One of the more ancient ghost stories, comes from Egypt, around 1200 B.C during the Ramesside period. The story was found in four pieces of pottery by  Ernesto Schiaparelli , and translated in 1915 by Egyptologist, Gaston Maspero (1846-1916).

Ghosts in ancient Egypt

Statue in Abu Simbel, a tempel dedicated to Ramses the second.
Statue in Abu Simbel, a tempel dedicated to Ramses the second.

The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, and in the book “Book of the Dead”, they wrote down a series of spells they thought would help them reach the afterlife. In ancient Egypt ghosts (called akh) were somewhat similar to their former self, and interactions between ghosts and living people were seen in a lesser supernatural way than in modern depictions.

The akh was a consequence of the burial ritual not being right, the tomb being destroyed or so forth. This was important as it was the way into the afterlife. An akh could harm the living, giving them nightmares, feelings of guilt, punish people or sickness. But it could also do good deeds to help their living family members, influencing for the better etc. They could be invoked by prayers or written letters left in the tomb’s offering chapel.

The story

The beginning of the story is lost forever, as it being a fragment of some pottery. So the full length of it, is nowhere to be found. But it is implied the story is set in Theban Necropolis. A burial place near the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. The burial city was built at the west bank of the Nile, near the ancient city of Thebes, which at the time was the capital and the perhaps even the biggest city in the world at that time. The ruins of the city lies within the modern day city, Luxor, in Upper Egypt. At this time in the New Kingdom, Thebes reached new height of prosperity. It was the time right before the decline of the great city, and it would soon fall into unrest, strikes, looting of the Necropolis’es.

The Great sphinx of Giza under the starry night sky
The Great sphinx of Giza

But before all this, a man had to spend the night next to a tomb in the Theban Necropolis, literally meaning the city of the dead. He is unnamed in the fragment. Perhaps he was just walking by, perhaps he was a looter. Perhaps he was a Servant in the Place of Truth. That was an ancient Egyptian title of the people working in the Necropolis. They constructed the eternal dwelling of the kings, and isolated themselves to safeguard their secrets. They lived in the village Set-Maat (Place of truth) in the Holy Land of the Dead, today known as Deir el-Medina. The village that happens to be were the last bit of fragment of the story was found.

The man was woken by the ghost residing in the tomb. Was he afraid? Perhaps not if he worked there. Perhaps he was terrified, especially if he was a looter, trying to steal the possessions in the tomb. In any case, he went to the High Priest of Amun, Khonsuemheb, and told what happened in the tomb.

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The High Priest of Amun, takes matters into his own hands. He stands on his rooftop, calling to the gods to summon the ghost. Invoking the gods of the sky and the gods of the earth, southern, northern, western and eastern, and (the) gods of the underworld, saying to them: “Send me that august spirit.” And it does. “I grew, and I did not see the rays of the sun. I did not breathe the air, but darkness was before me every day, and no one came to find me,” the ghost says (translation by Maspero).

Ancient Egyptian ostrakon with the beginning of the Ghost story. Terracotta from Deir el-Medina, 19-20th Dynasty, New Kingdom. Found by Schiaparelli in 1905. Turin, Museo Egizio.
Ancient Egyptian ostrakon with the beginning of the Ghost story. Terracotta from Deir el-Medina, 19-20th Dynasty, New Kingdom. Found by Schiaparelli in 1905. Turin, Museo Egizio.

Khonsuemheb asks his name. Nebusemekh, son of Ankhmen and of the lady Tamshas, the ghost answers. So how does one please an ancient egyptian ghost? Khonsuemheb at least offered to rebuild his tomb, making it better with a gildet ziziphus-wood coffin to make peace with the ghost. But the ghost doesn’t trust Khonsuemheb and his intentions. So what do they do?

Khonsuemheb sits down with the ghost, starts to cry and shares his unhappy fate. “I will remain here] without eating or drinking, without growing old or becoming young. I will not see sunlight nor will I inhale northerly breezes, but darkness shall be in my sight every day. I will not get up early to depart.”

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Then the ghost proceeds to tell about his life on earth, how he was an overseer of the treasuries and a military official under pharaoh Rahotep. When the ghost, Nebusemekh died in the 14th regnal year of pharaoh Mentuhotep, the ruler gave him a canopic set, an alabaster sarcophagus and a ten-cubits shaft tomb.

The Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu was an important New Kingdom period temple structure in the West Bank of Luxor in Egypt
The Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu was an important New Kingdom period temple structure in the West Bank of Luxor in Egypt

But time took over the tomb, and over the centuries, the tomb partially collapsed, allowing wind to reach the burial chamber. Nebusemekh also told Khonsuemheb that others before him offered to rebuild hos grave, but never did. Khonsuemheb says to the ghost that he will do it and also offers to send ten servants to make daily offerings at his grave. But the ghost says that wouldn’t be necessary or of any use.

Here, the text breaks, and in the next fragment three men are sent out by Khonsuemheb to search for a proper place for Nebusemekh new tomb. They find it at Deir el-Bahari, near to the causeway of the mortuary temple belonging to pharaoh Mentuhotep the second.

This is the end, the text suddenly ends here. But perhaps Khonsuemheb honored the last wish of Nebusemekh, giving peace in his afterlife the Egyptians were all so desperate at having.

Other notes

The tale is a piece of fragment, written in an other era of time entirely. And the details of the tale are still open to interpretations. Particularly the identity of the to pharaohs in Nebusemekh’s time.

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