Ghost stories have been a part of ancient culture since ancient times, and the way in which ghosts are depicted and understood varies across cultures and historical periods. In the ancient world, ghosts were often seen as fog-like figures, made of subtle, ethereal material. This belief may have been linked to the white mist exhaled in cold climates, and it is thought that this association is reflected in the Latin word for “breath,” spiritus.
One of the ancient cultures with a rich history of ghost stories is India, where belief in reincarnation is widespread. Bereaved relatives often followed an ancient ritual in which they placed a saucer of water, rice, and ashes in the corner of a room where the deceased had slept. They believed that an imprint in the ashes would foretell the fate of the deceased in the afterlife. If the imprint was that of a human baby’s foot, the person would be reborn as a human, an Om imprint meant the person had gone to heaven, and would not be reborn, and an animal imprint meant the person would be reborn as an animal. If there was no imprint, it meant the person’s spirit had not moved on.
Ghosts in ancient Egyptian cultures were prominent. The Egyptians also had a strong belief in the afterlife, and their beliefs were outlined in The Book of Going Forth by Day, also known as The Book of the Dead. This book contained all the instructions that Egyptian royalty needed to make a comfortable transition to the afterlife. Those Egyptians who could afford the rites of beatification were assured an extenuation of their normal life on earth, full of banqueting and socializing. The dead could receive letters from the living and could visit them in dreams or visions to impart their wisdom.
Ancient Greece also had a rich history of ghost stories, with accounts of ghosts appearing in the works of renowned storytellers such as Pliny, Homer, and Virgil. The ghosts of ancient Greece were very much a part of their culture, and in The Odyssey, there is a long passage that describes the hero, Odysseus, going to the Underworld to talk to the shades of the dead and find out what he should do next to return home.
The ancient Romans also had a strong belief in ghosts, and they celebrated Lemuria, a nine-day festival in May designed to soothe the harmful spirits, or lemures. According to a passage in Ovid’s poem Fasti, the festival was instituted to appease Remus, whose spirit haunted early Rome. The Romans apparently had three classifications for spirits.
They were called lares if they were good, lemures if they were evil, and manes if their disposition was yet to be determined. The lemures were often referred to as “the night-wandering shades of the prematurely dead” and were believed to be souls who could find no peace, either because they had met with a violent death or had unfinished business. They wandered among the living, tormenting people and sometimes driving them to early deaths or madness. This description of lemures is reminiscent of the entities we call poltergeists today.
During the ancient Roman festival of Parentalia and the feast of Feralia, held in February, the living descendants of benevolent and beloved spirits shared a meal with their honored ancestors. It was believed that these spirits watched over the welfare of the family along with other household deities. This festival served as a way for the living to connect with their ancestors and honor their memory.
In conclusion, ghosts have been an integral part of ancient cultures throughout history. From the mist-like figures of the ancient world, to the reincarnation beliefs of India, to the elaborate afterlife beliefs of ancient Egyptians, and the night-wandering shades of the Romans, ghost stories have been a way for people to understand and cope with the unknown, and the idea of death and afterlife. Throughout the ages and across cultures, ghosts have been depicted in various ways and continue to be a source of fascination for many. But what remains consistent is the belief in spirits and the afterlife, the interest and need to understand death, and the way humans cope with the unknown.