Although the trend of ghost hunting only seems to have gained popularity in more modern times, the phenomena of ghosts, as well as the belief in their existence has been around since ancient times. Just like the belief in a higher power, the details may vary from culture to culture, but across all of them one thing remains consistent—the existence of a realm where the human soul survives after death. This isn’t so much an evaluation on whether or not ghosts exist, so much as an acknowledgement that cultures across the world place value in the idea that death is not the end for the soul. In Christianity, depending upon the lifestyle that the individual led, the soul either spends an eternity with a benevolent god, or in perpetual torment. In Voodoo, veneration of ancestors plays a large part in religious practice and different pagan religions have different ideas of the afterlife and where their soul will go once they have passed. Another commonality between all of these cultural beliefs is that the human soul, once having passed into the realm of the dead is that the soul would invariably remain in this next realm, unless authorized by the governing entity of the realm. That is to say, there has to be a reason for which the soul is released back to the plane of the living, this could be due to a variety of different reason, such as improper or nonexistent burial and funeral rites, most of these are due to a body having never been recovered. Another common reason behind a soul returning is to resolve unfinished business, whether this is to give an account of the true events surrounding their death, or to give a message to a loved one who is experiencing an inordinate amount of guilt. Even in modern times, the occurrence of encountering a ghost, no matter what the circumstances, is very rarely an experience that one wishes to have. So what did these modern beliefs and experiences evolve from?
How Cultures Viewed the Afterlife
An unexpected visit from the dead has always meant in one way or another that something was wrong—this meant that whatever message the ghost had to deliver, or business it had to resolve needed to be taken care of in order for the spirit to ever obtain peace and be able to rest for eternity. This was such a common theme across ancient cultures that stories can be compared from across regions of India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Ireland, and Scotland, with similar depictions regardless of origin.
Mesopotamian Land of the Dead
Although known by many names, the land of the dead in Mesopotamia was a realm from which there was no return—Irkalla, was the realm of the dead, where they dwelt in darkness and lived in the muck and mire that was provided for them, regardless of their social status or moral fortitude during their lifetime. Souls weren’t given permission to pass back to the world of the living unless they had been given a special mission to attend to, such as righting a wrong.
Egyptian Land of the Dead
In ancient Egyptian lore, passing into the land of the dead was an enormous trial—where the soul would go through the Hall of Truth to be judged by Osiris and the forty-two judges. The white feather of truth was deemed the way in which all souls were judged, whereupon weight the feather and the heart of the human who had passed, only those whose hearts were lighter than the feather would pass to the afterlife. Those who were found to have a heart heavier than the feather would have their soul eaten by a monster—so to pass into the afterlife, there was a necessity to live in truth and purity. This afterlife was known as the Field of Reeds, where the soul would enjoy all of the favorite things that they knew in their lifetime, which meant that the soul would not return to the plane of the living unless they had an important reason to do so.
Land of the Dead in Ancient Greece and Rome
In the ancient societies of Greece and Rome, the pagan culture that surrounded daily practice embraced a more complex theory of the afterlife, where the souls of the dead were assigned to a specific realm depending upon their life and how they lived it. Warriors had their own realm, good people had the second, and bad people had the third realm, into which they went to atone for their wrongdoings. No soul was ever condemned to an eternity of damnation, it was more considered penance that could eventually be fulfilled, at which point they would be sent to the realm for those who had lived a good life. Before being sent to their designated realm, Greek and Roman culture dictated that they would be given a drink to forget about their former lives and only know the realm to which they were assigned—this made it clear that ghosts had little to no reason to ever return to the land of the living. That being said, ghosts would occasionally return, but only for good reason, usually to fix an injustice brought upon themselves or a family member, once justice was served the soul would “die” a second time and return to the plane they had been sent to.
Author. Artist. A little bit Alaskan. Mary lives with her dog in a rural cabin outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. They explore the bounty of the Alaskan wilderness during the summer and cozy up in their log cabin during the winter.