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Athens and Ghosts May 6, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback



A month ago Beach published a story of a legal case between Irish tenant and landlord over a haunting. While typing the account out, while reading the emails about it and generally in that week, Beach had this strange déjà vu, nothing new under the sun feeling. He’d come across something similar before. Finally, his memory spewed out the relevant episode. We are back in ancient Athens under Roman rule and soon to be in the presence of the philosopher Athenodorus (obit 7 AD). Note that Athenodorus was one of these philosophers where no one is clear about what he thought, though we know he wrote a book on ‘Zeal and Youth’. Depressingly his experience with the ghost is far better known than anything he actually scribbled out.

There was at Athens a large and spacious house which lay under the disrepute of being haunted. In the dead of the night a noise resembling the clashing of iron was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meagre and ghastly, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. By this means the house was at last deserted, being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

A random question: why are ghosts often associated with chains rattling? It makes no sense, yet it is common enough from ancient through to modern times: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com In any case, enter Athenodorus left stage.

It happened that the philosopher Athenodorus came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, inquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it drew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the fore part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pen and tablets, he directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terror of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed with usual silence, when at length the chains began to rattle; however he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but diverted his observation by pursuing his studies with greater earnestness. The noise increased, and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, and saw the ghost exactly in the manner it had been described to him; it stood before him, beckoning with his finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little [loved this!], and then threw his eyes again upon his papers; but, the ghost still rattling his chains in his ears, he looked up, and saw him beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately arose, and, with the light in his hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with his chains, and turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark, with some grass and leaves, where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was there found; for the body having lain for a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus, after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.

The story appears in Pliny. If it appeared in a lower market source the greedy landlord would have been unveiled as the murderer.


15 May 2013: As to chains KR writes: It was apparently thought that binding a corpse with chains would keep a ghost from wandering about. In his story “A Christmas Carol,”  Charles Dickens refreshed the ghost-and-chains connection with the words of his character, the ghost of Jacob Marley: “I wear the chain I forged in life!” Ben V, meanwhile, writes: Speculation on chains & ghosts: maybe the chains were representative of slavery – the fear of what their vengeful spirits might mete out in the next life – or just generally fear of slaves / convicts.Just a thought. Then KMH with something more esoterical: Some might think ghosts are given chains simply  to communicate, but this oversimplified. Only ghosts who have died in chains will rattle chains after death. Ghosts are normally an unhappy lot. They exist as ghosts because in their extreme emotional and vengeful condition they become completely identified with their environment and can’t be extricated by higher spirits  to other planes without serious damage to themselves. In some instances the chains may be only symbolical of the slave-like connection the ghost has to his circumstances at death. As time passes, whatever mental or intellectual faculties  ghosts possessed continually degrade until  they  ( like  advanced Alzheimer victims) are unable to use words or form sentences. They can still rattle their chains, which have become a part of their psyche or what is left of their soul. Once a ghost has degraded down to a continual slumber state, he can be removed from his area of haunting by the spirits who deal with human souls at the time of death. The wait takes only a few centuries, perhaps no more than five at most. Anyone seeing something which would have occurred a thousand years ago, for example, has experienced what is called a ‘time-slip’, not a ghost. Thanks Ben, KMH and KR!