split image of Dr Finkel and clay tablet

Engraved on a Babylonian clay tablet approximately 2,500 years ago, the world’s oldest depiction of a ghost is that of an elderly male spirit being guided back into the underworld by a female figure.

The image and its cuneiform description, which together form part of a guide to exorcising ghosts, were deciphered by Dr Irving Finkel, a senior curator of the British Museum’s Middle East department.

“This piece of clay is a direct window into what these ancient people all that time ago thought and believed about ghosts,” he explained.

“If you had a ghost and it wouldn’t go away, then you’d have to get professional help. The man who wrote it was one of these professional exorcists.” 

Received by the British Museum on 3 November 1883, the tablet dates back to the fourth century BCE. Although it’s incomplete due to being damaged during its recovery, its purpose as a guide to dealing with restless spirits is clear.

Its scribe, Marduk-apla-iddin, lays out a spell and ritual that apprentice exorcists can use to dispel phantom tormentors. The accompanying engraving portrays a slender, bearded man with shackled wrists, tied with rope and firmly held by a woman.

According to Dr Finkel, the man is a restless, elderly spirit who “liked the ladies”. To rid the man’s family of his ghost, an exorcist conjured a “female partner”, whose job is to “take him down to the underworld”.

engraving on clay tablet

clay tablet with highlighted engraving

Only the first few words of the spell survive. Translated from Babylonian, it reads: “Shamash, lord of the broad…”

Shamash was the ancient Mesopotamian sun god, and as a divine judge he was associated with the underworld, which is probably why he was called upon during this ritual.

Dr Finkel holding clay tablet

Dr Finkel has never seen a ghost himself, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in them.

“I know a lot of people who are intelligent […] who tell me that they have seen a ghost, and it’s quite difficult to brush all of them aside as if they’re all deluded or nutty or wrong, so I have an open mind about it,” he said.

“I believe that the default position for humanity is to believe in ghosts; that one has no idea really of the reality of anything because people don’t talk about it. But one day, one day they will.”

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