Do Atheistic Cultures Have High Instances of Hauntings?
March 31, 2007 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Do reports of hauntings exist in atheist or non-Christian countries to such an extent as they do in America? I'm fascinated by the myriad of documentaries that appear every week regarding hauntings/ghosts/etc. Do atheistic countries with no particular spiritual influence (i.e. Sweden vs. China) have such high reports of hauntings or reports of ghosts? What about Islamic cultures?
posted by Gnostic Novelist to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Nearly every culture has them, though I guess one could make arguments based on a definition of "haunting." But it's as big a thing in many Islamic, Asian, African and South and Central American cultures as it is in Christian countries, if not more so.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:40 PM on March 31, 2007

In a lot of Asian cultures, I believe they consider them "spirits" of Buddhist legends more often than the ghosts of particular people they know, right? I know that in Thailand there are spirit houses absolutely everywhere -- they give them their own home and offerings so that they don't have to try living in the house with people & to keep them happy.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:47 PM on March 31, 2007

BTW, there are 3 more pages to that link I just gave... they're pretty interesting.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:51 PM on March 31, 2007

Lafcadio Hearn cataloged and adapted quite a few Japanese ghost stories as well as a few Chinese ones. Many can be found at Project Gutenberg. They are quite entertaining and great if you want a quick read.

There is also Pu Song-ling's 'Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio', aka 'History of Foxes and Ghosts', for stuff from China.
posted by Alison at 7:56 PM on March 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

In Hawai'i, there's such a mixing bowl of cultures and religions that you hear all sorts of ghost stories -- I grew up hearing about everything from spirits showing up at Bon dances or crying from hunger in old Chinese cemeteries that have been neglected over Ching Ming, to Hawaiian nightmarchers, Japanese mujina haunting a theater, and weird modern twists on La Llorona or the classic Phantom Hitchhiker stories. There's all sorts of cultural cross-pollination, so you'll hear of folks calling in everything from Catholic priests to Hawaiian kahuna to deal with spiritual problems, and even classic Western ghost tales often get a new island spin -- the most typical Phantom Hitchhiker stories involve the capricious volcano goddess Pele instead of the usual ghostly accident victim. The late Glen Grant did some very nice books on the subject if you want to see what sort of haunting tales come out of such a blending of traditions.
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 8:16 PM on March 31, 2007

I spent some time in the late nineties studying the folklore of a small rural area in northern Russia (Arkhangelsk oblast, Kargopol county). These people, who had technically been atheist for eighty years, had the weirdest folk religion/spirit stories. For example, they believed in river spirits called pharaohs, said to be the descendants of Pharaoh's soldiers drowned in the Red Sea. All of the traditional bestiary of pagan religion--house spirits, pasture spirits, bathhouse spirits, forest spirits, and so on--all were there, sometimes vaguely Christianized. The rituals associated with them were prominent in daily life. Some of the people (usually women, for a number of reasons) with whom we talked had awards from the soviet government, and yet still practiced this folk paganism.

For a bottle of vodka, we bought a copy of a contract that a herder signed with the pasture spirit (dating from mid-century, IIRC). It contained rituals, prescribed offerings, and so on. And this without any official state-sanctioned religion, though there were a few Baptists, a few Orthodox priests, and some fragments of Old Believers (a group of orthodox that splintered off around the late 17th century, and now have developed bizarre cult practices; some moved to Canada in the early 20th century and ran around naked setting stuff on fire).
posted by nasreddin at 8:18 PM on March 31, 2007 [5 favorites]

The 12th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh contains an omen warning that the spirit of a recently killed King would return to haunt his home city. Circa 2100 BC or so. This is some of the oldest known written literature in the world. Hope that helps.
posted by stbalbach at 8:25 PM on March 31, 2007

For a good cross section of global hauntings and weirdness you might want to check out Forean Times.
posted by Artw at 8:34 PM on March 31, 2007

Not to rag on the question, but I don't see what the possible correlation is between theism and ghosts. Atheists are non-believers in God or gods/dieties, but not necessarily non spiritual so ghosts have as much potential room to live in the minds of atheists as theists.
posted by wackybrit at 8:39 PM on March 31, 2007

I'm not sure how you conclude China is an "atheistic countr[y] with no particular spiritual influence."
Are you talking about ghost stories persisting post-1949 when an officially atheist Party has been in power? Traditions certainly survived; for example 阴阳先生 (geomancers/folk Daoist priests) earned part of their living ghost-catching in rural areas, though for quite some time clandestinely in all but the remotest communities. There are also modern urban-legend type folk tales and you are quite likely to have the "ever seen a ghost" conversation with friends.
Modern mass media, such as pulp magazines and the Internet abound, an ghost stories can be part of things like costume dramas on TV, but AFAIK there's not been the pseudo-reality type shows as I doubt they would get past the censors. I'd bet there would be a ready audience if they could though.
It's also of course a vast and diverse multi-ethnic nation and traditions amongst, say, the Yi will not be the same as among the Orochen.
If you are characterising China as having no particular spiritual influence over the long course of history, you're mistaken.
posted by Abiezer at 8:48 PM on March 31, 2007

Also, this just occurred to me: posing the question in terms of "ghosts" maybe be inappropriate. Non-modern and non-Western cultures (even Slavic folk culture, apparently) don't have the same strict separation between the spirit world and the material world. Something that exists as a folk belief is generally meant to exist physically, so there are fewer overtones of insubstantiality and illusion and so on.
posted by nasreddin at 8:53 PM on March 31, 2007

---fascinating point, and well taken.
Speaking as a "non-believer", I've experienced verrry spooky phenomena 3 times, and "God" or its God-ish corrolaries never enterd into the equation.
The deep pain of the beings who came to visit me blotted out such trivial underpinnings.
I know this all sounds ridiculous.
But you have no idea.
Unless you have an idea.
posted by Dizzy at 9:00 PM on March 31, 2007

Well, the closest equivalent to ghosts in Arabic are the Jinn, creatures that are invisible to humans (but can see humans). Presumably what we might call a haunting, an arabic person would attribute to a genie of some kind. I have no idea what the incidence of such reports in Islamic countries is, though I somehow doubt that it's very newsworthy there.
posted by kisch mokusch at 9:07 PM on March 31, 2007

myriad of documentaries that appear every week regarding hauntings/ghosts/etc

I'm not sure the programming choices of the Sci-fi channel are as great a barometer of "American culture" as you seem to think.

And I can't really answer the question because I don't think there's such thing as a culture without "spiritual influences."
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:12 PM on March 31, 2007

Occultism was a big deal in the Soviet Union.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:20 PM on March 31, 2007

The Demon-Haunted World touched on mysticism and pseudo-science in other cultures. Kind of shocking, actually, the reported numbers of fortune-tellers and people that claimed to speak with the dead in Algeria, for example.
posted by frogan at 10:10 PM on March 31, 2007

I can back up Smilla's sense of snark's take on ghosts/spirits in Hawaiian culture. My grandmother was born (c.1900) in the Waipi'o Valley on Hawaii; she told me lots of stories about personal encounters with ghosts/spirits; we heard the legends and stories in Hawaiiana classes in school; I had my own experiences with um, noncorporeal beings.

Westervelt's Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods is also a good resource.
posted by rtha at 10:23 PM on March 31, 2007

I'm not sure the programming choices of the Sci-fi channel

Aaaaand the Travel Channel. But as a travel writer, I do often have to wade through a ton of ghost stories when I'm trying to research a place. I think it's one medium through which we tell our history, and so I don't think all ghost stories necessarily display a belief in actual haunting.

Jan Morris's Hong Kong has some interesting things to say about Chinese ghost superstitions, and how they interact with modern capitalism.
posted by occhiblu at 10:42 PM on March 31, 2007

I'd like to find an atheistic culture if there ever is one. To most cultures, religion is crucial, even if only as a means of controlling the behaviour of various members of its society and giving people a sense of purpose in life. I don't think the small hundred years or so of communism is good enough a sample.

To answer your other question: I live in Malaysia and this is a country where Islam is the main religion. The answer to this is 'yes'. A North American friend actually commented that he sees many haunted houses in Malaysia, more so than in North America.

I don't have any good links, alas. =/
posted by Karcy at 11:20 PM on March 31, 2007

Westervelt's Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods is also a good resource.

And it's online at Sacred Texts, too! Definitely a good read for more pre-Christian native ghost/afterlife lore; the Glen Grant stuff I linked is more for the modern cross-cultural stuff drawing on Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other traditions as well as Hawaiian and Western ghost lore.

And dittoing rtha in turn -- I tried to stick mostly to more ghost-ey stuff, if you want more general paranormal folktales, well, what with the menehune, and the travelling stones, and 'aumakua, and just plain harder to classify Weird Stuff, oh boy, we could go on and on and on. There really is just an incredibly fertile cross-pollination of folklore going on there -- you've got plenty of non-Japanese folks who'll swear to the faceless ghost at the old drive-in, which was a classic Japanese sort of ghost story, or plenty of non-Native-Hawaiian folks who are leery of causing spiritual offense by, say, taking pork products over the Pali, or disturbing Hawaiian graves, or harming an animal that might be an ancestor god. This is a state where dealing with a shark attack can involve a cultural/spiritual consultant, and construction accidents are rumored to be caused by offended spirits. I still remember the time my mom came home with tales of a hubbub at work -- one of her fellow nurses had accidentally killed an owl driving to in to work for her evening shift. It was a barn owl, a non-native species introduced in the 1950s, not the native pu'eo; nonetheless the driver, and many of their coworkers, were freaked out, because everyone, no matter their ethnic/religious background, knew owls could be ancestral Hawaiian gods.

Don't even get me started on the Green Lady. Chicken skin, brrrrrrrr!
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 11:29 PM on March 31, 2007

er, sweden had a state mandated church until ten years ago or so, so i would hardly characterize it as athiest, although observance is pretty casual. unless you mean "socially liberal in spite of fundamentalist cries of eternal damnation"?

belief in the supernatural is certainly not limited to the judeo-christian tradition. probably the reason the news contains a higher incidence of reported hauntings in the so-called "christian" west is because a) the west has a bigger media juggernaut, and more wherewithal to report on stuff like this b) westerners usually find it more attention getting (whereas in, maybe, india, you'd tell someone about the ghost and your neighbor would yawn and say, "oh, so how is grandma doing?")
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:38 AM on April 1, 2007

Response by poster: er, sweden had a state mandated church until ten years ago or so, so i would hardly characterize it as athiest, although observance is pretty casual. unless you mean "socially liberal in spite of fundamentalist cries of eternal damnation"?

I was going by this
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 8:18 AM on April 1, 2007

The answer is that there is not a single plae where people live, outside of Antarctica, that does not have a spiritual tradition of one sort or another.
posted by klangklangston at 9:00 AM on April 1, 2007

Antarctica, you say?
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 9:47 AM on April 1, 2007

Hey, Smilla - thanks for the online link to the Westervelt. I've had at least two copies over the years, but they keep disappearing (hmmm....).
posted by rtha at 1:50 PM on April 1, 2007

rtha -- hmm indeed! Cue spooky music, etc. I still have my folks' old hardcover copies, considerably the worse for wear, but they're all boxed up right now...but I've kept the online version bookmarked for ages since it's so nice to have it easily searchable when I'm trying to remember something. Sounds like your next set might be time for ti leaf bookmarks or something! Hmm, wonder if kaeru work on books as well as money?

(And geeze, could the borrowing and blending of different cultures' protective talismans could be another huge tangent or what?)
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 3:06 PM on April 1, 2007

As for Arabic, how about the ghouls?

"...demon of the desert that is able to assume the shape of an animal. It is an evil spirit that robs graves...The Arabic ghoul of the wasteland seems to be a personification of the terror of the desert."

We have djinns all over the place...there's even a special prayer to say before you go into the bathroom at night (they like toilets) to keep them from getting you.
posted by Liosliath at 11:02 PM on April 1, 2007

Why do they like bathrooms?
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:18 PM on April 2, 2007


"The jinn live where we do live on this earth. They are mostly to be found in ruins and unclean places like bathrooms, dunghills, garbage dumps and graveyards. Hence the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us to take precautions when entering such places, by reciting the adhkar (mentioning Allah’s Name) prescribed by Islam.

One of these are reported by Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) who says: “When the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) entered the toilet, he would say, 'Allahumma inni a`udhu bika min al-khubuthi wal-khaba’ith (O Allah, I seek Refuge with You from all offensive and wicked things [evil deeds and evil spirits]).'”
posted by Liosliath at 8:10 PM on April 2, 2007

Thank you for that. From the link:

Every individual among the sons of Adam has a jinn who has been appointed to be his constant companion (qarin). Ibn Mas`ud reports that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) says: “The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) says: ‘There is not one of you who does not have a jinn appointed to be his constant companion.’

posted by kisch mokusch at 12:17 AM on April 3, 2007

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