For my 2021 writing project, I am diving into the otherworldly realm of spirits and, what I have found, is that I have fallen down yet another rabbit-hole of research. As with any topic I find myself interested in, there is a ton of information which can be somewhat overwhelming. These blog posts are my way of keeping my thoughts organized, and I will do my best to give you links to the research as I go.
My intent is to continue the Origins of Witchcraft series, but I am finding that this new line of research is definitely woven throughout a lot of the material I have come across so far. For posts that make mention of a character I have written on before, I will be sure to add a hyperlink to the previous post. That way, you can fall down the rabbit-hole with me! I just love the idea of having company during this new journey, so welcome!
This post will touch on the various types of ghostly figures that are commonly referred to, and as I come across references to spirits that are particularly interesting, I will research them further and give them their own posts. As always, you can check back with my Mythical Creature Monday Post Tab which I will continue to use as a table of contents for all of my “otherworldly” topics. So on to today’s topic!
According to Merriam Webster, a ghost is “a disembodied soul,” which can “appear to the living in bodily likeness.” But as with the living, these souls can appear in countless varieties and forms. The term “ghost” is somewhat of a catch-all phrase used to group noticeable energy fields that can’t be otherwise explained. They most commonly are reported as taking the form of people who have passed, however, they can also be animals or lights. Most commonly ghosts can be seen or heard, although they have been known to communicate with scent as well.
It is said that belief in ghosts grew out of the universal human need for assurance of survival after bodily death.Raymond Buckland – The Weiser Field Guide to Ghosts, Apparitions, Spirits, Spectral Lights and Other Hauntings of History and Legend
It is thought that Ghosts commonly linger in a place where something tragic happened, which has certainly been the case for sites of great battles. It has been reported that whole battles have been seen in ghostly form, sometimes to a large number of people simultaneously. Ghosts are also seen in places where they knew great happiness, so it is perceived that they either don’t want to move on, or simply don’t “know” they are dead. There are individuals and groups that help earthbound spirits to move past the blocks that are keeping them from moving “to the light” similar to what you find in the show Ghost Whisperer, although the show is a fictionalized version of what really goes on.
I was interested to learn that ghosts aren’t necessarily tied to one location, and can be seen in multiple places where they spent a great deal of time. It was also interesting that not all ghosts are transparent, and can appear as they where when they were alive. “Ghost portraits” became a trend in the 1800s, started by William Mumler who had taken a photograph in which his deceased cousin made her presence known. He went on to take a number of photos, most of which were dismissed as trickery, the most famous of which was the portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln 5 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. It is said it was the last picture taken of her, and she died believing that her husband had been been there beside her when the photo was taken. This article by Smithsonian Magazine shows some of those images.
Parapsychologists prefer the word apparition when referring to a ghost, although these occurrences don’t always include the dead. There have been reported cases of visits from astral bodies of the living who either go on to die, or confirm that they were indeed doing what was witnessed after they return home safely.
Merriam-Webster defines apparitions as “an unusual or unexpected sight” which allows for a broader pool of occurrences to pull from. What it means to me, is that the experience someone has doesn’t always have to be with something that is transparent. It’s quite the opposite in fact, as some of these apparitions appear to be as solid as you or me, which causes a lot of confusion when the person receiving the message finds out that the person giving it couldn’t possibly been in the same room with them. This also opens the pool up for ghosts in the non-traditional sense that they may only communicate with certain scents or sounds.
The Catholic Church has a process by which they legitimize reported apparitions of the Virgin Mother. Our Lady of Lourdes is one of the more famous ones that comes to mind. These sightings generally include seeing the Virgin Mother, along with receiving some sort of message. The above video reviews the process that the church goes through, and it is interesting that once they are on board with the reported vision, that it is left to the people to see if it “sticks.” If the people continue to venerate the reported apparition, the Church moves forward in confirming its existence. Sort of a wait-and-see approach. There are currently 26 church-approved sites Marian Apparition sites, a list of which I found on the Ascension Press site.
By definition, spirits are supernatural, meaning that they were never part of our physical earthly realm. They are also described as an essence, such as The Holy Spirit, or one’s soul, and on the flip-side are also linked with malevolent beings and possession. The ability for a spirit to enter into a person, suppress their own essence and make them do things against their nature seems impossible. But there are countless stories of possessions and exorcisms, some of which have been made into movies.
A modern case is that of Anneliese Michel, who was said to have been possessed by 6 spirits all jostling for control of her young body. She died of malnutrition and dehydration in 1976, and her parents, along with the priests who tried to help her, were tried and found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence. Most of what I could find doesn’t give clear evidence one way or the other if she was truly possessed, or if she was suffering from Schizophrenia and seizures, but the audio from her exorcisms are pretty disturbing and unexplainable.
There are also supernatural creatures, such as demons or the Djinn, which live on an entirely different plane. It is thought that their powers can be accessed by way of summoning them. This is probably where most folks got in trouble during the witch trials since praying to false gods and manifesting by way of spells were strictly taboo. Gaelic folklore is full of spirit references such as fairies, sprites, and pixies, the existence of which was also brought up during the trials.
These beings can move in and out of our plane of existence, but we can only see theirs by invitation. The Queen of Elphame was referred to during the witch trials, as a being who took gentlemen back to her domain in exchange for sexual favors. One gentleman in particular supposedly fathered many children with her, and had to agree to stay for several years before being allowed back to his normal life. Visitors would be gifted with supernatural powers, however it wasn’t enough to keep them from being persecuted and tried as a witches. Thomas the Rhymer was a Scottish Laird whose gift of prophecy and supernatural powers, were said to be a gift from the queen of the fairies. A few years after his visit, it is said he disappeared, never to be heard from again.
These lights are inhuman, but haunt sites similar to what you see in other cases. They have been described as orbs, spheres, fireballs and are believed to be associated with the dead in some parts of the world, and with the gods in others. An orb that comes to mind for me is a will-o’-the-wisp, which is something I tied into my second book, Winds of Change. While their purpose in my story wasn’t as nefarious as what they are known for, it was fun to reference them.
These lights have also been tied to gravesites, and explained as a natural phenomenon that has to do with the science of deteriorating bodies and the gases that emit from them. I certainly won’t get into the deep dive on that here in this post, but if you are interested in that sort of thing, I have a put a couple of links on the bottom to help you “dig” a little deeper.
Whatever you refer to them by, ghosts are part of a mystery where part of the intrigue is not entirely figuring them out. Perhaps that is why their allure has lasted centuries. I feel that ghost stories, at their core, represent a lost opportunity for resolution or closure, and as humans we relate it to regret. Perhaps the person died too soon, or with something left undone or unsaid. What ties them to this physical realm they can no longer be part of, is heartbreaking to say the least. If telling their stories helps them move on, I am all for passing them on to the next generation. What about you?
More Resources (to take you further down the Rabbit Hole):
For more on Virgin Mary appearances – https://www.catholic.org/mary/appear.php
For more on exorcism – https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/04/health/exorcism-doctor/index.html
For more on ghost lights – https://earthsky.org/human-world/ghost-lights-believe-in-them-if-you-dare
For more on graveyard ghosts – https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13818782-700-science-graveyard-ghosts-are-a-gas/