The belief in ghosts remains widespread, even in the present day, when science has provided people with evidence of secular miracles and secular knowledge. The answer for such persistently unreasonable belief is likely to be that it allows people to give credence to the notion of an afterlife. We humans let go of life reluctantly, and to believe in ghosts means that we can continue to hope that our spirits will survive beyond the grave.
Aside from the human wish to remain perpetually alive somewhere in and some fashion, one may perceive how difficult it would have been for early people to separate the world of dreams from the world of reality. The dead people they had loved and those they had feared would appear to them in dreams. Such appearances would give rise to the belief that the departed had a continuing existence in a world contiguous with the waking one. Scholars have pointed out that tribal elders likely encouraged such notions, in an attempt to ensure their rule over those they dominated. If people thought their rulers could reach them even after death, they would prove easier to manage in the world of the living.
There have been many books written over the years to prove the existence of ghosts. But there have also been a fair amount written to prove ghosts do not exist.
There have been famous ghost hunters who investigate spiritual claims scientifically and demonstrate their complete falsity. Joe Nickell is one of the best known and respected in the present day and I have listed some of his works in the Bibliography.
But for this lecture, I wanted to take a different direction. I have no credence in the notion that ghosts or an afterlife exist. But instead of treading once again over the well-worn path of the ghost hunters, I decided that another way to examine the issue was to research the societal history of ghosts through the ages. I believe that this approach will yield many insights into the cultural genesis of belief in spirits. R.C. Finucane wrote what remains to the present day the best volume about the varied cultural descriptions of ghostly appearances. His 1984 Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts is an admirable study of ghosts as they have appeared to people in different eras. I owe most of the facts and ideas discussed in this lecture to Finucane’s book. The talk will discuss the reported appearance of ghosts from the classical world of the Greeks to the present day.
After a glance at the belief in ghosts in ancient Greece, my lecture will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on English ghosts and the reports of them. The English focal point is an attempt to bring some order into an unruly and widespread topic. What emerges from historical scrutiny is that ghosts have been described as having different physical appearances from age to age. Ghosts have also been ascribed functions and identities which clearly alter with each era. The cultural formation of ghosts has everything to do with the changes in society, in religion and in science with every century.
It has nothing to do with the truth of any alternative existence, spiritual or otherwise. It does not prove the truth of immortality, of heaven, or of a god.
Before I turn to ghosts in classical Greece, I would like to spend a few minutes discussing the origin and meaning of the word, “ghost.” I am referring to the Online Etymology Dictionary for this portion of the lecture. The word originated from the proto-Germanic “gaistaz”. This word has come from the Old Saxon, “gest,” Old Frisian, “jest,” Middle Dutch, “gheest,” and German, “geist,” which means spirit or ghost. It appears to be from the PIE root, “gheis,” used in forming words involving the notions of excitement, amazement, or fear. The Old English, “ghost,” meant breath, good or bad spirit, angel, demon, but also a man or human being. The Biblical use was soul, spirit and life.
According to the Dictionary, “Ghost is the English representative of the usual West Germanic word for “supernatural being.” In Christian writing done in Old English, it is used to render Latin, “spiritus,” as in Holy Ghost. The sense of the word as a “… disembodied spirit of a dead person, especially as imagined as wandering among the living or haunting the living, is attested from the late 14th Century and returns the word toward its likely pre-historic sense.”
Hades, the nether world in which Greeks believed, was the dwelling place of departed peoples’ spirits, containing weak, complaining ghosts. Those spirits has as much substance as puffs of smoke and were of little use except to impart some information or give some advice. Hades was an utterly dull and boring place. The living had little care for the dead, concentrating on the art of living fully.
That picture is true for most of the Homeric Age, which lasted approximately from 1100 – 800 BCE, until the classical age of Greece during the 5th Century BCE and the Hellenistic Age ( 323 – 31 BCE) which followed it.
Despite the magnificent aesthetic and intellectual brilliance of the Greek society of the classical age, some people began to turn to mysticism. There sprang up a cult of the dead. The dead people venerated by that cult were believed to be the departed heroes of the culture. Such ghosts were said to walk at night, haunt houses, and demand that humans offer sacrifices to them or their graves. Rather than ineffectual shades, ghosts were now reported to be substantial and often frightening. But when they returned for good purposes rather than evil ones, they could offer helpful advice and warnings to the percipients.
The Greeks had become more involved with concern about their own souls, and what would happen to them in the afterlife. The spiritual atmosphere of the age had become replete with fear and uncertainty. Some of the anxiety had its roots in reality. The city-states of Greece experienced repeated warfare and political turmoil, which was accompanied with the breakdown of the family and an inability to solve social problems. Freedom was becoming limited to smaller and smaller groups of people.
The difficulties Greek culture faced seems to have caused many citizens to look outside of reality to otherworldly solutions for anxiety. At the same time, imported “Oriental” religious cults were entering Greece and becoming popular. There were native cults that were semi-mystical, such as the schools of Pythagoras, Empedocles and the neo-Platonists.
There was an introspective, soteriological turn to the culture. Some scholars believe that as the Hellenic culture expanded, it took on non-Greek shamanistic aspects from beyond the Black Sea into the wastes of Southern Russia. The home-grown Orphic cult took on Oriental aspects as well. The result of such tendencies was a focus on the soul, correct behavior and the attainment of salvation.
Scholars such as H.R. Dodds believe that the later Greeks were unable to take on the responsibility of freedom enjoyed by the enlightened intellectuals of the earlier era. They chose to live in a world dominated by ghosts, spirits, stars, magicians and anything that did not require conscious choice on their part. They decided that all they needed to do was follow the will of the gods. But now I would like to turn to some specific views about the dead in ancient Greece.
There was an interesting and widespread assumption that the dead continued their existence inside the grave, down in the earth. Sacrifices were made at the burial site, with wine being a popular offering. Both Greeks and Romans said a prayer for the deceased that stated: “May the earth rest lightly on you.” The Greeks and Romans had feasts or festivals for their dead ancestors. They invited them into their homes for one day a year, fed them and then formally ordered them to depart for another year.
However, there was also a fearful notion that, especially in cases of violent or premature death, the spirits of the dead would linger near their corpses. The rational philosopher, Plato, spoke of specters “prowling about tombs and sepulchers,” especially if they had lived evil lives.
Those graves were avoided, and in general so were all graveyards at night. Such fears display the belief in body/spirit unity, or dualism. But heroes’ graves, with their spirits active near their bones, were thought to bring peace and prosperity to the cities that owned them.
There was the intellectual belief shared by philosophical circles like the later Platonists and Stoics that the soul leapt from the body at death and went to rejoin the spiritual realm or Being, from which it had issued. Variations included beliefs that the soul had to be cleansed by burning off earthly sludge or that it was born again into another life form. There were also philosophers like the Epicureans who did not believe there was any postmortem spirit, that when the body died, so did the soul. And just as in the present day, many people believed several such ideas about the soul at one time, even when the notions were contradictory.
The apparitions of ghosts to people were sometimes frightening- the spirits were reported to be prepossessing, with wild hair and threatening features. But in general, the dead looked much as they had in life, except for being much less substantial. The early Christians borrowed many pagan beliefs about spirits. Virtually everything believed and reported about ghosts in the early Christian era were repetitions of reputed pagan encounters with spirit manifestations. Sometimes the living might approach the dead for advice and apparently the spirits had to respond. A famous example of this belief was the story of the warrior sage, Ulysses, from The Odyssey of Homer, written down in the 8th Century BCE.
Ulysses needed to find out how his long voyage home would end. He was instructed to build a ditch, fill it with honey, milk, wine, barley meal and blood. The ghosts from Hades all came to drink from his ditch, but Ulysses held them off with his sword until the dead seer, Tiresias, came. The seer drank his fill and then advised Ulysses. The ghosts in the Odyssey were described as insubstantial and impotent. There are many other examples of the living consulting the dead for advice during the Homeric and later Classical eras.
There were other reasons ghosts appeared to the living in that era. A common one was to voice concern for proper burial rites. In the famous 8th Century BCE Iliad, the warrior, Achilles, and his men were in the process of preparing elaborate funeral rites for his comrade, Patroclus. But then the insubstantial ghost of Patroclus appeared to Achilles. He explained that he could not enter Hades until he was properly cremated. He foretold that Achilles would also die in Troy and he requested that their ashes be put together in one urn. Why he should ask for a proper burial when the living warriors were in the process of preparing one for him was not explained in the text.
A second type of spirit in the ancient world frequently appeared to advise the living without having to be summoned by them. There was a third group of ghosts that came back to name the guilty parties in their deaths. The fourth type was quite similar to the third. Spirits returned to the world to pursue the guilty living, even to the point of physical assault. In general however, it was not the specter that frightened people, but the message of warning it brought to each percipient.
The predominant Greek culture was supplanted by the Roman Empire in about 31 BCE. The pagan religion began to be eroded by Christianity beginning with the 1st Century CE. Although Epicurean thought had spread among many educated pagans, most pagans still did not believe that what they called “souls” died along with their bodies. The Christian Church was faced with a difficult path- it had to combat certain pagan beliefs about the afterlife that had lingered for many years, but at the same time, had to offer an attractive alternative about the afterlife to its members.
Justin Martyr (D. 165 CE), was an early Christian theologian who cited pagan beliefs and practices as “proof” that humans existed beyond the grave. He also used the Old Testament tale of Saul evoking the soul of Samuel as proof of the immortality of the soul. Countless Christian apologists would employ the same example for centuries. The Church Father, Origen (D. 254 CE), believed that good souls would be rewarded and the bad ones would be punished until Christ’s return, when even Satan would be saved. The idea of universal salvation was a controversial one and never became Church dogma.
The theologian and Bishop of Hippo, Augustine (D. 430 CE), began to solidify Christian doctrine. He also attempted to contradict and ban lingering pagan beliefs, studying the famous 29 BCE Aeneid of Virgil in order to contradict it. Augustine stated that the dead passed directly to the other world regardless of what sort of burial they received. In 392 CE, he wrote a letter complaining that some Christians still kept up the drunken parties and pagan feasts at graves that were supposed to be for the consolation of the dead.
The Milan Church officials did not allow Augustine’s own pious mother to offer cakes and wine at the shrines of martyred Christians. Augustine agreed with the churchmen that making such offerings was a pagan custom.
The pagan practice of sending the dead off with travelling money to pay the ferryman of Hades to take them deeper into the region of the dead was quite popular. It was called a viaticum, which was a Latin word meaning ‘provisions for a journey.’ The Christians replaced the custom of putting the coins in the deceased’s mouth with the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, which they believed was the body and blood of Christ, was administered to people on their death beds. The Church councils of 400, 525 and 600 CE ordered that the Eucharist host should not be put into dead people’s mouths or left in their tombs. The rite of the final communion, called the viaticum, revealed its pagan origin.
The early Christian church appropriated many ideas and customs from another of its sources, the Judaic religion. Judaism had an early belief in a neutral “Sheol”, something like the Homeric Hades, where the dead spent all eternity in neither joy nor punishment. After the end of the Babylonian exile (circa 539 BCE), however, the Judaic religion turned to the notion of Gehenna, where evil spirits of the dead were punished. Good souls were believed to be rewarded elsewhere, especially after the future resurrection of the dead.
But Judaism, too, had to contend with the popular belief of communicating with the dead. Deuteronomy 18. 10-12 warned that none should be found casting spells or trafficking with ghosts and spirits.
Necromancy, communicating with the dead to predict the future, was also forbidden. Isaiah 8. 19-20 stated that it was futile to “seek guidance of ghosts and familiar spirits who squeak and gibber.” But the famous Old Testament story in I Samuel 28:13 was often cited as “proof” of ghostly spirits. In that tale, Saul used the witch of Endor as a medium to speak to the ghost of Samuel. Try as Christian and Jewish theologians would, they could not eliminate pagan practices and beliefs in communicating with spirits of the dead.
But Christianity needed to promise eternal life to people who feared death. Its rivals, the other mystery religions, were offering the hope of immortality to their members. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and then his second expected Parousia, or appearance, when he would judge the living and the dead, were articles of faith for Christians. The righteous souls were expected to be taken into heaven and the transgressors would be sent to hell where they would be punished for eternity. The torments of dead sinners who were punished even before Christ’s Second Coming were frighteningly and vividly described by Christian writers.
The Church had continued difficulty with confirming the whereabouts of the good souls. Augustine stated that the souls of the dead remained in secret, while they waited for the Last Judgment. He claimed that the wicked souls were in a place of fire; the others were in a vague Bosom of Abraham, a condition of peace or rest. Augustine was adamant that the dead did not truly communicate with the living. He insisted that the dreams and visions people had of them came from their own minds. He did believe that the living could aid the dead with prayers.
The Church also had difficulty with the growth of the cult of martyred Christians, who were believed to perform miracles or to cause miracles to happen on behalf of the living. But again, the advantage to the belief in miracles, especially among the uneducated masses, was important to the Church. Magic was still widely believed in as well, another problem. For example, the magician, Simon Magus, the bane of early Christian churchmen, claimed not only to have conjured up the ghost of a murdered boy but also stated that he had then had the ghost do whatever he commanded it to do. There was gossip that Jesus had once possessed the ghost of John the Baptist. Despite Church disapproval, there continued to be reports of ghostly appearances to humans.
Ghost tales from the Christian era were very similar to the tales from earlier pagan cultures. There was a plethora of stories that told of ghosts delivering death warnings to the living. Needless to say, they all ended with the foretold death of the warned. Another favorite story showed an obvious connection to the earlier pagan world, that of ghosts seeking proper burial rites. Then there were the tales that reinforced the idea that ghosts could be helped out of Purgatory into Heaven by the prayers and aid of the living. Catholics believed that Purgatory was a place of suffering where the souls of the dead received purifying punishment before being allowed to enter Paradise. But often those who made the choice to be sinners during their lifetimes did not immediately make it to the cleansing fires of Purgatory. There was a popular belief that such spirits haunted the sites of their wicked deeds. There were a few tales of the walking dead, but they were rare during the early days of Christianity.
Early Medieval ghosts had the function of confirming belief in established Christian teachings, which included affirming the reality of Purgatory, the need to venerate relics and to attest to the existence of immortal souls. Pagan invaders of a country were said to have hung two monks from a tree. It was claimed that by evening their bodies began to chant psalms, creating amazement and terror in their murderers. Such tales were told to affirm the existence of life after death.
However, as the Church carefully and successfully constructed a Christian afterworld, which could be reached through prayer, the dead seemed to find it easier to come back from that world into this one. Gregory the Great wrote: “It seems that the spiritual world is moving closer to us, manifesting itself through visions and revelations.” A golden age of communication with the dead was dawning. We shall trace its development through each era up to the present day.
The later Middle Ages, the 11th to 13th Centuries, were concerned with Purgatory and its punishments. The necessity to have the sacraments of confession, extreme unction and absolution administered to them before dying was stressed to people. It was not enough to confess sins because they had to be confessed properly. When the living encountered ghosts, the spirits informed them that those who died unrepentant had extra punishments inflicted on them. Note how the ghosts’ concerns and warnings meshed with the concerns of the Church at that time.
There was a strong belief that some uneasy spirits still roamed the world.
It was thought that such wandering spirits could be forgiven and absolved of their former sins if they were truly repentant. Around 1400 CE, there were several accounts of ghosts haunting a village and making the dogs bark madly. Apparently the spirits had formerly been involved in a murder before dying. Some boys chased the revenants and were able to catch and hold one until the priest arrived. The portrayal of a ghost that could be physically held was an innovation. Ghosts from the classical and early medieval ages were said to disappear if a living person tried to touch them. Once absolved by the priest, the ghost never bothered the village or the dogs again.
Confession and absolution were not the only sacraments emphasized by the returning ghosts. The spirits affirmed the necessity of participating in other sacraments important to the Church, such as baptism. A man on a pilgrimage saw a death procession on the road, with an infant wrapped in a stocking wriggling along the ground. He asked the infant to explain his predicament. The ghost child explained that he was the man’s aborted son, buried without a name or a baptism. Questioned later, the midwives confessed. According to the tale, the man baptized his infants’ remains and its spirit found rest.
People not only believed in ghost processions, aggregations of sinners wandering world together, but they also gave credence to the notion of ghost armies. The armies were said to be marching across the earth forever because of their war crimes. Death processions appeared in the Jewish lore of the time as well.
Ghosts showed the visible marks of their various punishments, including black marks on different limbs and so on.
The Medieval specters were reported as solid and corporal, while earlier tales had spoken of unsubstantial, shadowy ghosts. The Church most likely did not condemn such beliefs because the tales emphasized that if sins were properly atoned for, forgiveness was possible even after death. Such notions reinforced Church power over people as it was the Church that provided most of the means for people to achieve forgiveness for wrongdoing.
Masses, with monetary contributions given to the Church by living relatives and friends, were considered an excellent way to free spirits from Purgatory and speed them on their way to Heaven. So were indulgences, which ransomed souls for a price. The Church seemed to disapprove of such beliefs on one hand, while with the other, it encouraged and profited from them. A visionary reported, for instance, that she saw a three-tiered Purgatory that also contained guardian angels. She claimed that each time masses, indulgences and prayers were offered by the living to help their relatives and friends in Purgatory, the souls would gradually ascend to lighter punishment areas and finally be prayed to Heaven. Many spirits appeared to living friends and relatives to thank them for paying for masses and other spiritual aids on their behalf, and reported that they were now forgiven and in Heaven.
Spirits returned to give witness to the fact that their membership in a religious order had saved their souls and guaranteed them a heavenly welcome. One can observe the dramatic change in the appearance of the ghosts in their reported substantiality and in their frequent advertisements for the benefits of masses, indulgences and membership in holy orders.
The stories helped to quell anxious doubts about an afterlife, and reassured them that the participation in Church rites and organizations would help save them. Such tales have always been expressions of human fears rather than any religious truth.
Fears concerning life beyond death sometimes resulted in practices that were very close to necromancy, divination by means of communicating with the dead. People made pacts or mutual promises that the first one to die before the other one had to make a point of returning. They believed that a reappearance of the departed would prove there was life after death. The pacts were considered sinful and potentially dangerous by the Church. This did not stop the curious and fearful from entering into such agreements. Even a few members of the clergy participated in the pacts.
Christian tombs and graveyards became lively places as well during the later Middle Ages. There were no longer the vague sounds and other weak manifestations reported in earlier times, but unequivocal appearances, communications and songs from the tombs. Spirits, especially saints, seemed to climb in and out of their tombs, complaining about the uncouth pilgrims who defiled their graves. The ghosts claimed that the pilgrims scraped muddy clogs on their tombs, and even spit, bled or vomited on the graves. Hands would reach up in church yards from the graves in order to receive holy water. Sometimes when the Office of the Dead or other masses were read, the dead spirits’ voices were heard to chime in from beneath the earth.
The manifestations appearing to the living were not doubted, but people began to fear that the ghostly apparitions they saw were not human souls, but tricks of the devil.
It was claimed that if adjured in the name of Christ, the Trinity and so on, the spirits would take flight and leave. Such fears became more extensive with coming centuries and engendered much theological debate.
Late Medieval ghosts appeared with pallid faces, worn-out bodies and dressed in dark or dirty clothing. They also continued to show the marks of their suffering on various parts of their bodies. There was no doubt that they were material. They could often be caught and held. Such souls could also assume any number of forms- “… a sphere of light, a sphere covered with eyes, a young child, a dove, and so on.” Some took the forms of birds, animals or even ambulatory bundles of hay. The ghosts were all solid, concrete figures to their percipients. The tales of ghosts who had just died and appeared to friends or loved ones at the moment of their death began to be popular, as were the stories of death-warning ghosts.
The poltergeist began to make a few early appearances at that time and would become even more popular during a later age. Poltergeists were believed to be spirits who were responsible for physical disturbances and were often considered to be malicious. 12th Century tales reported manifestations of “unclean spirits” that threw household items about and cut holes in clothing that was locked away in closets or chests.
More than three-quarters of the ghosts and almost two-thirds of their percipients were men during that era; nearly half the ghosts and almost two-thirds of the percipients were members of the clergy. Over three-quarters of the percipients knew the identity of their ghostly visitors during the Middle Ages.
These facts are strikingly different from the reports of apparitions from later times, when the spirit visitors were unknown to their percipients.
The descriptions of ghosts began to shift once again as the religious turmoil of the 16th Century intensified. The Catholic Church of the 16th Century was under siege from within, but more particularly from without. The popular and pervasive Protestant Reformation had mounted a serious competition for members and power. The Protestants called for reform of many Catholic Church doctrines and practices. Many German states, as well as Switzerland, England and other localities, had adopted various forms of Protestantism as their state religion. Some areas outlawed Catholicism. The notion of Purgatory was thrown out as having no scriptural warrant.
Purgatory and the sale of indulgences and masses in order to redeem dead souls from punishment in the afterlife were eliminated. However, one would be mistaken in assuming that the issue of ghosts was settled and that people began to see that such notions were unfounded. Several important writers, as well as theologians, took up the issue and assured that a rational outcome did not take place. There came to be a general Protestant consensus that ghostly apparitions had never been from Purgatory but that instead they were devils, angels or illusions. Therefore the idea of spirits was not eliminated, and it was only their nature that came under dispute. Protestants rejected the idea that ghosts were returned spirits of the human dead. Catholics continued to insist that ghostly apparitions were dead human souls.
The Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) not only refused to modify the earlier Church position on spirits, but confidently reaffirmed the doctrine on Purgatory and assistance for the dead.
William Shakespeare’s 1600 play, Hamlet, took up the various ideas about ghosts that were circulating in the culture and turned the concepts into a rich argument. At that period, England was changing from a Catholic to a Protestant nation. Both religions’ beliefs about ghosts circulated freely throughout the society. Scholars continue to debate the exact nature of the father/king’s ghost as well as the issue of what Shakespeare was attempting to convey about ghosts in his play.
What is certain is that part of Shakespeare’s audience, the Protestant side, would have been convinced the ghost was a demonic apparition, meant to lead the characters of the play to ruin and doom. Another substantial group, holding with older Catholic beliefs, would have believed that the murdered ghost was a visitor from Purgatory. Hamlet’s response to his father’s ghost was ambiguous – he speculated on its nature, whether it was ‘healthy’ or ‘goblin-damned.’ Hamlet worried about the spirit’s intent- whether “wicked or charitable.”
His friend, Horatio, apparently preferred to believe that the ghost might be so demonic as to assume “some other horrible form,” a common medieval notion. The ghost itself claimed that it was “… doomed to restlessness and punishments ‘…till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away.” The ghost clearly implied that he was in Purgatory. Following the custom of the time, its stated purpose was to urge Hamlet to take revenge against its murderer, a not uncommon ghostly request.
The argument concerning Shakespeare’s intent loses the point of his ability to create dramatic richness. The issue of apparitions was raised to greater significance in the 16th Century because of the rejection of Purgatory and the Protestant belief that ghosts were not the souls of humans. The following statement by R. West is an excellent commentary on Shakespeare’s famous ghost: “… he (Shakespeare) did not bind it positively to a Christian theory of ghosts… Decisive explanation of supernatural figures tends to reduce their effect of awe and mystery; the indecisive answers Hamlet provides to the standard question it raises tend to rather create awe and mystery.” Shakespeare gave the era’s ghost beliefs dramatic richness and depth. As Finucane states: “Hamlet sums up the ghost-controversy of the 16th Century.”
16th Century ghosts seemed to increase in the solidity they had begun to acquire during the late Middle Ages. A young man kicked the ghost of his friend, which sent the specter away. But the young man remembered and reported how his foot touched the corpse’s cold skin. A pliant, sexually active young woman passed away in 1590. Apparently she had not made a full death bed confession. The night she appeared as a spirit, there was an awful stench in the building housing her corpse, someone was dragged from his bed, a stone struck a servant, dogs barked and horses near the house kicked wildly. More frightening events happened after her burial, such as the appearance of smashed pottery in the burial room and so on.
The woman, Catherine, soon made her ghostly appearance. Flames came from all her stench-filled joints, and a ten inch wide flaming belt punished her lustful areas. She said that this was because she had not made a full confession and claimed she was in Hell.
Such a ghost was able to affect objects and people in the living world. Ghosts’ apparitions were material and remained so throughout the 16th Century.
The beginnings of communication with ghosts by way of knocking also began in the 16th Century, but the zenith of the practice will be discussed when we arrive at the 18th Century. 16th Century ghosts were substantial enough to pull covers from a bed, to cough, and to pace up and down a person’s room. Some became radiant after Masses were said for them; others liked to smash up furniture or do harm to half-built houses. They might appear bloody, wounded or mangled. Occasionally only a hand would appear to a percipient or even a bundle of burning straw. Many of the spirits demanded masses, confessed damnation, or tried to point out their murderer.
It was in the 17th Century that the various notions about ghosts began to coalesce. James I became King of England in 1603, and along with his crown, inherited a divided kingdom. On one side were Catholics and on the other, the Protestant Puritans. The official religion, Anglicanism, was in the middle. There were also Calvinists, Quakers, and other sects clamoring to be heard. There was wide divergence in the notions about the afterlife. The monarchy was temporarily abolished in 1648 after a civil war and when it was restored in 1660, several thousand nonconforming ministers were ejected and the Anglicans gained hegemony.
The quarrels between the various religions and sects were very serious and deadly, with a few fringe groups rejecting the idea of immortality itself. Most of the religions affirmed the notion of an afterlife, however.
Many of them issued statements concerning Heaven, and stated that belief in universal salvation should be considered unorthodox. One of the few doctrines that seemed to unite most of them was that denying belief in an afterlife denied basic Christian teachings. They were also united in the fear that denying an afterlife might lead to rejection of the concept of god. Accordingly, most Christian groups had a common enemy in atheism. Philosophical materialism was another target. There was concern as well about the newer Continental philosophies of Hobbes, Descartes and Spinoza.
The debate generated heated arguments that had begun during the Protestant Reformation concerning the afterlife and the nature of ghostly apparitions. According to Finucane’s sources, such arguments had a curious outcome by the second half of the 17th Century. Protestants were not supposed to give credence to the notion that ghosts were the spirits of the human dead. However, Protestant writers published ghost stories just as their Catholic opponents did in order to prove the “reality” of individual postmortem existence. Although their interpretations differed, both groups were eager to prove the existence of an afterlife.
Collectors aided the writers by diligently forwarding ghostly visitation reports to their publications. The most famous collections of apparitions came from a small group of writers who freely borrowed from each other, re-arranging and editing material to suit their own various theories. Many of the writers were clergymen and some had excellent reputations. Henry More (1614-87), a Cambridge Platonist who wrote Antidote of Atheism, and his friend, Edward Fowler (1632-1714), were both very engaged in providing direct evidence of the supernatural in the form of reports of ghostly apparitions.
For a more extended discussion of the 17th Century writers on spirit visitations to humans, there is no better source than Finucane’s Appearances of the Dead. Most of the Protestant writers never lost sight of their ancient enemy, the Catholic Church. Their animosity often gave rise to serious discussions of the existence of Purgatory, a revival of the Reformation arguments. But the Protestant writers had more immediate concerns, which were the threats from philosophical materialism and fears that the entire concept of immortality would come to be abandoned.
Some interesting facts emerge when the accounts of ghostly 17th Century apparitions are compared. For example, the most popular collections provided what the writers claimed was proof that there was life after death. But the tales had acquired an additional function. About half of the ghost narratives began to be related to provisions for heirs, warnings to the living and information concerning murders. The spirits also appeared to the living to confess their own guilt. Freeing dead souls from Purgatory was not as interesting or as exigent as it had been. When the 17th Century stories are compared to the ghost tales of the Middle Ages, there was more emphasis on the needs of the living rather than on the needs of dead in the later era.
There was an increase in the reports of poltergeists and their attacks on houses as well. After Charles I was executed in 1649, there were disturbances reported at the Royal House in Woodstock. But the infamous Tedworth disturbance of 1661 was more notorious and influenced many other tales. A Mr. Mompesson had confiscated the drum of a demobilized Roundhead who had fought against the King.
Within a month, there were drumming noises reported, now outside the house, and now inside, especially in the room where the drum was kept. By mid 1663, when the attacks ceased, children’s beds had been thumped, scraping noises heard under beds, and a stitch of wood had pursued a servant. The house had been afflicted with sulphurous odors, chairs had walked around rooms by themselves, shoes had flown about, pocket-money had turned black, a bible had been hidden in the hearth and so on.
Such tales of poltergeists and their mischief seem to have provided additional, if irrational, proof that the human dead truly inhabited the world of spirits, angels and even, most importantly, of god. Poltergeist mischief made up about a quarter of the collections of apparitions we have from that era. Those malicious spirits were much less attuned to social needs than the ghosts in the other types of tales.
In general, 17th Century Baroque ghosts displayed freedom from purgatorial punishments. Figures clothed in heavy cloaks, wreathed in flames, dragging around blackened limbs and so on were all but gone from the narrations. However, there was a tendency, according to the stories, for ghosts to appear as they were at the moment of their murder, which made for macabre descriptions of visitations. The ghostly visitors did not appear to float through walls or suddenly materialize out of thin air. They were often depicted as politely knocking, then opening the door of a room, and closing it when they left.
Interestingly, now cut free from purgatorial anxiety, it may be observed that the apparitions reflected the anxieties of the people who claimed they had seen ghostly visitors. The spirits seemed very much in tune with the concerns of the living.
Finucane points out that two-thirds of the ghosts were personally known to the percipients. By the 19th Century the reports had changed and most percipients did not know either the identities or the purpose of their ghostly visitors.
In general, the 18th Century was not the best of times for ghosts. Percipients continued to relate tales of spirit visitations, but they did not initiate new concepts. When they described their ghostly visitors, they repeated the out-dated spirit motifs that had belonged to an earlier age. The motifs depended on whether they had Protestant or Catholic inclinations. There were not many reported spirit visits in England at that period, so it is necessary to turn to France and the extensive work of a Benedictine abbot, Augustine Calmet (d. 1757), on ghosts. Calmet provided his readers with both purgatorial proofs and references to respectable writers in order to make his work appear doctrinally sound and scholarly. While he admitted that some of the stories of the return of the dead were too incredible to believe, other tales, he insisted, were not.
One amusing tale reported by Calmet was the haunting of a printer’s shop in Constance in 1746-47. A poltergeist disturbed the shop with sighs, rappings, noises, stone-throwing and physical assaults. Exorcist after exorcist tried to dislodge it, but failed. In February, 1747, Calmet alleged that “… the spirit specter opened the shop door, went in, displaced a few articles, went out, shut the door, and from that time, nothing was seen or heard of it.” Perhaps the failed efforts of the well-known exorcists had succeeded in boring it back to death.
Calmet’s work is particularly interesting because he took into account assorted narratives about Eastern European vampires who murdered innocent people. His volume included some of tales of the undead whose corpses had to be pierced through with wooden stakes to keep their souls and bodies from wandering the earth. Finucane points out the curious resemblance of vampire lore to some of the Christian hagiographies, the idealized biographies of the saints. 18th Century Europeans believed that the bodies of vampires did not decay. They also believed that the bodies of Christian saints did not decay. The belief in and reliance on vampires’ and saints’ relics is striking. If a person was infected by a vampire, many of the cures suggested eating earth from the revenant’s grave, smearing oneself with vampire blood and so on. People made use of saints’ relics in the same manner, including using saints’ bones, holy water and so on.
For most practical purposes, however, 18th Century ghosts were quite traditional. The formidable collections of ghost narrations put together earlier by the clergy and other scholars did not increase during the 18th Century. Collections of ghost stories began to decline and were considered unfashionable among the learned. The Age of Enlightenment (Please see The Enlightenment, Part 1 and Part 2, at AtheistScholar.org.) was an era when the emphasis on man’s reason was ascendant and many people began to rely on human intellect and powers. Superstition was criticized and mocked. I have written elsewhere in this lecture series about the great thinkers, artists, and writers of the Enlightenment and the growing lack of reliance on, and belief in, supernatural events.
Deism and natural theology became ascendant concepts, and the attention paid to spirit tales was considered irrelevant and ludicrous to the learned. It was the age of Voltaire, Diderot, Newton, Locke, Hume, Gibbon and so many other intellectuals, skeptics and scientists. Empiricism and rationalism was the order of the day for the educated, which affected both the worlds of theology and philosophy. Certain assumptions were common to Anglicans, deists, atheists, keen thinkers and scientists alike. The 18th Century also began to enjoy the profits of technology, new personal security and better communications. However, even though superstitious notions began to be criticized, many of the common people still embraced the idea of hell-fire, joined enthusiastic religions like Methodism, and retained their belief in ghosts as well.
The renowned author of the 1755 Dictionary, Samuel Johnson, commented on the issue of the afterlife and the spirits with his customary caustic and rapier-like style. He said: “It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All arguments are against it; but all belief is for it.” But the next century was looming and the some of the assumptions of the 19th Century were very different from the preceding one. The battle between the disparate schools of thought intensified with the ascendancy of the Victorian Era.
The Victorian Era continued the disruption that had taken place between reason and faith. Not only was there reliance on rationalism, science, and technology, but the belief in progress continued unabated.
Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species and his 1871 Descent of Man undermined biblical fundamentalists and others who argued that the world and its creatures had originated from god’s design. By the beginning of the 19th Century, advances in science were proliferating. There was Herschel in astronomy, Faraday in electro-magnetism, and Lyle in geology (Please see The War between Science and Religion at AtheistScholar.org.) In anthropology, E.B. Tylor and Frazier’s 1890 Golden Bough explained religion in terms of human, rather than divine, needs. William James wrote Principles of Psychology and in 1902, Varieties of Religious Experience, underscoring the exploration of man’s mind.
However, Victorians began to fear that religion might crumble as science advanced. The social problems that came with industrialization contributed to the uneasiness of that era. While the industrial revolution was changing England forever, there began to be a reaction against urban filth and squalor, materialism and scientific rationalism. Romance themes in literature and poetry became popular. Works that placed emphasis on idealized rustic life were particularly in demand. Along with the enthusiasm for lost innocence came an interest in folklore. Books, journals and collections of folklore materials were quite popular. Some of the collections contained accounts of apparitions and hauntings. Since the tales appeared in “scholarly” publications, the educated classes rationalized that their interest in ghosts was respectable.
There was a surge of interest in spiritualism and the debate between spiritualism and Christians took on a grim seriousness. Many spiritualists attempted to combine certain aspects of science with the beliefs of the occult or spiritual world.
They claimed that spiritual appearances had an objective reality. One of the most prominent of those thinkers was Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who seemed to provide an objective base for communication between the living and the dead. By the 1830’s, it was claimed that mesmerized German women were in touch with the spirits of the dead. The spirits of the dead, according to Finucane, “… were supposed to use ‘animal magnetism’ upon certain living beings, sensitives or mediums, to effect these interviews.” By the 1830’s and 1840’s, both Europe and America had intense interest in mesmerism’s spiritual potential. There were physicians who tried to effect physical cures with the pseudo-science of mesmerism. Edgar Allen Poe, that superb author of horror, published his Mesmeric Revelation in the mid 1840’s.
Knockings, in which the ghosts of the dead rapped, or knocked out, answers to questions and communications made to them by mediums, gained the interest of people. Such séances, as they were known, were extremely popular in both Europe and America around the mid 1840’s, but it was in America that the phenomena reached its zenith. Experiments in communicating with the dead involved not only rapping, but table tilting, Ouija boards and various forms of writing presumed to have been written by spirits. The enthusiasm for spiritual experiments coincided with the evangelical religious revivals in England and America at that time.
Some of the mediums claimed the dead spoke through them. They had a reassuring message for the living, that there was no pain on the other side. Some of them also made claims that spirits ascended through various levels until everyone was saved at last. Such notions contradicted orthodox Christianity, particularly Catholicism.
The later 19th Century saw the bizarre complete “materializations” of the dead. The medium was apparently bound by cords in an immobilizing trance. Beings believed to be spirits of the dead then appeared from behind curtains and cabinets and walked among the séance participants. Sometimes an unlucky medium was caught by skeptical participants when portraying a ghost. When the area of purported confinement was searched, the medium would no longer be there. She had obviously slipped out of her bonds and was imitating the spirit she had pretended to have called. Women mediums were prominent at that time, but there were some famous male mediums as well.
The Society for Psychic Research was founded in 1882, and that organization encouraged thousands of Victorians to describe their supernatural experiences in person or by letter to its members. Collections such as those by the SPR yield some interesting data. There was a large category of spirits who announced their own death to the living (i.e. Someone killed in another location would appear at about the same time of their death to a percipient that knew them and then disappear.) But aside from that group, most of the purported spirits seemed to have no apparent function and percipients did not report any intelligible action on the part of the ghosts. It was alleged that some spirits haunted families, but monastic ruins and converted nunneries remained the most popular haunting sites.
Near the end of the 1800’s, the spiritual séance had gone into decline. Many English and Americans, however, continued to believe that the apparitions they experienced were real. Anglican and Catholic clergymen continued to feel a significant threat from spiritualism.
But there were pastors who believed that all the reports from the other side confirmed the truth of human immortality promised by the Christian faith.
I would like to conclude this section on Victorian ghosts by citing what Finucane and other scholars have learned about them. Most were figures whose identity was unknown to their percipients. Their forms were insubstantial, vague, and they were dressed in black or grey. Some also had some luminescence. While most of the percipients were women, there was a fairly equal gender distinction between the ghosts. Most percipients did not report specific intentions on the part of their ghostly visitors. The spirits had nothing to say about buried treasure, murders, revenge or legacies. Most percipients were satisfied by their insubstantial visitors, however.
But the vague Victorian ghosts did have one important function. The Christian faith had been assaulted by science and skepticism. At the same time, romantic hopes and visions had risen in popularity, probably due to a longing for some drama and excitement. Even though the spirits that made their appearance to the living had become rather insignificant, they still provided some proof of human immortality. The older functions of ghosts seemed to have melted away, leaving the fundamental purpose of spirit visitations intact. The specters’ insubstantiality appears to be a metaphor for the increasingly meager hope for human immortality, a concept battered by the rise of science. At any rate, those vague ladies and other nameless figures who arrived and floated away without a word provided comfort for the living and hope for continuation of being after death.
Despite exponential leaps ahead in the fields of science, medicine and technology, ghosts fared well in the 20th Century and continue to remain popular in the present day. After the First World War, there was another peak of belief in spiritualism. Many young men had been needlessly slaughtered in that conflict and some of their families turned to spiritualism. They were attempting to establish a connection between themselves and their dead loved ones. After World War Two in the 1940’s, however, there was no similar attempt to reach departed relatives and membership in spiritualism continued its decline.
Interestingly, there seems to be very little difference between the ghosts of the Victorian era and our own. Percipients who tell or write the stories of their own encounters with spirits might just as well be describing the ghosts of the earlier era. Scholars have noted that ever since the Enlightenment, people have attributed an ever-diminishing social role to the dead. Many apparitions have lost the materiality attributed to them in earlier centuries and they have even lost their voices. Today’s ghosts are most often mute, and do not have much, if any interaction, with their living percipients.
However, fictions about ghosts and apparitions have continued to fare well in the modern and postmodern worlds. The 1920’s through the 1970’s saw rather sentimental and “friendly” versions of ghosts, such as the popular children’s tales of Casper, the Friendly Ghost. There were dramas such as the 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Noel Coward’s 1945 Blithe Spirit. Poltergeist stories, horror tales, and films about frightening ghosts were well-received, such as the 1945 Dead of Night. Since the 1970’s there has been a plethora of various plays, films, videos, books and so on about various types of spirits.
Vampire tales, such as the popular Twilight saga books and films from the early 21st Century and the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, enjoyed large audiences. Almost any vampire tale, whether written or filmed, had a good chance of becoming successful through the early years of the 21st Century. The interest of the public in the present day seems to have shifted to zombies, reanimated corpses who have been kept in some sort of suspended animation and limited to the desire to devour the living or their brains.
There is a popular sub genre of the ghost tale, which features a benign ghost that lingers in the world of the living because of unfinished business. When the business is concluded successfully, a ghost of this type seems to fade away to a benign existence elsewhere. The 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, with Bruce Willis, is an example of this type of ghost story with an unfinished business theme. In the 2001 film, The Others, the ghosts finally realize they are dead, but continue to remain in their earthly house rather than transitioning to another state. Such films, when well done, seem to interrogate the difference between the living and the dead, as well as question what life is and what death is.
There are also popular dramas concerning dangerous poltergeists and other homicidal ghosts that seem meant to enjoyably frighten people rather than discuss any serious questions. A popular franchise of this genre was the Nightmare on Elm Street movies which began in 1984. In these films, a dead child-killer seeks vengeance on the parents who murdered him by attacking children in their dreams and murdering them.
The 1984 comedy film, Ghostbusters, gave rise to an increase in ghost hunting societies where hobbyists try to discover evidence of ghosts in reportedly haunted areas. There are now available ghost-hunting how-to manuals and guidebooks to haunted locations. It is believed that there are currently some 10,000 purported haunted locations in the United Kingdom alone and there are websites that list haunted hotels for tourists to visit. Popular reality television shows like Ghost, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters International, Ghost Lab, Most Haunted, A Haunting and others have demonstrated that interest in ghost hunting remains very much alive.
There continue to be séances and mediums in the postmodern age. There are bestselling books about ghosts and volumes about talking to the dead are particularly popular. Mediums are still sometimes consulted by law enforcement agencies in the hope of solving crimes, although statistics argue against their success. Television shows feature mediums that purport to put people in touch with their departed relatives. There are still some faked-spirit photos and the psychic presses churn out insipid ghost dramas, or rather, melodramas. We seem to need the same false spiritual reassurance in this hyper-technical age as the Victorians did before us. The latest polls suggest that about 42% of United States citizens believe in ghosts and about 52% of Great Britain’s citizens give credence to the notion. Beginning with the 1990’s, paranormal beliefs appear to have experienced a boom in the United States.
It has been suggested that enthusiastic media coverage augments the belief and interest in ghosts. But media coverage would decline if audiences showed diminishing interest in paranormal activity. I have spoken of ghosts’ ever-decreasing social role. Spirits no longer seem to issue requests for revenge, share personal disclosures, show interest in legacies, or ask for prayers for salvation. The ghosts are not known to their percipients. Scholars believe that some of the decline of traditional ghostly functions may be due to individuals’ gradual loss of identification with community and extended family in Western Europe and the United States.
Finucane states: “This emancipation from lineage obligations freed the individual from ancestral demands; the dead no longer need to be consulted, nor do they impinge upon the daily routine of living.” In other words, the living have lost interest in appealing to the dead for advice, information or warnings. To this development must be added the increasingly effective attacks by the scientific and philosophic establishments upon traditional Christian beliefs from the 18th Century to the present. Religious membership has been seen to be in steep decline in many parts of the world in the present day. Religion is being strongly and effectively undermined by people’s growing awareness of secularism’s more rational and humane life stance.
As social mores and beliefs changed over the centuries, the dead were envisaged by the living in different guises. When religion and fear of punishment after death was strong, the ghosts gained substantiality. When science and philosophy were strong, the ghosts appeared to the living as insubstantial and weak. In all eras, the living imagined their dead according to changes in social assumptions, especially with regard to changing theological opinion and scientific advances. There is a simple explanation for the popularity of ghosts that has prevailed from the earliest days of humans up to the present. The greatest utility of ghosts is that they seem to give people proof of human immortality.
But it is obvious that the varied shades in their various manifestations to the living have nothing to do with the beings and concerns of some fictional world, but with the pursuits and transactions of this world, the only real one.
I would like to end this lecture with some quotations from the atheist biologist, Richard Dawkins, the author of many elegant and important works, such as The Blind Watchmaker (1996) and The God Delusion (2006).
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains to Arabia.
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, and enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? . . . Isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”
Let us celebrate this world and lay to rest the delusion of another one. This one is all we need.
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