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A 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet that had been kept in the vaults of London’s British Museum since the 19th-century appears to include the earliest depiction of a ghost, according to a forthcoming book.

The discovery is featured in The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, authored by Irving Finkel, a curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department. According to Finkel, the long-overlooked clay tablet features an obscured drawing that can only be seen from above, under bright light.

“You’d probably never give it a second thought because the area where the drawings are looks like it’s got no writing,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way.” 

The drawing on the tablet depicts a bearded male ghost being led to the underworld by a younger woman, possibly a lover. It belongs to a cuneiform guide to exorcising, which has never been publicly displayed, and half of which is missing.

“It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable,” Finkel said. “You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover.”

“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. ‘Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.’ Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives,” Fickel quipped. “Something that everybody knew was that the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off. It’s not fanciful to read this into it. It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.”

The back of the hand-size tablet features a text with instructions for handling a ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.”

The exorcism ritual begins with making figurines of a man and a woman, with specific instructions in the text: “You dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth. You give her a golden brooch. You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.”

Next, the ritual involves vessels of beer and evoking Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun and the judge of the underworld.

“At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer,” the cuneiform reads. “You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night].”

The text ends with the ominous warning: “Do not look behind you!”

According to Finkel, the purpose of the ritual was to transfer the ghost into one of the figurines. He believes the tablet belonged to a library of magic in the house of an exorcist or in a temple.

In a 2018 video by the British Museum, the scholar explained that Mesopotamian burial rituals made sure that the dead are “jolly well locked in and wouldn’t come back and cause trouble.”

“Everybody in Mesopotamia, as far as I understand it, believed in ghosts,” he added, explaining that people of the period felt sympathy towards wandering spirits that weren’t able to find rest.

When asked if he would like to attend a séance himself, Finkel concurred without hesitation, saying: “I would like to see a ghost. I’ve never seen one. It’s very annoying to me.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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