Malevolent Phantoms, Corpse Brides, and Ancestor Spirits: The Ancient Belief in Ghosts – PART I
Ghosts and malevolent spirits haunted the ancients, and so they relied on careful rituals and exorcisms to keep the supernatural at bay.
The concept of a spiritual afterlife connects cultures across time and around the world. The idea of a ghost—the spirit or soul of a dead person that returns from the grave and connects the living—has been part of human belief systems from the beginning. Ancient writings told of ghosts, ranging from deceased and beloved family members, to ominous harbingers, and the evil specters who terrorized or killed.
Known by countless names such as: phantom, wraith, spook, shade, and poltergeist, ghosts are thought to stem from the beliefs of animism (that all things possess a spirit) and ancestor worship in the earliest cultures. The idea that the spirit survived death and the veneration of the dead, was a central part of ancient religions, no matter the society. Reasons why a soul or corpse would wander depended upon the ‘rules’ of death and the afterlife as established by a culture.
A misty phantom. (Glass_House/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )
Headache? Blindness? Mental Disorder? You’ve Seen a Mesopotamian Ghost
In the ancient religions of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, ghost of the deceased were called gidim or etemmu. At death, the ghosts would retain their personality and memories of their lives, and travel to a netherword ruled over by the dark queen Ereshkigal. Mesopotamian gods, the Anunnaki, would decide the fate of the soul. While it was believed there were dangerous beasts and demons in the netherworld, ghosts could live peacefully in afterlife houses, greeting old friends and family. They would be allowed to return to the living if they needed to complete a mission or right a wrong.
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Ghosts who haunted the living without permission were said to be punished by the sun god Shamash.
Tablet of Shamash, Ancient Babylonia; it dates from the 9th century BC and shows the sun god Shamash on the throne, in front of the Babylonian king Nabu-apla-iddina (888-855 BC). ( CC BY 2.0 )
The living who saw or heard ghosts were said to be stricken by severe illnesses. Headaches, vision or hearing problems, dizziness, and mental disorders were thought to be caused by ghosts.
There were various methods to cure the maladies caused by ghosts: exorcisms, ritual burials, amulets or charms, salves, potions, and even suppositories. It was felt that if relatives provided good food and gifts in ancestor worship, it made the afterlife more tolerable for dead spirits, and they would stay where they belonged—in the netherworld.
A Heavy Heart is a Fate Worse than Death in Ancient Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians famously prepared the dead for the journey to the afterlife. It was believed that a soul would be judged by Osiris in the Hall of Truth, by measuring the soul’s heart against the weight of a feather. If the heart was lighter, the soul continued on its journey. If the heart was heavier, it was devoured by a monster and would no longer exist—nonexistence was considered a fate worse than death. Spirits were believed to enjoy the afterlife that resembled life on earth, with a house, family and friends. It was found in royal tombs that slaves had been sacrificed or killed when the Pharaoh died so that they had entire retinues of spirit slaves and attendants with them in the afterlife. Food and riches were stored in tombs to support the spirit. These convictions were recorded extensively in tomb paintings, papyrus scrolls, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a compilation of beliefs from different periods of Egyptian history.
The Egyptian ba, or the personality part of the soul, hovers over its mummy as it lies on a bier. The unification of ba and corpse depicted here was considered necessary for the survival of the soul after death. ( Public Domain )
As long as the body was properly prepared and buried with the appropriate rites and continually remembered, the spirit would rest well. If any of these conditions were not met, it was believed the ghost would walk the earth and wreak havoc, causing nightmares, feelings of guilt, or illness.
It was only in relatively modern times that the idea of disturbing Egyptian tombs would result in an angry, shuffling, undead mummy.