Mon 10 Nov 2008
Usually I like to post some scary stuff from antiquity in connection with Halloween (see earlier ones about talking, decapitated heads and such here and here), but I’m a bit behind. Here is a somewhat entertaining tale of a haunted house preserved by Pliny the Younger (Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus in the early second century). This ghost sounds a bit like a double for Jacob Marley. Pliny seems to believe the tale:
There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees. Immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and filthy appearance, with a long beard and messy hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, the impression nonetheless remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable, so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a sign was put up, giving notice that it was either for rent or sale.
(Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.27.5-6; adapted from the translation by William Melmoth, Letters of Pliny [Boston: Greenough and Stebbens, 1809], online at Project Gutenberg).
Moral of the story: Always ask if a place is haunted before you buy or rent.
(I came across the tale while reading D. Felton, “The Dead,” in A Companion to Greek Religion [edited by D. Ogden; London: Blackwell, 2007], 86-99.)