The Backdoor of Hades

Wednesday, 26 May

Leonard said that although the suggestion that Jesus was empowered by the spirits of the dead might sound ridiculous to the modern reader, it would have been perfectly acceptable to a first century audience, particularly given the wealth of stories involving the magical employment of the souls of the violently killed and the untimely dead that were in circulation throughout the ancient world. “The ‘untimely’ dead?” I asked, “what difference does time make? Is there a ‘timely’ dead?”. Leonard was amused by my question and he explained that numerous civilisations throughout history have feared the souls of those who have met a violent or early demise. And the rationale behind this was fascinating…

He told me that the ancients believed that if a person’s soul was taken from the body too early or by violence then the soul would be bound to the earth where it would co-exist amongst the living and cause all kinds of mischievous and malicious harm. He said that stories concerning the earth-bound nature of these souls may have arisen from physical examinations of the corpses of individuals who had experienced a sudden death since modern medical studies reveal that the bodies of individuals who have died suddenly or suffered a violent death tend to behave abnormally after death; not only do these corpses decompose at a slower rate but it is not uncommon for the blood inside the body to reliquify. An observer who is not acquainted with this unusual post-mortem phenomenon might conclude that a dead body is still alive, since it would appear fresher than expected and it would bleed when cut. Leonard seemed to know an enormous amount about the behaviour of the body after death, which would have sounded very unnerving coming from anyone else! 

Leonard went on to explain that the second-century Christian writer Tertullian assigned these unfortunate souls to two categories: those who had died before the completion of their apportioned time on earth (which he called the ‘aoroi’) and those that had been killed by violence such as suicide or murder (which he called the ‘biaiothanatoi’). Since both the aoroi and biaiothanatoi were thought to be embittered by their premature and unnatural cause of death, they were believed to be particularly vengeful towards the living and this hostility towards the living made them particularly keen to lend their assistance to deviant and coercive magical activities such as curses and love charms. In fact these aoroi and biaiothanatoi spirits were considered to be so valuable that if one could not be found then one would be made and there are reports of magicians carrying out human sacrifice in order to create a restless and powerful spirit (this is probably the origin of the rumour that Simon Magus performed his miracles using the soul of a murdered boy that he created out of thin air and promptly sacrificed).

Leonard said that similar beliefs regarding the restless dead were alive and kicking, if you excuse the pun, in the New Testament era and to illustrate his point he drew my attention to the account of the Gerasene demoniac in chapter five of the Gospel of Mark. The author of Mark tells us that the Gerasene demoniac has been living amongst the tombs of the dead and therefore an early reader of the Gospels who was acquainted with the superstitious fears surrounding the restless dead would infer that his possessed state is attributable to the fact that he has been exposed to hostile earth-bound spirits that are forced to remain within the vicinity of their graves. Leonard also mentioned that the identification of the spirits in the passage as ‘Legion’ is particularly significant as soldiers and men killed in battle were deemed to be the most fearful of the restless dead since not only did they suffer a violent death but their bodies often remained unburied and unidentified on the battlefield and this disrespectful treatment of the corpse was thought to contribute to the spirit’s anger and restlessness.

I was a little puzzled by this digression into the world of the dead until Leonard explained that Jesus’ contemporaries would have been familiar with these popular beliefs regarding the violently and untimely killed and Herod may well be referring to these superstitions when he explicitly states, in Mark’s version of the story, that ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead’. Leonard said that the souls of the beheaded were considered to be particularly fearsome and vengeful and stories of headless demons were commonplace in the ancient world (particularly in Hellenistic Egypt), therefore it is highly likely that the circumstances of John’s death would have been particularly significant for the early reader of the Gospels who would have understood that John’s violent demise satisfied the requirements for the creation of a powerful biaiothanatos spirit that was ripe for exploitation by any competent magician - or by Jesus, as Herod suggests in this particular case.

Leonard’s lecture on the magical employment of the restless dead was very interesting I must admit, but amidst this talk of violent and premature death I couldn’t help but reflect on the death of my brother Daniel. I realise that there is never any certainty when it comes to matters of the afterlife, but Daniel died in violent circumstances and my family and friends undoubtedly believe that he died before his naturally appointed time. Consequently I cannot help but wonder whether Tertullian is to be believed and Daniel’s spirit is not at peace. It must be terrible to be trapped in between worlds. And what an equally terrible thought that is for us, the loved ones left behind. 

I was curious to hear more on the subject but the grandfather clock chimed the hour in the hallway at that point and I realised that I had lost track of time. The rain was still beating against the workroom window and I desperately wanted to continue our conversation, but it was getting dark outside and I knew that Alex would be furious if I returned home late once again. My questions could wait until our next sitting and I certainly had enough to think about for one day, so I made my apologies, gathered my bag together and stood to leave. Leonard accompanied me into the hallway – as he always does at the end of our sessions – and he handed me one of the many black umbrellas in the wooden hat stand by the door. I thanked him, said my goodbyes and stepped out of Elmfield House into the heavy downpour. It was dreadful weather, but I had not anticipated that the rain would be the least uncomfortable aspect of my journey home...