Oldest-known drawing of a ghost found on ancient Babylonian tablet

By Thom Dunn

From The Guardian:

Its outlines are faint, only discernible at an angle, but the world's oldest drawing of a ghost has been discovered in the darkened vaults of the British Museum.

A lonely bearded spirit being led into the afterlife and eternal bliss by a lover has been identified on an ancient Babylonian clay tablet created about 3,500 years ago.

It is part of an exorcist's guide to getting rid of unwanted ghosts by addressing the particular malaise that brought them back to the world of the living – in this case, a ghost in desperate need of a companion. He is shown walking with his arms outstretched, his wrists tied by a rope held by the female, while an accompanying text details a ritual that would dispatch them happily to the underworld.

Dr Irving Finkel, who is the curator for the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum and a "world authority" on cuneiform tablets, only recently realized that the tablet had been incorrectly deciphered. In fact, it had been pretty much dismissed, and left in storage since its "acquisition" by the museum in the 19th century (wonder how they got it?).

The cool part is the "ghost" itself only becomes visible on the tablet when viewed under the right light:

While half the tablet is missing and it is small enough to fit in a person's hand, the back bears an extensive text with the instructions for dealing with a ghost that "seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed". The ritual involves making figurines of a man and a woman: "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.

"At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer. 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 a warning: "Do not look behind you!"

I am surprised that the "first" drawing of a ghost is only 3,500 years old — although I suppose that calculation is based on a distinctly Western perspective on what, exactly, constitutes a "ghost." Still, taken at face value: it's kinda cool how these Babylonians figured out a way to make their ghost "translucent" on a stone tablet.

Figures of Babylon: oldest drawing of a ghost found in British Museum vault [Dalya Alberge / The Guardian]