I am looking for early stories that follow the popular theme of the ghost story: A spirit of the dead appearing amongst the living. Bonus points if there's a haunting involved.

I'm only interested in encounters that happen in the mortal world, not in the underworld, like for example when Odysseus meets the shades in the Odyssey.

  • 3
    Awesome! Welcome to mythology. Going to have to think on this one...
    – DukeZhou
    Feb 23, 2018 at 22:40
  • 2
    What about when the dead appear having been summoned from the underworld? They're in the mortal realm, but they were recalled from the underworld through magic or something like it. We have several early examples of that. Feb 23, 2018 at 22:53
  • 1
    Another question is if trance states and possession counts. Shamanism goes way back.
    – Random
    Feb 24, 2018 at 3:24
  • Stories of summoned spirits and possessions are fascinating, but I am more interested in stories of the more typical ghost story theme (hauntings, unfinished business, etc).
    – ghost
    Feb 24, 2018 at 20:23
  • @sleepymiles I added a new question about summoning: mythology.stackexchange.com/questions/3400/…
    – ghost
    Feb 24, 2018 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


Pliny the Younger tells the story of a haunted house in Athens, featuring the stoic Athenodorus Cananites, in his letter to Sura:

Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.

The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm.

Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention.

The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another.

Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished.

Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.

Source: Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

I am not sure if Pliny's story is the earliest ghost story we know of, but I think it includes several elements of the motif you are looking for.

Lucian also discusses ghosts (and other supernatural beings) in Philopseudes, albeit in a heavily satirical tone. In one instance, one of the characters introduces the idea that ghosts are the result of a violent death, another favourite element of the ghost story trope:

"We were only trying," he said, "to convince this man of adamant that there are such things as supernatural beings and ghosts, and that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and manifest themselves to whomsoever they will." Moved by the august presence of Arignotus, I blushed, and hung my head. "Ah, but, Eucrates," said he, "perhaps all that Tychiades means is, that a spirit only walks if its owner met with a violent end, if he was strangled, for instance, or beheaded or crucified, and not if he died a natural death. If that is what he means, there is great justice in his contention.

Source: The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Volume III. tr. by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler. Oxford: The Clarendon Press


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