A Book Report on D. Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome

Ghostology 101aThis post might as easily go with those I categorize as “Unearthing the Unearthly: My Literary Digging.” It also has implications for the Spectral Edition clippings I post each Wednesday. This is because D. Felton’s enlightening book Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity (University of Texas Press, 1999) is as much about ghosts in literature as it is about actual historical records of ghosts. And it will appeal to readers interested in either.

Felton explores what we can discern about ghost-lore in ancient Greece and Rome based on the few writings that are available. She approaches the subject as both a classicist and a folklorist. After explaining that folklore is generally understood as spanning the genres of fable, legend, and myth, Felton concludes that “Greek and Roman ghost stories, particularly as transmitters of folk-belief, generally fit into the category of legends.” (My Spectral Edition articles seem to fit best here, too — if one can include journalism as a form of folklore.)

haunted-greece-and-rome1Felton does an especially nice job of grouping and defining common kinds of ghosts: revenants, crisis apparitions, poltergeists (something rare in ancient Greece and Rome), and continual apparitions (which were and remain the most frequently reported). These first few chapters might have value to almost anyone wanting to learn the basic vocabulary of “ghostology.”

There is then a chapter on haunted houses, again valuable to those interested in the history of the phenomenon. The legalities attached to haunted houses — e.g., is a renter justified in breaking the lease if a property is found to be infested with phantoms? — is an issue that I’ve found frequently in ghost fiction of the 1800s and in those Spectral Edition ghost reports. Reviewing recent laws found across the United States, Felton posits that “legal issues involving haunted houses were as debatable in antiquity as they are today.”

Unearthing the UnearthlyThe book next shifts to very close readings of three of the most prominent Classical writers who dealt with ghosts. Plautus’s comedy Mostellaria involves a scene in which a devoted slave tries to scare off his wayward master’s superstitious father by convincing him the house is haunted. The muddled mess that the slave improvises when explaining the haunting is comedic only if one knows how it departs from what must have been its original audience’s beliefs about such hauntings. Personally, I found this chapter the least interesting, but only because I would have preferred a more direct route to those beliefs — or something closer to an undiluted ghost story. Otherwise, the literary analysis is impressive.

Pliny’s Letters comes next, and here my fascination quickly returned. After all, Pliny’s presumably non-fiction tale about Athenodorus investigating a haunted house in Athens is perhaps the earliest piece of occult detective/ghost hunter literature around. It was nice to read a thorough translation of that tale along with Felton’s commentary on it. At this point, readers interested in fictional ghost stories might have more to gain from the book. As Felton declares in her final chapter,

Various modern ghost stories, both humorous and serious, ultimately owe many of their elements to the ancient tales, particularly Pliny’s narrative of the haunted house at Athens.

That final chapter is all about such influence, but before it, Felton looks at two more ghost stories that appear in the writings of Lucian. These are satirical pieces, designed to debunk, but Lucien’s twist on Pliny’s ghost hunter importantly introduces an “occult detective” using arcane texts to do battle with an evil supernatural entity, a template that will come to dominate occult detective fiction by the end of the nineteenth century. That chapter is well worth reading, in other words, to explore the roots of works such as Dracula or Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.

Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome is certainly recommended reading, and it’s written in a language that’s largely accessible to non-academic readers. Felton’s emphasis is on ancient Greek and Roman texts, but she goes well beyond that. Indeed, the book’s relevance reaches to the history of ghosts, ghost fiction, and occult detective fiction.

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