GHOSTS OF TIME
Updated: Aug 20
Since the early days of mankind, the belief that the human soul could survive physical death, and could return to communicate with those in the realm of the living, has been a common one. Whether they have been viewed as kind and helpful, or vengeful and angry, there has always existed a belief in ghosts.
Ghost stories are embedded in the traditions of cultures all around the world, and each of them serve their purpose. Be they tales of the dead imparting their woes and grievances- or their warnings- to the living, or tales of the dead seeking revenge upon those who wronged them..or be they used as moral cautions, or purely for entertainment, they're nonetheless deeply ingrained in human culture.
Let's take a little trip around the world, and look at some ghost stories from ancient history in a few various cultures..
This piece is not really about the "why" or the "how" or the "what if", but is more to do with my personal fascination with the beliefs, the folklore, and the tales that stem from ancient cultures..and how much some of those have echoed through time, and have played a role in forming some of the basis for our considerations and beliefs regarding many of the occurrences we define as "paranormal" these days, and also their elements of similarity to many of our modern day ghost stories. There is also geographical and general knowledge to be considered here, as all countries contain different features, and we know little about some that would have existed long ago. Often these beliefs influenced those of other cultures as well. All ancient cutures express their stories in a similar way, through song, dance, art, rituals, tales, initiations, statues, jewellery, totems and prayers, but not all in written form, as many ancient cultures did not have a written language.
So..let's get to that journey, shall we?
From the 19th and 20th dynasties in ancient Egypt comes a very, very early ghost story. This period in Egyptian history, which spanned the years 1292-1077 BC, is also known as the Ramesside Period.
The story is partial, as it was reconstructed by piecing together various fragments of an "Ostracon". Ostraca were clay vessels inscribed with Hieratic script (a form of ancient cursive writing), or Hieroglyphs. There seems to be some discrepancies in some translations of the tale, and in the spelling of the names of the central characters involved, but the story is nonetheless fascinating, and shows just how long ghost stories have been in existence.
The ostracon fragments relevant to this tale lie in four museums around the world. Gaston C. Maspero provided an early translation of them in his 1915 book "Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt" (See this link), and William Kelly Simpson did likewise, in his 1972 book "The Literature of Ancient Egypt" (p. 112 in the link to that). The story's beginning seems to have been lost, but it is implied that an unnamed man spent the night next to a tomb in the Necropolis at Thebes, and was awakened by a ghost who dwelt in the tomb. The man takes his tale to the High Priest of Amun (also called Amon Ra), Khonsumhabi, who summons the ghost and asks his name.
The ghost tells Khonsumhabi his name is Nutbosokhnu, and he is upset because his once-grand tomb has partially caved in, and others who have promised to rebuild it have not done so. Khonsumhabi sends men to find a suitable new resting place at which to build a tomb, and the men do so. No further fragments of that ostraca were found, and thus there was no way for those who translated the story to be able to conclude it- it is unknown as to whether or not the tale ends with the ghost being pacified.
ANCIENT GREECE AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The Greek poet Homer was born sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC, and is best known for the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which contain passages that tell of the appearance of a ghost. Both also seem to contain the same concept- that the dead are conscious of the current state and situation of their bodies, and request proper burial and funerary rites so that they may enter Hades, the ancient Greek concept of the Underworld, where the souls of the dead were said to dwell.
(If you wish to read more about the ancient Greek beliefs in the afterlife, as depicted in Homer's poems, here's a link you might find interesting to a fascinating article I found whilst researching for this piece.)
In the 11th book of the Iliad, which was written somewhere around the 8th century BC, Achilles meets the ghost of Patroklos in a dream, where Patroklos tells Achilles of his wish to be buried in the same urn as him when he dies, saying "do not let my bones be laid away from yours, Achilleus, but let them be together."
In The Odyssey, which is considered somewhat a "sequel" to The Iliad, and which dates from a similar period, Odysseus meets the soul of Elpenor in Hades, where Elpenor, despite being in Hades, cannot fully be incorporated into the realm until he is properly buried, thus he requests of Odysseus that Odysseus "plant on my tomb the oar I rowed with."
Odysseus also has another encounter with a spirit, that of his Mother, Anticleia, whilst using a pit filled with lambs' blood for scrying (also known as chiromancy).
In this encounter, his Mother informs him of the condition of his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, and says that she herself died of sorrow, waiting for her long-gone son to return home.
The Ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, also known as Virgil, wrote his own epic poem, The Aeneid , between 29 and 19 BC, and in Book 6, he tells of the hero, Aeneas (also a character in The Iliad), making a journey to the Underworld where he encounters the shade of Dido, former Queen of Carthage, who remains inconsolable after committing suicide when Aeneas rejected her love. He then travels to Elysium (a concept of the afterlife considered separate to Hades, and one where souls of the heroic were considered to dwell), where he speaks with the spirit of his Father.
In a fourth-century AD work, titled Soushenji ("In search of the Supernatural"), its author, Gan Bao, tells a story which indicates a ghost with unfinished business.
In the tale, a scholar named Xin Daodu was travelling in order to further his education, and arrived at a place a few kilometers from Yangzhou. There, he saw a large house, and a woman in dark clothes standing at the door. Daodu went to the door to request a meal, and the woman went inside to tell the mistress of the house, Lady Qin, who ordered that he be bought in, and a meal prepared.
After formalities were conducted, and a meal eaten, Lady Qin said to Daodu “I am the daughter of King Min of Qin, and I was betrothed to be married to a member of the royal family from the state of Cao, but unfortunately I perished without a husband. It’s now twenty-three years since I died, and since then I have lived alone in this house, but today you came here, and it is my wish that we become husband and wife.”
Daodu spent three nights with his ghostly "bride". When they parted ways, she gave her husband a golden pillow. As soon as he stepped out of the house, it vanished, and only a burial mound was to be seen in its place.
Daodu went to the state of Qin, where he met an imperial concubine who was Lady Qin's Mother. Upon hearing his story, she dispatched men to exhume her daughter's grave, and they found that of the possessions she had been buried with, only a golden pillow was missing.
ANCIENT MIDDLE EASTERN GHOSTS
In the ancient Middle East, (extending from Iran to Egypt), from about 3000 to 330 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered much of the area, from which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated, and also the still-surviving Zoroastrianism and Parsiism (which now go under a different name), the ancient Middle Eastern belief system is called an ecumene. The term ecumene comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means the inhabited world. God is not responsible for the forces of evil in ancient Middle Eastern beliefs, which were already there before he embarked on the creative process. The ancient Middle Eastern people believed that the universe resulted from the adding of order into primordial beings or matter, followed by divine acts of creation. Religious communities specializing in sacrifices, oracles, divination, and other aspects of priesthood were at work. Guild priests called kohanim were found at Ugarit in Northern Syria as well as in Israel.
In addition, Mycenaean Greek (late Bronze Age) methods of sacrifice are similar to the Hebrew methods, which are preserved in many Middle Eastern countries to this day. All of the ancient Middle Eastern people saw the work of the gods in every aspect of life and nature. Everything on earth was regarded as a result of its origin in the divine or sacred world, and God was viewed as the primary reality of the universe. Human beings were seen as the reflection of that reality. The Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish, (“When on High”) states that at first there existed only the male (Apsu) and female (Tiamat) gods of the deep. They raised a family of gods that were so lawless that Apsu resolved to destroy them. Rebellion and chaos ensued. Among the deities was Marduk, the god of Babylon. As the main version of the epic of creation is the Babylonian, Marduk occupies the role of creator. Tiamat, who had embarked on a course of destruction, was slain by Marduk, who cut her in two and used her carcass to create the universe. Out of half her body he fashioned the sky containing the heavenly bodies to mark the periods of time. The epic culminates in the glorification of Marduk and the establishment of his order. The Enuma elish was read on the Akitu, or New Year festival, at Babylon. In Middle eastern belief, gods could become mortal and vice versa. Gilgamesh, a mortal king who ruled Uruk in Mesopotamia, was, according to the Gilgamesh epic, born of the goddess Ninsun, just as to the Greeks Achilles was accepted as the son of the goddess Thetis.
One of Japan's first novels is "Genji Monogatari" (Tale of Genji), written by Lady Murasaki, a noblewoman who lived during the Heian period (794-1195 AD). When it was written is unknown, but it is believed to have been before she reached old age, which places it as sometime in the mid to late tenth century. The book was translated into English in 1882.
In chapter four of the book, Prince Genji is haunted by the jealous Lady Rokujo, whose love he spurned. Her apparition appears above Genji's sleeping lover, remonstrates with Genji for being faithless to her and tries to drag his lover away. Genji's lover sickens and dies soon after.
Also from the Heian period comes a famed collection of tales of the supernatural, the "Konjaku Monagatari" (Tales of Times Now Past), whose author is unknown but has been said to be a court nobleman, Minamoto Takakuni. A rather gruesome tale, (which found its way into an issue of Mike Magnola's "Hellboy" comic) tells the story of a man by the name of Tosuke Ki, who, whilst travelling to his estate in Mino province, crossed the Seta bridge, where he encountered a ghost woman who asked him to deliver a small box to another woman, who sat at the bridge in Kara village. Tosuke agreed, and was handed a box which he was instructed not to open. During his journey, Tosuke forgot about the box, and instead of delivering it, he brought it home with him and placed it in his storeroom. His wife, jealous by nature, thought the box was a gift from a lover and secretly opened it. Upon doing so, she discovered it to be full of gouged-out eyes and severed male genitals. Alerted to the nature of the contents of the box by his wife, Tosuke went immediately to Kara village to deliver it. When he encountered the lady on the bridge there, she was furious that the box had been opened. Tosuke became ill and died soon after returning home.
ANCIENT EUROPEAN GHOSTS
The term Old Europe is used to describe the period of time between the Neolithic and Copper ages, from the years 4500-2500 B.C, before Indo-European beliefs from the Eurasian steppes began to influence their culture. Like later European culture, these were gyneocentric, stemmed from the gynecocentric Paleolithic and early agricultural world, created by a birth giver, mother, root gatherer, and seed planter and concerned with feminine cycles, lunar phases, and seasonal changes. Skylight and stars, prominent in later Indo-European mythology, rarely appear in Old European symbolism.
Most Old European sacred images show the changing nature of life on earth- the constant and rhythmic interplay between creation and destruction, birth and death. For example, the moon's three phases—new, waxing, and old—are repeated in trinities of deities: maiden, nymph, and crone; life-giving, death-giving, and transformational deities; rising, dying, and self-renewing deities. Similarly, life-giving deities can also bring death. Male vegetation spirits also express life's transitional nature: they are born, come to maturity, and die, as do plants.
GHOSTS IN OTHER ANCIENT CULTURES
I wanted to include a few more tales from other ancient cultures as part of this piece- from those such as the Australian Aborigines, the Native Americans, ancient Ireland and Scotland, and ancient India and Africa. A few problems presented themselves there though, which have a lot to do with cultural beliefs, and the way stories were passed down over generations, and are called "Dreamtime" stories. these include creatures such as the Rainbow Serpent, who shaped our lands and rivers with its path, and also includes a toad and other animals. you can read about them here.
ANCIENT NORWEGIAN GHOSTS
For the ancient Norwegians and their ancestors, only two elements existed at the beginning of time, heat and cold, with Ginnungagap in between, and life beginning where the two elements met; where the titan Ymir was formed. Audhumla the cow suckled the young Ymir and licked the ice to create Buri, who went on to be the grandfather of Odin, Vili and Ve. These three then killed Ymir, whose body formed the earth and his skull the sky, while one of his eyebrows formed a wall to separate the world of the giants from Midgard, the world of men.At the centre of this universe was Yggdrasill, a gigantic ash tree with three roots: one in Asgard- which was in the land of the gods, Aesir; one in Jotunheim – the land of the frost giants; and the other in Niflheim – the world of the dead.
Close to these roots are three wells: Hvergelmir, in which Nidhogg lived (the serpent that gnawed at the tree’s roots); Mímisbrunnr, the source of wisdom (Odin sacrificed an eye for the well's waters); and Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Fate, from which the tree is watered by the three Norns (the Fates) – Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. The tree united the nine Norse homeworlds and was populated by animals, including an eagle in its topmost branches that had a falcon sitting between its eyes and swapped insults with Nidhogg, through messages from Ratatoskr, a squirrel who dashed between the two!
AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
Here in Australia, our Aboriginal people hold a lot of similar concepts regarding beliefs in the afterlife, translating those beliefs through song, dance, and rock art, and passed on verbally by tribal elders, many Australian Aboriginal languages approach extinction, and many tales have been lost, never to be recovered. our Indigenous tribes passed their stories down through dance, song, pictures, and stories as did all primitive cultures, but I have found one which comes from our island state of Tasmania, regarding a debil-debil, believed to inhabit Cradle Mountain, an Indigenous sacred site.
It is believed to be an evil, half black-half white entity, the spirit of a tribal warrior killed in battle with a white foe. It may be such a spirit which inhabits the "Devil's Pool" in Babinda, far north Queensland, believed to be the site of the slaying of a young Indigenous warrior by a warrior from another tribe, whose wife, or "Lubra", the young man had fallen in love with and had eloped. His wife then threw herself into the pool in despair, and since that time, tens of thousands of years ago, no less than 21 people have died, in its treacherous, deep, rock-filled water, many of them young single men. This could perhaps be attributed to the angry spirit of either the young warrior, or that of his lover. You can read some of our other Dreamtime stories here.
Similarities lie there in the beliefs of all ancient peoples too- these were all tribal nations, and were nomadic ones, and often tales of the spirit world and encounters with such, have never been recorded in writing, and have been lost to time, as have some of our languages.
In New Zealand, across the ocean from us here, the Maoria have a belief system where gods, or atua, inhabit the natural world and shape the destinies of its people. They are the children of Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, and created the world by pushing the two apart. There are many atua, each governing a separate aspect of life and nature.
A person's position in society was determined by their mana and associated tapu. The rangatira class of leaders, for example, passed mana down to their children. The tohunga class worked with tapu subjects across a number of disciplines. They healed the sick, advised rulers, navigated by sea, carved canoes, recited history, foretold the future, and built houses, among other duties. Masters carried tapu knowledge and passed it down to their apprentices at specialized schools. Both men and women could serve as tohunga, though they filled different roles. Women worked with mana and tapu objects while weaving. Interactions between the genders were particularly regulated and could require cleansing ceremonies beforehand.
GHOSTS IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE EASTER ISLANDS
Ancient Latin American spiritual beliefs and practices come from a much earlier period in civilisation than those of the Incans, Mayans, and Aztecs, as some of these did not exist until thousands of years after South America was settled, and some are similar to our Dreamtime tales, such as the Makiritare indians, from the Orinoco region near Venezuela, who tell how;
"The stars, led by Wlaha, were forced to ascend on high when Kuamachi, the evening star, sought to avenge the death of his mother. Kuamachi and his grandfather induced Wlaha and the other stars to climb into dewaka trees to gather the ripe fruit. When Kuamachi picked the fruit, it fell and broke open. Water spilled out and flooded the forest. With his powerful thoughts, Kuamachi created a canoe in which he and his grandfather escaped. Along the way they created deadly water animals such as the anaconda, the piranha, and the caiman. One by one Kuamachi shot down the stars of heaven from the trees in which they were lodged. They fell into the water and were devoured by the animals. After they were gnawed and gored into different ragged shapes, the survivors ascended into the sky on a ladder of arrows. There the stars took their proper places and began shining." Rituals are still practiced in countries with large percentages of Amerindians, such as Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. Various Afro-Latin American traditions such as Santeria, Candomble, Umbanda, Macumba, and voodoo exist, voodoo is confined mainly to Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti.
Easter Island, a Chilean territory, has a belief system which has a series of forbidden practices and many concepts, all related to what they consider sacred, and which is called Tapu. The religious practice that persists in the island up to this day is called Ivi Atua, and it is based on the immortality of the soul. Basically, it states that the spirit of the ancestors comes to help their heirs or closest relatives if they need it. Their beliefs evolve mainly around Make-Make, the creator god, supreme god and he who is omnipotent. The Mana is the mental, supernatural and sacred power shared by the chiefs of the tribes, their priests and sorcerers. This power could be used for their benefit or it could be directed against an enemy in order to harm them. The ancient islanders resorted to this power in order to transport the moai, and thought that their statues walked to their destination because of it. As for death, the islanders believed that, once detached from the body, the spirit would stay close to their family before leaving for the spirit world, located far away to the west. For one or two years, the deceased’s body would remain wrapped in vegetal bits. Some time later, when the decomposition was done, the skull would be detached and engraved. Finally, the bones were washed and placed in a stone chamber, where the spirit could meet with their ancestors.
GHOSTS IN CELTIC FOLKLORE
Celtic folklore contains tales of quite a few evil spirits, and some good ones also, from Irish and Scottish cultures alike. From Ireland comes the Puka or Pooka, a conversational creature which appears in horse form, and offers advice, and also the notorious Banshee, and the Sidhe or fey-folk, a good and evil race of whom Mab is their kindly Queen. Leprechauns, although pranksters, are generally considered harmless. You can find a list of some them here, but will have to subscribe to see the full 31.
From Scotland come similar tales, such as the charming Selkie, a kind, seal-like creature, the Wulver, similar to the European werewolf, the Cu-Sith, described as being the size of a small cow, dog-like in appearance with long shaggy black fur, and able to stalk its prey in silence. I could only add 4 from the list here but you can subscribe to see full list of 17. Celtic religion was polytheistic, believing in many deities, both male and female, some of which were worshipped only in a small area or region, or by a particular tribe, but others whose worship had a wider distribution. The names of over two hundred Celtic deities have survived, although it is thought that many of these were alternative names or regional names for the same being.
The various Celtic tribes had a father god, who was often god of the tribe and of the dead, Toutatis, and a mother goddess who was associated with the land, earth and fertility, Matrona . The mother goddess could also take the form of a war goddess as guardian of her tribe and its land, for example Andraste. There was also the male celestial god Taranis, associated with thunder, the wheel, and the bull. There were gods of skill and craft, such as the multi regional Lugus, and the smith god Gobannos. Celtic healing deities were often associated with sacred springs, such as Sirona and Borvo. Other multi regional deities include the horned god Cernunnos, the horse and fertility goddess Epona, the divine son Maponos, also Belenos, Ogmios, and Sucellos. Some deities were seen as threefold, for example the Three Mothers.
GHOSTS IN NATIVE AMERICAN AND INUIT CULTURE
The Inuits and Native American tribes hold quite similar beliefs in spirits to other primitive cultures, the American Indian culture had Shamans, called medicine men here, and the Inuits Anggakquit, and these believed that every animal, plant, and object in nature possessed a spirit, and could be benevolent or malignant. These beliefs are termed Animism, and you'll find those here. Inuits, as do Native American Indians, represent their deities in the form of totem poles. They also have gods and goddesses too, such as Aningan, the sun god, and Malina the moon goddess, who are believed to be either cousins or brother and sister. Similar to Norway's "Loki" is the trickster spirit Irdlivirsissong there is also the Raven, a powerful human-raven hybrid, believed to have brought land and light to a land that was previously only water. The Inuits also have a goddess of marine life, called Sedna. These beliefs are said to have stemmed from the mythology of Greenland.
Like all other cultures, the Indian tribes of North America hoped to enlist the aid of the supernatural in controlling the natural and social world, and each tribe had its own set of religious practises. Individuals tried to please or calm these spirits with prayers or sacrifices of valuable items such as furs, tobacco,and food, but when entire communities sought divine assistance to ensure a successful hunt, a good harvest, or victory in warfare, they called upon shamans, priests, and, in fewer tribes, priestesses, whom they believed to have gained supernatural powers through visions. These uncommon abilities included predicting the future and influencing the weather, matters of great interest to whole tribes, but shamans might also assist individuals by interpreting dreams and curing or causing outbreaks of witchcraft.
ANCIENT AFRICAN GHOSTS
The ancient african tribes also had gods, goddesses, and tricksters, and these are expressed in similar ways as all other ancient cultures; through song, dance, art, verbally related stories, and statues. their trickster god was the benevolent "Elegba" or Eshu, the god of iron was Orgun, and Shango was akin to Thor, as he was the thunder god, and Oshun, the mother of rivers. These are part of a spiritual "tree" of deities known as the Orisha. Myths of various African tribes state that, after setting the world in motion, the Supreme Being withdrew, and he stays away from the concerns of human life. According to a myth of the Dinka of South Sudan, God withdrew from the world after the first woman lifted her pestle to pound millet and struck the sky. The story, which is found in many traditions across the continent, explains that, although this withdrawal introduced toil, sickness, and death, it freed humans from the constraints of God’s control.
Despite the general belief in a Supreme Being, cults of the “high God” are absent from many African religions; prayers or sacrificial offerings are aimed at secondary divinities, who are messengers and intermediaries between the human and sacred realms. In West Africa, among the Asante of Ghana, elders regularly offer prayers to Nyame, the Creator, giving thanks and seeking blessing. An important aspect also is worship of female ancestors, who are considered the guardians of the moral order. According to the mythology of the Dogon of Mali, the Creator, Amma, brought the world into existence by mixing the elements with the vibration of his spoken word, but the primary cult is directed to the Nommo, primordial beings and first ancestors, rather than to Amma.
GHOSTS IN ANCIENT INDIA
India is the seat of Hinduism, and also Buddhism, and Jainism, and unlike Greece and Italy, Indian spiritual beliefs in gods and goddesses are still a part of the social fabric in India, and are worshipped and prayed to on a daily basis.
Their earliest ancient text (which I could locate) was called the Rig Veda, and was from the Vedic age, dated to around 1000 B.C. It contained songs, hyms, and prayers to various gods and goddesses that had been sung by many families over centuries. After the Rig Veda was the Ramayana (the story of Rama), written around 800 B.C., also the Brahmanas in the same year, written by Brahman priests. The Mahabharata was written over centuries, from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. You can find all mention of all of these in this Book. Like other cultures, many gods and goddesses were depicted as having the heads or features of animals, and could be destructive, such as "Kali", the goddess of destruction, and "Ganesh", the good deity with an elephant's head.
There you have it, readers, a fascinating look at cultural beliefs and their similarites and dissimilarities of ancient religions throughout a large part of the world. That was great fun, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did researching it!
Until next we meet, be well.