Friday, May 6, 2016

The Ghost Story of Pliny the Younger, 1869 Article

THE GHOST STORY OF PLINY THE YOUNGER, article in Once a Week 1869

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WHEN was the first ghost story told? At what period in the world's infancy did the minds of man first feel the dread delight, the awful attraction, which modern scepticism has deprived us all of, except children and village lasses? We confess we cannot tell. And instead of collecting scattered fragments from antiquity, we subjoin a translation of a ghost story, perfect and complete, of the respectable age of eighteen centuries, which so terrified the calm philosopher Pliny, of Christian-hating reputation, that he wrote to his friend Sura, the consul, to ask whether it could be true. So exactly does this story correspond in all the ghostly elements to authentic narratives, which inundate the waste-paper baskets of magazine editors every Christmas, that we cannot think it the first attempt of the invention in this direction. Poets must have lived before Homer, and dealers in the supernatural must have traded on man's love for the marvellous long before the time of Pliny's informant. We meet with ghosts in the "Iliad," and AEschylus twice introduces them on the stage. Indeed, the belief in their appearance naturally arose from the idea that, until a man was decently buried, old Charon would not convey his soul across the slimy Styx, but left it to squeak and gibber on this side the stream. Hence it was considered a greater crime at Athens to leave a parent unburied than to allow him to starve to death. And that beautiful play of Sophocles, in which Antigone suffers death rather than leave her brother's corpse unburied, had a far greater charm in Pagan Athens than it can have in Christian England. But we are digressing. Here is the promised story, from the twenty-seventh epistle of the seventh book of Pliny, the younger:—

There was, at Athens, a house, large and spacious, but with a bad name. In the silence of the night, there was wont to be heard in it the rattling of iron, and, if you listened more attentively, the clash of chains, first at a distance, then hard-by. Presently there appeared a ghost—an old man, lean and squalid, with long beard and rough hair. He carried fetters on his legs and gyves on his wrists, shaking them as he walked. Hence every night was spent in wakeful terror by the inhabitants. Sickness followed vigils, and death sickness. For even during the daytime, though the phantom had departed, the recollection of it clung to them, and the terror lasted longer than that which caused it. Accordingly the house was deserted, condemned to solitude, and entirely given up to the spectre. It was advertised, nevertheless, to be let or sold, in case anyone, not knowing the circumstances, should be willing to purchase.

Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to Athens, read the notice, asked the terms, and, having his suspicions roused by the low price, made inquiries, and heard the whole story. So far from shrinking, he took the house all the more eagerly.

When evening drew near, he orders his couch to be placed in the front room, calls for a writing-tablet, a style [pen], and a light, dismisses all his attendants, and devotes his attention— eyes, head, and hands—to writing, lest his mind, being unemployed, should conjure up fancied sights and sounds.

At first there was the silence of night, deep as elsewhere; then the clash of iron and the rattling of chains. He neither raised his eyes nor relaxed his style, but fixed his attention upon his work. The clink grew louder, came nearer, and sounded, now at the door, now within the room. He looks up, sees and recognises the spectre described. It stood and beckoned with its hand, as if calling him. He made a sign with his finger for it to wait a little, and again settled down to his tablets and style. It rattled its chains at his head as he wrote. He looked up again, making the same sign as before, and without further delay took the candle and followed. It walked with slow step as if weighted with the chains. After turning into the courtyard of the house, it suddenly slipped into the earth and disappeared. He piled some weeds and leaves to mark the spot, and, the next day, going to the magistrates, advised them to order the place to be excavated. A skeleton was found, the flesh all wasted away by putrefaction, and the bare bones bound in fetters and chains. It was taken up and publicly buried; and after that the house was no more troubled.

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