“Love never dies a natural death” – Anais Nin
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Girl dies. Girl returns from the dead to hang out with the lover she was seeing on the side. Oh wait, I guess that’s a less common occurrence not fit for a Disney cartoon. You see, in 4th Century B.C. Thrace, the dating scene was a little strange. The region had the misfortune of being strategically important to the ancient Athenians, Spartans, and later the Macedonians, including Alexander the Great, who used it as a staging area for his land wars in Asia (probably the last time a land war in Asia was marginally successful). Everybody wanted a piece of Thrace. They had gold and silver in the Pangaion Hills, dense forest with prime lumber if one was interested in constructing a navy, and were near the sea routes that brought vital grain supplies from Scythia. Consequently, since its founding as an Athenian colony in the 5th Century B.C. (the first 10000 colonists were massacred by local Thracian tribes), the city of Amphipolis, as the main power base in Thrace saw its fair share of conflict. Athens and their Spartan adversaries spent a lot of time fighting over it. Amphipolis maintained a precarious independence until about 357 B.C. when King Phillip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) conquered the city and it became a major stop on the Macedonian royal road.
Clearly, it’s hard to find love when one is busy defending the city walls, but once Phillip II took control, appointing pro-Macedonian governors, but otherwise allowing Amphipolis a measure of autonomy from the rapidly expanding Macedonian kingdom, life settled down a little bit. Folks could set aside the armor and start looking for love again. And Phillip was an interesting role model when it came to the ladies. Henry VIII had nothing on him. He had at least seven wives, accomplishing this feat by marrying several at a time. When you’re busy conquering large swathes of Asia and the Mediterranean world, you’ve got to focus on efficiency. Standards probably got a little looser in Amphipolis, by which of course I mean that even a corpse could get a date. Creepy necrophilia or eternal love? Can’t it be both? This ancient ghost story came down to us from a fragment of writing by the 2nd Century A.D. Greek chronicler Phlegon of Tralles – the beginning of the story was lost, but scholars have reconstructed the tale from hints in other sections of Phlegon of Tralles’ On Marvels, and a summary written in the 5th Century by one of the last classical philosophers, Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus Lycaeus. According to Proclus “the events are described in a number of letters, some written by Hipparchos and some written by Arrhidaios (who was in charge of Amphipolis) to Phillip” (Proclus, Platonis Rem Publicam Commentarii, 5th Century A.D.). After all, you want to inform the king if the living dead are back in the dating pool. He might want a few more wives.
Let’s set the scene. It was around 350 B.C. in Amphipolis. Phillip II of Macedon had recently conquered the city. A reasonably well-to-do Amphipolitan named Demostratos, and his wife Charito had weathered the upheavals that were simply part and parcel of living in 4th Century Amphipolis, and had a daughter called Philinnion. When Philinnion reached marriageable age, she was wed to Krateros (370-321 B.C.), a Macedonian nobleman who would become a famous general under Alexander the Great, rather than the cartoon villain or Mortal Kombat character that his name would suggest. Sadly, Philinnion died six months later and was interred in the family tomb. No foul play was suspected. Life expectancy was just rather short in 350 B.C., although some suggested it was an unhappy marriage and “the misery of her position may possibly have caused her death” (Collison-Morley, 1912, p66-70). As it turns out, Philinnion had a little something on the side. She was desperately in love with a young, handsome innkeeper named Machates, a friend of her father’s from Pella (the historical capital of Macedon). A few versions of the story suggest Machates was actually a stranger both to Demostratos and dead Philinnion, but that was likely just for dramatic effect.
Six months after the death of Philinnion, Machates paid a visit to Demostratos in Amphipolis and was lodged in the guest apartments of the household. Not one to let a trivial matter like death and six months of rotting interfere with love, “Philinnion left her tomb by night and secretly visited him in his room. On the first evening the two lovers exchanged rings” (Hansen, 1989, p102-103) and Machates gave her a gilt chalice. Most folks look askance at intercourse with a dead lover, so Machates was understandably reluctant to admit his odd liaison. Undead Philinnion also partook of refreshments, and accidentally left a bodice behind (wink, wink). On the second night, a nosy maidservant peeped through the keyhole of the guestroom door. “The nurse went to the door of the guest room, and in the light of the burning lamp she saw the girl sitting beside Machates. Because of the extraordinary nature of the sight, she did not wait there any longer but ran to the girl’s mother screaming, ‘Charito! Demostratos!’ She said they should get up and come with her to their daughter, who was alive and by some divine will was with the guest in the guest room” (Phlegon of Tralles, Book of Marvels 2.1, 2nd Century A.D.). Maidservants are notoriously high strung, so Charitos and Demostratos were a bit incredulous.
Not unnaturally, she obtains no credence, though at last the mother, to pacify her, goes to look at the alleged miracle. By this time, however, all is dark, and it is evident that the visitor is asleep; but on interrogating him in the morning he confesses that he had had a visit from a young lady, and on request shows the ring which she had left with him in exchange for his own. This is instantly recognized by the parents as one which had been buried with their daughter, and they come to the conclusion that her body must have been despoiled by robbers. As she had promised to return the next night, they resolve to wait and see whether anything occurs. She reappears, the father and mother are privately summoned by a servant who has been instructed to watch, and they at once recognize their dead daughter (Leadbeater, 1903, p283-284).
One might expect a happy family reunion at this point, but apparently the terms of Philinnion’s return were rather strict, and she was quite cross with her parents.
With cries of joy, they threw themselves upon their daughter. But Philinnion remained cold. ‘Father and mother,’ she said, ‘cruel indeed have you been in that you grudged my living with the stranger for three days in my father’s house, for it brought harm to no one. But you shall pay for your meddling with sorrow. I must return to the place appointed for me, though I came not hither without the will of Heaven’” (Collison-Morley, 1912, p66-70).
Of course this is a much later Christian rendering of what Philinnion was reported to say, when in fact it probably had something more to do with proclaiming that what she had done was done in accord with the will of the Chthonion (Underworld) Gods, that being more appropriate for a 4th Century B.C. dead woman. After this chastisement, Philinnion promptly died again. In an odd twist for a ghost story, the body remained visible to everyone.
Her body lay stretched visibly on the bed. Her father and mother threw themselves upon her, and there was much confusion and wailing in the house because of the calamity. The misfortune was unbearable and the sight incredible (Phlegon of Tralles, Book of Marvels 2.1, 2nd Century A.D.).
If ghosts were a little more courteous to the living, they’d oblige us more regularly by leaving a tangible corpse behind. It is of course, a rather impressive feat to drop dead twice in six months, so good on Philinnion. No doubt the maidservant sold the grisly story to the Macedonian Daily Papyrus, and word got out to the population of Amphipolis. The good citizens of the city were understandably concerned, as would any of us be were the walking dead among us.
The news of this strange event soon spread abroad, the house was surrounded by crowds of people and the prefect was obliged to take measures to prevent a tumult. On the following morning at an early hour the inhabitants assembled in the theatre, and from thence they proceeded to the vault, in order to ascertain if the body of Philinnion was where it had been deposited six months before. It was not; but on the bier there lay the ring and cup which Machates had presented to her the first night she visited him; showing that she had returned there in the interim. They then proceeded to the house of Demostratos, where they saw the body (Crowe, 1848, p176-179).
Having confirmed that Philinnion found tomb-life an inconvenient damper on her love life and decided to go a’courting, the people of Amphipolis were at a loss as to what to do about it, so like any reasonable 4th Century Macedonian, they decided to consult an oracle.
Great was the confusion, and no one could tell what to do, when Hyllus, who is not only considered the best diviner among us, but is also a great authority on the interpretation of the flight of birds, and is generally well versed in his art, got up and said that the woman must be buried outside the boundaries of the city, for it was unlawful that she should be laid to rest within them; and that Hermes Chthonius and the Eumenides should be propitiated, and that all pollution would thus be removed. He ordered the temples to be re-consecrated and the usual rites to be performed in honor of the gods below (Collison-Morley, 1912, p66-70).
Sadly, the despondent boyfriend, Machates, committed suicide as a result. Apparently there are rules when dating the dead. Should a deceased ex-girlfriend or boyfriend show up in the dark of night, you might want to keep it to yourself. If news gets out, torch-wielding mobs are virtually guaranteed. But the heart wants what the heart wants, whether said heart is beating or not. As Richard Bach once said, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours,” but check their grave just in case.
Collison-Morley, Lacy, 1875-. Greek and Roman Ghost Stories. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1912.
Crowe, Catherine, 1800-1876. The Night Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers. London: T.C. Newby, 1848.
Hansen, W.F. “Contextualizing the Story of Philinnion”. Hoosier Folklore Society, and Indiana State University. Department of English. Midwestern Folklore v15. Terre Haute, IN: Dept. of English, Indiana State University, 1989.
Lawson, John Cuthbert, 1874-. Modern Greek Folklore And Ancient Greek Religion: a Study In Survivals. Cambridge: University Press, 1910.
Leadbeater, C. W. 1847-1934. The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined And Carefully Described. Chicago: Theosophical book concern, 1903.
Lévi, Eliphas, 1810-1875. The History of Magic: Including a Clear And Precise Exposition of Its Procedure, Its Rites And Its Mysteries. London: W. Rider & Son, 1913.