Pompeii: Ghosts, Curses, and Brains of Glass

November 16, 2020

Empty streets of PompeiiLast fall, I was lucky enough to visit the ruins of Pompeii. October not withstanding, it was a hot, sunny day, even first thing in the morning when our tour group arrived. In the distance, the green slopes of Mount Vesuvius rose against the sky: lush, serene, and bearing absolutely no resemblance to the flaming monster that destroyed the city – and several others – in 79 AD.

It’s a singularly eerie place. 

At that time of day, the ruins were all but abandoned – just a few hundred tourists scattered across what was once a bustling metropolis. There were too few people in too much space. And there were scars of utter devastation right next to buildings that were perfectly preserved, as if waiting through the long centuries for their inhabitants to return.

Mosaic tiled floor in PompeiiSmall wonder that some people consider Pompeii to be cursed. In fact, more than a hundred tourists who’d once made off with tiles, stones, or other pilfered relics have since mailed them back, blaming the stolen objects for all that’s since gone wrong in their lives. As Global News reported last month, some of those unfortunate tourists were Canadian.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not among those cursed visitors. I was sufficiently haunted by the experience of being herded past the remains of one of Pompeii’s victims, with enough time to snap a photograph but not enough to pause for a moment in respect. Italian tour guides are militant about their schedules, and I felt rather ghoulish as a result of this unseemly haste. No way would I compound the insult by making off with a sketchy souvenir!

It was the memory, perhaps, of that huddled body, that made recent discoveries so fascinating to me. Or maybe not. Let’s be honest, this science is so weird, so cool, so – dare I say it? mad – that I probably would have found it fascinating no matter what. Because Italian researchers have discovered a Vesuvius victim in nearby Herculaneum whose brain had turned to glass.

The working theory is that the poor fellow’s skull was flash-heated by the volcanic blast, liquifying his brain tissues, which crystallized as they cooled. That is… not a thing we knew human bodies could do.

Increasing the “oh wow” factor? Follow up research using electron microscopy has revealed that the structure of some of the man’s neurons – some of his actual brain cells – was preserved during the process. CNN has a photograph, and it is amazing.

Imagine if the man’s last thoughts were also preserved in these fragile cells – echoes of what must have been a terrifying, if blessedly brief final moment. Would he have cursed the same gods that light-fingered tourists to Pompeii believe have cursed them? 

Little wonder that the streets of the city feel less empty than echoing… echoing with the voices of Vesuvius’ ghosts.

Victim of Vesuvius eruption, Pompeii

11 Comments on ‘Pompeii: Ghosts, Curses, and Brains of Glass’

  1. This is absolutely fascinating, Lindsey, on a number of levels, but for me (of course!) the ghosts and curses are irresistible. A man turned to glass, curses following tourists across the ocean, a deserted city… I want to go there! thanks for such an intriguing blog post…

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    1. Doesn’t it spark all kinds of novel ideas?!

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      1. Yes, it really does!

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  2. I feel so sorry for these people. I am as guilty as anyone I am intrigued by Pompeii. But we are right in the middle of something so personal and private. I like I said, am as guilty as charged. I want to see Pompeii in person. Then I feel this guilt. Who am I to see these poor souls just laying there for the world to see.

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    1. A lot of complicated emotions, that is for sure. For me there was a real sense of being in the presence of something both tragic and sacred, demanding of respect.

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  3. My husband and I visited the site today 4.12.23. Spectacular knowing how powerful the Romans were in that time. Their respect for beauty and art is something to admire. I had a variety of emotions through the day most of all sadness. A city that held over 12,000 people and surrounding areas that perished from the volcano. What a site.

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    1. It’s so powerful, isn’t it? I’m glad you had a chance to experience it for yourself.

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  4. I definitely felt like I brought home some bad energy. I had to do a salt room and scrubbed a Himalayan salt rock on me to tell the bad spirit or energy to leave. Info not recommend anyone that is susceptible to the other world to visit.

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  5. I have been lucky enough to visit pompeii 3 times .First time was 2019 and tourists were allowed to sit in the amphitheatre. A group starting singing o.sole mio it was a magical experience. The last time we visited was just last week Sept 2023 you was no longer allowed to go in the amphitheatre. Its a marvelous experience to visit pompeii and they are doing more excavating. I have wondered what it’s like when visitors have gone at the end of the day. ?@ i guess only the cat and 2 dogs we saw in there will know

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    1. Wow, that sounds incredible, Debra! I’d love to go back again, and I’d love to visit the museum in Naples next time, to see the artifacts they’ve found.

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