Diff’rent Ghosts for Diff’rent Folks

Over five hundred years ago, the most recent wave of European migration into the Americas began. While the Protestants in North America, predominantly the British, subjugated the indigenous population, eliminating not only their culture and language but their spiritual beliefs as well, the Catholics of primarily Central and South America (and the American west) did what Catholics have done since the days of Constantine and assimilated pieces of the local population’s beliefs into the Catholic story. How else could the Middle-Eastern story of a peaceful man permitting his own sacrifice in service of the salvation of the world have turned into the rebellious warrior who all but threw himself at the cross in the old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood” (“rood” being the old English word for “rod”, meaning here “cross” or “crucifix”), simply to appeal to the Celtic and Anglo sensibilities? Or how did we come to celebrate the resurrection of Christ by teaching our children it means somehow a magical bunny appeared in the night and left chocolates? (See Germany for that fun little springtime exercise!) “But what,” you may ask, “is the significance, Steve? Huh?”

Well, when the original thirteen colonies were, shall we say, “colonized,” among the things they brought with them were their religion, their myths, and their superstitions. These included ideas about everything from pixies and fairies to witches … and ghosts. While their Catholic brethren were incorporating such colorful holidays as “Dia de los Muertos” into the fabric of their new society, the Protestants up here were looking for European elves and leprechauns in a wilderness which had never heard of such things.

We would do well to try and understand some of the difference between the European and Native American (among other) views on the supernatural. In modern American society, we have created a clear delineation between the natural world and the supernatural world. For us, up is up and down is down, and if you see the spirit of someone who is dead that is not normal, not natural – supernatural. In many societies, including most of the Native American belief systems, that line hardly exists if at all. An example is Sasquatch (or Bigfoot, if you will). To the European way of thinking, if it exists it is a North American Great Ape, a real creature with all the abilities and limitations of a real creature. To the various Native American nations with stories about the creature, it is both a natural and a supernatural creature. An interesting view of the universe, indeed!

So let’s bring this back around to ghosts: for the Native American, supernatural beings come in many types. Some are simply spirits of the ancestors, here to watch over their descendants. Others are such creatures as skin-walkers, witches (men or women) who can take the form of any animal they desire, and possibly steal your skin by being absorbed into you if you lock eyes on them. The number and variation of Native American supernatural beings differs with each nation, but suffice to say – there are a lot.

Europeans in North America generally believe ghosts are spirits of the dearly departed. There may or may not be some reason this spirit is locked to the world of the living, they may have something to say to us, they may simply be some sort of supernatural recording playing over and over again … or they may not exist at all. But this differs from the Old World beliefs on the supernatural. It was Northern Europe and Scandinavia which gave us such creatures as The Vampire (more commonly “Dracula”, a real dude!) and The Werewolf, who shares some traits with the Native American skin-walker. Asia gave us dragons, possibly the misinterpreted bones of various types of dinosaurs. Central Europe added to the list with Elves and Goblins and the like. Then again, there have been millennia for these creatures to come on to the scene!

Ultimately, the U.S. hasn’t been around long enough to generate its own stories, and with the age of enlightenment and nearly instantaneous global communication we aren’t likely to create our own, so our ghosts tend to be from some sort of tragedy, a violent death, suffering, that kind of thing. It is easier to see out here in the Desert Southwest, but we would do well to recognize there is an entire body of supernatural stories around us from those who have been here longer, seen more, and reported it. We could be missing an important angle on the phenomenon!

Thanks for taking the time to read through this whole thing. I look forward to your comments!