Are all ghosts or spirits, even dangerous ones, basically sad entities is a question which many people curious about the afterlife ask time and again. The question takes different forms such as “do hauntings occur because the dead people who haunt a place or a person had a sad life on earth” or “is it only sad spirits who cannot move on” and so on. And then there are those, of course, who trash such questions or any questions associated with the afterlife because they don’t believe that an afterlife or the supernatural or paranormal exist. Incidentally, the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the largest and most popular history Encyclopedia which in 2019 logged 25,186,614 visitors on the internet, provides an interesting take on this subject.
According to the Encyclopedia “The journalist John Keel, who investigated many so-called paranormal events and is best known for his book ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, once wrote that there is no such thing as the ‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’. After citing a number of strange events which people have experienced throughout history, Keel observed that what people in the modern-day call ‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’ events are actually normal and natural aspects of life on earth. The world of spirits, ghosts, and souls appearing from an afterlife, according to Keel, may be just as much of a reality today as it was to the people of the ancient world; the reason people no longer accept ghosts as a part of life is simply because a world that operates that way is no longer recognized as valid.”
Whether or not «paranormal» or «supernatural» events or events connected with the afterlife are actually normal and natural aspects of life on earth is obviously debatable but the fact remains that even in today’s information-saturated world they continue to be a fascinating subject that never fails to arouse interest and evoke a reaction one way or another. And as part of the answer to the oft-asked question “do hauntings occur because the dead people who haunt a place or a person had a sad life on earth” and similar questions the fact also remains that a majority of ”hauntings» do occur because a spirit is troubled in some way even after death or because something in that spirit’s life on earth has remained unfulfilled. Significantly, these beliefs about why souls or spirits cannot move on or have to return from the afterlife have existed since ancient times in almost all cultures worldwide.
In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, the land of the dead was known by many names and once the dead had reached this land, “this existence was the final end for all the living, no matter how great or poor a life they had lived….”, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. No soul was permitted to leave for any reason but special dispensation was given to souls who needed to complete some kind of mission. “Ghosts could appear to people on earth if it was thought that they needed to right some kind of wrong.” Also, souls would return to haunt the living if proper attention had not been paid to funeral rites and burial or if there had been some unlawful act involved in the person›s death. Sometimes, however, a soul or souls could mischievously slip out for visits to the earth ”.
Although there are records of loved ones returning from the afterlife with warnings or advice, most of the ghosts of Mesopotamia, continues the Encyclopedia, were unwelcome guests.” Such beliefs with some variations have been and are prevalent in almost all cultures even today. In India, akaal mrityu or untimely death is amongst the reasons for a soul’s unhappiness.
In October last year, the Financial Times ran a very interesting piece by Erica Wagner, a widely-acclaimed author, and critic and former literary editor of “The Times». She pointed out that in David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, the ghost in question is nearly a cartoon, a sheet with two holes for eyes, but no less affecting for that. “We wonder what comes next. We wonder if death is the end. We live in a world drowning in information, yet these great questions remain unanswered. And so: bring on the spooks.”
Wagner went on to review “four books to send a shiver down your spine”. Her conclusion: “Now more than ever the material world seems oppressive and inescapable: all our knowledge, all our stuff. We wish to be reminded of what we can’t know. Even if you don’t go to church, temple or mosque, I’m willing to bet you’ve felt that shiver of something other, something just out of reach; the spirits of the past, of the dead, of loved ones, strangers, generations stretching back in time. Where can you find them? You can start to look, certainly, in the pages of these books.”
Books apart, you’ll find startling practices recorded not only in the traditions of various cultures and communities but still practiced fervently. Día de las Ñatitas or «Day of the Skulls», for example, is a festival celebrated in La Paz, Bolivia, every year. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, the skulls of family members are kept at home to watch over the family and protect them during the year. On November 9, the family crowns the skulls with fresh flowers, sometimes also dressing them in various garments, and making offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol, and various other items in thanks for the year›s protection. The skulls are also sometimes taken to the central cemetery in La Paz for a special Mass and blessing.”
Clearly, there are umpteen indicators around the world of the importance attached to venerating the dead and ensuring that they’re at peace in the afterlife and not existing on earth as sad or troubled souls. The prestigious Smithsonian Institution, Wikipedia reveals for instance, in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso and Second Life, have created a Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum and accompanying multimedia e-book: Día de los Muertos: Day of the Dead. Equally clearly, even a cursory analysis of ancient and prevailing practices shows that souls or spirits are at peace when satisfied and happy. Sadness, being troubled at or by something do certainly lead to unrest among the dead. But while a majority of souls or spirits who cannot move on are held back by unhappiness or dissatisfaction, there are happy ghosts and spirits too and spirits who have stayed back on earth with the mission of helping and protecting living beings. More about them in the next column.