I recently read Ghosts : a natural history by Roger Clarke. For the record it is much less a natural history than a social history, and it really only covers the last 300 years and mostly in England. Clarke tries to be impartial but admits that he is fascinated by hauntings and seems to want, pretty strongly, to believe in ghosts. But I did find some really neat, perhaps gameable tidbits: (1) The ancient Greek taxonomy of ghosts; (2) the modern occultist taxonomy of spirits; (3) medieval lore on the color of ghosts; (4) what ghosts most fear.
- The Greeks believed in the mutilated dead who haunted battlefields (the biaiothanatoi, or the souls of those who dies violently); plaintive spirits of children and babies (aôroi) ; wandering spirits of those who were not properly buried (ataphoi); and the spiteful spirits of those who never married (agamoi).*
- Modern occultists apparently prefer the taxonomy developed by Peter Underwood, which has:
Elementals (primitive spirits that haunt a location, often pagan fairy-folk, or demons connected to black magic or Satanism)
Poltergeists (spirits that cause noises and pranks, often hurling objects at people which land so softly they cause no injury, associated especially with pubescent children)
Traditional or historic ghosts (the souls of the dead which interact with the living)
Mental imprint manifestations (a residual effect of powerful emotions, often repeating some action like closing a door or crossing a room like a loop of film)
Crisis or Death-survival apparitions (the appearance of someone you know well or are bonded with, when they are either dying or facing a deadly ordeal)
Time slips (a sort of flashback, where a whole ghostly setting is experienced; time slips were a bit of a fad from 1911-1915 but are otherwise very rare)
Ghosts of the living (appearances of people who are alive, most often seen by people in the twilight between waking and sleep)
Haunted objects (beds, chairs, weapons, or jewels that have ghostly phenomena connected to them)
Underwood’s list omits the ghosts of animals, of which Clarke provides a few examples.
- Ghosts, to the medieval mind, must be the souls of those not in heaven (for why would they ever leave) or hell (who cannot escape), which is to say the souls of people in Purgatory. Therefore they are still expiating their sins and so they appear in various shades from black (for the most recently dead, still stained by sin) to white (for those nearly finished with Purgatory and nearly unblemished by sin). Of course Protestants would have to therefore deny that ghosts are possible, for there is no Purgatory in their doctrine. Any “ghost” must be a demon.
- Finally Clarke notes that exorcists held that the threat of banishment to the Red Sea was the most fearful threat one could make to a ghost (or a demon pretending to be a ghost). Clarke admits he has no idea why this is so, which is surprising. The legend of Solomon using a magic ring or seal to control djinn should be familiar to anyone who has researched magic beliefs. Solomon supposedly sealed the djinn in bottles and dumped them the Red Sea, where they have mostly languished since.
*A pretty decent overview of ancient ghost beliefs is here.