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It is perhaps particularly appropriate that one who is about to make a journey to the next world should look fully into the matter, and tell stories about what we suppose to be the nature of our residence there and after all, how else could we spend the time until sunset?
The British Museum stood alone in the night and shrouded itself from the rest of London by a dense fog that rolled off the banks of the Thames River. George Smith, an assistant in the Oriental Department, sat at his tiny desk surrounded by mountains of antiquated books and crumbling clay tablets. By the dim light of a lone gas lamp, he squinted at the strange cuneiform writing before him and continued scribbling notes with growing excitement. He knew he had chanced upon a marvelous discovery when, that night in 1871, he translated an ancient Sumerian text, later known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contained one of the very first accounts of man’s belief in the afterlife and one of the very first ghost stories ever written down.
Gilgamesh is the story of a Hercules-like character that roams the land slaying fierce demons and performing seemingly impossible feats of strength and cunning. Modeled after a Sumerian king of the early dynastic period (ca. 2700– 2500 BCE), the legend was recorded on twelve clay tablets found in the ruins of the royal library in the ancient city of Nineveh. Gilgamesh, after many dangerous adventures, loses his friend and warrior companion Enkidu during a quest into the dark underworld of the spirits. Lamenting the tragedy, he turns to the gods for help, who eventually agree to one last meeting between the two friends. A hole is then opened at the feet of Gilgamesh, allowing the ghost of Enkidu to rise from the underworld and describe for his friend what awaited a Sumerian after his or her death. At first, Enkidu is reluctant to speak of the horrors faced by a spirit in the underworld, but eventually overcomes his hesitation with the warning to our hero that “if I must tell you what I have seen in the underworld, sit down and weep.”
This passage is thought to be the first written evidence that our ancestors believed that beyond their everyday world of toil and struggle there existed another, darker place, inhabited by the souls of the dead. For the ancient Sumerians, the underworld was a place of weeping and darkness, where the spirits of both the good and the evil alike were punished. A dismal thought to look forward to in one’s old age, but the Sumerians did allow one saving grace, as Enkidu explains when he continues his speech:
“Have you seen the spirit of the one who has no one left alive to love him?”
“I have,” replied Gilgamesh.
“He eats the leftovers from the pot, the scraps of bread thrown into the gutter, things not even a dead dog would eat.”
To the Sumerians, a man’s fate after death was ultimately tied to the conduct of his living relatives. If they performed the proper magical formulas, prayers, and ceremonial offerings for the spirit of the deceased, then the trials and tribulations of the underworld could be made a little more bearable.
However, if a person died and left no living descendents to conduct the proper rituals, then only an eternity of pain and loneliness awaited him.
Throughout the history of many cultures, there has existed an apprehension about how the spirits of the dead were affected by the daily rituals of the living. The cosmic outlook of early man was one in which the worlds of the living and the dead were deeply intertwined. The Greeks, for example, were terribly afraid of dying without a proper burial. They believed that when a person died, his or her spirit began the perilous journey into the underworld. Money was placed in the mouth of a corpse at the funeral so that the departing spirit could pay Charon the Ferryman to take it across the River Styx. Foods such as pudding and cheese were placed on the body so that the traveling spirit could propitiate the three-headed monster Cerberus who guarded the entrance to Hades. If these needs were not met, the spirit could not enter into the next world and would be doomed to wander the earth, causing havoc among the living. To ensure that the spirits were sent on their way, the Greeks developed practices centered on the proper disposal of the body after death. For instance, in Athens there was a law stating that if a traveler came across a dead body, whether it be that of a friend or stranger, he was to cast dirt upon it three times. If he failed to do this, he was then required to travel to the nearest temple and conduct the appropriate sacrifices to the gods in order to expiate his sins. In the end, if a traveler neglected to do either, he could be subject to a stiff government fine. Greek sailors also bought a bit of afterlife insurance by tying a small reward to their body when they went to sea, in the hope that if they drowned and their body washed ashore, anyone finding it would have payment for giving them a proper burial.
Of equal concern to the Greeks was the need for the body to be buried within its native soil. If a Greek died far from his homeland, it was thought that his spirit would be unable to find its way back. Trapped in a foreign land, the spirit could not be properly cared for by its living descendents and would be subject to the misery of loneliness and aimless wandering. If a person did have the misfortune of dying far from home, his or her friends and family would gather and sing solemn invocations to the deceased person’s soul in the hope that, by hearing this, the spirit would be comforted and find its way back. If a body could not be produced for burial because it was lost at sea or captured in battle, then a funeral was conducted all the same, with ceremonies and an empty bier as if the body were present. The hope was that a token burial was better than no burial at all.
Another culture that went to great lengths to prepare its dead for the journey to the afterlife was that of the Egyptians. To an Egyptian, death was not the end, but a brief interruption in a life that would continue elsewhere much the same as it had before. Life and death were like the Nile River and the deserts that surrounded it, constant and unchanging. When a person died, food, furniture, clothing, jewels, and even animals were buried with him or her. This would sustain the spirit in the next life and ensure that nothing would change.
More important, however, was the preparation of the body after death. The Egyptians believed that one component of the spiritual force that remained was called the ba, which relied on the body of the deceased for its existence. The ba was thought to be able to take on any shape it wanted and leave the tomb, returning to its body at night for rest. In scenes painted on tomb walls, the ba is shown as a bird with a human head, hovering over its entombed body. This required that great lengths be taken to ensure the preservation of the body after death, and so began the art of mummification.
When a person died, his or her body was first turned over to the temple priests in the wabt, or “place of embalming,” who began the grisly task of preparing the body. First, small iron hooks were inserted through the nasal cavity to rip out chunks of brain matter. The abdomen was then cut open, and the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines were removed, cleaned, and stored in small jars to be buried with the body. The heart, oddly enough, was left in place because it was thought to be the center of knowledge and will— something that made up the personality of the person and so would be needed in the next life. Finally, the body was washed with a mixture of pounded herbs, such as myrrh and cassia, and palm wine before being stored in natrum, a type of salt, for forty days. Then the body was wrapped from head to toe in strips of linen glued with gum and placed with all its possessions in a tomb. The entire process was carried out with solemn devotion, and each step was accompanied by various magical spells to help the deceased in the next life.
Besides the intricate preparations some cultures made in burying their dead, others maintained strong ties with the dead long after the funeral. The Romans, who held many beliefs in common with the Greeks, celebrated their funerals with public displays that were held by torchlight at night. During these ceremonies, singers would exclaim the praises of the deceased to the tunes of flutes, while actors staged important scenes from the deceased’s life. The Romans left food at the tombs of dead relatives so that their spirits could eat, and would sometimes even bury them in their own homes so that they could better be looked after. In the Roman pantheon of spirits, Lares were considered good spirits and were invited into homes and towns to act as guardians. Most families had their very own Lares, composed of deceased relatives, who if treated properly could be called upon to protect the family in times of need.
This concern over the well-being of the dead stemmed from the belief that the spirits required the same things as the living. For instance, in Central and East Africa, it is still believed by some tribes that when the dead are tired of wandering in the jungle, they will come to someone they know and ask that person to build them a home. When this happens, the person is obligated to assemble the women of the village together at night to sing and dance for the spirit. The next day the village goes to the grave of the obambo (ghost) and makes a crude idol representing the dead person. This idol, along with some dust from the ground and the bamboo poles that carried the body to the grave, is brought to a small hut erected next to the house of the person the spirit visited. A white cloth is draped across the door of the hut and the spirit is then thought to reside there, helping anyone who leaves an offering of food.
Caring for the spirits of the dead by leaving offerings of food and other necessities can be found in the customs of many cultures the world over. The Pacific Islanders were known to watch a corpse for seven days following a death to make sure the devil did not come to visit and steal the body away. During this time, the dead person’s bed and meals were prepared for him at home in case his wandering spirit grew hungry or tired. Similar traditions exist even today, although we may hardly realize their origins. Christmas, for example, is a time when children delight in leaving milk and cookies for Saint Nick, just in case the jolly old fat man gets hungry delivering all those toys. As innocent as this may seem, however, it is an ancient practice that first began in Ireland when family spirits returning home for Christmas Eve were rewarded with cups of milk left on the windowsill.
Another means by which our ancestors sought to appease wandering spirits of the dead and ensure their happiness in the next world was to hold a public festival in their honor. In late February and early March, the Greeks held what was called the Anthestria. Meals were provided in each home and the spirits were invited for dinner. Once they were thought to have eaten their fill, the family would ask them to leave again for one full year, practically guaranteeing a spirit-free home until the next festival. However, if these public displays and offerings to the spirits weren’t observed appropriately or with the proper reverence, there could be dire consequences that would bring harm and even death to the people. The Roman poet Ovid once wrote of a town that had failed to observe the customary feast and offer gifts of fruits, salt, corn, wine, and violets to the Manes (ghosts from the underworld). Because of the transgression he recounts that “the injured spirits revenged themselves on the living and the city was encircled with the funeral fires of their victims. The townsfolk heard their grandsires complaining in the quiet hours of the night, and told each other how the unsubstantial troop of monstrous specters rising from their tombs shrieked along the city streets and up and down the fields.”
In many Spanish-speaking countries, as well as the southwestern United States, people celebrate what is called el Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. On November 1, altars are built in the family home and adorned with religious icons, special breads, and other foods for the dead. Church services are held and prayers offered for all those who have passed away, after which the graves of loved ones are cleaned and decorated. Picnics, parades, and other festivities follow. The human skeleton or skull is the main symbol of the celebration and decorates everything from candy sugar skulls to skeleton toys performing daily tasks such as dancing or playing musical instruments.
Similar to this is our own festival of Halloween, which has been practiced in the United States since the days of the early colonists. Every October 31, children dress up as ghosts, witches, and any number of horrific monsters. Scampering from house to house, they squeal “trick or treat” as they extend their bags to receive handfuls of goodies. Children are not the only ones partaking in this celebration, and adults enjoy the occasion by dressing up to attend costume parties, handing out candy, or turning their homes into one-night haunted houses complete with sound effects and monsters that pop out of the darkness.
Halloween or All Hallows Eve dates back to the Celtic festival of Samhain. For one night, the gates to the land of the dead were open and the barrier between the living and the dead was lifted. During Samhain, huge bonfires were set to light the way for the spirits of the dead, and food offerings were left for their journey. The Celts ritualized the event by dressing as the spirits or wild beasts they associated with their gods. Yet the event encompassed more than just the return of the dead; it also meant bringing in the harvests, slaughtering animals for winter, and the beginning of the dark half of the year. This was a time when winter approached and the long sleep of the land under its snowy blanket seemed to be a sort of death in itself.
After Christian missionaries reached the British Isles, the festival began to change. A common practice of the early church was to incorporate native customs into a Christian worldview. Pagan practices were adapted, consecrated, and renamed to fit the teachings of the church. Such was the case with the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1, to commemorate those saints that did not have their own feast days to be remembered by. November 2 was named All Souls Day, and was a day of recognition for those that had passed away during the previous year. Further weakening the original intent, the custom of dressing up as the wild and untamed pagan gods became distorted to encompass all the things the Christians feared most, including a long list of demons, witches, and ghosts. It was, after all, a time when the barrier between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, a time when the devil and his minions were given free rein to cause terror upon the earth.
Intricate burial rituals, festivals honoring the dead, and prayers for the departed served one basic purpose—to keep the dead in their graves. Man, both modern and ancient, has tempered his curiosity about the spirit world with a good dose of fear, which in turn has led to some rather colorful ways of dealing with returning ghosts. For instance, some believed that if a person died violently or before his appointed time, his ghost could return to seek its revenge on the living. One of the more common taboos about ghosts related to the proper way to bury those accused of murder or suicide. In the British Isles, authoritative decrees prohibited graveyard gates from being opened to these types of burials. However, there were exceptions. If the family persisted enough, or had enough money and influence, then the body could be allowed in under two conditions: the first was that the casket had to be carried over the wall and not through the gate, and the second was that the funeral had to be held at night when no one could witness it.
Tradition once held that such unfortunates were buried at a secluded crossroads with a stake driven through the heart. The stake would keep them from rising and harming anyone, while the crossroads location was an added precaution. If a restless spirit did rise, it might become confused as to which way to go and therefore couldn’t return home to haunt those who had just given the deceased a rather unceremonious burial. In Denmark, returning spirits were so feared that before burial the big toes of a corpse were tied together to hobble the spirit, pennies were placed on the eyes to blind it, and scissors were left on the stomach, opened in the form of a cross, to prevent evil. Before the burial, nothing in the house could be moved in a circular pattern or it might upset the dead, and when the time for burial did come, the coffin would be carried out feet first, so that the spirit could not find its way back.
Even the innocent victims of violence were thought to be able to return seeking vengeance for the wrong done to them. The Norwegians feared one type of ghost more than any other—the utbrud, meaning “child carried out.” In Norway, when a child was born unwanted or in a time of famine and couldn’t be cared for, it was carried out into the cold, dark forest and left to die of exposure. Many thought the child’s ghost could return and seek its vengeance on the living. Lone travelers passing through some quiet wood or marsh at night were often the prey of the utbrud. Being pursued by one, travelers could only save themselves by splashing into a stream or pulling out a knife, as utbrud were thought to fear only water and sharp metal blades.
Usually, however, returning spirits were believed to be tied to their place of death or burial as if drawn back to the scene of their tragedy and sorrow. Graveyards were feared and avoided, especially on nights when the moon was full and the mist covered the tombstones in ghostly vapors. Times like these were ripe for spirits and imaginations. As early as the fourth century BCE, the philosopher Plato wrote in the dialogue Phaedo a warning against lingering around tombs where the dead still lurked, because “it haunts, as men say, monuments and tombs; by these have been seen shadowy forms of souls, apparitions such as souls of this kind provide when they are separated from the body.” In New Zealand, among the Kaffirs and Maoris, the hut where a person died was so feared it was considered taboo and deserted. No one was allowed to approach it and many times it was even burned down. In some instances, a spirit was so feared that the entire village was abandoned.
From man’s earliest time, he appears to have lived with the notion that he was surrounded by a spirit world with which he could interact. At times this notion was embraced, at other times it was feared, and in some cultures we find a strange mix of both. If we were to list the varying spiritual beliefs of every culture throughout history (a task too large for any one book), we would find the common theme that the living and the dead were connected through ritual, superstition, and prayer. The ancient ruins of Nineveh with their crumbling tablets and timeworn tales of ghosts may seem a long way off, but their message continues to echo through to the present day. After death, something exists, and sometimes it comes back. Several years after George Smith translated the Epic of Gilgamesh, he set out alone on an expedition to the ruins of Nineveh. Sometime later, his fe-ver-racked body was found in the desert along the way, and after being taken to the British Consul’s home in Aleppo, Syria, he died; perhaps this is a warning of the dangers to be faced for those who dig too deeply.