The Romans also had their feast days and ghost stories.
In general they believed in the existence of the soul and the afterlife. At the core of their beliefs about death were funeral rites.
On November 1, the Christian feast of All Saints is celebrated and cemeteries are traditionally visited to honor the deceased. Due to the influence of American movies and series, we have also adopted the Halloween party, and on October 31 we can see the youngest dressed as spectral beings.
The Romans also had their feast days and ghost stories. In general they believed in the existence of the soul and the afterlife. At the core of their beliefs about death were funeral rites. Many of the ghostly apparitions that we find in the literature have their origin in the lack of a proper burial.
What did the Romans call ghosts?
Ghost comes from Greek through Latin ( phantasma ). The word is etymologically related to “fantasy” and also to “phenomenon”. However, Latin authors prefer other terms such as umbra (“shadow”), idolon or imago (“image”), and simulacrum . These last three refer to the fact that the ghost resembles a human being without being one.
When the ghost is hostile and appears with the intent to harm, the word used is larva . The term lemures alludes to evil and nocturnal spirits. Interestingly, the scientist Linnaeus , trained in the Latin language and literature, gave this name to the lemurs, the famous primates of Madagascar.
Ancestor worship and festivals related to the spirits of the dead
The souls of the dead are called Manes in Latin . This is why most Roman funerary inscriptions begin with the abbreviation DM ( Dis Manibus , “to the Manic gods”).
The Romans remembered and venerated their ancestors during the Parentalia festival in mid-February: the Feralia was celebrated on the last day of this festival , a rite that consisted of bringing offerings to the tombs of the dead.
The Latin poet Ovid speaks to us in his work Fastos of other rituals of a private nature, the Lemuria , to appease the Lemurians . In that same work he tells a legend: once the Parentalia festival was not celebrated due to the war, so the ancestors came out of their graves and ran howling through the city and the fields. The Romans no longer forgot about due rites.
Souls in pain: ghosts in literature
When Odysseus travels to the land of the dead to speak with the seer Tiresias , he meets his companion Elpenor there. He had died by accident in Circe’s house. Elpénor asks him to bury her and celebrate his funeral. In the Iliad , the spirit of Patroclus appears to Achilles in a dream asking him to bury him: he cannot cross the infernal waters to join the rest of the souls.
Also in Latin literature there are souls in pain who cannot cross to the other side. We find the typical haunted house, inhabited by a ghost that disappears as soon as it receives a decent burial. Plautus presents in The Comedy of the Phantom the ruse of the slave Tranion, who makes the owner of the house believe that it is cursed, haunted, inhabited by the ghost of a man treacherously murdered there and clandestinely buried.
In a more serious context, Pliny the Younger tells in his letter VII 27 another story of a haunted house in Athens. The text can be read as a potential gothic story .
The ghost ( idolon ) of an old man, emaciated and dirty, appears every night with the rattling of chains. Scared to death, his owners leave home. The philosopher Athenodorus buys the house and spends the night there studying, unperturbed by the appearance of the specter. The latter signals him to follow him, but the philosopher tells him to wait: he is working. When he finally listens to her, the ghost disappears. The next morning he digs up the place where he vanished and finds a skeleton surrounded by chains. After burying him with dignity, the house is freed from the ghost.
Ghosts as carriers of information
Ghosts know more than the living, not only about the present but also about the future. In Greek tragedy, spectral apparitions often served to advance the plot by providing information. Roman tragedy, more prone to the gruesome and the marvelous, also resorts to these characters from beyond the grave. Good proof of this are the works of Seneca , who left their clear mark on Shakespeare.
In Virgil ‘s Aeneid , Aeneas learns that Troy is on fire because Hector’s ghost tells him so in a dream. Later, while Aeneas is looking for his wife Creúsa through the city, his ghost ( imago ) appears to him, who tells him about his future in Italy.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses , tells the story of Céix and Alcíone. When Céix dies in a shipwreck, the god Morpheus adopts his form and voice and appears in a dream to Alcíone to announce her death. We also find ghosts revealing the identity of his murderers in Cicero ( On Divination ) and Apuleius ( The Golden Ass ).
In The Golden Ass tells the story of an adulterous woman who, abandoned by her husband, a baker, turns to a witch. She is she sends a ghost ( larva ) to the man to torment him. Thus, a woman dressed in rags, barefoot, emaciated and pale, with disheveled hair dirty with ashes covering her face, appears at the mill and locks herself in with the baker. The servants later find him hanged and see no trace of the woman. She is the ghost of the baker himself, with the rope around his neck, who appears in a dream to his daughter and reveals the terrible crime of his wife.
However, ghosts are not limited to fictional stories. Suetonius tells that Nero was mortified for having murdered his mother Agrippina and confessed that his ghost tormented him.
There are many more spectral apparitions in Latin literature and their influence on later literature is undeniable. We don’t know if the Romans really believed in ghosts, but we can guess that, like us, they liked a good ghost story.
Rosario Moreno Soldevila , Professor of Latin Philology, Pablo de Olavide University
This article was originally published on The Conversation . Read the original .