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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Mythological Species #29 – Ghosts

One of the most popular Halloween ghouls are ghosts. Ghost stories are so abundant around camp fires, at sleep overs, in the movies and on TV, that I expected to claim that they had a universal presence among the cultures of the world, to find an abundance of information about them and then move right on to the different presentations they made. [WRONG!]

My first go-to reference book, The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (MacKillop, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-869157-2), stated that the word "ghost" is a foreign word to the Celtic language, borrowed from another
culture. The ancient Celts, believing in reincarnation, had dead spirits that seemed to be mostly synonymous with the fairies from the other world, found mostly on islands in the west or near the sea. Wales had a land of the dead, Annwynn, and a god of the dead, Donn. For ancient Celts Samhain is a time when the doors of the other world were open, but there is not much about the dead exacting revenge or hauntings.

Then I went to the Mythology of the American Nations (Jones and Molyneaux, Hermes House, ISBN 0-681-03268-5) and failed again. They didn't have ghost in the index. There was discussion of releasing spirits in burial customs, but again no hauntings. Though there was a post-European contact Ghost Dance. But this was performed to bring back the dead as living people, reincarnation perhaps?

 According to The Forest People (Turnbull, 1961) a book on the author's three year stay and ethnographic study of the Mbuti pygmies that lives in the Ituri Frest of Congo, they believe that the spirits of the dead just go off into the forest/jungle/trees to dwell with other dead spirits. That is why most people should stay with together people especially at night.

Do animistic cultures have less ghosts? What is the distinction between ghosts and spirits?

The Macmillian Illustrated Encyclopedia of Myth and Legends (Coterell, Macmillian, ISBN 0-02-860851-8) had very little even about spirits and death, focusing mainly on individual mythological figures or specific groups. [Strike three! But I was determined.]

Surprised, I went to The Children's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Heaven (Ganeri, Element, ISBN 1-902618-12-2), and found modern descriptions of ghosts but no cultural references. [Not as helpful as many of their entries that name source cultures.]

I knew a source that would not fail on info about ghosts, in The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (Guiley, Checkmark Books, ISBN 0-965-036712), there was several entries, mostly post-Protestant Reformation, with hauntings often being blamed on witches. According to this source, though, belief in dead men walking the earth as ghosts has been universal since ancient times Here I found that the Catholic Church claimed ghosts were the souls of people in purgatory while Protestants rejected this and led people to believe that ghosts were caused by the devil, demons and witches fighting to claim souls. As a result, people tended to either believe ghost were foolishness or proof of demonic forces.

Apparently Shakespeare may have had a hand in popularizing ghosts, for his Banquo and Hamlet's father are among the most famous found on the internet.

Researching on the internet, I was reminded to go back to more classical sources. Saul sought the Witch of Endor to raise Samuel's ghost for guidance and prophecy. While Greeks and Romans encountered spirits in Hades, the land of the dead.

This all leads to the question:  Are ghosts just angry spirits that wander or frequent the same people or places?

Some types of ghost or spirits are:
  1. poltergeists – "Noisy ghosts" that seem to be centered around a person – roundly dismissed by research to be the result of pranks played on gullible people by others for attention
  2. hauntings – locations that get visited by the same ghost on multiple occasions. There are famous ones, including several Indians and Abraham Lincoln [reportedly even seen by Winston Churchill] that rely on accounts from individuals that seem to be unduplicatable under scientific research.
  3. possessions – Exorcisms of that possess a person are performed by many different types of people, including Catholic priests, shamans and witches. Though sometimes people willingly seek possession to aid in communication with the other world or as a conduit to freedom for the ghosts, spirits or demons trapped in a possession. Then to my surprise this was compared to possession by the Christian Holy Ghost especially as found in the upper room with the Apostles. [That will be a comparison I'll need to chew on for a while. Not sure how I feel about that one.]
  4. Alternate perception sightings – premonitions, visitations or visions of live people that are not there when they are in reality far away in the midst of a crisis. Often these happen in comfortable relaxed settings, such as around the visited person's home. The visitation may may bear witness to the crisis, like a drowning person might appear dripping wet, but they never seem to speak. The similarity of these reports sparks conversations less of ghosts but more of telepathy between close individuals when the receiver is relaxed and open and the sender is in a highly excited state, such as near death. These visions often are not accompanied by fear, but instead seem to be unremarkable until after and in connection with news of events that may have caused them. (Banshees are similar to these types.)
There are many celebrations of days of the dead, but these are usually days of remembrances, not fear. The US tradition of trick or treat has been associated with the Celtic Samhain's day of the dead, where there is discussion of the dead walking among us, but like the Mexican Muerta De Dia, where people picnic beside graves and celebrate their dead, trick or treat is a harmless celebration of our fear of death, meant to be an emboldening experience not a horrific one.

Horror movies and stories on the other hand are meant to scare us, like ghost stories because many people find some fear in a safe venue like a story entertaining and fun. The macabre aspect that many of these stories take is a further thrill for some people.

My research books seem to indicate that ghosts are a more modern cultural phenomenon with a firm basis in only some cultures around the world. Spirits are a more wide spread phenomenon, but the interpretation each culture has of death greatly influences the interpretations of what spirits are reported to do. So ghost and hauntings were not always a world wide phenomenon.

I found myself procrastinating on writing this post. [I got lots of other projects done that I had been procrastinating on instead.] This topic leaves me with a feel of unfinished business. Perhaps that's what ghosts are: unfinished business.
Picture of the Week:

Captured Circles - I chose this because it had a certain eerie solitude that reminded me of ghosts and spirits.

Writing advice #2 - Research your topics. What you remember or think you know is not always correct and it will probably embarrass you later if you run off your [pen's] mouth without checking your facts.

Summary of Questions:
  1.  Do animistic cultures have less ghosts? 
  2. What is the distinction between ghosts and spirits?
  3. Are ghosts just angry spirits that wander or frequent the same people or places?

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