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Mignanelli: Boo! Ghost stories from Ancient Rome to today

The Classics Corner

By Mike Mignanelli

What do Casper, Moaning Myrtle and Slimer have in common? They are all famous ghosts from the silver screen. Stories of ghosts and spirits communicating with the physical realm are not a modern creation. In fact the ancient Romans, a few authors especially, were famous for some of their ghost stories. Today we have plenty of movies about ghosts or poltergeists wreaking havoc on people and countless television shows revolving around hunting these spirits. In honor of Halloween, this column will look at the early history of Halloween, ghost stories from antiquity and some modern stories specific to UNH.

Halloween was originally a Celtic holiday that over the course of time transformed into our Halloween. The Celts called this holiday Samhain and believed that on this day spirits could communicate and interact with the living. This evolved over time and eventually became incorporated into Rome. In 43 A.D., Emperor Claudius led a conquest of Celtic lands. This conquest led to the acquisition of Celtic lands and the adoption of some of their beliefs. Our Halloween comes from a combination of the Celtic holiday Samhain and two Roman festivals. One of these festivals was Feralia, which was a day focused on honoring the dead and the other was a day in honor of the goddess Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. In fact it is believed that Pomona’s connection to fruit is why it is common to bob for apples on Halloween. It is largely a question among scholars if the acquisition of some of these Celtic beliefs may have influenced the Romans. Specifically there are authors from the imperial period who may have been influenced by the folklore of the Celts.

Pliny the Younger, a Roman author who lived in the 2nd century A.D., wrote a series of letters with an intention for publication. Pliny has a very famous letter regarding a ghost story. This story comes from Book 7 of Pliny’s Epistulae. The story entails a haunted house in Athens that gets deserted and falls into disrepair. When a brave man comes along and dares to stay in the house, the spirit who lives in the house visits him. Pliny tells us that this imago, literally a Latin word meaning an image or figure, communicates directly with the man staying inside the house. He tells the man that his body is buried beneath the house and when the man digs it up and finds the remains he gives the ghost a proper burial, forever ending the haunting of this property. This story is a fascinating one and has made this letter one of Pliny’s most popular.

Today we are told frequently about people who can communicate or have been contacted by spirits. This popular phenomenon is one that has even taken hold of our own university. Smith Hall, the oldest dormitory on campus, is rumored to be haunted. Throughout the years, students have told stories of hearing footsteps and seeing a female apparition roaming the halls. The excitement that revolves around these ghost stories is something that has clearly fascinated man for millennia. While today we have television and movies to do the heavy lifting for us, the ancient Romans could read Pliny’s letter for the same thrill and enjoyment.

Mike Mignanelli is a junior majoring in classics.

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