Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999) 148 pp., $25.00 (hardcover), $12.95 (paper)
Only a few ghost stories—those chilling, thrilling or even comic tales of the dead roaming amongst the living—have survived from ancient Greece and Rome, and D. Felton’s Haunted Greece and Rome provides a lively treatment of some of the best-known and most complete. Felton draws on both modern folklore analysis and classical philology to discuss works by the second-century A.D. Greek satirist Lucian, the third-century B.C. Roman playwright Plautus and the Roman statesman and essayist Pliny the Younger (61–112 A.D.).
Felton begins by examining the different types and categories of classical ghosts and the contexts in which they appear. One of the strengths of this survey is its emphasis on the different sensory impressions involved in a haunting—not merely sights but sounds, smells and other phenomena. She also draws distinctions among different types of ghost stories, separating tales concerned with the spirits of the dead from those involving poltergeists and other daimonic spirits (although she admits that the ancients did not make the same distinctions).
Unfortunately, Felton’s survey lacks a convincing analysis of the underlying logic behind these categories, leaving the reader with a catalogue of scattered types. She fails to consider fully enough how the form and substance of an apparition is shaped by the function and context of its death and reappearance in the narrative.
Felton’s problem with the underlying logic of supernatural categories is particularly troublesome in her treatment of the relationship between classical ghost stories and ancient religious beliefs. Felton briefly lists some of the major festivals of the dead and religious customs involved with caring for the dead in Greece and Rome, but she fails to link the ideas behind these religious practices with the ideas governing the appearance of ghosts in the stories she is treating. Greek and Roman religion revolved around a network of reciprocal relationships, not only between gods and mortals but also between mortals themselves, both living and dead. These relationships imposed specific obligations on everyone in the society—parent and child, guest and host, ancestor and descendant; the Latin verb parentare, for example, means not only to care for one’s parents but also to provide proper offerings for all of one’s dead relatives. The restless dead’s demand for burial or revenge can be seen as part of the same network of reciprocal obligations that produced ancient festivals and sacrifices for the dead.
Since these networks of relations are fundamental parts of Greek and Roman societies, a narrator can make use of these traditional ideas in any kind of story, from the comic to the horrific, relying on the audience’s understanding of these traditions to make the point. Felton might have enhanced her analysis of traditional motifs in ancient ghost stories by considering how such traditional 057religious beliefs were deployed by the authors she examines. She does provide a brief and readable overview of the different classical conceptions of the supernatural, but readers interested in a serious understanding of the supernatural world of ancient Greece and Rome will do better with Sarah Iles Johnston’s recent treatment in The Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and Dead in Ancient Greece (Univ. of California, 1999).
When Felton turns from categorical definitions to an analysis of individual ghost stories, however, she shows the advantages of her folkloric approach for the understanding of specific literary texts and proves herself to be a careful and clever reader of these stories. Felton chooses three texts from the Roman period that relate a similar story of a haunted house and shows the nuances of the story that an analysis of the narrative can bring out. These stories follow the same basic pattern:
“At some time before the setting of the story, a guest has been killed and buried on the grounds. Since the murder, the spirit of the deceased walks at night until a courageous man comes along, who resolves to find the cause of the haunting. He follows the ghost and marks the spot where the remains are presumably buried, and, after a proper burial of the bones, tranquility returns to the house.“
Rather than trying to trace the specific historical and literary influences on each of the stories, Felton shows how all three tales spring from a common oral tradition and share certain basic motifs. She points out, for example, that the hero in these ancient haunted-house tales is frequently highly educated—a philosopher or scholar rather than a superstitious peasant or laborer. Having such a skeptical, rational protagonist enhances the credibility of the stories, since the central character is not the sort to take fright at mere shadows. As Felton points out, the educated protagonist has remained an important feature of ghost stories from classical times to the present—appearing most famously, perhaps, in Hamlet, where the guards, confronted with the ghost 058of Hamlet’s father, urge their companion: “Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.”
Felton puts her observations to good use in her analyses of the individual tales. In her discussion of Pliny’s The Haunted House of Athens, she clearly shows how the author draws on familiar narrative motifs from oral tradition to help create suspense. Pliny’s skeptical, well-educated protagonist, the philosopher Athenodorus, calmly braves clanking chains and a terrifying phantom to rid a haunted house of the spirit of an improperly buried man. The satirists Plautus and Lucian, on the other hand, seek to subvert and parody such traditional elements for comic effect. In Plautus’s play Mostelleria, the clever slave Tranio uses the familiar elements of the haunted-house story to concoct a tale to frighten his stupid master, Theopropides, away from his house. Felton shows how the discrepancies in Tranio’s tale are set up by Plautus to show Tranio’s spur-of-the-moment invention of the tale. Theopropides, a comic opposite of the traditional educated protagonist, is too stupid to catch the contradictions in the story, but the audience can see the gaps and laugh at both Theopropides and Tranio. On the other hand, Lucian’s dialogue Philopseudes shows the self-important philosopher Arignotus exaggerating the prowess of both the dangerous ghost and himself as the traditional educated protagonist. Felton’s folkloric approach allows her to avoid the tedious questions of specific literary influences and to focus on the significance of the details that appear in the story.
Felton does an excellent job exposing the author’s manipulation of the traditional material to create effects, comic or suspenseful, upon his audience. She avoids speculative reconstructions of the massive gaps in the source material by focusing on the oral tradition that underlies all three of these texts. While a deeper understanding of the religious ideas in the tradition would enrich her analysis, her subtle interpretations enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the ghost stories she analyzes.
Felton concludes her analysis of ancient ghost stories by tracing some of the continuities between the classical ghost stories and their modern descendants. The treatment of such a large topic is necessarily brief and serves primarily to whet the reader’s appetite for ghost stories by such modern authors as M.R. James and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, Felton’s whole book makes one want to read more ghost stories, to find and enjoy other examples of the old, familiar motifs she details so well in the Roman texts. Haunted Greece and Rome serves up fine preparations of some great classical ghost stories, leaving the reader with a taste for more.
The Kingdom of Kush
Derek A. Welsby
(Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998) 240 pp., $44.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (paper)
Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser
(Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998) 145 pp., $9.95
David W. Phillipson
(London: British Museum Press, 1998) 176 pp., $32.32
When people think of an ancient African civilization, Egypt usually comes to mind. That reaction is understandable. Even the ancients were fascinated by Egypt’s great dynasties, her towering monuments and her immensely long history that reached back into the mists of time.
This enthusiasm for pharaohs and pyramids, however, has obscured the fact that Egypt shared ancient northeast Africa with two other civilizations: Kush (also known as Nubia) and Aksum (an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea). The recovery of these civilizations has been one of the great triumphs of 20th-century archaeology.
Traditionally, the southern boundary of Upper Egypt was Elephantine, an island in the Nile about 450 miles south of Cairo. South of Elephantine, along the Nile Valley extending well into modern Sudan, lay Kush/Nubia, a region that was dominated by several states from the third millennium B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The Kushite kingdoms were the earliest civilized states in the interior of Africa. Few in the West knew anything about them until 1772, when the great Scottish explorer James Bruce identified the remains of Meroe, the last of the Kushite capitals. Soon some of the greatest archaeologists and Egyptologists were attracted to the region, including the German scholar Karl Richard Lepsius in the 1840s and the American archaeologist George Reisner in the early 20th century. Then, in the 1960s, Kush received worldwide attention; a dam built near Elephantine at Aswan flooded a southern stretch of the Nile and created Lake Nasser. As the waters rose, about 100,000 people had to be relocated, and the United Nations organized the largest archaeological salvage campaign in history—recovering numerous ancient Kushite monuments and even removing entire temples, block by block, to safer ground.
The scholarly literature on Kush is immense, but until now the general reader has had no access to convenient and up-to-date summaries of the archaeology and history of this ancient civilization. Derek Welsby’s The Kingdom of Kush and Jocelyn Gohary’s Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser, therefore, deserve a warm welcome.
Although Kushite civilization dates back to the early third millennium B.C., its heyday came from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. This was a remarkable millennium: A dynasty of local chieftains from central Sudan built an empire, Egypt’s 25th Dynasty (c. 750–664 B.C.), that briefly encompassed the entire Nile valley from the central Sudan to the Mediterranean. The Kushite kings were driven from Egypt by invading Assyrians in the mid-seventh century B.C. But the kingdom persisted in the south; Kush’s rulers not only preserved their independence in the face of Persian, Greek and Roman attacks, but they also presided over the development of a civilization that creatively synthesized African, Egyptian and Greek influences.
Derek Welsby, who oversees the Sudanese collections of the British Museum and has excavated extensively in the Sudan, tells this epic story with clarity and enthusiasm. He highlights the contributions of the Kushite/Nubian 25th Dynasty, particularly its fusion of Egyptian and Kushite religious beliefs and the development of distinctively Kushite architecture and artistic styles. The Kushite pharaohs Piye (747–716 B.C.) and his brother Shabaqo (716–702 B.C.), for example, built or renovated numerous temples, both in Kush and in the sacred Egyptian cities of Memphis and Thebes. On a large basalt slab (now in the British Museum), Shabaqo inscribed a text describing the Memphite god Ptah’s creation of the world—a text Shabaqo claimed to have copied from an ancient religious document he found at Memphis. Perhaps the greatest Kushite pharaoh, Taharqo (690–664 B.C.), who is mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), encouraged his artists to model their work on the masters of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2134 B.C.) and Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 B.C.).
Most of the surviving Kushite monuments, however, come from a later historical phase, about 330 B.C. to 350 A.D., when Meroe (in the Sudan, about 200 miles north of Khartoum) served as the kingdom’s capital. The only failing of The Kingdom of Kush is that Welsby gives the Meroitic period—when Kush was smaller than it was during the 25th Dynasty, but nonetheless a substantial kingdom—somewhat short shrift. But this flaw is more than compensated for by Welsby’s vivid, up-to-date and highly readable account of the history, social institutions and cultural life of the oldest civilized state in sub-Saharan Africa. If you have to pick one book, make it The Kingdom of Kush.
Although the heartland of Kushite civilization lay in the central Sudan, most tourists are limited to four archaeological parks on the shores of Lake Nasser, where the principal temples of Kush/Nubia were relocated after the building of the Aswan Dam. Jocelyn Gohary’s excellent guidebook, with its numerous plans and photographs and its lucid descriptions of the monuments, will enrich any visit to these remarkable sites. As a bonus, Gohary has included accounts of the four Nubian temples that were transplanted to new homes in Europe and the United States. The interested tourist or student now has a handy and comprehensive survey of one of the largest and most diverse surviving groups of temples to be found anywhere in Egypt.
Ancient Kush’s chief non-Egyptian rival was the kingdom of Aksum, which lay to the east in the area now comprising northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. With his new book, Ancient Ethiopia, David W. Phillipson, the dean of British prehistorians of Africa and director of the current excavations at Aksum, has written a much-needed history of that remarkable kingdom, the first Christian state in Africa.
Aksumite civilization began in the early first millennium B.C., as peoples from South Arabia crossed the Red Sea and settled in northeastern Ethiopia. Not until the third century A.D., however, did Aksum’s kings transform their state into a major power—an empire that extended from the Nile Valley to southern Arabia. The third-century A.D. Persian writer Mani classed Aksum among the world’s four greatest kingdoms. Aksumite civilization flourished until the seventh century, when the expansion of Islam cut the kingdom’s contact with the Mediterranean world and transformed Aksum into an isolated, and embattled, regional power. Although the monuments of Aksumite imperial grandeur, like the great stelae and monumental tombs in the city of Aksum, have fascinated European travelers since the Renaissance, the archaeology of ancient Ethiopia is still in its infancy.
In the early 20th century, a German expedition, directed by the linguist Enno Littmann, comprehensively recorded the ancient kingdom’s extant monuments and inscriptions. The results were published in a four-volume work in 1913.1 But then two wars and periods of political turmoil intervened, virtually putting an end to archaeological excavation. Investigations were resumed in the 1950s by a 060French team, but periodic political instability in the region has continually threatened archaeological activity.
As a result, Phillipson, who began work at Aksum in 1993, has had to base his history primarily on the visible monuments and available artifacts, supplemented by accounts of ancient historians and travelers. He has exploited these sources well, but his account is necessarily restricted to the periods that produced this material: the early South Arabian settlement and Aksum’s Christian civilization. Within those restrictions, he has produced a lucid and authoritative account of the political and cultural history of ancient Ethiopia. Until archaeological excavation provides evidence for the intervening periods, however, the developments in Aksumite civilization will continue to remain a mystery.
The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
Eliez Oren, ed.
(Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum, 1997) 434 pp., $50
The rule of Hyksos kings in Egypt is one of the most tantalizing yet perplexing episodes in the history of the ancient Near East.
The word “Hyksos” is a faulty Greek rendering of the Egyptian hekau hasut, meaning “rulers of foreign lands.” The Hyksos were an Asiatic people, originally from Canaan or Syria, who ruled much of northern Egypt as the 15th Dynasty during what is called the Second Intermediate Period (1640–1532 B.C.E.). Their magnificent capital in the eastern Nile delta at ancient Avaris, modern Tell ed-Dab’a, is currently being excavated by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak.
The impact of Hyksos rule on the Egyptian psyche and ideology should not be underestimated. The Asiatic Hyksos kingdom flowered after Egypt’s glorious Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.) had wilted and fragmented. Although foreigners had always dwelt among the Egyptians as artisans, traders, shepherds and slaves, they were generally considered inferior and of minor consequence in the Egyptian cultural universe. Foreign rule along the Nile was an outrage to Egyptians, and once the Hyksos were toppled and driven back into Canaan by the burgeoning New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.), Egypt adopted an imperialistic ideology deeply imbued with an attitude of “never again.”
The Hyksos confronts the many questions posed by the Asian phenomenon: Where exactly did the Hyksos come from? How and when did they rise to power? What was the extent of their kingdom—that is, did it reach into Upper Egypt? Did the Hyksos kings carry on relations with Egypt’s neighbors?
A mountain of material is under consideration here—by a number of internationally prominent scholars. Donald Redford provides translations and commentaries on all texts directly relevant to Hyksos rule in Egypt. David O’Connor gives an overview of the Second Intermediate Period from the perspective of Upper Egypt. Manfred Bietak expansively summarizes his excavations at Tell ed-Dab’a—where Patrick McGovern and Garman Harbottle report on neutron activation analysis performed on Canaanite jars found at the site. They conclude that the lion’s share of the jars came from the southern coast of Canaan (around Gaza). This area must have been the main trading partner of the Hyksos capital.
Much more evidence bearing on the Hyksos period is discussed in this tome: the eastern delta site of Tell Maskhuta, not far from Tell ed-Dab’a/Avaris; Middle Bronze Age settlements of northern Sinai, Canaan, Transjordan and Syria; trade relations between the Hyksos and their Asian, African and Aegean neighbors; and recent developments in chronology. In one fascinating chapter, the zooarchaeologist Paula Wapnish gives an account of equine (mostly donkey, some horse) burials across the ancient Near East. These burials, usually found in association with human burials, suggest that equines held a special, possibly cultic, position in West Semitic culture—though the exact significance remains shrouded in mystery. Nonetheless, Wapnish’s evidence bulks up Eliez Oren’s picture of the Semitic Hyksos conducting overland donkey trade with Canaan.
All this helps to dispel lingering romantic notions about Egypt’s Asian kings. They didn’t rule Upper Egypt. Nor did their rule extend to Canaan. But many unknowns remain. How was the trade between the Nile Delta and Canaan, between Lower and Upper Egypt organized and manged? To what extent did commerce exist? What happened 061to the Hyksos after they were ejected from Egypt? We may never know all the answers to these questions, but one thing is sure: There are several rip-roaring historical novels hiding in these murky waters.
One major disappointment of The Hyksos is the large number of typographical errors. I cannot recall another book published by a prestigious institution with so many problems. It’s funny how in this era of computerized publishing there are so many more typos than there were 50 or 100 years ago.
For professional Egyptologists and archaeologists specializing in the ancient Near East, this book contains valuable syntheses and important new information. The well-read “armchair” Egyptologist, too, will find a good deal of this volume interesting and edifying. But it’s not for the layperson. For these readers, I would recommend starting with the entries entitled “Hyksos” by James Weinstein in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Ancient Near East (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997) and by Weinstein and Donald Redford in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992). From there, go on to William G. Dever’s article in Biblical Archaeologist (now Near Eastern Archaeology), “The Middle Bronze Age: The Zenith of the Urban Canaanite Era” (Vol. 50 , pp. 149–177).
Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity