.