With Halloween approaching, today’s video on Greek mythology is dedicated on ancient Greek ghost stories. Before we get started, make sure to subscribe to Helinika’s YouTube channel and never miss a video in the future.
Ancient Ghost History: Facts About Ghosts
Cases of ghostly apparitions have been reported since ancient times, particularly in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. There are many references of ghosts in Mesopotamian religions and in the ancient Egyptian culture, where ghosts were believed to be the souls and spirits of people who exited their material body and influenced the lives of the living. Ghosts could either harm people or assist them.
In ancient Greece, ghosts were called «φαντάσματα», a term that could be translated as “apparition”. Ancient Greek ghosts would reside in Hades, the kingdom of the dead and would be contacted by oracles to reveal truths about the past, present, and future – a practice known as necromancy. For example, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, was believed to have contacted the dead to find the safest way to reach his kingdom. In this story, it is revealed that the souls of the dead were blood-thirsty, having characteristics of modern vampires. Moreover, witches would often leave notes and curse tablets in newly dug graves, expecting the dead to act as messengers and deliver their requests to the chthonic deities of the underworld, such as Pan, Persephone, and Hecate.
In classical antiquity, however, the concept of “haunting” was introduced and ghosts were perceived similarly as in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The souls of the dead could walk on the world of the living and haunt them. An example of that would be the story of Athenodorus’ haunting.
Helinika has collected ghost stories from different times of Greece’s ancient history. Some of them were narrated for entertainment purposes, while others were reported by ancient historians as real events. Stay till the end because some of the stories are terrifying.
Odysseus Crosses the Veil Between the Living and the Dead
Odysseus was an ancient Greek king of the island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea. He is known as the mythical hero of the epic poem “The Odyssey”, which is attributed to the ancient Greek poet Homer. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus goes through a series of adventures to get from Troy to Ithaca. At some point, he is instructed by a witch named Circe to contact the dead and learn more about his upcoming obstacles.
Odysseus arrives at a dark, foggy, and cold place named “Cimeria”, which is estimated to be modern-day Crimea. According to the legend, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is very thin there. As soon as the Ithacan king arrived in Cimeria, he dug a hole in the ground, sacrificed animals, and poured milk and honey in the pit in order to attract the souls of the dead.
The otherwise brave and fearless Odysseus is terrified with the terrifying ghosts that appear before him. However, he manages to keep calm and finally talk to the blind prophet Teiresias, who instructs him how to reach Ithaca safely. He is also able to talk to his late mother – a tragic scene, since the hero was unaware of his mother’s death. It is important to remember that, in order to communicate with the dead, Odysseus had to offer animal blood, milk, and honey. These three things are considered to be attractors of ghosts till this day. So, if you do believe in ghosts, never mix all these ingredients together.
Macabre Tales of Ancient Greek Necromancy
Necromancy (from the Greek “νεκρός” and “μαντεία”) is a divination practice that involves some type of communication with the dead. You might be aware of modern-day mediums contacting spirits through dreams and visions or during seances and even by playing board games. Although these ways of communicating with the dead still give people the creeps, you can’t imagine how terrifying ancient methods of necromancy could get.
The less scary divination and magic practices involved inhaling hallucinogenic gases and chewing Nerium. Just like Pythia did in the oracle of Delphi when she supposedly communicated with gods and spirits. However, ancient Greek witches would often follow macabre rituals that involved digging up graves and stealing parts or entire human bodies. They would then use them to briefly bring the dead back to life and reveal secrets and truths. Sometimes, they would ask the dead man or woman to ask Hecate or another chthonic deity to curse someone. They would then burn the bodies and end their lives a second time.
A macabre story of necromancy is the one of Thelyphron in Apuleius. Thelyphron is a (fictional?) man that visits the Greek city of Larissa, where he learns that the area is infested with shape-shifting witches who try to steal the bodies of people who have recently died. The man is offered a well-paid job: to guard the body of a man the night before his burial. Thelyphron spends a night in a dark room with the dead body, holding a lantern. At some point, a bird enters the room and he tries to catch it. Within seconds, he falls into a deep sleep and awakens only when the sun is shining. Thankfully, the body he guarded was intact.
The widow thanked him and payed him for his service. When he tried to exit the house, he was greeted by an angry crowd. Friends and relatives of the diseased man were accusing the widow that she murdered her husband to live with her lover. A necromancer arrives at the scene to awaken the man. A ghost appears and enters his lifeless body.
The zombie reveals that he was indeed poisoned by his wife. He then turns his head and stares at Thelyphron, who stood there petrified. The zombie thanks his guardian for scaring away the witch who entered his room at night. However, he reveals that the witch, disguised as a bird, hypnotized Thelyphron and stole parts of his nose and ears. Thelyphron is shocked; he touches his nose, then his ear and chunks of wax fall on the ground. The witch had not only stolen his body parts, but had replaced them with wax figures. The crowd starts laughing at poor Thelyphron who runs away from Larissa.
The Real(?) Haunting of Athenodorus
Athenodorus was a philosopher and student of Posidonius of Rhodes, who eventually became the mentor of the first Roman emperor. However, he is known not only as a great thinker, but also as the witness of the first haunting ever reported. His experience has inspired countless urban legends, novels, and movies, but it has been reported as a true story.
Just like other thinkers in the 1st century AD, philosopher Athenodorus spent time studying in the city of Athens. As a broke student, he was looking for cheap houses to rent. After long research, he came across an amazing opportunity. There was a large and beautiful home offered at an extremely low price. It was a catch!
Athenodorus was warned that the house was rumored to be haunted with the spirit of a chained old man who would roam from room to room at night, dragging his chains and moaning. Not only that, but the ghost was said to have cursed the house. Whoever was brave enough to rent it would suffer from mysterious sicknesses. Rumor had it that those who stayed there for too long would eventually die from the lack of sleep and the abundance of stress and fear.
However, Athenodorus was a sceptic. He kept thinking how much money he would save while staying in a literal mansion. The philosopher rented the house and spent his first day organizing it. The house was a literal mess. And by the time the first night stars started beaming in the Athenian sky, he was able to relax in his new office room and start studying philosophy – his favorite nightly habit.
Athenodorus was concentrated on his studies when he suddenly heard heavy steps and chains rattling within his house. Could the rumors be true? Or was someone playing a prank on him? The young philosopher stayed focused on his books, refusing to look at the source of the noise. The footsteps kept coming closer and closer and he could hear a man’s heavy breathing. He eventually looked up only to see the ghostly figure of a man in chains.
Although terrified, the philosopher asked the ghost to leave his room. He needed to study. The ghost seemed impatient, he rattled his chains and seemed to be asking Athenodorus to follow him. Athenodorus finally understood what was going on and stood up. He was willing to follow the phantom wherever he wanted him to go.
The chained ghost started walking from room to room and finally exited through the backdoor. As soon as the phantom stepped on the courtyard, it vanished. The philosopher grew suspicious. Was someone murdered and buried there?
The next morning, Athenodorus visited the city officials and asked them to excavate his courtyard. He was right; a skeleton tied with heavy chains was discovered there. The bones were removed and buried according to the ancient traditions in a cemetery. No ghosts ever visited Athenodorus again. He was able to enjoy his enormous house all by himself!
Have you ever heard of any of these stories? Feel free to share any ghost stories from your countries and don’t forget to follow Helinika on social media!
Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.
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