Views of Ghosts in Different Cultures
With Halloween drawing ever nearer, I decided to write an article about one of its most common aspects (and costumes) – ghosts.
Before we start, we have to ask ourselves, what exactly a ghost is. Well, even this definition sometimes differs from culture to culture. But, something definitions have in common is that a ghost is usually a soul, or spirit, of a dead person or animal that can either be felt by, or appear to the living. However, the descriptions and behavior of the ghosts depend on the culture.
In the Western world, or rather English-speaking countries, a ghost is considered a manifestation of the dead. Its history goes back even before Christianity when people believed in animism, which is a belief that places, objects and animals have a spiritual essence, if not a soul. People had beliefs, which later translated into popular culture, that ghosts are mostly tortured souls that died a violent death. The ghosts could be released from wandering the Earth if the object that tied them to this plane was destroyed or a task completed. In Europe, mostly around the Iberian Peninsula, people left a window opened or removed a tile from the roof at the time of death to allow the soul of the deceased to leave undisturbed.
The negative outlook on ghosts started changing in 1930s, with the appearance of Casper the Friendly Ghost in children literature and ghosts also started to get a more benevolent side. Popular culture also started exploring the effects the ghosts have on living people from physical injuries to psychological harm.
Staying in the West, but moving to a different culture, Native Americans viewed the ghosts in a similar way, but almost always malevolently. While not all tribes had the same views on the afterlife, they generally believed that the ghosts were vengeful and capable of causing illnesses and death. Native Americans were very peculiar about burial rites due to that reason, since they believed that any mistakes occurring during the burial would cause the ghosts to remain on Earth. A lot of the tribes, most notably Oglala Sioux and Paiute believed that ghosts would want to entice their living relatives to join them in the afterlife. Meanwhile, the Navajo believed that the ghosts were the bad parts of the deceased’s soul whose mission was to seek revenge for wrongful death or cause general disarray.
In Asia, mostly in Japan, they believed that the reason the spirit of a dead person might be unable to leave the world is because they could be vengeful to those who still retained the gift of life. They believed in several types of ghosts, one of such is ikiryo, a malevolent spirit capable of causing great harm, but only to its rivals and enemies, causing them illnesses or even death. Another ones are meun-botoke and gaki, types of wandering spirits who are the "soul remains" of people who died while feeling intense jealousy, rage, resentment or melancholy and are thus condemned to wander the earth unless a living being intervenes.
However, not all rituals regarding ghosts are to appease their violent nature. Chinese celebrate the Hungry Ghost festival during the time that it is believed that the gates to the realm of the dead are opened and allow them to visit the living. People place food at the area where they think such visit might occur. They even have Chinese opera and singing performances that are conducted for the ghosts’ entertainment. While the living are allowed to watch them, the first row is always reserved for the dead.
Of course we cannot forget about Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico. This holiday involves family and friends who celebrate the life of the deceased and remember them through traditions that help the living support the dead’s spiritual journey. While Day of the Dead is usually a day of sadness, Mexicans view it as a day of celebration because their deceased loved ones are awake and celebrate with them.
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