Ancient Ghost Stories and Ghosts

Vergil/Virgil, Homer, Epic of Gilgamesh, and Pliny on Ghosts and Ghost Stories

Polyxena is sacrificed as ordered by the ghost of Achilles
Cum foret occiso mactanda, Polyxena, Achilli, Non sua, sed matris, tristia fata gemit. [Polyxena is sacrificed as ordered by the ghost of Achilles]. © NYPL Digital Gallery

The Realm of the Supernatural Then and Now

Today, when a writer wants to digress, provide background information or foretell events, he may resort to a dream sequence. In antiquity, where sometimes the afterlife seems more important than the pre-death experience, dreams were not the only vehicle of prophecy. Visits to and from the Underworld kept heroes from straying from their destiny.


Dead, gauzy, insubstantial, roaming aimlessly, our modern vision of ghosts is much like the ancient one.

Ghost of Anticlea:
"'My son,' she answered, 'most ill-fated of all mankind, it is not Proserpine that is beguiling you, but all people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together; these perish in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flits away as though it were a dream.'"
- Odyssey XI

An Ancient Tradition

Nor are ghost stories a modern fiction. The earliest written story comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh [see Tablet VII]. Homer, the Augustan poets Vergil (Virgil) and Ovid, and Pliny [Pliny's Haunted House] also told ghost stories.

Why They Haunt the Living

Placating the spirits is nothing new, either. Unfinished business punctuated by violent death was even then a motive for otherworldly visitation.

Ghost of Elpenor:
"'Sir,' he answered with a groan, 'it was all bad luck, and my own unspeakable drunkenness. I was lying asleep on the top of Circe's house, and never thought of coming down again by the great staircase but fell right off the roof and broke my neck, so my soul down to the house of Hades....'"
- Odyssey XI
The most commonly mentioned unfinished business was burial.
The ghosts rejected are th' unhappy crew Depriv'd of sepulchers and fun'ral due: The boatman, Charon; those, the buried host, He ferries over to the farther coast; Nor dares his transport vessel cross the waves With such whose bones are not compos'd in graves. A hundred years they wander on the shore; At length, their penance done, are wafted o'er."
- Aeneid VI
Ghost of Patroclus:
"Sleepest thou, and me hast thou forgotten, Achilles? Not in my life wert thou neglectful of me, but in death. Bury me soon, that I may pass the gates of Hades. Far off the souls, the shadows of the dead, repel me, nor suffer me to join them on the river bank; but, as it is, thus I roam around the wide-doored house of Hades."

Benevolent Ghosts

Benevolent familial spirits could avert the danger of evil brothers-in-law as well in Shakespeare's time [ 9/23/98] as in Vergil's. Had it not been for her dead husband's warning Dido would never have founded Carthage.

Ghost of Sychaeus:
At length, in dead of night, the ghost appears
Of her unhappy lord: the specter stares,
And, with erected eyes, his bloody bosom bares.
The cruel altars and his fate he tells,
And the dire secret of his house reveals,
Then warns the widow, with her household gods,
To seek a refuge in remote abodes.
Last, to support her in so long a way,
He shows her where his hidden treasure lay.

Malevolent Spirits

Spirits could also be malevolent. The Romans celebrated the [] Lemuria, a festival designed to placate evil spirits.

Ovid claims the practice goes back to the murder of Remus whose spirit haunted early Rome.

Hecate (Hekate)

Hecate, goddess of crossroads was present when souls entered or left bodies. In her benevolent aspect, she could prevent ghosts from visiting the living, but when she wanted revenge, she could be counted on to do otherwise. It was a good idea to placate her by offering her a supper at her crossroad shrines. [See 10 Main Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld.]

Next page > Pliny's Haunted House

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Ghost Stories and Ghosts." ThoughtCo, Mar. 31, 2016, Gill, N.S. (2016, March 31). Ancient Ghost Stories and Ghosts. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Ghost Stories and Ghosts." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 18, 2017).