Ghostly man standing beside the seated Athenodoros
Athenodorus and the ghost by Henry Justice Ford, c. 1900
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Athenodoros (c. 74 BCE – 7 AD) was a Stoic philosopher and the subject of the first recorded ghost story. It comes not from the philosopher himself, but from the Roman writer Pliny the Younger (61–115 AD), who claimed to have transcribed it from a surviving eye-witness account.[1] The story as recounted here is taken from the 1748 translation of Pliny’s Letters by William Melmoth.[2]

A large and spacious house in Athens had gained the reputation of being haunted. Occupants were disturbed by the sound of rattling chains and the appearance of a ghostly old man. The house was left uninhabited until the arrival of Athenodoros, who was looking for somewhere to stay during his visit to Athens. His suspicions were aroused by the cheapness of the rent, but on learning that the reason was the house’s reputation he decided to take it anyway.

The spectre made its appearance on the very first night. While Athenodoros was alone in the house, occupied with his writing, he became aware of a distant sound of rattling chains. He ignored the noise and concentrated on his work until it became so loud that he raised his head from his work, and on turning round was confronted by a ghostly apparition apparently beckoning him to follow it. The philosopher had the presence of mind to wave his hand to the spectre indicating that it should wait, and returned to his work. But the ghost impatiently began to rattle its chains above his head, so Athenodoros picked up his lamp and followed the spirit. It led him to a spot in the courtyard, where it suddenly vanished.

Athenodoros marked the spot where the ghost had disappeared with a handful of grass and leaves, and the next morning asked the magistrate to have the spot excavated. There they found the long-dead remains of a man tangled in chains. What was left of the body was removed and given a proper burial, and the ghost was never seen or heard again.

Themes


The idea that ghosts are the spirits of restless souls whose bodies have not received a proper burial, or who died by murder or suicide, is shared by many cultures. Until such wrongs are righted, such spirits are unable to take their place in the afterlife. But once the body has received a proper burial, or its message has been received and acted upon it is never seen again, as is the case with Athenodoros’ ghost.[3]

Pliny’s detail of the clanking chains became a staple of ghost fiction, perhaps reaching its zenith with the ghost of the miser Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, commonly known as A Christmas Carol, is a novella by Charles Dickens, first published in London by Chapman & Hall in 1843 and illustrated by John Leech. .[1]

Citations



Bibliography


Pliny the Younger. (1748). The Letters of Pliny the Consul. (W. Melmoth, Trans.) (Vol. 2). R. Dodsley.
Strom-Mackey, R. M. (2017). Anatomy of a Ghost. Cosmic Pantheon Press.