The term paranormal investigator can conjure up all sorts of images. For many it may be the gizmo laden stars of recent paranormal reality shows or a proton pack wearing Ghostbuster. Others may think of a team of boffins in a university department or perhaps a well known figure such as Harry Price who is often considered the father of paranormal investigation as we know it today. But who was the first paranormal investigator?
To answer that question we have to travel back over 2,000 years to ancient Greece and the first recorded foray into ‘ghost hunting’.
Athenodorus Cananites (c.74BCE-7CE) was a stoic philosopher and a teacher of Octavian (Ceasar Augustus) who’s ghostly tale was recorded for posterity by the Roman letter-writer Pliny the Younger (61CE-C.112CE).
Pliny states that there was a large house in Athens, with an unsavory and unhealthy reputation. The sound of what appeared to be weapons clashing and chains clanking could be heard at night emanating from within. This phenomena was soon followed by the spectral appearance of a filthy, emaciated old man with scraggly hair and beard. His hands and feet bound with fetters which rattled as he moved them.
This, as you can imagine, had a profound effect on all who lived there. They endured sleepless nights and their minds were subjected the horrors to such an extent that some inhabitants even died from fear. It wasn’t too long before the house stood empty. Finally, deserted, it remained quiet but when it was eventually put back up for sale no one was interested.
When Athenodorus, the philosopher, arrived in Athens he saw the house was for sale. Reading the posted bill, he discovered the dwelling’s price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion and he enquired about it further. No one held back on the houses horrific reputation, but the philosopher was not in the least put off. Indeed, he was eager to take the place. And did so immediately.
As evening drew near, Athenodorus had a couch prepared for him in the front section of the house. He asked for a torch, stylus, and writing tablet, then dismissed his retainers for the night. To keep his mind from being distracted by imaginary noises and apparitions, he decided to directed all his energy toward his writing.
At first, the night was silent. Then came the rattling of chains. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen. But the noises increased and seemed to grow closer and closer until eventually they seemed to be in his very chamber.
Athenodorus looked up and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him. It stood before him, beckoning with a finger. Showing what to me seems like a remarkable amount of stoicism, Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that the spectre should wait a little, and bent over his work once more. The ghost, however had other ideas and shook his chains over the philosopher’s head, beckoning as before.
Athenodorus now took up his torch and followed the spectral old man. The ghost moved slowly, as if held back by his chains. Once it reached an open area in the houses courtyard, the ghost disappeared. Athenodorus grabbed a handful of grass and leaves and placed it on the spot where the ghost had vanished.
The next day, Athenodorus called the magistrate. In his official capacity, he dug up the spot that had been marked. There they found the bones that were all that remained of a long buried body which had been bound with chains. Carefully they collected the skeletal relics and gave them a proper burial. The tortured soul was now at rest, and the house in Athens was now peaceful once more.
At the end of the day this account is probably best considered to be simply a good story. It has many of the traits of an urban legend: The unhealthy house, the tormented spirit with a purpose, the clanking of chains and final laying to rest of a body are common to so many other tales. This combined with the fact that Pliny could not have heard Athenodorus’ account first hand as their lives did not overlap, means that we have to take it all with a pinch of salt.
What I do find interesting though is even in those ancient times there was an interest in this kind of story, the details of which can still be seen in countless other stories since then, although I suspect that had Athenodorus been around today he would have taken a digital voice recorder and camera along with his writing equipment on that fateful night.