In many cultures, the spiritual essence of a human being, commonly called the soul, survives death and, in some cases, instead of journeying on to an afterlife, the soul can become a ghost which can be seen, heard, or sensed by living people. In addition, in many cultures, it is felt that ghosts have an interest in the lives of others, and there are times when this interest can be viewed as malicious. In some cultures, the spirits who have chosen to remain after death are feared as it is felt that they want to harm the living.
In his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer describes ghosts this way:
“The ghosts are described as generally invisible but people have very different views about what this means and are seldom confident that their own interpretation is correct. The ghosts are construed as what is left of a person once the body is no more.”
In some cultures, ghosts are viewed as solitary essences which haunt particular locations. Houses, hotels, cemeteries, churches, rectories, castles, prisons, and other places are sometimes viewed as haunted. These haunted locations sometimes attract visitors and reality TV programs who are seeking to document the presence of these manifestations.
Briefly described below are some of the beliefs regarding ghosts in different cultures around the world.
Ghosts were a part of the religious belief system of ancient Mesopotamia. In her essay in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Jo Ann Scurlock writes:
“Unfriendly ghosts are described as pursuing, seizing, binding, or even physically abusing their victims; they did not, however, need to confine their persecution to victims’ exteriors, but could also get inside them via their ears.”
Among the Basques in Spain, there is a belief that the soul has physical properties. In order to let the soul leave, a family member will open a window or remove a roof tile at the time of death so that the soul can be free to leave. At times, the soul may continue to frequent the household or neighborhood before leaving. In his ethnography Death in Murelaga: Funerary Ritual in a Spanish Basque Village, William Douglass reports:
“There are ghost stories in which a dead person appears to someone in the village.”
William Douglass goes on to report:
“The stories demonstrate the perceived relationship between the living and the dead, a relationship in which the latter depend on the former for assistance.”
The Basques of Murélaga are Catholics who believe in the concept of Purgatory, a state (or place) following death in which it is important for the living to offer prayers and sacrifices on their behalf so that they can leave and enter Heaven. William Douglass reports:
“…the ghosts appear to people with whom they have a personal tie, that is, they are not anonymous ghosts; secondly, the ghosts are invariably persons who are still in the transitional or purgatorial stage.”
In other words, the ghost may be seeking help to leave Purgatory.
In Ireland, it is felt that ghosts—Thevshi or Tash—are spirits or souls which are held in a state between this life and the next because of some unfulfilled duty, or because of anger against the living, or because of some desire or longing. People who die suddenly are more likely to become ghosts. In haunting a house, the ghost will move the furniture and try to attract attention in different ways.
Among the Nyoro in Africa, ghosts are the disembodied spirits of dead people and they are generally felt to be maleficent. Ethnographer John Beattie writes in Bunyoro: An African Kingdom:
“Ghosts are never seen, though they may manifest themselves in dreams; they are thought of rather as immaterial forces diffused through space. They are associated with the underworld, and with the color black.”
When people become sick or when misfortune befalls them, ghosts are sometimes seen as the cause. John Beattie writes:
“If ghostly activity is diagnosed as the cause of misfortune, the agent is most likely to be the ghost of somebody who has been wronged or neglected by the ‘victim’ and who has died with a grudge against him.”
To determine why the ghost has a grudge, a spirit medium—a person who has gone through a lengthy initiation into a spirit possession group—may be consulted. Representing the “victim,” the medium allows themself to be possessed. Beattie reports:
“The directions given by the ghost usually include an instruction to build a small hut or shrine for it; it may also demand the sacrifice of a goat. Ghosts conventionally express their resentment at neglect in terms of food; they say that they are hungry and want meat.”
In the Yoruba religious tradition, when a person dies prematurely, the souls (each person has two) will continue to live in a ghostly form in some other community. The ghostly form continues until the end of the person’s allotted life span and then travels to the spirit world.
In protohistoric Japan, the spirit of the dead person might be unwilling or unable to leave this world and might be vindictive toward those who still retained the gift of life. The malevolent spirit, ikiryō, is capable of doing great harm to rivals and enemies. This spirit can cause illness and can be driven out with an exorcism ceremony.
In traditional Japan there are also wandering spirits (meun-botoke and gaki) who have several origins. If a person dies while in a state of jealousy, rage, resentment, or melancholy, then the spirit will be condemned to wander the earth unless a living person intervenes. In other instances, as Robert Smith points out in his book Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan:
“Other wandering spirits are thought to be the souls of those who are not worshipped by their descendants; they are engaged in an endless search for food and comfort.”
Because wandering spirits have the power to enter the body of the newly dead, a bladed object such as a knife, dagger, or sickle will be placed by the pillow or on the chest of the corpse.
Regarding the Manus in New Guinea, Paul Bohannan, in his book Social Anthropology, writes:
“Ghosts continue to live in their own houses, to be the same kind of ‘people,’ and to follow the same interests as they followed when they were alive. But there is one significant difference: as ghosts they can know the deepest secrets of living people.”
With regard to ghosts in Thai village societies, James Stanlaw and Bencha Yoddumnern, in their chapter in Directions in Cognitive Anthropology, write:
“Ghosts may be used to symbolize or anthropomorphize particular problems confronting someone.”
Thus, things such as gambling losses or lack of fish may be attributed to ghosts.
In Tai village societies, whispering ghosts allow males to become involved with divination without being possessed. James Stanlaw and Bencha Yoddumnern write:
“Also, since the whispering ghost is inaudible to anyone else, what the ghost says to him cannot be disputed.”
The Nahuatl-speaking Indians are the largest indigenous group in Mexico. With regard to ghosts among the Nahua, William Madsen, in his chapter in the Handbook of Middle American Indians, reports:
“Individuals who die by violence in a fight or an accident become ghosts doomed to roam the earth at night and frighten the living. The souls of those who die leaving unfilled vows, unpaid debts, or undistributed property become earthbound until their affairs are settled by their relatives.”
Religion 101 is a series exploring various religion-related topics in which the concept of religion is not restricted to religions which utilize the concept of god(s) or to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). More from this series:
Religion 101: The Meaning of Ghosts
Religion 201: Reincarnation
Religion 201: An Introduction to Ancestor Worship and Veneration
Religion 201: Human Sacrifice
Religion 101: Confucianism
Religion 101: Demons
Religion 101: Rites of Passage
Religion 101: Shamanistic Ceremonies