“Suppressing and Invoking the Dead: Necrophobia and Necromancy in Greek Sicily”
Carrie L. Weaver, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial (Brussels, 1854).
For the ancient Greeks, the dead were subjects of both fear and supplication. Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Greek culture since the Neolithic period. At the heart of this phobia is the belief that corpses are able to reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather ‘undead.’ These liminal figures are deemed to be dangerous because it is understood that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living. As a means of protection, the alleged undead were pinned in their graves or ritually ‘killed.’ Paradoxically, the Greeks also practiced necromancy, the purposeful invocation of the dead. The dead were typically entreated by means of binding spells inscribed on thin sheets of lead. These spells, called katadesmoi, were deposited in graves during nighttime ceremonies. Often petitioners sought to redress a wrong that had been committed, such as avenging a murder or returning a stolen inheritance, but katadesmoi were also used to gain an advantage in love or business. This paper presents archaeological evidence of necrophobia and necromancy dating to the 5th through 3rd centuries BCE from the Greek site of Kamarina in southeastern Sicily. Details of the burial contexts will be given, possible explanations examined and parallel cases discussed, ultimately placing these macabre customs within the wider framework of Greek mortuary practices.