Term Ghost

23rd March 2015
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Ghosts and the afterlife
Further information: Soul (spirit), Psyche (psychology), Underworld, Hungry ghost and Psychopomp
Further information: Ghost Festival, All Souls’ Day, Day of the Dead and Ghost Dance
Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it appears to have been widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.

Fear of ghosts

Yūrei (Japanese ghost) from the Hyakkai Zukan, ca. 1737
While deceased ancestors are universally regarded as venerable, and often imagined as having a continued presence in some sort of afterlife, the spirit of a deceased person which remains present in the material world (viz. a ghost) is regarded as an unnatural or undesirable state of affairs and the idea of ghosts or revenants is associated with a reaction of fear. This is universally the case in pre-modern folk cultures, but fear of ghosts also remains an integral aspect of the modern ghost story, Gothic horror, and other horror fiction dealing with the supernatural.

Common attributes
Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists link this idea to early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person (the person’s spirit), most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of “breath” in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as synthesising Adam, as a living soul, from the dust of the Earth and the breath of God.

In many traditional accounts, ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance (vengeful ghosts), or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost has often been regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one’s own ghostly double or “fetch” is a related omen of death.

White ladies were reported to appear in many rural areas, and supposed to have died tragically or suffered trauma in life. White Lady legends are found around the world. Common to many of them is the theme of losing or being betrayed by a husband or fiancé. They are often associated with an individual family line or regarded as a harbinger of death similar to a banshee.

Legends of ghost ships have existed since the 18th century; most notable of these is the Flying Dutchman. This theme has been used in literature in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.

Locale
Haunted house
A place where ghosts are reported is described as haunted, and often seen as being inhabited by spirits of deceased who may have been former residents or were familiar with the property. Supernatural activity inside homes is said to be mainly associated with violent or tragic events in the building’s past such as murder, accidental death, or suicide — sometimes in the recent or ancient past. But not all hauntings are at a place of a violent death, or even on violent grounds. Many cultures and religions believe the essence of a being, such as the ‘soul’, continues to exist. Some religious views argue that the ‘spirits’ of those who have died have not ‘passed over’ and are trapped inside the property where their memories and energy are strong.

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