Spooky Tales In Ancient Times – Q & A with Vicki Leon

Writer Vicki Leon penned the book How To Mellify a Corpse, where she explores, among other things,  the worlds and practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a superstitious lot. Vicki was gracious enough to answer a few questions giving us some advice on Halloween, hysteria,  and ends by telling a ghost story!

Welcome, Vicki…in your new book,  How to Mellify a Corpse,the Romans and the Greeks had a lot to say about ghosts and exorcisms. Can you give us some tips on how to protect ourselves and our homes around Halloween, presumably when there are more spirits hanging around?

Ancient folks, especially the hyper-organized Romans, fretted quite a bit over their dearly departeds. Family members, called Di Parentes postmortem, got the royal treatment—unless they were babies, in which case they were buried in the back yard. However, unlucky individuals that were fatally struck by lightning had to be planted right on the strike site. Those who weren’t kin or lightning victims were known as  Di Manes, or departed souls.

Whichever category you fell into, as a shade or spirit you were looked on as divine and worshipped accordingly. Apparitions of old were a great deal more demanding than modern spirits. Whether buried or cremated, the newly dead required immediate transfusions of food and drink. Thus Romans built graves, sepulchres, columbaria, and mausolea with built-in pipes or slots down which wine, milk, and (at times) edible solids were poured or stuffed.  This time of year, you might want to go all-out, since during October and November, the divine ghosts (family or otherwise) require special treats: barbecued animals, garlands of flowers, special graveside lanterns, wine, and other beverages.

This Hallowe’en, at a bare minimum I would suggest that before doing any reveling, today’s partygoers should:

  • First pour a glass of decent vino on Uncle Benny’s headstone and secondly, place a generous amount of trick-or-treat loot on tombs and cemetery plots—whether they’re your relations or not.
  • For home and personal protection,  I highly recommend the remedy used by ancient Greeks to keep their unruly ghosts at a distance. (Greek ghosts, BTW, were known as daimons, from which comes our word demon.) Outside each Greek house, the inhabitants put a generous amount of pitch above the exterior doors, afterwards leaving a hearty meal of mixed grains on the lawn for the daimons. Their other ghost-busting strategy?  Everyone chewed hawthorn leaves on the nights in question.

The scariest ghosts of all were the lemures, also known as larvae. Way back then, instead of wildlife both terms referred to the nastiest variety of evil ghouls. Grudge-bearing lemures who’d died young were feared most, whereas larvae were hostile spirits that specialized in haunting houses. Besides the fall appeasement gestures, both types got special “phantom-begone!” ceremonies each May at the Lemuria Festival.

Vicki, you mention that the evil eye was a common fear in ancient Greece, but it didn’t seem to generate the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. How did they keep emotions in check? Was there something to those charms they wore?

It’s difficult to compare hysteria levels in ancient times to late 17th century century America. What I can tell you that one of the earliest Roman laws ever passed was what they called “the enchantment of the fields.” You see, those afflicted with the evil eye were thought capable of putting bad mojo onto plants and domestic animals, as well as on people.  Folks from all walks of life believed that a mere evil-eye glance could wither crops, sicken babies, bring all sorts of misfortune.

The Romans may not have been hysterical, but warding off the evil eye was a grave danger and a fulltime job back then. It required the same belief system of appeasement gestures and special feasts used to placate family ghosts and malignant spirits in  the neighborhood.

The most potent defense against the evil eye?   Wearing an amulet, a lucky charm. Not just any one, however; the best protection was a facinus—Latin for phallus. And yes, it’s also the root of our word ‘fascination.’ A very literal people, the Romans actually hung anatomically correct models of the facinum around their necks from their date of birth onward.  Infants routinely chewed on facinus carved from coral into teething rings! These objects (sometimes appearing in supersized form that still dumbfounds tourists to Italy) also were placed on the family hearth, in workplaces, at crossroads, and even dangling from chariots.

Other charms worked also. In Greece, the most popular apotropaic (protective) symbols were staring eyes and Medusa heads. Both are still popular—and still worn by millions around the Mediterranean Sea.

What was the most famous ghost story that you know of from ancient times?

Only a handful have survived until our time; to my mind, the best is one is a haunted-house tale that Pliny the Younger wrote to a friend named Lucius Lucinus Sura in a surviving letter.

“In Athens there was a large and roomy house, but it had a bad reputation and an unhealthy air. Through the night silence you could hear the sound of metal clashing. If you listened closely, you could hear chains clanking. . . first far off, then close by. Soon there would appear a phantom, an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long beard and unkempt hair. He wore shackles on his legs and chains on his wrists, shaking them as he walked.

And so the inhabitants of this house spent many dreadful nights lying awake with fear. Illness and eventually death overcame them through lack of sleep and their increasing dread. For even when the ghost was absent, the memory of the horrible apparition preyed on their minds, and their fear lasted longer than the initial cause of that fear. Eventually the house was deserted and condemned to solitude, left entirely to the ghost. Nevertheless, the house was advertised, in case someone unaware of the evil should wish to buy or rent.

Then the philosopher Athenodorus came to Athens. Reading the ad and learning the low price, he became suspicious. Once he learned the whole story–and far from being deterred–he was that much more interested in renting the place.

When evening fell, he asked for a bed to be set up in the front part of the house and called for some small writing tablets, a stylus, and a lamp. Sending all his servants to the back of the house, he concentrated his mind, eyes, and mind on his writing, lest an unoccupied mind cause him to imagine a ghost he’d already heard so much about.

At first, only the night silence. Then the sound of iron clashing, of chains clanking; still Athenodorus did not raise his eyes or put down his stylus. The din grew louder; now at the threshhold—now inside the room with him! Athenodorus turned, saw, and recognized the ghost. It was standing there, beckoning to him.Rather than answering the summons, he motioned with his hand that the ghost should wait awhile, and he turned back to his writing. The ghost continued rattling his chains—at length, right over the philosopher’s head.

The philosopher looked up, then picked up his lamp to follow the phantom. The specter walked very slowly, as if weighed down by the chains. It led him to the courtyard of the house—and suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, now alone, put down some leaves to mark the spot where the ghost had disappeared.

In the morning, he went to the local magistrates, advising them have the spot excavated. When they did, bones were found, entwined with chains. Bones that the body, rotted by time and earth, had left bare and corroded. Athenodorus had the bones gathered and given a public burial. And soon after the rites had been performed, the house was no longer troubled by spirits.


Thanks Vicki.

Leave a Comment