• Ghosts and other apparitions in Greco-Roman times tended to be a cranky bunch. It wasn’t just the ectoplasm of loony old uncle Claudius, either. As a result, the supernaturally troubled often relied on the “science” of necromancy, which back then meant divination by calling up the dead.
• Take the case of Periander, ruler of the ancient Greek city of Corinth. A nasty piece of work, the man was inexplicably included
on historian Herodotus’ “seven hottest wise men to watch” list.
• Periander’s city, the Las Vegas of the ancient world from 600 BC on, was famous for its sexy fillies who served the goddess as priestesses of porn. When he wasn’t tyranting or spot-checking the female merchandise, Periander ran his city-state with a sharp eye on profits.
• Since Corinth, a shipping hub, sat on a narrow isthmus between the northern and southern halves of what we now call Greece, he saw a nifty way to increase ship traffic (and thus income) on both sides of it. How? By inventing the diolkos, the world’s first railway sans trains. This 4-mile-long dual track of parallel grooves allowed ships and heavy shipments to be transported overland across the Isthmus of Corinth, and made Periander very rich.
• Periander had greater ambitions, however. He had a nasty temper. And a jealous streak, which his mellower spouse Melissa put up with somehow. Being a Greek tyrant, Periander naturally kept a stable of concubines, who at some point started gossiping about his wife. Being an ultra-sensitive despot, Periander couldn’t bear even the idea of Melissa stepping out on him, and thus he was forced to kick his pregnant wife to death.
• He threw her a splendid funeral, everyone said—but stumbled badly in the aftermath. In a foolishly tender moment, he decided to subject his long-suffering wife to a bit of necrophilia while no one was looking. Nevertheless, word got around.
• It wasn’t longe before Periander needed Melissa’s help, even though she was now dead. He’d misplaced a household treasure and couldn’t find it anywhere. In desperation, off he went to northern Greece, to the Oracle of the Dead. The place was famous for having a direct line to the spirit world; in no time, necrophiliac Periander was able to summon Melissa via necromancy.
• Oddly enough, Melissa’s ghost was happy to help—but she did demand a little quid pro quo. She refused to tell him where the treasure was, saying that she was cold and naked and could make no use of the clothes that had been buried with her. Melissa also brought up the little matter of the indignity he’d committed on her cadaver. Anxious to make amends, Periander returned to Corinth, ordering the local women to get dolled up and report to a certain place, after which he had his henchmen strip them. Gathering up the female finery, Periander placed it in a pit and burned it.
• That was clearly the correct course of action, since wifely ghosts appeared to be mollified by the cremation of other females’ fashionable garments. Periander went for a second consult with Melissa’s ghost, who now told him where the treasure he sought was. Despite this and other outrages, Periander lived a long and prosperous life.
(Excerpted in part from entries on science and superstition in How to Mellify a Corpse.)