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In a recent book, a leading expert on ancient Middle Eastern inscriptions suggests that a tablet from ancient Babylon, dating back to around 1500 B.C.E., may represent the earliest depiction of a ghost. The tablet portrays a bearded male ghost, appearing rather grumpy, being escorted to the underworld by a woman using a rope. An inscription accompanying the illustration describes a ritual for dealing with troublesome male ghosts, suggesting that providing them with a lover is the solution.

Irving Finkel, a senior curator in the Middle East department at the British Museum in London, discovered this while studying ghost-related tablets in the museum’s vaults. He translated the ritual engraved alongside the drawing, shedding light on ancient beliefs and practices related to ghosts.

The tablet forms part of an exorcist’s handbook, offering guidance on banishing unwanted ghosts by addressing the specific issues that caused them to linger in the world of the living. In this instance, the ghost depicted appears to need companionship, as shown by his outstretched arms and bound wrists being led by a woman. The accompanying text outlines a ritual to ensure the ghost’s contentment as it transitions to the underworld.

Irving Finkel, renowned for his expertise in cuneiform, the ancient Middle Eastern writing system, recognized that previous interpretations of the tablet had overlooked its significance. The ghostly figure is only revealed when viewed from above and under specific lighting conditions. Despite being acquired by the museum in the 19th century, the tablet remained forgotten and has never been publicly displayed.

Also, there were beliefs in the survival of souls after death, which were common among major ancient civilizations. These souls often resided in a realm of the dead but could return to the living world due to reasons such as improper funeral rites or unresolved matters. Similar ghost stories with these themes were prevalent in ancient China, Mesoamerica, Egypt, India, Greece, Ireland, Scotland, and Rome.

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