3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet contains oldest depiction of a ghost

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Ricky Joseph

A tablet made in ancient Babylon around 1500 B.C.E. may be the earliest known depiction of a ghost, a leading scholar of ancient Middle Eastern inscriptions argues in a new book.

The Babylonian tablet of exorcism

The clay tablet is part of a guide to exorcising ghosts that is now part of the British Museum's collections, says Dalya Alberge.

Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle East department at the London museum and author of the book The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, says the image on the tablet is only visible when viewed from above under a light. The museum acquired the artifact in the 19th century, however, it was never displayed.

"You'd probably never think of it, because the area where the drawings are seems to have no writing on it," Finkel told the Observer, "but when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures jump out at you through time in the most amazing way."

The Babylonian tablet is small enough to fit in one person's hand, Patrick Pester reports, but at least half of it is missing.

However, the object still contains detailed instructions on how to get rid of annoying ghosts.

The instructions for the exorcism

The instructions call for the exorcist to make figurines of a man and a woman; prepare two vessels of beer;

Then, at sunrise, speak ritual words invoking the Mesopotamian god Shamash, who was responsible for bringing ghosts to the underworld.

Finkel says the idea was to transfer the ghost to one of the statuettes.

The final line of the Babylonian tablet text urges readers to "not look back!"

The warning is probably intended as an instruction aimed at the staters entering the underworld, however, it is possible that it is aimed at the exorcist.

According to Finkel, the design was probably made by a master craftsman highly skilled in clay drawing.

The Babylonian tablet may have been kept in an exorcist's library or in a temple.

There was a whole school of specialized magic, which aimed to appease the ghosts and send them back to where they belonged without further trouble.

With information from Smithsonian Magazine.

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