Protothema recently posted an article on a very interesting find: necrophobia caused Ancient Hellenes in Sicily to make sure that their dead were pinned down in their tombs. Lets explore that fear a little bit today, shall we?

According tot he article, the ancient Hellenes had a real fear of the dead rising from their graves to stalk the living. Passo Marinaro, the necropolis of a Hellenic colony in Sicily, used from the 5th through to the 3rd centuries BC, shows a number of tomb occupants forcibly pinned down to prevent them from rising. More than half of the 2,905 burials had various grave offerings such as terracotta vases, figurines and metal coins covering the individuals inside to prevent them from leaving the tomb.

Pittsburgh University archaeologist Carrie Sulosky Weaver referred to one tomb in particular that belonged to an individual of unknown sex who had experienced serious malnutrition and illness. The head and feet of the individual were covered completely in amphora fragments. According to Weaver in Popular Archeology:

“The heavy amphora fragments found in Tomb 653 were presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising.”

Another tomb, labelled 693, contained a child of unknown sex from around 8 to 13 years of age. There were no signs of disease on the body but five large stones were placed on the child’s body to keep it trapped within the tomb.

Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Hellenic culture from the Neolithic period to the present, according to Weaver. She underlines that Katadesmoi – tablets with magic spells inscribed – were also found, suggesting that some inhabitants of Kamarina used incantations to raise the dead from their graves. Petitions on tablets were addressed to underworld dieties so that the spirits of the dead could fulfill the request of the person making the petition.

The ancient Hellenes also believed in ghosts; they were the people who could not find the entrance to the Underworld or who didn't have the money to pay Kharon for their passage. Those who were not properly buried were also doomed to wander the Earth for a hundred years. Interestingly enough, Hellenic heroes were also considered ghosts and were honored in the same type of rites as other types of ghosts. 

The Ancient Hellenes held festivals in honor of ghosts, and the Theoi that presided over them, so they would be sated and appeased and would not haunt them. Most of these festivals included a holókaustos and were solemn affairs, conducted at night and without an offering of wine. 

This fear of spirits and other supernatural entities was named 'deisidaimonia' (δεισιδαιμονία). The ceremonies of riddance were known to the Hellenes as apopompai (ἀποποπμαί), 'sendings away'. There isn't a single word in the English language that conveys the practice. Closest would be 'exorcism'. 

Becoming a ghost was not a good thing. While heroes like Hēraklēs, Theseus and Orpheus head into the Underworld and return from it alive, they never do so without a struggle and the fact that heroes were considered ghosts is food for thought. They have seen the Underworld and have not left the whole of it behind. Ghosts were feared and needed to be appeased, fed with blood to sustain them and/or warded off.

Weaver’s research is to be presented in her forthcoming book, titled “The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Citizen”, to be released in September by the University Press of Florida.