Classics and pop culture / Weird and Wonderful

They Won’t Stay Dead!

Greetings, child. Welcome to the Sidgwick Crypt (the spookiest part of the Sidgwick Site because it only exists in your nightmares!). There is indeed a chill wind out tonight. No weather for an innocent young seeker of knowledge such as yourself to be abroad. Pray, take off your cloak. Here, shift aside these old bones and take a seat. I’m sure dear old Moses won’t mind. Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then allow me to give you a supervision the like of which you have never had before. A supervision in dark knowledge, in the arcane magicks of an antique land. A supervision on beings which, like the theories of some scholars (I would never be so indiscreet as to name names), do not know their time has passed. Allow me to initiate you in the mysteries of the un-dead.

If. You. Dare!

 One only has to mention the living dead and we think of the Classical World. Which of us can honestly say we have not lain awake at night wondering if that tapping at the window-pane really is a tree-branch, or if the revenant spectre of Socrates is not attempting to gain entry to our garret in his eternal quest to consume the brains of the young? Socrates is, perhaps, the most famous of all zombies, the subject of a thousand campfire tales, urban legends and at least a dozen successful Hollywood movies. We all know the story: so annoying was he that he was denied admittance into Hades and now roams for ever ‘twixt this world and that. In this case, however, such fears are without foundation. Close examination of the original Greek and Roman sources has revealed that there is in fact little convincing evidence that Socrates cheated death and has wandered unquiet for the last 2400 years wreaking misery on all who encounter him. It only feels that way because of his massive overexposure in Classics syllabuses everywhere (or rather, syllabūs– fourth declension: there’s no excuse for sloppiness).

Zombie Socrates wants to pick your brains.

But just because popular fears over Zombie Socrates are unfounded, it doesn’t mean the ancient Mediterranean lacks its fair share of genuine encounters with the living dead. Far from it. The history of necromancy in the region is a long one. In the exotic and barbarian East we hear from earliest times about the unholy rites of kispum, in which the dead were invoked to dine alongside the living in ceremonial feasts. Kind of like Christmas dinner with your grandparents. But worse. Oh so much worse! Religious tablets from Bronze Age Ugarit attest the spread of such cults of the dead to the very shores of the Mediterranean. In that trading city’s magnificent palace, rites took place in which long-dead kings were summoned from the underworld for special occasions such as the enthronement of a new monarch. Because nothing spices up a coronation like the presence of a couple of dozen zombies in crowns (a modern reflex to this practice is found in the section of the US presidential inauguration where the president-elect wears the skull of Abraham Lincoln as a mask and prances around the stage purportedly possessed by his predecessor’s approving spirit). Foolhardy meddlers! Can it be coincidence that unhappy Ugarit met its end in violence and fire within mere centuries of these tablets being written?

Would that the dark arts of raising the dead had perished there, but alas, ‘twere not to be. The devilish practice spread, and by the fifth century the words νεκυομαντεῖον – necromancy and ψυχαγωγός – summoner of ghosts were already established in the Greek language. The Eastern provenance of the rites was believed in by the Greeks themselves. We find instructions for how to achieve necromancy in the arcane magical texts of Hellenistic Egypt, infused throughout with references to and invocation of the pagan deities of that most mysterious of lands. Throughout Classical literature raising the dead is a practice associated with the marginalised Other: women, foreigners, squirrels. All right, I made the squirrels up. Heed me, though: you would do well to beware them. They’re up to something, even if we’re not yet sure what it is. I’ve seen the way they watch the Classics Faculty. Watching. Watching. Always watching.

Evil.

If. You. Dare.

Er, where was I? Oh yes: the living dead. Our earliest glimpse of the Greek undead comes from Homer, a man who was not unacquainted with the dark arts. Indeed, such was his level as an adept that upon completion of his master-work (I speak, of course, of the Βατραχομυομαχία) he erased himself from the very skein of history itself, leaving his writings authorless monuments to paradox, future scholars perplexed. He laughs at us now from whatever plane he has removed himself to. Though to the best of my knowledge, he’s the only one there so he’s probably pretty lonely. So who’s the real winner?

Heh heh heh… Ahem.

Another mystery the answers to which Antiquity clasps close to her bosom. Presumably in some sort of bra with pockets.

In Odyssey 11 Homer describes Odysseus’s descent into the Underworld, where he summons the ghosts of the dead with offerings of blood. Like the vampires and zombies of modern folklore, these ghouls hunger for the substance and sustenance that can only be obtained from the still-warm blood of the living. In order to consult the sage Teiresias, Odysseus has to fight off a large horde of mindless, shambling un-dead. The scene will strike a chord with those of us who lived through the Cambridge Zombie Uprising of 1998. Or, indeed, with any who have visited the Kelsey Kerridge Freshers’ Fair. The key difference is that while both the Uprising and the Freshers’ Fair were orchestrated by hidden dark masters looking to convert new masses to the legions at their command, in Classical Greece we have few attestations of necromancy being practised overtly in the service of evil schemes or the unleashing of the Apocalypse (ποκάλυψιςthird declension, entered English fourteenth century). Like Odysseus, most Classical raisers of the dead did so in the search for knowledge, specifically for mantic utterances. Oracles, for those of you with smaller vocabularies. Advice, for  those of you with no vocabularies to speak of at all. The dead did not even have to be whole for this to work. There are many instances where just the head or skull were imbued with life and made to speak, Opheus being the most famous example. As in the recent motion-picture Prometheus (which, being a mysterious scholar all clad in black and confined to a crypt which appears but for a single night every year, I have not seen, but which I found described in the papers of an undergraduate that fell into my possession) we might question whether this was (a) well-advised and (b) entirely necessary to the plot. Nevertheless, it happened.

Prometheus

Orpheus.

As with so much, what the Greeks started, the Romans were more than happy to carry on with gusto. Necromancy, ghosts and revenants abound in their writings, even those of stuffy old dullards like Cicero. Presumably worried that people might think he was holding back too much in his criticism of people he didn’t like, the comedy grump repeatedly accuses enemies of raising the ghosts of the dead, sometimes with sacrifices of children’s innards (In Vatinium 14; Tusculan Disputations 1.37). Similar rhetorical flourishes have been evident in recent Conservative ministers’ declamations about benefit claimants. Horace gives us more necromancy, this time with witches and possibly voodoo dolls (Satires 1.8). The greatest innovation of the Romans, however, was in the field of reanimation. Where previously we know only of insubstantial ghosts being summoned, the Romans for the first time refer to corpses being re-imbued with life. This is not unexpected, since it presumably would have made gladiatorial arenas (a) considerably cheaper to run and (b) vastly more exciting. Lucan presents us with the first reference to this practice in his Pharsalia (6.754-57), where a witch uses herbs and pumps blood into the corpse of a dead soldier to restore him to life. Similar rites are described in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, while in Horace Epode 17.79, even cremation is no impediment to revivification. Indeed, this is something I have discovered to mine own cost.

Laugh, would you? Perhaps you doubt me? Do not be deceived by my uncanny outward appearance and strange manner, child: the matters of which I speak are not trifles.

This is a trifle.

Very well, if you undertake to approach matters with due solemnity, let us return to the matter in hand. With an inevitability that betrays my origins as an humble antiquary, we approach the question of typology. What manifold forms do the revenants of antiquity take?

Alas, records are somewhat vague. There is a strong sense that different types of ghost, spirit and un-dead were believed to exist. We have already probed the distinction between Homeric blood-drinking shades, prophetic heads and Roman reanimated cadavers. Greek and Roman attest a dazzling array of words for the living dead: σκιά, ψυχή, φάσμα, εἴδωλον, νεκρός, νέκυς, πέμφιξ, lares, manes, umbra, larva… There is at least a vague sense in the literature that some of these were envisaged as differing in kind, though at our distant remove it is not straightforward to reconstruct. In general, the image of the ancient ghost is humanoid, insubstantial and reflecting the condition of the body at the time of death or afterwards. Spectres generally display wounds, are charred from the funeral pyre, or are partially rotten. In this respect they are perhaps best understood as lying somewhere between modern ghosts and zombies. Like vampires, they can sometimes take the form of a bat, as in Aristophanes Birds 1553-64 (a passage that also contains a reference to Socrates in the underworld). Other of the most satanic animals are also commonly found in association with the living dead: dogs, wolves, snakes and screech-owls. Not squirrels, one must admit, but this is doubtless merely an a chance lacuna in our records.

Today there remain two main questions which dominate the field of un-dead classical teratology:

1)      Are these an actual thing?

2)      Are there any sexy un-dead such as the Youth of Today are excited by (or at least, so I am given to understand)?

Regarding stop-motion skellies, things are, I regret to say, not looking good. Petronius uses the word ‘larva’ to mean a skeleton, but while it would not be entirely incongruous for it to reanimate and go on a rampage/dance in the middle of his dinner party, this isn’t what actually happens. Osteoarchaeology and comparative investigation of the human musculature have suggested that it would be difficult for a motile skeleton to remain articulated, still less to effect the distinctive stop-motion gait modern popular opinion often seeks to foist upon them. If it’s any consolation, the revivified corpse in Lucan’s Pharsalia does the stiff-as-a-board rising from the grave thing very much like in Nosferatu.

It is with a reluctant heart that I move on to the second question. The recent obsession with the amorous attentions of the living dead is a particularly worrisome and unhealthy development in our culture (Culture… I speak as if I were part of it… heh heh heh…) and doubtless will leave us open to all manner of suffering, indignities and monstrous hybrids when the un-dead apocalypse finally arrives. Nevertheless, the ancient world is not entirely lacking in such stories. Phlegon of Tralles, in his book of Marvels (2.1), relates the tale of Philinnion, a dead girl who rises from the grave to seduce the youth Makhates. It’s like The Graduate with zombies. One presumes. I haven’t seen The Graduate either.

It remains for me to address the topic of one final class of apparition. Scholars are divided on whether this should, sensu stricto, be classed as un-dead, but it is close enough that it would be remiss of me to end this Supervision of the Damned without mentioning it in some way. I refer, of course, to that most Hellenic of monsters, the werewolf. Unlike vampires, ghosts and zombies, the werewolf appears very similar to its modern form in the myths of the ancient Mediterranean. With its cemeteries, moonlight and urine-stained clothes, the werewolf tale in Petronius will immediately strike the modern scholar as very familiar. Liminality and boundaries are crucial to the Greek conception of the werewolf. The cemeteries which they frequent are not just at the intersection of the worlds of the living and the dead, they also mark the borders between the city and the countryside. This sense of a transition between the familiar world and the wilderness recurs in a tale told by Pliny in his Natural History (8.81), in which crossing a lake and entering the desert marks the border between human and animal form. In Herodotos, werewolves are again associated with the untamed wilds beyond the civilised world. He relates, but professes not to believe, the story that the Neuroi of the Steppes were werewolves. I say ‘professes’ because among those of us initiated in such secret knowledge, it is well-known that many of Herodotos’ travels were undertaken in his capacity as the Greek world’s foremost werewolf and vampire-slayer.

It is closer to home, however, that we find the Classical World’s most famous werewolf cult, and its closest association with the blood-fuelled rites of necromancy. I speak of Arcadian Mt Lycaon, where Plato, Pliny and Pausanias all describe werewolf-transformations brought on by the consumption of human flesh (writers whose names begin with ‘P’ seem to have a strange predilection for these lupine tales. Coincidence?). Like Cicero’s Republican necromancers, the entrails of a boy are specifically mentioned (Pliny NH 8.82). According to myth, recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.216-239), inter alia, Zeus transformed the ancient King Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for serving him them flesh of his son at a banquet.

‘Come Dine With Me’, c.700 BC. Yes, it really has been running that long.

The Greek werewolf is not truly un-dead, then, but it shares certain characteristics and in practice, those who fight one will inevitably encounter the other. What’s that, child? You have no intention of fighting them? Then pray, why are you here? Oh no, these matters are not part of anything so parochial as a tripos syllabus.

Do you mean to leave so soon?

After all I have told you, surely you now understand that there are things deeper and darker than even X-Caucus can prepare you for? Did you not mean to join us in our eternal war against the forces of darkness? By coming here, on this night, you have taken your first step down that path. It is a step not easily retraced now.

You are a member of our Shadow Faculty now.

We ask nothing from you but your immortal soul.

Heh heh heh heh HEH HEH AHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

 IF. YOU. DARE!

What? Oh. Fine then. Please can you fill in a supervision feedback form on the way out.

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13 thoughts on “They Won’t Stay Dead!

  1. You missed one of the best ancient ghost stories of all! Pliny Jr. letter 83, which shows how a good ghost-hunter needs a firm grounding in Stoic philosophy; also, the chilling tale of the Ghost of Temessa (Paus. 6.6.7-10), which shows that a good right hook works just as well.

  2. But seriously, Phil, this is awesome. It saddens me that you’ll soon be having to revise your dissertation post-viva, and won’t have time to entertain us. Because I’d have loved to collaborate on “Herodotus of Halikarnassos: Vampire Hunter.”

    • Please, please, please write and/or film “Herodotus of Halikarnassos: Vampire Hunter”. PLEASE. (Or at the very least, make a “Herodotus of Halikarnassos: Vampire Hunter” cake.)

      • I’m very, very tempted to actually make something for this. Maybe after the viva. Until then, I’ll just keep thinking up Herodotos-related one-liners…

  3. “They showed me thousands of statues, each of which, they said, had been a piromis, son of a piromis (in Greek, piromis means gentleman). But as we walked through the echoing temple, I began to feel disquieted: the skill of the Egyptian carvers was such that the statues seemed almost flesh and blood, and my unease was increased as I saw that, the further we went into th recesses of the temple, the greater the number of statues that bore expressions of the profoundest horror and loathing.”
    (yes, I’ve been reading Lovecraft recently).

  4. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!! *cough* Glad to see you’re utilising your spare time well.

    On a completely boring side-note, I’ve always found ‘trifles’ one of the most ridiculous archaisms that’s stuck around for nugae. I translated it as ‘doodles’ once, which I was happier with (though wish I could include the semantic association with chunks of nougat somehow). Nonetheless, I could be re-convinced about ‘trifles’ if it was always accompanied by a picture of a trifle. But what, I ask, would a mere trifle look like? Or, indeed, a were-trifle…

    • I don’t know about a mere trifle, but a mer-trifle has a fish’s tail at the bottom. I gather they’re generally less popular than the ones with cake and fruit. A were-trifle looks exactly like the one pictured, except that under a full moon it turns into a man who slightly resembles Kenneth Williams.

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