I’m still scared to turn the light off before I go to sleep every night.
I still make sure there’s no ghost under my bed.
I still wonder if my house is haunted.
For a 15 year old, that’s pretty ridiculous right?
Over the years, these small habits and fears have faded from my childhood, but still remain distinct enough to cause inconvenience (I mean, it’s seriously time consuming if you have to check to see if there’s someone under your bed 3 times a night). But I think one of the main reasons for these thoughts ingrained in my head are the stories I hear of people who have seen them. Really seen them: ghosts.
Gosh, the very word sends shivers up my spine.
I’ve dwelled across about a million of these stories. Once my friend on a school camping trip heard clicking in the trees= ghosts. Another swore she saw a bus driver’s head turn into a giraffe’s head for a split second= ghosts. One even claimed that if you flush a toilet, a ghost will come out of it (this stopped me from flushing toilets for several weeks after, and now, if I’m feeling weary, I can never flush a toilet without running away immediately).
Here in Hong Kong, there is even a radio broadcast every Thursday afternoon where people tell stories, that they swear are true, of their contact with ghosts.
Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t believe in ghosts (honestly, anything unexplained I almost always conclude with aliens).
Because of these common ghost stories and my unshakeable habits, I feel an obligation to try and figure out:
- Why do cultures across the world develop similar beliefs about ghosts?
Why do we see ghosts if they’re not real? (And they’re not, I promise you.)
This article will be an introduction into the beliefs about ghosts in the ancient world, and picking out common themes. Only then will we be able to explore why these common themes exist.
Specifically, we will be looking at psychological theories as answers to the questions, but be prepared to start a little dabble into the philosophical side of the theories too (you can’t resist a sprinkle of philosophy).
What Are Ghosts?
So… first up. What are ghosts?
It may sound like a stupid question, but it is one that begs to be answered, for the general public would understand the concept of ghosts, but don’t know where to draw the line of what is considered a ghost.
Let’s get started with the easiest place first, google.
According to google, a ghost is, “an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.”
However, some may argue that ghosts do not have to be apparitions, it may just be the soul or spirit which returns.
Also, as I pondered upon what people meant by ‘ghosts’ I stumbled on the possibility of ghosts that aren’t human. Can there be animal ghosts?
To tackle this, I decided to ask 20 people at my school whether they thought ghosts had to be images of people, or could they be animals?
Out of this, 3 people said no, they must be human. And the other 17 stated they thought animal ghosts were possible.
One of whom even said, “I think they can be animals because a ghost is someone or something which was once living and has appeared in the living world. So since an animal was once living and some may say have a soul as well, they could appear as ghosts.”
Another typed, “well i think animal ghosts r legit”.
Since the majority believed when animals died, they too can have ghosts, I concluded with this criteria.
So far, there are 3 points defining ghosts:
- It must be an image of a dead organism that was once alive.
It must hold the soul of spirit of the organism.
- It must be a nebulous image (hazy, or undefined).
However the organism will only have a ghost if it can think for itself (meaning it has a brain and is able to execute advanced but essential cognitive functions).
Take this example, my mother always tells me that in Chinese tradition, when you see a moth, it is your deceased ancestor coming to visit you. Now, the question arises: is the moth a ghost or not? The soul and spirit of the deceased is definitely there, but the moth lacks the aspect that a ghost is supposed to be a hazy, and unreal image.
My answer: the moth is not a ghost. To me, it is more of a reincarnation. Yes, it does hold the spirit or soul of the deceased, but it lacks apparition.
Where Did it All Start?
Ghosts have been known to appear in the ancient world for thousands of years, so the origin of the idea that dead people can visit the living still baffles historians today. However, we are able to trace back the earliest accounts of ghosts from different communities around the world whom most likely had never even had contact with each other.
For example, take the ancient Egyptians. Their civilisation thrived prosperously for a long time, from 8000- 525 BCE, as they were innovative thinker in science, technology, art and religion. Their cultures were also heavily influenced by Greece and Rome. Can this be said to be true for ghost cultures?
In ancient Egyptian culture, it was believed that after a God called Osiris weighs their soul, if a soul was lighter than a feather, they would be allowed into the Field of Reeds (a place which was exactly like their life on Earth).
The weighing of the heart ceremony.
However, if some injustice had been committed by one of the living, typically someone they knew, the ghost would return to harass them and right a wrong. However, ghosts may also watch over the living.
Ancient Rome and Greece
Dead souls were not supposed to return to Earth. In fact, there was a different after life allocated for different types of people. For example, if you were a soldier killed in battle, you would be admitted to the Elysian Fields (paradise) and if you were a good person, you would be admitted to the Plain of Asphodel (which was still pleasant). If you were a bad person on Earth, you went to the land of Tartarus where you would make amends from your sins from Earth until you were permitted into another land.
The Elysian Fields
However, Ghosts still returned to earth primarily if they were not given a proper burial. If a ghost returned in a dream, it was believed the image was of a loved one of the dreamer. Ghosts who roam out of dreams were restless and suffered an unjust death, and therefore returned to Earth in order to avenge their death. Additionally, these ghosts could not be seen unless in the presence of some kind of light, and would appear in certain times of the night.
The prospect of Ghosts in Chinese culture is heavily influenced by the tradition of ancestor worship. It is believed that paying respect to ancestors by visiting their grave or offering them food, goods and money, they would grant you good fortune.
Food offerings to ancestors.
Because the dead seemed to be elevated to such a high position of authority, it is unatural for a deceased spirit to remain or come down to earth.
However, a deceased spirit of a loved one or close friend coming back to earth in the form of someone’s dream was seen as a telling of good advice and guidance.
However, for those ghosts not in dreams, their spirit would only be here if they had suffered a violent death, such as drowning or dying in battle, and so did not have a proper burial. These ghosts could only be seen at night and in torch light. Ghosts excluded from dreams were usually believed to be connected to evil forces.
There are certain themes about the characteristics of ghosts which run through these cultures in the world which rarely came into contact with each other, which means it was unlikely that these ideas transferred between cultures. These themes include:
Ghosts being unatural, meaning deceased spirits are not supposed to come back to earth.
They can return to earth to seek justice that was not fulfilled in their living lives.
They can return to earth to give guidance to the living.
They can return to earth to harass the living.
How could they have come up with the same kind of ghosts if the cultures had never met? I know what you’re thinking, and no. The answer is not that ghosts are real. What I’m thinking is that there may be a psychological basis in humans which causes us to develop a certain idea ghosts, which is why the idea of the deceased returning in such a way is universal. Each of the ghost’s characteristics may have been derived from a psychological factor in all of us.
The two characteristics I will be focussing on in this series of articles is what makes us compelled to create a ghost who comes back for justice, or to harass the living. My next article will be delving into the obscure relation between ghosts and a human’s core sense of justice.