Here’s The World’s Oldest Image Of A Ghost

The Babylonian tablet may have come from an ancient exorcist’s library.

Credit: The British Museum

You’re looking at a figure of a tall, emaciated spirit with his hands bound. This is said to illustrate the text of an ancient exorcism ritual meant to banish the sort of ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosened.”

This is all according to a curator that’s been exploring the British Museum’s archives. They recently discovered a ghost, so to speak. It’s not being called the world’s oldest image of one, etched onto a 3,500-year-old Babylonian clay tablet.

“Irving Finkel, the curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department and a specialist in cuneiform, the angular writing system of the ancient Babylonian civilization, recently translated the text of the ritual, which had remained unread and ignored since the British Museum acquired the tablet in the 1800s. At that time, museums across Europe were in a rush to stockpile Babylonian artifacts, and curators would often pay local people to loot clay and stone tablets, along with other artifacts, from archaeological sites in what is now Iraq. Most of those items arrived with little or no information about their context and ended up in storage.”


The ghost tablet, for example, had never been displayed to the public, and no one had translated its text. Nor had anyone noticed the hidden ghostly image on the reverse side of the clay tablet, either. That side appears blank until it’s viewed under a light at just the right angle, when the image of the ghost seems to leap out at the viewer.

In the illustration, a woman in a long dress is leading the bound ghost into the afterlife. The ritual described on the opposite side of the tablet was meant to banish a ghost by assuaging the loneliness that kept it tied to the world of the living.

You can check out the full study at arstechnica.com.

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Matt Sterner

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