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The Power Of The Dead To Return To Earth

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

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

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 As cremation gradually superseded burial, the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


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


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


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