We’re all familiar with the metaphysical and parapsychological viewpoints on ghosts and spirits, as well as our own from personal experiences, but what about beliefs in other cultures, such as the Native Americans? Or the Australian Aborigines? And how did the ancient civilizations view them?
Today, it’s generally accepted that a ghost or a spirit is the soul of a person who has passed away and, for whatever reason, remains earthbound, interacting with the physical world and the living or as imprints of the past recorded into the surroundings. The two words are usually synonymized, with no real distinction between the two, but in many cultures there is a clear difference.
Native American Ghost Viewpoints
In Native American culture, whereas spirits are ancestral souls, held in high regard, ghosts are viewed very negatively. They believe that the "spirit" is all around us, within each living thing, and they call upon the ancestral spirits to help guide them and ask for knowledge and insight.
Here’s a 1902 quote from the Native American physician, writer and reformer Ohíye S’a (also known as Charles Eastman), that describes the belief succinctly.:
We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul in some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious to itself. The tree, the waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied force, and as such an object of reverence.
When a person dies the soul travels into the next plane of spirituality, where they can either continue with their journey or return as helpful or familial spirits or as "spirit guides" to offer guidance throughout a person’s life.
Ghosts, on the other hand, are viewed as twisted spirits with corrupted personalities, who are responsible for causing sickness and disease, contaminating food and drink, and subverting all that is good among the living. Most Native American cultures, however, don’t see ghosts as inherently evil, as they are a still part of the natural equilibrium. If a person did not receive proper burial rites when they died or if their graves have been desecrated, so their spirits become unsettled, restless and often vengeful because their circle of life is incomplete.
Spirits can become angered and destructive whether positive or negative in nature, but can be protective and creative if they are successfully appeased. To the Native Americans, this is all part of the balance and the cycle of life.
Australian Aborigines Ghost Viewpoints
In comparison, the Australian Aboriginal religion hold that humans have multiple souls. One is an “egoic soul”, a self-created, independent state accompanying the body and shaping a person’s personality and identity. Another comes from “The Dreaming” or divinity (or both), capable of entering the body to impart knowledge and insight. Ancestral spirits (spirits of ancestors) usually fall under the latter.
At death, these two types follow different paths, fates and trajectories. The “egoic soul” initially becomes a dangerous ghost, not straying far from the deceased’s body and property, but instead jealously guards them. Eventually it will pass into nonexistence, either dissolving into nothingness or by traveling to a distant place inconsequential to the living. At that moment, the deceased’s property is abandoned or destroyed and no one can rent or live in the property. Ancestral souls are eternal; they return to specific locations or to sites where they are summoned through rituals, or they are returned to the environment, abiding as one with nature and humans, to wherever they are needed.
In fact, these two viewpoints are mirrored in many cultures throughout the world, both ancient and modern, including Asian, Mediterranean and pre-Columbian American, and even in Celtic folklore.