There are some two hundred and forty deaths in the Iliad, but only one hero returns to the living: Patroclus who appears as a dream to a sleeping Achilles (Il. 23.65-108). His request—not for vengeance, but simply to be buried—begins a series of funerals and laments with which the poem ends. My main project at CHS this semester, provisionally entitled Uncanny Intruders, seeks to understand Greek literature’s fascination with what Sarah Johnston has called the “returning dead,” from the Homeric poems to Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story. It demonstrates how an engagement with anthropological approaches to the history and phenomenology of ancient religious experience can deepen and complicate readings of literary texts.
Ghosts, who return bidden and unbidden, kindly and in search of vengeance, exist on the murky, “irrational” borders of Greek and Roman religion. Unlike the divinities of the upper world, there was neither a pantheon of ghosts nor even a single term to describe these disembodied manifestations of the dead. Perhaps because of the challenges of classification, ghosts have largely been left on the margins of the study of Greek literature, even though they appear in a wide range of genres, such as epic, tragedy, comedy, historiography, and prose fiction. I hope that my project will show how Greek and Roman literary texts participate in fundamental questions about the human condition: What happens to us when we die? What power do the dead have over the living? As has been shown by historians of religion such as Jan Bremmer, Daniel Ogden, and Sarah Johnston, these questions are posed in a variety of media (e.g., art, magical texts, and sarcophagi); I seek to read literary representations of ghosts against this rich cultural background.
I see my project as consisting in two main parts: the first will examine the phenomenology of ghosts and the relationship of ghost scenes to genre; the second will focus on the cultural and literary valences of ghosts in the ancient imagination. Most of the varied vocabulary for ghosts—εἴδωλα, εἰκόνες, φάσματα, ψυχαί (images, souls, phantasms, and shades)—emphasizes their uncanny appearance and their otherworldliness. What is the connection between ghost stories and the rise of genres that revel in the narration of the marvelous, the supernatural, and the astonishing? How does the language, description, and experience of a ghostly apparition relate to an encounter with a god or goddess in a divine epiphany? Ghosts are characterized by their evanescence. How can such a figure be described in a narrative text or, indeed, be portrayed on stage in ancient drama? In answering these questions, I will examine how different genres respond to the challenge of representing what Todorov called the “fantastic uncanny” and the “fantastic marvelous” in narrative description or in on-stage appearances. The ghosts of epic, for instance, are very different from those of tragedy and comedy. For Pliny the Younger, writing around 100 CE, ghosts are experienced by a “friend of a friend,” at a remove from the rationalizing present; his ghost stories begin to take on the character of folklore. Lucian’s Philopseudes, a collection of “tall tales,” takes this tendency even further, intentionally testing the limits of his audience’s credulity about the supernatural.
The book’s second overarching section will examine the literary and cultural implications of ghosts. In particular, I am interested in how ghosts mediate between the past, present, and future. Ghosts reminded their audiences of their mortality, but they did more than simply evoke the terrors of death. In one of the final acts of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a tragic trilogy that revolves around the violent cycle of retribution for past crimes, Clytemnestra alone among the corpses piled high is allowed to appear and make demands after death. Her terrifying presence—she points at the wounds that her son Orestes inflicted on her—stands in stark contrast to ritually conjured ghosts, such as the glorious shade of Darius. He returns in regal splendor in Aeschylus’ earlier play, Persians, to offer ancestral wisdom and special knowledge of his son Xerxes’ defeat. The shades of the dead can also embody cultural memory in comic contexts. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides appear in the underworld as ghostly representatives of the literary past. I aim in this project to demonstrate how ghost scenes draw on and transform Greek modes of representing the fantastic and the supernatural and how they become important loci for embodying memory, for mediating between past, present, and future, and for exploring the nature and experience of the afterlife.
In addition to my project on ghosts, I am delighted to be working with Yvona Trnka-Amrhein (whose office is conveniently across the hall) to produce the first edition of an exciting illustrated papyrus in the Bibliothèque national de France. I can imagine no better place than CHS—a paradise inhabited by the friendly ghosts of the giants of Classics past—to embark on both projects!
Robert Cioffi is Assistant Professor of Classics at Bard College. His research interests and recent publications center on Greek prose fiction of the Roman imperial period and travel, ethnography, and identity in the ancient world. He is currently completing a monograph on the ethnographic discourse of the Greek novels, entitled Narrating the Marvelous: The Greek Novel and the Ancient Ethnographic Imagination. Recent publications include articles on epiphany in the Greek novels, the relationship between Greek and Roman novels, and travel in the Roman world. In addition to his scholarly publications, he is a contributor to the London Review of Books. He is also developing two new areas of research. The first is focused on the Renaissance reception of the Greek novels. The second is about the representation of ghosts and the supernatural in Greek literature.