It’s the Halloween season, a time when we celebrate the macabre with decorations. And apparently humans have been doing so for way longer than we realized. A leading expert on Ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets has identified the first known drawing of a ghost in human history. And this spooky specter’s scary story is a timeless tale of horror and woe.
The Guardian reports (in a story we first heard about at Boing Boing) on the findings of Dr. Irving Finkel. He works as a curator in the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department. He’s obviously very good at his job, because Dr. Finkel discovered a previously misidentified tablet in the museum’s collection. It dates back roughly 3,500 years ago to Ancient Babylon. It has never even been on display, despite being at the museum since the 19th century. The tiny fragment was mostly forgotten and ignored.
But everyone is paying attention to its story now.
It’s a haunted house tale of unfinished business—a story that has been more than worth the wait. When seen under the right light, this hand-sized tablet shows faint images. You can see the outline of a bearded man. His hands are bound by rope as a woman pulls him forward. The drawing of the sad man doesn’t appear inherently ghostly. (Though it is unsettling.) Without the text on the back it might seem as though the woman is dragging a slave. But thanks to the tablet’s instructions it’s clear this is a ghost tied up. Because the tablet is a guide on how to rid your home of a specter. From The Guardian:
“It is part of an exorcist’s guide to getting rid of unwanted ghosts by addressing the particular malaise that brought them back to the world of the living – in this case, a ghost in desperate need of a companion. He is shown walking with his arms outstretched, his wrists tied by a rope held by the female, while an accompanying text details a ritual that would dispatch them happily to the underworld.”
The tablet includes instructions on how to get rid of any ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.” The actual process involves making and dressing up male and female figurines and setting them up in a romantic little environment facing sunrise with plenty of beer nearby. Then saying a prayer to an Ancient Babylonian god.
(Yup. This really does suggest getting rid of any horny ghosts by giving them companionship. Guess we all owe Dan Aykroyd an apology for all those Ghostbusters jokes.)
And just like Lot and his wife in the Bible, and Orpheus and Eurydice in Ancient Greek mythology, there’s one very dire warning for anyone dealing with ghosts. “Do not look behind you,” the tablet says.
Ghost drawings have been around a lot longer than we thought. But ghost stories are still just as timeless as ever.