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Myth Monday - Greek Ghosts

By October 22, 2012

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Crossing the River Styx
Crossing the River Styx
CC Flickr User NateBW

This week's Myth Monday looks at ghosts in ancient Greece, according to a specific article on the Greek dead, from A Companion to Greek Religion, Edited by Daniel Ogden Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: 2007.

In D. Felton's The Dead, he says that like people of the modern world, the ancient Greeks would have had a variety of opinions about what happens to the human spirit following the body's demise. Some thought the spirits of the dead could be summoned by necromancy in order to gain secret knowledge; others believed in transmigration of the soul; others, that death was the end; still others hadn't a clue.

Ghosts could, of course, be seen by those brave heroes who traveled to their home, the land of the dead, known as the Underworld (although it isn't always depicted under the earth). [Terms to know: Nekuia and Katabasis - referring to these Underworld visits. See Underworld Myths.] Ghosts could also sometimes be seen by the living. Such visitations could be invited or unwelcome.

Heroes in the Underworld sometimes used necromancy to gain wisdom from the shades of the dead. Outside the Underworld, charlatans and others also used necromancy. Since many thought the dead should be left in peace or in the land of the dead, and others that the dead could only be summoned by frauds, necromancers faced hostility. Not universally, though, since there were four main oracles of the dead: at Acheron, in Thesprotia, at Avernus, in Campania, Italy, at Heracleia Pontica, on the Black Sea, and at Taenarum, in southern Greece.

Besides necromancy and trips to the Underworld, the other main way the living faced the dead was through hauntings. While some ghosts returned to warn the living of imminent dangers -- like the ghost of Dido's husband -- most ghosts in the land of the living were restless spirits. These might be (1) the spirits of those who had died before their time and had to wander the world of the living until their allotted time was up; (2) those who had suffered violent deaths; and (3) the unburied, believed to be the most malevolent. Sometimes simply being buried wasn't enough:

" For example, after Achilles was shot by Paris, he was cremated and his ashes mixed in an urn with those of Patroclus. Achilles' spirit was still not at rest, however, and when the victorious Greeks were preparing to sail home from Troy his ghost appeared to them and would not let them leave, because they were departing without leaving any offering on his tomb. His ghost then demanded the sacrifice of King Priam's daughter Polyxena, and when the Greeks cut her throat over Achilles' tomb, saturating it with her blood, his ghost was appeased...."

A ghost of the dead might not simply tell the living to bury him properly and give him due honors. He might start wreaking vengeance on the living by scaring them with other-wordly noises or killing people until someone figured out how to placate that particular uneasy ghost of the dead.

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus


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