Babylonian tablet features world’s oldest drawing of a ghost

Clay tablet depicting earliest recorded ghost discovered in British Museum vault.

By David Hellerman, World Israel News

It is the oldest depiction of a ghost, and it appears on a clay tablet with instructions on how to get rid of unwanted spooks. And it was sitting in a vault in the British Museum since sometime in the 19th century.

The 3,500 year-old tablet caught the eye of Dr. Irving Finkel, the curator of the museum’s Middle Eastern department. Finkel, who is Jewish, is an international authority on cuneiform, the ancient writing system of the Middle East.

He told The Observer the tablet was an “absolutely spectacular object from antiquity” that had been overlooked until now, likely because it was incorrectly deciphered.

“You’d probably never give it a second thought because the area where the drawings are looks like it’s got no writing,” he Irving told The Observer. “But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way. It is a Guinness Book of Records object because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?”

About half the tablet is missing, but Irving was clear enough about the surviving half’s features.

“It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover,” he said.

“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. ‘Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.’ Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives. Something that everybody knew was that the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off. It’s not fanciful to read this into it. It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.

“That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic.”

The back of the tablet, Finkel said, provided directions for dealing with the ghost. Male and female figurines were prepared, dressed and equipped to specifications. They were then arranged in a prescribed manner along with beer and juniper incense and then the person would make a declaration to Shamash, the Babylonian god of both the sun and the underworld.

Finkel told The Observer the tablet was presumably part of a library belonging to a temple or exorcist.

The 70-year-old Finkel made some waves in 2014 when he published The Ark Before Noah. The book argued that a cuneiform tablet describing the Biblical flood in remarkable detail from a Babylonian point of view predated the Bible.