An excerpt from the writings of Pliny the Younger.
Our leisure furnishes me with the opportunity of learning from you, and you with that of instructing me. Accordingly, I particularly wish to know whether you think there exist such things as phantoms, possessing an appearance peculiar to themselves, and a certain supernatural power, or that mere empty delusions receive a shape from our fears. For my part, I am led to believe in their existence, especially by what I hear happened to Curtius Rufus. While still in humble circumstances and obscure, he was a hangeron in the suite of the Governor of Africa. While pacing the colonnade one afternoon, there appeared to him a female form of superhuman size and beauty. She informed the terrified man that she was “Africa,” and had come to foretell future events; for that he would go to Rome, would fill offices of state there, and would even return to that same province with the highest powers, and die in it. All which things were fulfilled. Moreover, as he touched at Carthage, and was disembarking from his ship, the same form is said to have presented itself to him on the shore. It is certain that, being seized with illness, and auguring the future from the past and misfortune from his previous prosperity, he himself abandoned all hope of life, though none of those about him despaired.
Is not the following story again still more appalling and not less marvelous? I will relate it as it was received by me: There was at Athens a mansion, spacious and commodious, but of evil repute and dangerous to health. In the dead of night there was a noise as of iron, and, if you listened more closely, a clanking of chains was heard, first of all from a distance, and afterwards hard by. Presently a specter used to appear, an ancient man sinking with emaciation and squalor, with a long beard and bristly hair, wearing shackles on his legs and fetters on his hands, and shaking them. Hence the inmates, by reason of their fears, passed miserable and horrible nights in sleeplessness. This want of sleep was followed by disease, and, their terrors increasing, by death. For in the daytime as well, though the apparition had departed, yet a reminiscence of it flitted before their eyes, and their dread outlived its cause. The mansion was accordingly deserted, and, condemned to solitude, was entirely abandoned to the dreadful ghost. However, it was advertised, on the chance of some one, ignorant of the fearful curse attached to it, being willing to buy or to rent it.
Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to Athens and read the advertisement. When he had been informed of the terms, which were so low as to appear suspicious, he made inquiries, and learned the whole of the particulars. Yet none the less on that account, nay, all the more readily, did he rent the house. As evening began to draw on, he ordered a sofa to be set for himself in the front part of the house, and called for his notebooks, writing implements, and a light. The whole of his servants he dismissed to the interior apartments, and for himself applied his soul, eyes, and hand to composition, that his mind might not, from want of occupation, picture to itself the phantoms of which he had heard, or any empty terrors. At the commencement there was the universal silence of night. Soon the shaking of irons and the clanking of chains was heard, yet he never raised his eyes nor slackened his pen, but hardened his soul and deadened his ears by its help. The noise grew and approached: now it seemed to be heard at the door, and next inside the door. He looked round, beheld and recognized the figure he had been told of. It was standing and signaling to him with its finger, as though inviting him. He, in reply, made a sign with his hand that it should wait a moment, and applied himself afresh to his tablets and pen. Upon this the figure kept rattling its chains over his head as he wrote. On looking round again, he saw it making the same signal as before, and without delay took up a light and followed it. It moved with a slow step, as though oppressed by its chains, and, after turning into the courtyard of the house, vanished suddenly and left his company. On being thus left to himself, he marked the spot with some grass and leaves which he plucked. Next day he applied to the magistrates, and urged them to have the spot in question dug up. There were found there some bones attached to and intermingled with fetters; the body to which they had belonged, rotted away by time and the soil, had abandoned them thus naked and corroded to the chains. They were collected and interred at the public expense, and the house was ever afterwards free from the spirit, which had obtained due sepulchure.
The above story I believe on the strength of those who affirm it. What follows I am myself in a position to affirm to others. I have a freedman, who is not without some knowledge of letters. A younger brother of his was sleeping with him in the same bed. The latter dreamed he saw some one sitting on the couch, who approached a pair of scissors to his head, and even cut the hair from the crown of it. When day dawned he was found to be cropped round the crown, and his locks were discovered lying about. A very short time afterwards a fresh occurrence of the same kind confirmed the truth of the former one. A lad of mine was sleeping, in company with several others, in the pages’ apartment. There came through the windows (so he tells the story) two figures in white tunics, who cut his hair as he lay, and departed the way they came. In his case, too, daylight exhibited him shorn, and his locks scattered around. Nothing remarkable followed, except, perhaps, this, that I was not brought under accusation, as I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these events happened) had lived longer. For in his desk was found an information against me which had been presented by Carus; from which circumstance it may be conjectured—inasmuch as it is the custom of accused persons to let their hair grow—that the cutting off of my slaves’ hair was a sign of the danger which threatened me being averted.
I beg, then, that you will apply your great learning to this subject. The matter is one which deserves long and deep consideration on your part; nor am I, for my part, undeserving of having the fruits of your wisdom imparted to me. You may even argue on both sides (as your way is), provided you argue more forcibly on one side than the other, so as not to dismiss me in suspense and anxiety, when the very cause of my consulting you has been to have my doubts put an end to.
Pliny the Younger
There are three stories in the letter: the phantom of Africa; the early ghost story; the hair cutting people in white tunics. Let’s work through them one at a time.
Africa appeared to me, when I first heard the story, to be a genius locus: a spirit of place. She appears as this in Between Sand and Sea. It’s entirely unclear what she wants: why she gives these prophecies to a mortal. This makes her seem suspiciously like a faerie seeking emotional reaction, and for her story to be retold. Assuming she’s not a faerie, she seems to be limited to the northern expanse of Africa: the fertile bit above the Sahara. The spirits from that part of Africa are engaged in a civil war between sterility and fertility, represented by the Sahara and the Nile, or the colours red and black. Africa would seem to serve the Black, because her area is fertile. She could be wanting the young Roman to go and prepare himself before administering his territories, because the Black, unlike most spirits, has a use for humans. As they spread irrigation, they are agents in the war against the desert.
The second section is a traditional ghost story, complete with clanking chains. The ghost has all of the Ars Magica elements, being geographically limited and having a final purpose which,, once fulfilled, allows the creature to rest. The scholar knows this, and so he is able to say to the ghost “No, wait a minute, I’m just going to finish writing this. We both know that you need to communicate with me, so you just wait there.” That’s interesting, and it’s not somethign a faerie would allow: it would transform into a monstrous shape to force a stronger emotional reaction. I do note that the ghost seems to cause sickness, wasting, and mental illness in the people it encounters. This seems entirely contrary to the ghost’s mission of getting its body buried. I’d suggest this is involuntary, and occurs simply because of the proximity of the ghost. They are perhaps a form of warping.
The third story contains what I’d like to consider as early cases of alien abduction. Glowing figures come int through the window and, upon a sleeping person, perform a medical experiment. Now, the experiment isn’t a particularly great one: they are stealing hail, which can be used as an Arcane connection to control the person from a distance or reduce their magical resistance. It still contains all of the usual characteristics of what we would now call a sleep apnea experience. In the Middle Ages these were also called being hag-ridden. Some people conjecture they have a relationship to the modern experience of people who claim to have been taken from their beds by alien figures. I’ve always though of alien abductions as a faerie experience, but you could argue instead that these are the weakest type of spirits who are interacting with humans through dreams . In dream states, humans are less strongly protected by their personalities. The spirits in this story predict the future, but do not seem to do anything to bring the future about. They tell Pliny he won’t be charged with a crime. They do this in the useless way, understood only in hindsight, so common in folkloristic oracles.
In the frame narrative, the letter is to Pliny’s friend Sura. He is more knowledgeable about metaphysics than Pliny, but has a tendency to argue both sides of any question. Pliny finds this confusing, but in Ars Magica, it’s one of the paths to Enigmatic Wisdom. It’s the sort of contemplation of contradiction which lies at the heart of some approaches to zen. So, in this letter we have examples of spirits using humans as soldiers in their wars. We have ghosts using humans to fulfil their final business on Earth, and we have very early versions of the alien abduction story