‘I should observe, by the way,’ said the learned bishop, interrupting his own narrative, ‘that scepticism will in vain attempt to account, by the latter cause, namely rats, for the spectres, lemures, simulacra, and haunted houses of the ancient Greeks and Romans. With these supernatural phenomena, as they prevailed in Athens and Rome, we are well acquainted, not only from the Mostellaria of Plautus, but from the numerous ghost stories of Pliny, Plutarch, the Philopseudes of Lucian, and similar sources.’
The learned (and chatty) bishop quoted above appears in Andrew Lang’s “The House of Strange Stories” (1886). It’s one of the spectral tales anthologized in Echoing Ghost Stories: Literary Reflections of Oral Tradition, will soon be released by Brom Bones Books.
Lang’s bishop — presumably, like Lang himself — is clearly well-read in Classical ghost lore, a subject well worth studying. For those new to the topic, I recommend D. Felton’s enlightening book Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity (University of Texas Press, 1999). In fact, it’s as much about ghosts in literature as it is about actual historical records of ghosts. And it will appeal to readers interested in either.
Felton explores what we can discern about ghost-lore in ancient Greece and Rome based on the few writings that are available. She approaches the subject as both a classicist and a folklorist. After explaining that folklore is generally understood as spanning the genres of fable, legend, and myth, Felton concludes that “Greek and Roman ghost stories, particularly as transmitters of folk-belief, generally fit into the category of legends.” (My Spectral Edition articles seem to fit best here, too — if one can include journalism as a form of folklore.)
Felton does an especially nice job of grouping and defining common kinds of ghosts: revenants; crisis apparitions; poltergeists, which were rare in ancient Greece and Rome; and continual apparitions, which were and remain the most frequently reported. These first few chapters might have value to almost anyone wanting to learn the basic vocabulary of “ghostology.”
There is then a chapter on haunted houses, again valuable to those interested in the history of the phenomenon. The legalities attached to haunted houses — e.g., is a renter justified in breaking the lease if a property is found to be infested with phantoms? — is an issue that I’ve found frequently in ghost fiction of the 1800s and in those Spectral Edition ghost reports. Reviewing recent laws found across the United States, Felton posits that “legal issues involving haunted houses were as debatable in antiquity as they are today.”
The book next shifts to very close readings of three of the most prominent Classical writers who dealt with ghosts. Plautus’s comedy Mostellaria involves a scene in which a devoted slave tries to scare off his wayward master’s superstitious father by convincing him the house is haunted. The muddled mess that the slave improvises when explaining the haunting is comedic only if one knows how it departs from what must have been its original audience’s beliefs about such hauntings. Personally, I found this chapter the least interesting, but only because I would have preferred a more direct route to those beliefs — or something closer to an undiluted ghost story. Otherwise, the literary analysis is impressive.
Pliny’s Letters comes next, and here my fascination quickly returned. After all, Pliny’s presumably non-fiction tale about Athenodorus investigating a haunted house in Athens is perhaps the earliest piece of occult detective/ghost hunter literature around. It was nice to read a thorough translation of that tale along with Felton’s commentary on it. At this point, readers interested in fictional ghost stories might have more to gain from the book. As Felton declares in her final chapter,
Various modern ghost stories, both humorous and serious, ultimately owe many of their elements to the ancient tales, particularly Pliny’s narrative of the haunted house at Athens.
That final chapter is all about such influence, but before it, Felton looks at two more ghost stories that appear in the writings of Lucian. These are satirical pieces, designed to debunk, but Lucien’s twist on Pliny’s ghost hunter importantly introduces an “occult detective” using arcane texts to do battle with an evil supernatural entity, a template that will come to dominate occult detective fiction by the end of the nineteenth century. That chapter is well worth reading, in other words, to explore the roots of works such as Dracula or Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.
Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome is certainly recommended reading, and it’s written in a language that’s largely accessible to non-academic readers. Felton’s emphasis is on ancient Greek and Roman texts, but she goes well beyond that. Indeed, the book’s relevance reaches to the history of ghosts, ghost fiction, and occult detective fiction.
More of my “book reports” on works exploring the history of ghosts can be found here: