Lay That Ghost: Necromancy in Ancient Greece and Rome

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Sleep and Death carry Sarpedon, who was killed while fighting for the Trojans in the Trojan War, on this early fifth-century B.C. amphora. The ancients associated sleep, dreams and death with the ability to predict the future, perhaps because they believed the future was hatched in the underworld. Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.

Pausanias, regent of Sparta, was one of Greece’s greatest heroes. He led the Greek forces in the decisive defeat of the massive Persian invasion at Plataea in 479 B.C. It was this splendid victory that ushered in what has become known as the Classical Age of Greek culture. Had it not been for Pausanias and his achievements, it could be argued, there would have been no Pericles, no Parthenon and no Plato.

But just a few years after his victory, Pausanias was found to be betraying Greece to the very Persians over whom he had triumphed. The Spartans devised a terrible punishment for him. They bricked him up inside one of their principal temples, the so-called Bronze House of Athena, and starved him to death. It is said that Pausanias’s own mother laid the first brick.

What happened in between his victory and his death is a sad story. In the years after his victory at Plataea, Pausanias and the Greek forces carried the battle to the Persians. Success soon went to his head. He fell into madness, and his behavior became erratic. Treachery aside, he acted like a tyrant in his treatment of the freedom-loving Greeks under his command. But his troubles really began when he fell in love while in Byzantium (modern Istanbul), at that time the base of his operations.

The object of his desires was the beautiful virgin Cleonice (her name, appropriately, means “glorious victory”). Pausanias meant to have his way with her and had her brought to his chamber at night. When she arrived, he was tossing and turning in a fitful, guilty sleep. Pausanias’s guards had extinguished the lamps around his bed out of respect for the girl’s modesty. As she felt her way towards him through the dark, she accidentally knocked over one of the lamps and sent it clanging to the ground. Pausanias, starting from his sleep, thought assassins had come for him, and he lashed out with the sword he kept by his side. The girl fell dead.

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Necromancers (from the Greek words meaning death and divination) consulted ghosts, as shown in this fourth-century B.C. amphora by the Cumaean Painter, in which a seated female necromancer offers a libation to a shrouded spirit. Photo: Musée D’Art et D’Histoire, Geneva.

Cleonice’s ghost now harried him and drove him further into madness. Eventually he took ship and sailed along the southern shore of the Black Sea to the seat of an Oracle of the Dead. There he called up Cleonice’s ghost and asked her what he had to do to bring her (and himself!) peace. Her price, disingenuously innocuous, seemed to be a small one: All he had to do was return home to Sparta. But in fact his return home brought about his conviction for treachery and his being bricked up in the temple of Athena where he had sought refuge. So the recompense Cleonice demanded could not have been greater: Pausanias’s own life.

The story does not end here, however. Had he himself not been horribly murdered? His ghost would chase away the Spartans from the Temple of Athena, where he had been killed. The goddess was already angry at the Spartans for killing a man who had sought refuge in her house. But now her anger toward them only increased as, debarred from her temple, they had no opportunity to appease her through sacrifice.

As was often the case in times of religious crisis in ancient Greece, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi came to the rescue. The oracle advised the Spartans to bring in professional evocators (the Greek term for them is psuchagôgoi, which means “soul-conductors”) to rid themselves of Pausanias’s ghost. A team was brought in from Italy, and they succeeded in their task.

This tale, assembled from accounts preserved in Thucydides 1.34, Plutarch’s Cimon 6 and others, involves the most commonly sought secret in necromancy: What did a restless ghost need to achieve peace? Necromancy is now usually used to refer to “black” magic—any variety of magic involving ghosts or demons. But in its original Greek sense it referred specifically to learning secrets from the dead. In the case of Pausanias and Cleonice, it was a matter of negotiating compensation for the killing. In other cases it could be a matter of asking the ghost for the name of his or her undetected murderer, so that the killer could be brought to book. In Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, the Egyptian magician-priest Zatchlas calls up the ghost of the dead Thelyphron, who reveals to the assembled crowd that he had been poisoned by his supposedly meek wife and her lover. (In this, Apuleius presaged Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The uninvited ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals that he has been murdered by Hamlet’s mother and her lover.)

Ghosts could manifest themselves in two very different forms. They could appear as terrifying, attacking ghosts, with whom there could be no possibility of communication. Ghosts called up through the rites of necromancy, however, were more approachable, even if they had previously appeared as an attacking ghost. The emperor Nero was harried by the ghost of his mother, whom he had killed. Driven to distraction by her attacks, he asked his Persian magus to call up her ghost for him so that he could appease her.

Ghosts could also reveal other kinds of secrets. Sometimes it was just a matter of information that the dead person had carried to the grave. Herodotus tells, for example, how Periander the tyrant of Corinth called up the ghost of his dead wife to ask her where, in life, she had hidden some money. She does indeed tell him (but only after reminding him that he had had sex with her corpse and demanding that he sacrifice vast amounts of costly clothing to her—which he acquires by publicly stripping the good women of Corinth of their clothes).
 


 
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The dead could also be called up to reveal the future. In Lucan’s Pharsalia, the grotesque witch Erictho calls up the ghost of a dead soldier to predict the outcome of the Roman civil war to Sextus Pompey. Why did the Greeks and Romans believe the dead knew the future when they were so strongly associated with the past? We’re not really sure. One possibility is that some ancients believed the future was prepared in the realm of the dead. When Aeneas descends into the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid, he witnesses the marshaling of the souls of Rome’s future heroes, even though they had not yet been born. Another possibility: Many ancients, Plato among them, believed that a pure soul, one separated from the dull matter of the body, had great powers of perception and could understand the hidden processes of the universe.

Most ghostly consultations took place at the tomb—if the relevant ghost had one. Otherwise, one could call up a ghost—presumably any ghost—at a site visited by an Oracle of the Dead. Ancient sources tell us about four such sites in the Greco-Roman world. The best known are the Acherusian lake, part of the Acheron River in Thesprotia in northwest Greece, and Lake Avernus in Campania in Italy. Two other sites, less well known, are Heracleia Pontica on the south coast of the Black Sea (where Pausanias called up the ghost of Cleonice) and Cape Tainaron, the southernmost point of the Peloponnesus.

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Those who sought omens and secret information (Who really killed Uncle Themisticles?) could also consult Oracles of the Dead, one of which was situated at the Acherusian lake in northwest Greece (shown here). The ancients recognized only four Oracles of the Dead, which were thought to be entrances to the underworld. Photo: Erich Lessing.

One common misconception is that these sites were all situated in caves, which were supposedly channels to and from the underworld. This does seem to have been true of Heracleia and Tainaron, where rudimentary archaeological remains survive. But the literary evidence concerning Acheron and Avernus strongly indicates that these oracle sites consisted of little more than precincts beside lakes.

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A fragment of Aeschylus’s lost tragedy, Evocators, mentions such a lakeside precinct and speaks of the blood of a black sheep being poured directly into the lake for the nourishment of the ghosts. The ghosts were doubtless imagined to travel up from the underworld through the waters of the lake.

The belief that Oracles of the Dead were based in caves has led to some odd flights of fancy on the part of archaeologists. The Greek archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris mistakenly located the Acheron oracle in what we now know to be the cellar of a Hellenistic farmhouse. Dakaris imagined that ancient visitors to the oracle consumed hallucinogenic beans before being led through dark labyrinths and confronted with floating effigies of ghosts and underworld gods. These puppets were supposedly attached to elaborate mechanisms controlled from concealed cavities in the walls.

Another bit of whimsy was proposed by the British archaeologist, Robert Paget, who located the Avernus oracle in what was actually a service tunnel for a Roman bathhouse. He speculated that visitors to the oracle were led through dark tunnels and across a hot, sulphurous spring that doubled as the River Styx. Priestly assistants, he suggested, used lamps and wooden shadow puppets to project ghostly figures onto a wall—in a kind of ancient version of a Disneyland haunted house!

The reality, alas, was less exciting. Plutarch relates the case of a father who wanted to inquire after the fate of his dead son. He went to an Oracle of the Dead, made the due sacrifices, went to sleep and in a dream encountered the ghosts of his son and of his own dead father. Apparently, Oracles of the Dead used the same technique to deliver their revelations as the healing oracles of Asclepius and Amphiaraus—a ritual sleeping-and-dreaming now known as incubation. The ancients often found themselves visited by ghosts in sleep. Indeed, they regarded the state of sleep as closely akin to that of death. In Greek myths, Sleep and Death were identical twin brothers, and they were often depicted as such. By going to sleep, one accommodated one’s own state to that of the ghost and, as it were, met the spirit halfway.

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“Elpenor, how did you come here beneath the fog and the darkness?” cries Odysseus (the central figure depicted on this fifth-century B.C. vase, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) as he encounters the ghost of his dead comrade rising from the reeds of the Acherusian lake, one of the four seats of the Oracle of the Dead.

In the Odyssey, Elpenor gets drunk at Circe’s palace and falls to his death from the high battlements. Briefly revivified by sipping blood from two sheep sacrificed by Odysseus, Elpenor is then escorted from the underworld by Hermes, the figure at far right on the vase. In Greco-Roman necromancy, blood sacrifices were believed to reanimate the dead. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The sacrifices that preceded the incubation are described in the Odyssey 11.23–36. They are also shown on what is perhaps the most striking illustration of necromancy to survive from antiquity: a fifth-century B.C. red-figured vase, now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, by the “Lycaon” painter. (This anonymous painter is known by the subject of his best-known vase.) The vase depicts Homer’s Odysseus encountering the ghost of his dead comrade Elpenor (see the Odyssey 11:56).

In the foreground of this scene, lying at his feet, are the carcasses of two black sheep that Odysseus has just sacrificed. Their blood drains from the wounds in their necks into a small round offering pit. As the ghosts sip from this, they will briefly recover a little corporeal substance so as to be able to hold a conversation with the living. Odysseus continues to brandish his sword to ward off any unwelcome ghosts that might approach. True, the dead could hardly be killed a second time, but bronze and iron apparently inspire a talismanic fear in them.

On the right is the god Hermes, one of whose familiar duties was to escort the souls of the dead down to the underworld. Here, it seems, he performs the rarer task of bringing them back up again. At left, the ghost of Elpenor rises out of the water, the reeds of the Acherusian lake at his back. Rites such as these seem to have been basic to necromantic practice throughout antiquity.

The evocators who managed the Oracles of the Dead guided visitors through their consultations. These mysterious docents may themselves have cultivated a squalid, ghostlike appearance. They seem to have been expected to travel long distances for special consultancy work. As noted above, the evocators that laid to rest the ghost of Pausanias in Sparta are said to have come all the way from Italy to do the job.

A Byzantine source, the Suda,1 preserves an account of evocators at work. To exorcise an area that has been subject to ghostly attacks, the evocators drag a live sheep by its forelegs around the place to find the spot at which the ghost’s body lies in the ground. When the sheep comes to the right place, it throws itself down. The evocators then sacrifice it, make circular movements around the site, and ask the ghost what is troubling it.

Although the witch Circe instructs Odysseus in the rites of necromancy in the Odyssey, it is only in the Latin literature of the Roman Empire that the necromantic witch becomes a recurring figure. In Horace’s Satires 1.8, for example, a dismal pair of witches, Canidia and Sagana, perform a series of rites among the bones of a paupers’ cemetery on the Esquiline that seem to blend necromancy with eroticism. The hags dig a pit with their bare hands and tear open the neck of a sheep with their nails. They then hold a twittering conversation with the ghosts they have summoned. But they also manipulate a pair of doll-like effigies used in the casting of seductive spells.

We also learn of some specialized forms of necromancy—for example, the reanimation of corpses to make them speak. Lucan’s Erictho achieves a reanimation by first summoning up the dead person’s soul and then reinserting it into its body. The rite also includes the pumping of fresh blood into the corpse along with a protracted list of bizarre magical ingredients (moon-juice, the foam of a rabid dog, the hump of a hyena, the bone marrow of a deer fed on snakes and a “ship-stopping” sea monster, among others) and the issuing of a terrible series of threats against the gods (Pharsalia 6.588–830).

This Roman reanimation is believed to have been the prototype for the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as for other characters appearing in modern Gothic horror stories. For example, before the reanimated corpse can speak, it must be made to stand upright in a gesture emblematic of its return to life—but it cannot climb to its feet in the normal way, as it is still stiff with rigor mortis, so it rises to its feet in a single magical leap. This recalls a striking sequence in F.W. Murnau’s classic silent movie Nosferatu, in which Count Orlok, the Dracula figure, similarly rises from his coffin directly onto his feet, his body remaining stiff and straight throughout.

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Necromancy and reanimating the dead hold an enduring fascination for us moderns. Moviegoers are both appalled and enthralled by the sanguivorous Count Orlok, played by Max Shreck (shown here) in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu. Ancient ghosts were often portrayed with a rigidness similar to the count’s—as if still locked in the throes of rigor mortis. Photo: Kobal Collection.

We may wonder whether such fantastical rites were actually practiced in the ancient world. The best guess is that the practice of skull necromancy lurks behind them. In skull necromancy, magical rites are performed upon a human skull, whose owner might then visit the ritual-performer in his sleep to impart the desired information. Several recipes for such spells are found in The Great Magical Papyrus in Paris, a fourth-century A.D. Greek magical recipe book compiled in Egypt.

Skull necromancy perhaps had antecedents in the earlier Greek world. After the poet Orpheus was decapitated by the Thracian women, his head sailed across the sea, finally landing on the island of Lesbos. There it took up residence in a cave and uttered prophecies to those who consulted it. A fifth-century B.C. Attic vase now in Basel’s Antikenmuseum shows the scene clearly: A perky head of Orpheus surrounded by the Muses nestles between rocks at the bottom of its cave. A burly man seeking information has just climbed down into the cave using a rope, and rests his foot on a rock as he leans over to speak with Orpheus’s head.

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When the poet Orpheus was decapitated by the Thracian women, his head traveled across the sea to the island of Lesbos, where it opened shop as a necromancer. In this fifth-century B.C. Attic vase, from Basel’s Antikenmuseum, a client climbs down a rope to consult the skull, which is attended by the muses (Orpheus’s mother is Calliope, the muse of epic poetry). Photo: Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, INV.

Skull necromancy also brings us back to Sparta, just a few decades prior to the reign of Pausanias. Another of Sparta’s great men, King Cleomenes I, founded the Peloponnesian League that would eventually destroy the Athenian empire. As a boy, Cleomenes had sworn to his bosom friend Archonides that, should he become king, he would share all his plans with him. Upon his eventual accession, Cleomenes chopped off Archonides’s head, pickled it in honey, and kept it in a pot. But he was as good as his word: Before every major enterprise he would “discuss” his plans with the head. Can we doubt that mad Cleomenes owed his successes to the skull’s advice?
 


 
“Lay That Ghost: Necromancy in Ancient Greece and Rome” by Daniel Ogden originally appeared in Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2002.
 


 
Daniel Ogden is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter.
 


 

Notes:

1. The Suda is a tenth-century A.D. Byzantine lexicon that preserves some valuable information about the ancient Greek world—and not a little misinformation, too.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?

Ancient Greek Human Sacrifice at Mountaintop Altar?

The Athenian Acropolis: Antiquity’s high holy place

A Comet Gives Birth to an Empire
 


 

Posted in Daily Life and Practice.

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