What Was That?
by Marco M. Pardi
"You want to know whether I believe in ghosts. Of course I do not believe in them. If you had known as many of them as I have, you would not believe in them either." Don Marquis (1878-1937) "Ghosts" Archy and Mehitabel, 1927
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I have just recently been asked to consider presenting a video recorded discussion of ghosts and how different cultures through space and time have viewed them. I was a bit taken back by this request. In the years I taught college classes on Death & Dying and Critical Thinking - using end of life issues as the focus, I did not give much attention to ghosts. So, I thought I would try this venue for some thoughts and reactions....and maybe a little "in-spiration".
Requests of this kind have problems. At any moment in time there are thousands of cultures. Each, by definition, perceives and constructs its world differently along a broad scale of possibilities. Obviously, a statement about cultures would be selective and incomplete. Furthermore, cultures change over time and these changes are often reactionary. Describing them as static entities is shallow and misleading. So, a complete and accurate presentation about cultural views on a topic would require many written volumes, many taped sessions.
A less obvious problem is the concept "ghost". What exactly is meant by this? For example, Catholics believe the "Godhead" is tripartite: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. And, people of several faiths believe they see (or hear) discarnate figures pertinent to their faith. Is an apparition connected to a faith not a ghost while an apparition not so connected is a ghost? Then there are the actions attributed to these figures; "God kept me from going too fast around that turn." "My Dad, several years deceased, warned me about marrying that person." Which was the ghost, or were they both?
Where ideas about ghosts occur, they are part of a given culture and, as such, are enmeshed in the overall world view, including what we would call religion. The list of these world views, or cosmologies, is almost endless.
Each of the two problem areas above bring to mind two dicta to which I have tried to adhere: Any examination of others must first begin with an examination of the examiner; and, That which is perceived is at least in part an artifact of the perceiver. In fact, the second dictum is rendered more potent in tandem with the degree of failure to observe the first dictum.
So, as we examine our textbooks, be they history, anthropology, or some other related subject we are reminded that "history is written by the winners", or at least the survivors. There are several issues of importance here. Written history represents only a tiny fraction of human history. And, there are still large areas of humanity for whom history is written by someone else. So who is it telling me the history of how pre-literate or non-literate people felt or currently feel about "ghosts"? Are these the same people who used terms like "primitive" to describe pre-literate or non-literate cultures? Are these people simply unaware that when developing mankind crossed into the Homo sapiens species they were the very same species we are today, with the same variations in mental acuity as we now see in a spectrum from our marginal people to our most advanced research centers or from our low I.Q. members to our geniuses? A clear example of the failure to recognize this is found in the common attitude that if the material remains of a culture are simple, the culture and its carriers - the people, must also have been simple. This belief finds no support in anatomy, physiology, or psychology. Another example found even in today's textbooks tells us the pre-Christian populations of what is now Europe were Pagans. Apparently, the writers of these textbooks flunked Latin. "Pagani", a Latin term specifically meaning country people, was a pejorative used in the same way modern Americans use the term "rednecks". There was no cohesive "pagan" culture or religion - another term for cosmology, much to the dismay of the modern Woo-Woo crowd that claims to be its descendants. Anyone who reads the actual literature of Classical Greece and Rome knows fully well the educated, literate people of those cultures held world views which only acknowledged the common beliefs in various god like entities and discarnate entities but did not themselves subscribe to those beliefs. Furthermore, the concept "gods" was very different from the later personified deity claimed by the monotheistic religions. The "gods" of Rome were the core values of the State. Refusal to honor the "gods" was not an affront to the frail ego of a god, it was a threat to the integrity of the State much like the refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Remember, the philosophers and educated classes of Greece and Rome were not the ones who plunged the Western world into the Dark Ages. The "history" books were written by members of a predominantly Christian culture - the winners. And, (I can't let this one go by) in my youth I saw several movies in which dark skinned people, be they African-Americans or "natives", were uniformly terrified at the possibility of a ghost. In fact, the actors seem to have been hired on their ability to generate saucer eyes and "OooOooOooh" wails. The producers of these films were urban Whites. But have we seriously examined how these textbooks and other media have shaped our perceptions and interpretations? If someone asked us if we thought ghosts were real, would our response be what we thought socially acceptable or would it be how we actually felt?
If there is a common denominator among pre-modern and contemporary marginal society world views and religions it can be found in the concepts of Animatism - the belief in an intangible force within all things, animate and inanimate, and Animism, a religious view of a life force in all living things, not just humans. But these are not foreign to the most modern of societies. Many people believe a force resides in some amulet, such as a religious medal, or even their automobile. And, a great many pet companions are certain their pet has a spirit, even one which lives on with them or awaits them after death. The inclusion of deceased pets in perceptions of "ghosts" is so common as to be unquestionable. But aside from Stephen King novels, I've not heard of cars coming back for revenge while the literature on pets manifesting to beloved human companions is exhaustive. Also, I have hundreds of cases pertaining to discarnate people and the evidence cited for their reality. Some of these are undocumented but most are thoroughly documented with supportive and matching testimony often by multiple unimpeachable witnesses. The report sources range from children to top of their profession scientists. The settings vary from spontaneous to hospitals to controlled settings. Just in the United States there is unimaginable variation in the instances, the witnesses, and the circumstances under which the perceptions took place. So too, there are unimaginable variations in interpretation - and I am not even referring here to the materialists who, knowing little to nothing of how science operates, deny everything. I have read or directly heard interpretations of the manifestations ranging from: He doesn't know he's dead and hasn't crossed over, she's attached to the place she lived, he is looking for vengeance against his killer, she is watching over her grandchildren, he is looking for a vulnerable body to enter, to she has a message for us.
In sum, I simply cannot venture into a discussion of a subject for which the variation is so great an adequate and properly contextual treatment would require several printed volumes or many hours of recorded video. In fact, even an extremely narrowed subject topic would, in my opinion, run intolerable risk of misrepresenting the seriousness of the subject as a whole.
What do you think?