Ancient Greeks apparently feared zombies so much they weighed down the dead
Modern people have not been the only ones fascinated by the undead. Ancient Greeks on the island of Sicily had a fear of revenants so dire they weighed bodies down with rocks and amphora pieces to keep them from rising from their graves to haunt the living, says a researcher. On the other hand and paradoxically, writes Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver in Popular Archaeology, the Greeks also tried to contact the dead for divination through a practice called necromancy.
Archaeologists working in a large cemetery near Kamarina, an ancient coastal town in southeast Sicily, have exhumed 2,905 bodies and excavated burials goods. In the necropolis (“city of the dead”) called Passo Marinaro, in use from the 5 th through 3 rd centuries BC, researchers found grave goods including coins, figurines and terracotta vases.
They also found two bodies weighed down at the head, feet and torso with large stones and amphorae, apparently to keep them in their place—the land of the dead, or Hades.
“For the ancient Greeks, the dead were subjects of both fear and supplication. Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Greek culture since the Neolithic period. At the heart of this phobia is the belief that corpses are able to reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather ‘undead’”. Weaver writes in her paper published in Popular Archaeology Magazine. “These liminal figures are deemed to be dangerous because it is understood that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living. As a means of protection, the alleged undead were pinned in their graves or ritually ‘killed’. Paradoxically, the Greeks also practiced necromancy, the purposeful invocation of the dead.”
The first of the two burials contained a body of indeterminate sex who had been sick and severely malnourished. This person's head and feet were entirely covered with large fragments from amphorae. “The heavy amphora fragments found in Tomb 653 were presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising.”
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Part of the necropolis or cemetery in Sicily called Passo Marinaro (Photo from Casuzze.it)
The other grave had the remains of child, also of indeterminate sex, 8 to 13 years old at the time of death. The body had five large stones on top it.
“Although there are no clear indicators in either the burial contexts or the skeletal remains that would explain why the occupants of Kamarinean Tombs 653 and 693 were pinned in their graves, their special treatment suggests that necrophobic beliefs and practices were present in Greek Sicily,” she wrote. Necrophobia is fear of the dead.
Popular Archaeology says Weaver cites ancient documents and archaeological research concerning the Mediterranean in the Neolithic (New Stone Age beginning about 7,000 years ago) to the 19 th century AD that support her theory that the two burials were considered revenants or undead, or zombies, as they are called now in popular culture.
The 16 th century painting “Crossing the River Styx” by Joachim Patinir (Wikimedia Commons)
On the practice of necromancy, she wrote: “The dead were typically entreated by means of binding spells inscribed on thin sheets of lead. These spells, called katadesmoi, were deposited in graves during nighttime ceremonies. Often petitioners sought to redress a wrong that had been committed, such as avenging a murder or returning a stolen inheritance, but katadesmoi were also used to gain an advantage in love or business.”
She wrote that the Greeks wholly believed in supernatural phenomena. “The writings of ancient authors give us a glimpse into the minds and beliefs of the Greeks, and it is clear that many members of the society thought that the dead could roam the earth. Greeks imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets and stalked unsuspecting victims, often to exact retribution denied to them in life. Even those who could not physically leave their tombs posed a threat, because mediums could easily invoke restless spirits and cajole them into committing heinous acts. These ideas were mainstream, and not rooted in folklore or fantasy, because the cultural and religious foundations of the ancient Greeks led them to believe that death was not necessarily a permanent state. Instead, there were special cases in which it could be fluid, blurring the seemingly rigid lines that separate the living from the dead.”
Weaver, a University of Pittsburgh post-doctoral fellow in the History of Art and Architecture department, intends to do more research on the topic.
Featured image: Drawing by D. Weiss of the burial in Tomb 693, from G. Di Stefano's journal.
By Mark Miller