3500-year-old Babylonian Ghost Image Discovered in British Museum Vaults!
What is believed to be the world’s oldest depiction of a ghost has recently been found on a Babylonian tablet, neglected in the vaults of the British Museum in London since its acquisition in the 19th century.
Babylonia, which was a magnificent state in ancient Mesopotamia (covering parts of present-day Iraq and Syria), had two periods of great development. The first took place between 2300 BC and roughly 1712 BC and achieved its greatest heights under the Amorite ruler Hammurabi (1792 BC-1750 BC). The second period of Babylonian development occurred much later, between 626 and 539 BC. The 3500-year-old Babylonian ghost image tablet belongs to the first period of development.
Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum discovered the ghost image and the correct meaning of the cuneiform inscriptions on the tablet. (Ádám Szedlák / CC BY 2.0)
How the British Museum’s Dr Finkel Found The Ghost Image
The Babylonian tablet etching is accompanied by writing in an ancient cuneiform script that describes in detail how to get rid of an unwanted ghost. It was Dr Irving Finkel, the curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, who made the startling discovery. An authority on cuneiform script, Dr Finkel said the tablet had been incorrectly deciphered. The incorrect translation coupled with the very faint outlines of the ghost image figure that are discernible only when seen from above and under a light resulted in the tablet being forgotten.
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“You’d probably never give it a second thought because the area where the drawings are looks like it’s got no writing. But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way. It is a Guinness Book of Records object because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?” Dr Finkel told The Guardian.
The logo-syllabic script used to write several languages of the ancient Middle East is known as cuneiform on account of its mostly wedge-shaped symbols. It was in use from the early Bronze Age to the end of the BC period and is among the earliest writing systems in the world.
Arab News reports that the image on the tablet shows a bearded man being led to the afterlife by a woman, with his tied hands held out before him . “It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover,” Dr Finkel said in a Times of Israel article.
An ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression at the British Museum showing the god Dumuzid, flanked by snakes, being tortured in the underworld by galla ghost demons. This is one of the earliest depictions of ghosts in the underworld. (Public domain)
Exorcizing a Ghost
Half of the tablet, which is an exorcist’s guide to getting rid of unwanted ghosts by fulfilling the longing that makes them hang around in the world of the living, is missing. Despite that, the instructions for dispatching a ghost who “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed” seem to have survived in fascinating detail.
The cuneiform script instructions describe how to make the figurines of a man and a woman and dressing the man in everyday clothing, while the woman is to be wrapped in four red garments and clothed in purple. She should also be wearing a golden brooch. The man is to be provided with travel provisions while the woman should be given a bed, chair, mat, towel, comb, and a flask. The ritual is to take place at sunrise and, after equipping the figurines as instructed, a curtain is to be drawn and two carnelian jugs of beer and an incense burner holding juniper branches are to be placed next to the figurines. Then Shamash, the Babylonian god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night, is invoked with incantations.
After detailing the ritual for getting rid of the unwanted visitation, the text at the back of the tablet ends with the warning, “Do not look behind you.” According to Dr Finkel, the tablet formed part of a “library” in an exorcist’s house or a temple. He writes about the ghost in his book, The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies.
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He hopes to exhibit the ghost-history-rewriting Babylonian tablet to the public noting that such artefacts serve to show that all the weaknesses and fears of the human race in the present were there in abundance 3500 here ago.
“I want people to know about this culture. Egypt always wins in Hollywood. If the Babylonian underworld is anything like it was described, then they’re all still there. So just remember that.” he said .
Whether that is so or not, the discovery of the ghost image, the oldest found so far in the world, is sure to captivate public interest.
Top image: The British Museum’s long misunderstood 3500-year-old Babylonian tablet reveals a male ghost image on the left led by a woman on the right. Source: The British Museum
By Sahir Pandey
Arab News. 2021. World’s oldest ghost image found on British Museum Babylon tablet. Available at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1949121/art-culture
The Guardian. 2021. Figures of Babylon: oldest drawing of a ghost found in British Museum vault. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/oct/16/figures-of-babylon-oldest-drawing-of-a-ghost-found-in-british-museum-vault
The Times of Israel. 2021. Unhappy spirit: Oldest ever drawing of ghost found on ancient Babylonian tablet. Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/oldest-known-drawing-of-ghost-found-on-ancient-babylonian-clay-tablet/