Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

World Fantasy Con: The Pre-Christian Ghost


The Pre-Christian Ghost
Ghostly fiction and apparitions before the European Middle Ages. A starting point for this might be L. Collison-Morley's Greek and Roman Ghost Stories. How were the ghosts of the ancients different from the more familiar ones? For one thing, they certainly didn't wear trailing white shrouds, which are a product of the Industrial Revolution. For another, they were more readily attracted by blood sacrifices . . .
Gene Wolfe, David Drake, Diana Paxon, Noreen Doyle (m), Joel Ross

This, like the taboo panel (on which discussion has been very lively), was packed.

(Oh, and as I get further into panel reports, I do less in the way of putting in pronouns and such, for the sake of my time and hands. Feel free to ask if things remain too compressed. Unfortunately I didn't go over this one while it was still really fresh, so I have some more gaps and uncertainties. Anyone who can clarify, please do.)

Doyle: studies Ancient Egyptian watercraft. The funerary boats in paintings did exist, they've been excavated: carried mummies from one side of the Nile to the other, and also were used on netherworldly pilgrimages (possibly only symbolic ones). The Khufu boats that were excavated near the Great Pyramid & reconstructed: there is a theory that they were buried because they were too magically charged after ferrying the king's body to be reused.

Were Ancient Egyptian ghosts mostly concerned with their own burial? In a way. There are stories that if something happens to a tomb, a ghost asks someone to take care of it. [Another story, in which someone offers to take care of a tomb and leave offerings, and a ghost says, "no, what good is that going to do?" But I can't remember what circumstances led the ghost to say that.]

Drake: Roman ghosts? Realized when thinking about this panel: Romans were not really very interested in ghosts! The Greeks also: there's lots of literature, and not much in the way of ghost stories, so he hadn't thought about it until he saw the panel topic.

There are famous examples of dealing with the dead (Odysseus, raising ghosts with his blood in the netherworld to speak with them—but those are spirits in the land of the dead), but not much in the way of hauntings. Ghost stories tend to be told by somebody at a dinner party. The very famous example is the basis for Sorcerer's Apprentice (the Disney version is almost exactly like the original!), which was told by literate men as silly stories about ignorant people.

Paxson: Norse ghosts? Like the Egyptians, Germanic peoples believed that souls had several parts; you could simultaneously hang out with your deity, hang out at the family land (and if people made offerings to you, then become a demi-god), and reincarnate!

Especially Icelandic sagas, which were like novels, and so requirements of the form may make some kinds of scenes more likely: a good supernatural ghost story always jazzes up the narrative. Also you had long dark winters, and strong characters: so when a violent man died, take precautions: cover his face so he couldn't fix his dead gaze on anyone, or brick up corpses so they couldn't find their way back home. They were very often buried with treasure—leading to robbery attempts, and then the dweller could wake up and fight for the stuff. Really strong characters could come out and walk if they disapproved of changes in the neighborhood; so there are stories about wrestling with the dead, cutting off their heads, and burning their bodies. If the dead were coming out of sea: put excrement on roads because they didn't like to touch that.

Ross: can't top any of these! [Unfortunately I tended to miss a lot of his words and they always seemed to be important ones. There was something about rusalkas trapping men, and something about Africa and spiders.]

Wolfe: keep in mind that societies don't exist in vacuums, and no society existed in complete isolation until it was suddenly discovered by a boatload of folklorists! He's reminded of Vikings who came to Greenland and then the weather got cold, so either died out or moved south; and East Coast American Indians tended to be tall & light-skinned. [Anyone able to comment on this?] So: crossovers, holdovers?

Doyle: (I think according to a book on ancient Israelite religion): the Old Testament contains proscriptions on necromancy, which is attributed to the Canaanites, but it actually came from Mesopotamia. [There's a reference to Egypt here, but I can't tell which category.]

There are parallels in early Greek beliefs & terminology. She doesn't buy the black Athena theory (Wikipedia), but that doesn't mean there weren't Bronze/Early Iron Age influences: there are similar Greek-Egyptian words, and the Elysian Fields and Egyptian afterlife have similarities: field of reeds, of [something I phonetically transcribed as "i-a-ru," which I have no idea about now].

Wolfe: must remember always that Moses was raised and educated as an upper-class Egyptian; forget that and lose a key insight into ancient Jews, early Christians.

Doyle: the early Christian heaven & hell have a great resemblance to the Egyptian, more than the Greek.

Drake: it's really important to remember that Greek mercenaries went all over and were very definitely in Egypt during the 2nd-1st millennium BC [not sure about those times]. And it's pretty sure that the Philistines were Greek. So there's a clear path of two-way influences. [I have here "reference in Odyssey", but I don't know what it was.]

Something that struck him as odd is that we don't know a lot about the Etruscans: only a little of their language, and no literature. But they had more of concern with the afterlife, with more elaborate tombs—yet there's no carryover to speak of between them & Romans, Greeks who were in constant, direct contact. Etruscan magic did survive in a certain amount, and they were hired into the 1st century AD as magicians, but without influencing upper-class Greek & Roman thought.

Wolfe: in addition to Greek mercenaries, there was a long-standing tradition of enlisting Nubian mercenaries in Egypt whenever they were not at war with each other (at one point the Nubians conquered Egypt, resulting in a whole dynasty of black Pharaohs). We don't understand their language, but we can be certain that they took a lot from Egypt, because they wrote in their own language plus hieroglyphics (we can transliterate but not translate). Also many Nubians married & settled in Egypt.

Paxson: Vikings conquered Moscow! [I think: and they had guards from Byzantium]. They certainly picked up ideas. The Younger Edda, there's a question about how much the afterlife was inspired by Christianity.

[I think I'm missing some connective tissue here, but:] In a standard pattern of oppression, the Vikings started projecting weird magical powers on the native Finns and Sama.

The importance of ancestors: the dividing line between ancestral spirits & deities isn't, it's a continuum, really (offerings, mentioned previously). Also ancestors could go into the Wild Hunt in all in the Germanic countries. (In England the Hunt was assimilated into other beliefs, Herne and such.)

Drake was asked: what about all those Roman ancestor masks? Drake: they were for fancy Roman funerals. There would be wax death masks hanging in the reception hall, and actors would wear the masks in processions, to sit at orations, etc.; it was not viewed as ghosts or spirits, but conspicuous consumption. (Admittedly people may be interpreting the data with their own prejudices.)

Doyle: parallel: in the New Kingdom, there were ancestor busts in the front part of the house, where people would honor their dead ancestors and ask for favors. All the dead were thought to join in fancy religious processions, and also the feasting afterwards.

Wolfe: it would be interesting to know what early generations of Romans thought; he suspects that Drake's describing a later period where a lot of belief had been.

Drake: penates almost certainly started out as ancestors, and survived from a very early period.

Audience member: almost every point brought up here has a parallel in The Tale of Genji! So wanted to throw that into the pile as well.

Wolfe: is this something innately human in pattern? Is there some reality behind this that tends to shape customs of every place in the same direction?

Ross: the roc of the Syrians, Babylonians ==> gargoyles of the Gauls and Greece.

Drake: weren't they generally sphinxes in Greece?

Audience member: gargoyles in Greece go back to the Orientalizing period, so predate the conquest of Persia. [something about trade & Phoenicia that I don't have the history to contextualize.]

Ross: are ghosts & angels the same to ancient people? did Jacob wrestle with a ghost?

Audience member: umm, they're different words in Hebrew.

Doyle: there were Hebrew necromancers: the dead were described as birds, and ghost noises as "twittering & chirping".

Paxson: in the Odyssey too.

Doyle: yes, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Audience member: what about the Benu bird?

Doyle: that's the soul of Re, and not connected with the dead.

Audience member: for Roman ghosts, look in the theater? Thinks the Greek chorus had some ghosts.

Drake: don't remember; Good thought, but didn't look.

Audience member: The Frogs, Aristophanes.

Drake: that's fair, though he's not sure he would cite Aristophanes as an example of religious belief.

Same audience member: that's a second point, that ghost aren't necessarily a religious belief, but can show up in literature.

Drake: yes, and there's not to my knowledge any significant extensive ghost stories in Greek & Roman literature.

Wolfe: his favorite is the White Isle. A merchant discovers an unknown island, which looks all white. On the beach he discovers the ghost of Achilles, living with some famous woman who he forgets. They're served by unseen hands, and the merchant is royally entertained and loaded with gifts. Achilles: do me a small service? There's a specific slave girl in a market, who is the last living descendant of Agammenon. Bring her here and leave her on the beach? Merchant: sure! He does; and as the ship is leaving, he hears screams, and looks back to see Achilles tearing her from limb-from-limb on the beach.

Drake: that's a great story but it's from the 4th century AD.

Audience member, to Ross: tell us about banshees! [This must be one of the things I missed in his introduction.]

Ross: Okay! There are two ways to defeat:

1) find one by water, washing her shroud: get between her & the water;

2) sneak up & suckle at her breast until she thinks you're a foster child, & then she'll grant you wishes.

And then we were out of time.

Tags: cons, world fantasy con

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