Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece


During the archaic and classical periods, Greek ideas about the dead evolved in response to changing social and cultural conditions--most notably changes associated with the development of the polis, such as funerary legislation, and changes due to increased contacts with cultures of the ancient Near East. In Restless Dead, Sarah Iles Johnston presents and interprets these changes, using them to build a complex picture of the way in which the society of the dead reflected that of the living, expressing and defusing its tensions, reiterating its values and eventually becoming a source of significant power for those who knew how to control it. She draws on both well-known sources, such as Athenian tragedies, and newer texts, such as the Derveni Papyrus and a recently published lex sacra from Selinous.

Topics of focus include the origin of the goes (the ritual practitioner who made interaction with the dead his specialty), the threat to the living presented by the ghosts of those who died dishonorably or prematurely, the development of Hecate into a mistress of ghosts and its connection to female rites of transition, and the complex nature of the Erinyes. Restless Dead culminates with a new reading of Aeschylus' Oresteia that emphasizes how Athenian myth and cult manipulated ideas about the dead to serve political and social ends.


The Corinthian tyrant Periander sent his henchmen to the
oracle of the dead to ask where he had lost something. The
ghost of Periander’s dead wife, Melissa, was conjured up
but she refused to tell them where the object was because
she was cold and naked—she said that the clothes buried
with her were useless because they had not been burnt prop
erly. To prove who she was, she told the men to tell Periander
that he had put his bread into a cold oven. This convinced
Periander, who knew that he had made love to Melissa’s
corpse after she died.

Periander immediately ordered every woman in Corinth
to assemble at the temple of Hera. They all came wearing
their best clothes, assuming there was going to be a festival.
Periander then told his guards to strip the women naked and
burn their clothes in a pit while he prayed to Melissa. Then
Melissa’s ghost told him where the missing object was.

So goes one of our oldest ghost stories. The Greek historian Herodotus tells it to illustrate the moral flaws of a tyrant: to serve his own purposes, Periander was willing to rob and humiliate all the women in Corinth, to say nothing of indulging in necrophilia. But at the same time, Herodotus provides a textbook example of how relations between the living and the dead were supposed to work. We learn from the story that the dead demand proper funerals, which ought to include gifts that they can use in the afterlife. This afterlife must be similar to life itself, considering that clothing is de rigeur. The living, for their part, can expect the dead’s cooperation, so long as they keep the dead happy. Transactions between the living and the dead can take place on home territory (Periander burns the clothing in Corinth), but special deals may be negotiated at a place such as the oracle of the dead, under the guidance of experts. Even then,

1. Hdt. 5.92η, slightly adapted.

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