Its outlines are pale, only discernible from an angle, but the world’s oldest ghost drawing was discovered in the dark vaults of the British Museum.
A lonely bearded spirit led into the afterlife and eternal happiness by a lover has been identified on an ancient Babylonian clay tablet created around 3,500 years ago.
He’s part of an exorcist’s guide to ridding himself of unwanted ghosts by addressing the particular discomfort that brought them back to the world of the living – in this case, a ghost in desperate need of a mate. He is depicted walking with outstretched arms, wrists bound by a rope held by the woman, while an accompanying text details a ritual that would happily send them to the underworld.
Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle East department at the British Museum, said that “the absolutely spectacular object of antiquity” had been overlooked until now.
“He’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging out around the house pissing people off. The final analysis was that this ghost needed a lover, ”he said.
“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. “Oh my God, Uncle Henry is back. Maybe Uncle Henry lost three women. Something everyone knew was that the way to get rid of this old bugger was to get him married. It is not fanciful to read that there. It’s kind of an explicit message. There is a very high quality handwriting and an impeccable drawing.
“That someone thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving it a bedmate is pretty funny.”
As the world authority on the cuneiform, a writing system used in the ancient Middle East, Finkel realized that the tablet had been misread before. The drawing had been missed because the ghost only comes to life when viewed from above and under a light. Forgotten since its acquisition by the museum in the 19th century, the tablet has never even been exhibited.
Finkel said: “You would probably never think of it because the area where the drawings are located seems to have no writing. But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, these numbers jump out at you through time in the most surprising way. It is an object of the Guinness Book of Records because how could anyone have a drawing of an older ghost?
While half of the tablet is missing and is small enough to fit in a person’s hand, the back has detailed text with instructions for dealing with a ghost that “grabs a person. and pursues her and cannot be let go. ” The ritual consists of making figurines of a man and a woman: “You dress the man in everyday clothes and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red clothes and cover her with a purple cloth. You give him a gold brooch. You equip it entirely with bed, chair, carpet and towel; you give him a comb and a bottle.
“As the sun rises towards the sun, you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian beer containers. You set up a special container and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the miniatures with their equipment and put them in place … and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night]. “
The text ends with a warning: “Don’t look behind you!
Finkel believes the tablet was part of a magic library in an exorcist’s house or in a temple.
The ghost appeared just in time for Halloween. His discovery appears in Finkel’s next book, The first ghosts: the oldest of the legacies, to be released November 11 by Hodder & Stoughton.
He himself has never seen a ghost, “even in the more shaded vaults of the British Museum,” which is “riddled with ghosts,” he said. “In the king’s library, more than one person saw a head and shoulders move, but at a particular height. This was dismissed by skeptics, but it turns out that the original ground beneath the current ground was in fact low, meaning they were pretty much right.
He hopes to exhibit the Babylonian Tablet, noting that such an artifact brings us closer to our ancestors: “All the fears, weaknesses and characteristics that make the human race so fascinating were certainly there 3,500 years ago.
“I want people to know about this culture. Egypt always wins in Hollywood. If the Babylonian underworld looks like what has been described, then they are still there. So remember it. “