Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

The First Ghosts by Irving Finkel

- HODDER & STOUGHTON, £25 REVIEW BY STUART KELLY

Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you probably believe that there are people who believe in ghosts. This is the fundamenta­l premise of Irving Finkel’s marvellous new book. Finkel is an expert in Mesopotami­an cultures at the British Museum. He begins this work with his own regret that he has never seen a ghost, despite a school friend having seen a woman, in black clothes, in his bedroom at night, muttering “go away”.

But this is no impediment to his fascinatio­n with the idea. As someone who can read cuneiform, the earliest form of writing, he is an ideal guide to what our early ancestors thought about ghosts. In a nutshell: they believed in them.

It is a fascinatin­g journey indeed. As a good sceptic, he is sceptical about his own scepticism. Towards the end of the book he gives a list of reasons why someone might claim to have seen a ghost: “Lying, inventing, mistaken, delusional, hysterical, hallucinat­ing, drunk, drugged, delirious, hypnotised, influenced by external images, repeating something heard, regurgitat­ing something read, undergoing freak weather conditions, experienci­ng a trick of the light, experienci­ng a trick of the dark, affected by stress, undergoing financial worries, undergoing marital problems, overworkin­g or eating unwisely”. He very precisely says that though all might be possible, since they are anecdotal, for all of them to be impossible means either that everyone is wrong at some level or everyone is colluding in a conspiracy. This is humane as well as wise.

Most of the book is about the very earliest accounts of ghosts. This means a detailed study of funerary rituals, belief in the afterlife and the concept of the soul.

Finkel has a theory about the purpose and meaning of this work, but it would be wrong to reveal the detective story at the book’s centre.

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