We are rapidly approaching Halloween. Time for ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night. Got me thinking about the history of ghosts so I did some investigating. Let’s take a quick look.
Ghosts are usually imagined as disembodied spirits. We visualize them as evanescent (quickly fading) forms. The old English word gast means a “soul, spirit or breath.” The details surrounding the word ghoul are far more ominous. The Arabic word ghul signifies a creature that eats children and corpses snatched from graves. Like ghouls goblins can be mischievous. The word goblin comes from the German word kobold. In traditional folklore a goblin is a grotesque spirit or mischievous elf who can be helpful and sing to young children. On the other hand, it might hide household items, kick people or fly into a rage when hungry.
It is difficult to tell whether the earliest records of ghosts were literary stories or actual recordings of observations of spirits. We know that the ninth century Greek poet Homer believed that ghosts were passive harmless beings. The living did not fear them or feel bothered by their presence. Upon death the spirit departed to Hades, the underworld. Priests and oracles visited caves and grottoes to acknowledge their spirits. Over time the Greeks came to believe ghosts were helpful and consoling, but at times they could be threatening if they died prematurely or came to a violent end. The Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century B.C. warned against prowling near tombs or sepulchers where the apparitions of souls who have not departed pure might be lurking.
The first written report of a haunted house is seen in the writings of Pliny the younger in the first century B.C. He wrote to his friend Lucias Sura concerning a villa in Athens that no one would rent because it was haunted by a ghost. In the middle of the night an old man with matted hair and beard shackled by irons and chains moaned never stopped moaning. Even worse, disease and death struck down anyone entering the building after dark. All of this did not deter the penniless philosopher, Athenodorus from leasing the property. On the very first night after moving in, he met and followed the apparition into the garden where it disappeared after pointing to a spot in the ground. The next day Athenodorus related his story to the local authorities who promptly dug up the spot and found the bones of a human skeleton bound in chains. The bones were given a proper burial, the house was given purification rites, and the ghost never reappeared.
By the third century A.D. Christianity had spread throughout Greece and Rome. The new religion adopted many popular beliefs especially those concerning ghosts or the afterlife. Early Christian writers like Justin Martyr acknowledged belief in the existence of the soul after death. Still other Christians argued that ghosts existed in spirit form alone. That meant after death all people would be social equals. This was a strong influence on the poor masses.
Little has changed over centuries. The question of life after death and ghostly spirits still eludes us. We are intrigued; yet most of us are well satisfied not to venture death as it is the only way to discover its answer!
Barbara Ann Mojica
Author of the Little Miss HISTORY series:
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to MOUNT RUSHMORE
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to The STATUE of LIBERTY
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to FORD’S THEATER
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to INTREPID Sea, Air & Space Museum
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to ELLIS ISLAND
Little Miss HISTORY Travels to MOUNT VERNON