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The original Ghostbusters - ancient accounts of ghosts and hauntings

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Ancient ghost stories

Spirits of the dead are mentioned in many ancient stories including the Bible, but are there reports or references outside of legends, poems, and popular fiction?

Were reports of hauntings and paranormal activity prevalent in day-to-day society?

You bet your ass they were!!

I’ve rounded up my top 5 for your enjoyment and perusal…

An ancient guide to dealing with hauntings and exorcisms

Babylon tablet dated to 1500 B.C.E

The Babylonian guide to spirit exorcism

This clay tablet, part of a guide to exorcising ghosts, was acquired by the British Museum in the 19th Century. Interestingly, the depiction of the tablet’s ghost can only be seen from above while under a direct light source.

The tablet shows a lonely, bearded spirit being led into the afterlife.

The full instructions are missing but this palmed sized portion of the work directs the exorcist to; create figurines of a man and woman; prepare two vessels of beer; and, at sunrise, speak ritual words calling on the Mesopotamian god Shamash (the deity responsible for bringing ghosts to the underworld).

The spirit would then be transferred into one of the figurines, but it is uncertain if the figurine is a temporary vessel to transport the soul to the afterlife, or a cell that bounds the spirit indefinitely unless released again by the living.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps this process contributed to the legends of the Middle Eastern Jinn/Genies?

Whatever the reason, the technique was a dangerous one, as the tablet makes multiple warnings including “Do not look behind you!”

Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department, explores this tablet and other ancient references to ghosts & hauntings in his book The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies

A residential haunting in ancient Athens

Writing to his friend, the Roman Senator, Licinius Sura, sometime between 99 - 109 CE, Pliny the Younger includes details of a very interesting case in Athens.

During this time, both Pliny & Licinius held government posts, so had plenty to talk about in their correspondence, yet Pliny felt the need to highlight a very strange report from the local area regarding a residential property.

Now, before we get into the details, it is worth noting that Pliny wasn’t an eyewitness to these events and didn’t speak to the witnesses himself, as it actually happened years before his arrival.

Pliny explains that the occupiers of a large house, which already had a foreboding reputation amongst the locals, were driven to despair by the sound of clanking chains and groans at night, which would get louder and louder, as though moving closer towards them.

The noise persisted until one night, the culprit, “an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair” manifested in front of the owners rattling the chains on his feet and hands.

The owners fled and the house remained abandoned, until the philosopher Athenodorus, who had heard the stories, rented the property to investigate. Sure enough, Athenodorus soon experienced the ghost but instead of fleeing, remained vigilant and observed its behaviour.

Leading him to an area in the courtyard, the spirit vanished and Athenodorus marked the spot, ordering his men to dig at the location the following morning.

The skeleton of a man, bound in chains with signs of a violent death, was found beneath the surface. Athenodorus exhumed the remains and gave the body a proper burial. The haunting ceased and the spirit was never seen or heard again.

This ancient ghost hunter experienced and resolved the issue alone, without special tools, gadgets or a medium to direct him. Just by remaining calm, trusting his senses, and using logic, he was able to accomplish what many modern ghost hunters struggle to achieve now…There’s a lesson somewhere in that, I’m sure…

Chaeronea Bath House, Ancient Greece

Writing in 75 CE, the philosopher & historian Plutarch, mentions an interesting case in his histories that’s almost a blink and you’ll miss it ghost reference, as the account is buried amongst his detailed history of Cimon.

The fact that he includes this in what is, up to that point, a serious and detailed account of Chaeronea’s history (Plutarch’s hometown that he knew well), adds credibility to the reports being true and well known at the time.

Plutarch tells us that a local named Damon Peripoltas, who rejected Roman rule and became an outlaw of sorts, was enticed back into the City under force pretences of being made a City official. While relaxing in the City’s public baths, Damon was set upon and brutally murdered.

But here’s where the story takes a brief supernatural turn…

Plutarch tells us that “For a long while afterwards, his apparition continued to be seen, and groans continued to be heard in that place.”

The paranormal activity was so alarming, that drastic action was taken by the authorities;

“they ordered for the entrance of the baths to be bricked up; and even to this day, those who live in the neighbourhood believe that they still see spectres and hear alarming sounds.”

Ancient Egypt - Khonsemhab and the Ghost

The account we have dates from the New Kingdom Period (c. 1570 - c.1069 BCE) but could be a reference to an even older account from the Middle Kingdom.

It tells the story of a High Priest of Amun, Khonsemhab, and his encounter with a restless spirit whose tomb has been damaged and fallen into decline.

The story is written over a number of ostraca, now separated and residing in the museums of Paris, Florence, Vienna, and Turin. Unfortunately, the final piece is still missing, so we don’t have an end to this story!

From what we can piece together from the first ostraca, Khonsemhab is already aware of paranormal activity, but we’re unsure if he is investigating reports or if he has witnessed some of this activity first hand. Either way, he calls upon the spirit to show itself which the ghostly figure does, revealing his name to be Nebusemekh, son of Ankhmen & Tamshas.

When questioned why the spirit is restless, Nebusemekh reveals that he was once overseer of the treasury for King Rahotpe and a commander of the Royal army. He was given a burial fit for his station, but the ground beneath his tomb had collapsed, damaging his sarcophagus, and scattering his canopic jars. With his tomb damaged and sacred offerings gone, the spirit now fears that his soul will soon cease to exist.

Khonsemhab vowed to find Nebusemekh’s body and rebuild his tomb, adding that if he couldn’t, he would instruct his servants to make daily offerings to the spirit so he was never forgotten.

Khonsemhab sends men to search for the ruined tomb and they find it "twenty-five cubits distant along the king's causeway at Deir el-Bahri.” Pleased with the discovery, Khonsemhab makes plans to begin the project…but the rest of the story is lost!

Does Khonsemhab fulfil his promise?

Do the hauntings cease?

Until the remaining ostraca is found, we will never know.

A spirit from the Triassic period – Could this be the oldest ghost in the world?

Ghost Ranch in north-central New Mexico's Rio Arriba County, is home to the ghost of a huge lizard nicknamed Vivaron, that witnesses describe as being a colossal 9 metre long crocodile type creature.

The spirit was well known to the native tribes, who already had their own ghost stories of the beast long before European Pilgrims colonised the area. But despite a scattering of reports in the 19th century, the monster was considered to be nothing more than a myth.

However, in 1947 these stories regained popularity when palaeontologist Edwin H. Colbert, unearthed a huge cache of skeletons close to where the sightings were seen.

Amongst these skeletons…A fossilised 9-metre long, 220-million-year-old phytosaur, dating from the late Triassic Period!

A dinosaur ghost?

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