Saturday, 19 December 2015

How the ghost got his rattle.

Last weeks blog was about the illustrators of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and especially about the pictures they did of the scene of Marley's ghost.  There are probably hundreds of such illustrations of Marley, both pretty old and more recent as the book is so famous, it is constantly in print somewhere.  And they all show Marley in chains, because, of course, that's how Dickens described him.  He wears a long winding chain riveted around his waist from which hangs -

. . .cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.

These items are all to do with Marley's past, his mistaken pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake, his obsession with business over people; in fact, they represent all his sins in visible form.  Dickens obviously wanted to suggest that he is also imprisoned by his past, which is constantly with him, reminding him of his misdeeds.  He reveals to Scrooge that he also has a chain about him that he can't see - a chain of sins which is expanding ever longer, the longer he lives.

'Or would you know,' persued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was as full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have laboured on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!'

Dickens is of course using the iconography of a century before, when criminals, highwaymen, pirates and murderers were hung in chains after execution or in an iron cage so that their bodies would act as a warning to others.  But the criminals of his day would have worn leg irons and manacles, and in the eighteenth century some prison inmates were still chained to the wall or floor.  The insane would also have been chained up in the days before a more enlightened approach to mental illness was adopted.

The body of Captain Kidd hangs in a iron cage.
We've all heard that ghosts rattle chains of course, and Dickens makes much of Marley rattling and shaking his chains.  So if we looked back over the woodcuts and engravings of the supernatural over the last three hundred years, we'd be sure in finding an image of a ghost wrapped in chains.  Actually in these days of the Internet I can make a good attempt at finding such images, and after a twenty -  minute search, have found only one.  Of course there are plenty of pictures from film and television, and also from stage performances of  - Marleys ghost.  But no others that I can find.

But if anyone mentions ghosts, especially in a jocular tone they always mention them rattling chains.  Does it all come from Dickens?  Is the description of Marley's ghost the source of it all?  A little internet research reveals the medieval ghost of a man who refused to leave his cloak to the poor, and is condemned in purgatory to wear the same cloak, but now as heavy as a church door.  This seems a little like Marley who wears his sins about him as a heavy chain which he has worked on since his death.  A kind of punishment that he must wear.

Charles Dickens.  Yes, he was young once.
But it's just possible that Dickens drew his description for Marley's ghost from a very ancient source.  Some time back I loaded down from Project Gutenberg a Kindle version of an old out of print book about ghost stories from the classical world.  Entitled 'Greek And Roman Ghost Stories' by Lacy Collison-Morley, formerly scholar of St John's College Oxford, it retells a tale that the Roman writer Pliny recounts in a letter.

In his letter to Sura, Pliny tells the story of a terribly haunted house in Athens that no one would live in because of it's awfully haunted reputation.   The philosopher Athenodoros saw it to be let or sold at a very cheap price so he inquires.  He is suspicious at first but on hearing the reason for the low price he takes the property for a month.  He has his bed placed in the front court yard of the house, and then spends the evening writing to keep himself occupied.  At length he hears at some distance a rattling of metal, which comes closer and closer.

Then the noise is inside the house, and soon in one of the nearby rooms.  He continues writing until a shape looms nearby.  Its of an old man, in tattered rags.  Around his body, arms and legs he has great chains.  It is the ghost, and the apparition beckons to him to follow.  But, although shaken, Athenodoros pretends not to see the ghost and carries on writing.  At last the apparition comes forward and shakes his chains over Athenododrus' head.  At last the philosopher puts down his pen, takes up the lamp and follows the ghost outside into the grounds of the house.

The ghost leads him to a spot, and then vanishes, vapour-like into the ground.  Athenodoros marks the place, and then returns the next day with a magistrate and a team of workmen with picks.  They dig up the earth and find the skeleton of a man in chains.  Athenododrus then pays to give the remains proper burial, and the ghost is never heard of again.

Apart for being the template for all haunted house stories, I think that Dickens was aware of the tale and used it in part for the description of Marley.  I may be wrong for I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all stories of the supernatural throughout history, but the Greek story prominently emerges as the only one I can find with chained ghosts.

Athenodoros and the ghost
So, I leave you with the only picture of a chained ghost (apart from Marley) that I could find - Its Athenodoros himself, and his chain rattling ghost.

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