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date: 27 January 2023



  • Esther Eidinow


  • Greek Literature
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Latin Literature
  • Roman Myth and Religion

Identifying a ghost in Greek literature and distinguishing it from what we might call a delusion or a supernatural entity can sometimes pose difficulties: Homer tends to use the term psyche to describe his spirits, but we also find skia. In later writers, eidolon is used (Hdt. 5.92.η‎ and Pl. Leg. 959b of the corpse), which can also mean a phantom of the mind, or even just a likeness. Later still, daimōn, alone, or combined with other words to evoke particular forms of demon (see below) appears. Other terms (which will appear throughout the entry) evoked the particular ways in which individuals died and became ghosts. This entry will focus on appearances in the mortal realm of spirits connected to a death, indicating where there are any ambiguities of spectral terminology. As the move from psyche to daimōn might suggest, there seems to be a gradual development in the strength, substance and presence of ghosts in the ancient world; while living mortals seem, in turn, to find increasingly sophisticated ways to manipulate their spectral visitors and their needs for their own ends.

The first ghost story could be said to appear in Book 11 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus makes his way to the edge of the underworld (‘where the River Acheron meets the River Styx’) and summons the dead, so that he may seek the advice of the dead prophet Tiresias. The dead arrive in droves, and are clearly fearsome: we are told that Odysseus goes pale with fear, and that he keeps the ravenous ghostly hordes from consuming the blood of the sacrifice he has made by wielding his silver-studded bronze sword. On the other hand, in many ways, this account is the opposite of a ghost story as we now understand it: it involves a mortal going to the realm of the dead. The spirits described are insubstantial (Od. 11.204–8; see also 10. 495); until they drink the blood of Odysseus’ sacrifice, their faculties are impaired (Od. 11.98–99). Odysseus’ own mother at first does not recognize him, and, apart from Elpenor, a companion of Odysseus who died falling off a roof, and comes to ask for burial, they find it hard to speak (elsewhere, they squeak, Il. 23.101 and Od. 24.5. and 9). Indeed, across the Iliad and Odyssey, Homeric spectres seem more or less safely sequestered from mortal experience (Odysseus’ mother emphasizes how difficult it is to cross from the realm of the living to that of the dead, Od. 11.155–59). If the dead must visit mortals, they may appear to them in their dreams—as the spirit of Patroclus appears to Achilles in the Iliad (23.65 ff.). In general, ghosts seem powerless and ineffectual.

Nevertheless, the story includes ideas about ghosts that persisted: e.g. other sources mention similar methods of keeping ghosts at bay (for the idea that they fear certain metals, see Ps-Quint. Decl. 10, as well as stories about the binding of ghosts, e.g., Paus. 9.38.5, although Lucian, Philops. 15, suggests it is the sound that disturbs them). Later sources, especially binding curses, also indicate similar ideas about what made ghosts wander in the first place. In Homer, both Elpenor and Patroclus seek a proper burial; the latter describes how Achilles must bury him so that he may pass ‘beyond the River’—without proper interment, we learn, he is doomed to wander through the house of Hades (Il. 23.73–74). This desire for proper burial remains a continuing motivation for ghostly manifestations. Similarly, the first hints of the desires and needs that motivate a haunting appear in this earliest ghost story, in the description of the spirits that arrive in response to Odysseus’ ritual. This crowd includes brides, unmarried youths, old men who had endured much, maidens still merry, new to sorrow, and warriors killed in battle. This gives us some idea of the kinds of fatal experiences that might provoke anger or restlessness and produce a ghost. Some of these have died violently; others have perished before they have achieved their telos, that is, their life's goal.

How this anger might manifest itself varied: not only was there the ghost itself, but some sources seem to suggest a link between ghostly anger and pollution—and thus with catastrophic events like plague or episodes of madness. For example, although some accounts of the Spartan general Pausanias (1)'s death and its aftermath seem to have included mention of a ghost (see below), others do not, indicating instead that Pausanias’ manner of death itself caused a state of pollution (Thuc. 1.134). The relation between haunting and pollution may lie behind the story that Athens summons Epimenides from Knossos after the sacrilegious murder of the Cylonians around 630 bce in order to resolve a plague that was caused by pollution (FGrH 475, Diog. Laert. 1.109–112). Meanwhile, explanations for madness that depend on the idea of blood-guilt are given by characters in 5th-cent. Greek drama (see Eur. HF 965–67, Hipp.142); by Plato (1) (Leg. 865d5–e6); and as part of medical explanations (Morb. Sacr. 4.30–33).

The usual first step to take in response to the presence of ghosts or manifestations of supernatural anger was to consult the Delphic oracle. Different approaches might then follow: in the various accounts given of Pausanias’ death and its aftermath, for example, we find the propitiation and drawing away of a ghost (Plut. de ser. 560 f); the erection of bronze statues (Thucydides (2) and the Suda s.v. ‘Pausanias’ [to resolve pollution], Paus. 3.17.7 and Diod. (3) Sic. 11.45 [to propitiate the goddess], Aristodem. FGrH 104 F 8 [to propitiate the spirits of Pausanias]) as well as the hiring of psychagogoi. These were specialists (literally, ‘spirit-raisers’) who appear to have made a living not simply summoning spirits, but raising them in order to help them to rest in peace. The Suda (s.v. psychogogias) provides a description of how they might work under its entry for the related practise of goeteia—it involves sacrifice to summon the ghost, and then a conversation to find out why it is angry. The stories relating to Pausanias alone suggest that psychagogoi might be summoned from distant communities: we find psychagogoi summoned from Italy (Plut. De Sera. 560 f), and Thessaly (scholium to Eur. Alc., 1127–8, with Plut. Homeric Studies 12b Sandbach) to lay Pausanias’ ghost, while Pausanias himself in one account consults Arcadian psychagogoi to lay the ghost of Kleonike, a young woman he has inadvertently murdered (Paus. 3.17.9).

Still in terms of laying the ghost: it was also possible to learn what a ghost wanted by visiting a nekuomanteion or ‘oracle of the dead’: in some accounts, Pausanias went to the oracle of the dead at Heraclea (3) Pontica, in order to speak with Kleonike (Plut. Cimon 6 and 555c). There is also evidence for remedies closer to home: an inscription from the city of Cyrene (SEG De Sera 9 72, LSS115) may provide instruction about how to lay a ghostly visitant—the account involves the creation of kolossoi, little figures, which recall the statues created to lay the ghost of Pausanias; similarly, the Lex Sacra from Selinous (see Jameson, Jordan and Kotansky) appears to give instructions about how to lay various forms of ghost, and how relationships between living and dead may cause mutual suffering. Meanwhile, the festival of Genesia at Athens appears to have been intended to avert, appease or control the dead; while the festival of the Anthesteria, Choes, also had associations with the dead (according to Photius s.v. μιαρὰ ἡμέρα‎, the dead were supposed to come up on that day and, a Greek proverb may imply, were chased away at sunset on the third day); there were probably similar festivals in other communities (see Parker, Polytheism).

Alternatively, you might try to use such ghosts in aggressive magical spells. This was another practice of pyschagogia, according to Plato (Leg. 909a–d). In binding spells that invoke the dead, we find ‘those who died before marriage: and the untimely dead’ and ‘youths and maidens’ (DT 52; SGD 45, 271, DT 22 and 25). In the Greek Magical Papyri, spells address those who are either dead by violence (biaiothanatoi), ‘unburied’ or not properly attended to in death (ataphoi or atelestoi), or ‘untimely dead’ (aoroi); we also find those who are unmarried (PGM IV. 296–466). Sometimes, the identity of a particular dead person is given; one example also features a drawing of the corpse it addresses (Suppl. Mag. 1, no. 37 [SGD 158–159] the corpse's name is Horion, son of Sarapous). Pre-Imperial curses tend to invoke the dead as witnesses, and emphasize their weakness (e.g. DT 43 and 44). Later spells, especially those from Egypt, clearly imagine them as more substantial in appearance, activity, and power. They are addressed as, or alongside, daimōnes (whether or not these are the same entities is hard to tell); sometimes a particular nekudaimōn (‘corpse-daimōn’) is instructed to carry out the spell (e.g., Suppl. Mag. 1, nos. 46–51 [all erotic charms], Suppl. Mag. 2, no. 57. [SGD 162] a curse). These developments may indicate influence from Egyptian temple ritual, in which ghosts were sent ‘letters’ with instructions.

A blossoming interest in ghosts may be indicated by the plethora of spectral appearances in 5th-cent. Greek drama: famous examples include the ghost of Darius I, raised in AeschylusPersai, the ghost of Clytemnestra in the Eumenides, Polydorus in Euripides’ Hecuba. Meanwhile Aeschylus wrote a play called the Psychagogoi, now lost, to which Aristophanes (1) playfully alludes in the Birds (1553 ff.). On the stage, the dead tend to provide two key plot devices: as well as pursuing those who have killed them, they provide information. Thus, Darius foretells the fate of Xerxes; Polydorus tells of his sister Polyxena's death. This secret knowledge reflects elements found in other stories, e.g. the Corinthian tyrant Periander in Herodotus (1) (Hdt. 5.92) raises the ghost of his dead wife in order to ask her to locate some hidden wealth (she will not answer his questions until he provides her with appropriate costume so that she can rest in peace). As our sources for magical activities become more plentiful they appear to indicate an increasing interest in divination using the souls of boys (e.g., PGM VII.348–58), and we find enemies accuse each other of sacrificing boys for this purpose (Philostr., VA 7.11; Cic., In Vatinium 6.14).

Within Roman culture, something of the same ambiguity of language appears: umbra is poetic and close to Greek skia, meaning shadow; idolum (which appears to be a transliteration of the Greek eidolon), imago, and simulacrum all suggest likenesses. Manes may refer to deified souls or the gods of the infernal realm; indeed, the Di Manes encompass the benign Lares (household protectors) and the more malevolent larvae, restless spirits, debarred from a home because of the transgressions committed while alive; (see Apuleius, De deo Soc.15). Lemures were another flavour of less benign ghost: at the festival of ‘Lemuria’, held in May, the Romans appeased the ghosts of the departed who were thought to return home, hence the festival was held at home (Ov. Fast. 5.451-80); in contrast, the festival of Feralia or Parentalia (Ov. Fast. 2.533 ff.) took place at the graveside. The motivations that animated earlier ghosts persist: thus, Suetonius describes how Nero claimed to be haunted by the ghost of his mother whom he had murdered (Ner. 34); while Tertullian (De Anima 56–57) draws on Greek sources to give a detailed description of the different categories of restless dead. Meanwhile, whether or not they are the result of magical attack, we also find increasing stories of people, as well as houses or places, being possessed, and resulting exorcisms; however, as above, it is not always clear whether the demons in these stories are ghosts or not.

Apparently, ancient Greek mothers told their children ghost stories, drawing on the vast body of myth (Pl., Resp. 2.381e), although we do not have specific examples. But ghost stories can still be traced (e.g. the story of the Hero at Temesa [Paus. 6.6. 7–11 and Strabo 6.1.5]). It may be that we see their legacy in the stories that appear throughout later literature: e.g. the traditional haunted house story, in which a brave man confronts a violent ghost and lays it to rest following the discovery and proper burial of its corpse, emerges in the early Roman period, (Plaut. Mostell. 446–531, Plin. Ep. 7.27.5–11, and Lucian Philops. 30 ff.). The ghost stories of later Greek and Roman literature give us a more detailed account of the activities of ghosts and their appearance: thus, in Apuleius (Met. 9.29–31) a resentful ghost is sent to commit a vengeful murder; this spectre, like many of these later ghosts, enjoys a lurid appearance (yellow and emaciated), and provides perhaps a precursor of modern apparitions.


  • R. Hickman, Ghostly Etiquette on the Classical Stage (1938).
  • S. Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (1999).
  • D. Felton, Haunted Greece and Rome (1999).
  • D. Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2002).