Archive for October, 2007

An Ancient Roman Ghost Story (ca. 61-115 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

Pliny the Younger of ancient Rome told a ghost story that was remarkable similar to the tale of Marley in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The Ancient Standard has decided to offer up something a little different this Halloween – we’ve decided that in honor of this infamous “holiday”, we’ll let one of the ancient writers give you a bit of history in his own words… namely, an ancient Roman ghost story which he recounted sometime around 100 AD. Ghost stories are anything but a modern phenomenon – as proven by the tale below, written by Roman writer Pliny the Younger, they’ve been around for at least two thousand years. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the harmonies of an ancient ghost story brought back to life once more…

An Ancient Roman Ghost Story (in translation from the original Latin) – as originally recorded by Pliny the Younger

There was in Athens a house, large and spacious, which had a bad reputation as though it was filled with pestilence. In the dead of night, a noise was frequently heard resembling the clashing of iron which, if you listened carefully, sounded like the rattling of chains. The noise would seem to be a distance away, but it would start coming closer… and closer… and closer. Immediately after this, a specter would appear in the form of an old man, emaciated and squalid, with bristling hair and a long beard, and rattling the chains on his hands and feet as he moved.

The unfortunate inhabitants of the house went sleepless at night due to unimaginable and dismal terrors. Without sleep, as it had happened to others, their health was ruined and they were struck with some kind of madness – as the horrors in their minds increased, they were led on a path toward death. Eventually even during the daytime, when the ghost did not appear, the memory of their nightmares was so strong that it still passed before their eyes, every waking moment. Their terror was constant, even when the source of fear was gone.

Because of this, the house was eventually deserted and damned as uninhabitable, abandoned entirely to the ghost. In hope that some tenant might eventually be found who was ignorant of the house’s malevolence, a bill was still posted for its sale. As it happened, a philosopher by the name of Athenodorus came to Athens at that time. Reading the bill for the house, he easily discovered the price – and being an intelligent man, he was suspicious at its extremely low cost. Someone did tell him the whole story, and yet he wasn’t dissuaded, but was instead eager to make the purchase. Thus, he did.

When evening drew near, Athenodorus asked for couch to be readied for him at the front of the house. He asked for his writing materials and a lamp, and then asked his retainers to retire for the night. In order to ensure that his mind stayed focused and away from distractions of stories about imaginary noises and apparitions, he poured all his energy into his writing.

The ghost in Pliny the Younger’s tale probably looked nothing like this.

For awhile, the night was silent. Then the rattling of fetters began. Athenodorus would not lift his eyes or set down his pen. Instead, he concentrated on his writing and thereby closed his ears. But the noise wouldn’t stop, and it only increased and drew closer until it seemed to be at the door and then standing in his very chamber! Finally, Athenodorus looked away from his work… and saw the ghost standing just as it had been described. It stood there, waiting, beckoning him with one finger.

Athenodorus held up his palm as though the visitor should wait a moment, and once again bent over his work. The ghost, impatient, shook his chains over the philosopher’s head, beckoning again. This time, Athenodorus picked up his lamp and followed the ghost as it moved slowly, as though it was held back by its chains. Upon reaching the courtyard, the ghost suddenly vanished.

Now on his own, Athenodorus carefully marked the spot where the ghost vanished with a handful of leaves and grass. The following day, he asked the magistrate to have that spot dug up, and in that spot was found – intertwined with chains – the skeleton of a man. The body had lain in the ground a long time and had left the bones bare and corroded by the fetters. The bones were then collected and given a proper burial at public expense – and since the ghost’s tortured soul had been finally laid to rest, the house in Athens was haunted no more.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Book Binding… In Human Skin (ca.18th century AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

During the French Revolution, it wasn’t exactly uncommon for books to be bound in human skin… why? Good question.

It’s one thing to want a unique book cover for your favorite journal or volume of literature… but it’s quite another to use human skin to bind your book together. Yet, during the 18th century, this wasn’t altogether an uncommon practice…

In 2006, a 300-year-old ledger was found in the area of Leeds in England, dropped by a burglar as he fled – which is quite fortunate, as skin-bound books are rather rare to come by these days. During the French Revolution however, it was not out of the ordinary to have a skin book or two in one’s collection, which may explain why this particular book was written in French.

The practice of binding a book in human skin is called “anthropodermic bibliopegy”, and some scholars would assert that this was commonly done with things like trial proceedings, where the account of the trial would be bound in a killer’s skin, or in cases where individuals would request that their memoirs be bound in their own skin after they passed away.

The truth is, binding a book in human skin isn’t all that different from creating a leather binding – which was why, historically, it could be easily done. The Bancroft Library in California has a book that was bound in human skin during the Revolution in the 1790s, which is actually a tome of prayers that had been published a century earlier – someone wanted a new cover on their prayer book and apparently decided that human skin would suit it best.

Brown University Library in Rhode Island has three of these ancient skin volumes – one is an anatomy text, presumably bound in the skin of a dissected cadaver, while the other two are editions of a Medieval morality tale from the 1800s called “The Dance of Death”. One of the copies from 1816 – rebound in skin in 1893 – has a clear separation where it is visible that the binder didn’t have enough skin to go all the way around the volume and had to split it in two. The front cover was bound with an outer layer of human skin, which feels like soft sandpaper to touch. The back cover and the spine were made from the inner layer of skin, resulting in a fine, suede-like texture.

Whereas the first volume was then left plain to show off the binding material, the second volume of the Medieval tale had elaborate leather inlays and a goldwork skull on the cover – however, when examined up close, the pores of the former skin’s owner are still clearly visible.

The Athenaeum Library in Boston has a copy of a highway robber’s memoirs that was wrapped in his own skin, dating to 1837; the College of Physicians in Philadelphia has four volumes bound by the doctor John Stockton Hough, who became famous for diagnosing the first case of trichinosis in the city – after which, he used the patient’s skin to bind three of his four books.

One of Harvard University’s libraries also contains a treaty on Spanish law from 1605 with an inscription on the inside, which reads:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the 4th day of August, 1632. King Btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas’ chief possessions, together with ample of his skin to bind it.”

As disturbing as it may be to modern sensibilities, it turns out that some of the world’s best libraries have copies of books that were bound in human skin!

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Ghosts in Ancient Rome and Greece!

Ancient Bolivian Pyramid Yields Gold (ca. 300 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

An archaeologist cleans up artifacts found inside a pyramid from western Bolivia, dating to around 1300 years ago.

In the spring of 2007, archaeologists discovered a rare cache of gold artifacts inside of a Bolivian pyramid – not to mention a 1,300-year-old skeleton alongside it. Strangely untouched by looters, the skeleton and the gold were fully intact, and have revealed more information about the ancient Tiwanaku people who lived in the area between 400 and 1200 AD.

The skeleton is believed to have been an elite member of the Tiwanaku, possibly a priest or governmental figure, primarily because the bones at this burial – unlike some bones found elsewhere in the pyramid in past years – had no physical markings on them that would indicate the person was a victim of ritual sacrifice. In addition, the body was buried near the top of the pyramid instead of near the bottom, which was where other bones from sacrificial victims were previously found.

The pyramid in which the bones and gold were found was the Akapana pyramid, which was one of the largest pre-Columbian structures in South America. It was heavily looted long ago, which was why finding a burial with an inordinate amount of gold was such an unexpected discovery. The Bolivian archaeologists working here also found evidence of the individual having been buried with a llama by his side – apparently llamas were believed to assist someone in their transition to the afterlife.

A gold headband, a fist-sized gold pendant, and several gold figurines were part of the gold trove that was buried with the body. The figurines were very carefully crafted and had defined faces with correctly proportioned features – evidently, the culture was doing well enough at the time to bury their important people with an array of riches… however, a study done on the bones seems to indicate that he had suffered from malnutrition at some point during his life, and was approximately 25 years old at the time of death.

The Akapana pyramid was built by the Tiwanaku people of ancient Bolivia, and was possibly the largest pre-Columbian structure in this area.

This was highly unusual – after all, if someone was of high status within the society, he should have been well cared for throughout his life, which means that he would have eaten well, regardless of whether or not it caused a common citizen to starve. This seems to point to a period of cultural stress wherein there was a resource shortage.

Why does that matter? Since the history of the Tiwanaku is still a bit unclear, knowing that they went through a period of decline and then potential resurgence helps to piece together their history – after all, if their decline was because of food shortages or war with other people, it should show up in the records of the surrounding cultures during the same time. This small bit of information then helps to piece together a full history of the whole of South America during pre-Columbian times.

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Tomorrow: Book covers… made of human skin! oooooh scary!

The Female Judge (ca. 722 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

This gravesite has been attributed to either Deborah or the General Barak; there isn’t yet enough evidence to conclusively say whose it is one way or the other.

In chapters 4 and 5 of Judges in the Hebrew scriptures, a story is told of a woman named Deborah. Deborah lived during pre-monarchic Israel, and held a position as both prophetess and judge – in fact, she was the fourth Judge and the only female to have had this position during the Israelite period.

During this time period, Israel’s judges were regarded more as kings than simply people who tried court cases… and although it is unknown as to how a woman came to be in this position, it is evident by the literature that she was greatly respected and honored by the Israelites. Not only that, but as Judge, she also was the official leader of the army – which means that thousands of men had to follow a woman’s orders in battle, something completely unheard of in this patriarchal society.

Although very little is known about Deborah herself, the text explains that she was married to a man by the name of Lapidoth, and that she sat under a palm tree to give her judgments. She was a poet – which was not an unusual hobby, as there are plenty of examples of Hebrew poetry still remaining today – and her eventual legacy was that she became a ‘mother in Israel’, although whether the title is literal or metaphorical is up for debate.

When Deborah came into power as Judge, the nation of Israel had been suffering at the hands of the Canaanites for the past 20 years. The Canaanites had made sure that the Israelites knew their place in society – taking some as slaves, forcing others to work at backbreaking labor, oppressing their religious beliefs, and even taking their women to marry.

Artist Gustave Dore’s interpretation of Deborah, prophetess and Judge of Israel, from the mid-1800s.

Unlike the Judges before her, Deborah was unwilling to allow these atrocities to continue any further, but there was one problem: the Israelites were at a severe disadvantage. Their army consisted of only 10,000 men, whereas the Canaanites had at least 900 iron chariots and tens of thousands more warriors than Israel. However, since she was a prophetess, Deborah was in a better position than the previous Judges – so, she received instructions from God, telling her to instruct the Israelite general Barak to take his soldiers up to the River Kishon on Mount Tabor.

Deborah’s prophesy was that God planned to send the Canaanite general Sisera and his army up to the same place, but that the Israelites would win the battle. According to the text, Deborah relayed this information to Barak, who agreed to trust her instructions – but only if Deborah would go with him into battle! Instead of trusting the prophesy from God that his army would win, he would only trust this woman – something quite unheard of in ancient Mesopotamia.

In retaliation for his mistrust in God, she prophesied that Barak would not achieve the final victory over the Canaanite general, but this would instead go to a woman. As it turns out, Deborah helped Barak lead the troops into battle, which the Israelites won…with the exception of one small thing: they didn’t manage to kill the Canaanite general Sisera. What happened to Sisera is a tale for another day…

The end of the text on Deborah recalls how she gave thanks to God for the Israelite victory, instead of claiming honor for herself. The book of Judges 5 even includes a poem that she wrote, entitled the ‘Song of Deborah’ , which commemorates the Israelite victory on that day.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

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