In contrast to the modern conception of ghosts, many ancient societies not only thought that awe-inspiring gods were a form of ghost, but also believed that it was appropriate to lump spirits of nature and monsters into their definition of ghosts. In other words, ghosts were not necessarily the dead. They were anything that was nonhuman. In this view, ghosts were everywhere and it was not good to offend them, particularly since all ghosts (whatever they were) were the buffer between the perceptible world and unpredictable, possibly destructive, nature. Not willing to take chances, many ancient cultures treated ghosts with respect, whether they were gods, monsters, or earth spirits (Robinson, 1972).
If anything, early ghosts were a form of spiritual archetype. That is, they were complex expressions of the law and order that underlined both cosmos and the phenomenal world. While these archetypes weren’t conscious in the same way as humans are conscious, they represented an awareness of universal existence. These were no ordinary ghosts! Unlike traditional ghosts that we know, these ghosts possessed a form of transcendent consciousness that wasn’t, and still isn’t, normally available to human consciousness.
As the expression of transcendent universal consciousness, ghosts were divinity dressed in changing material, or semi-material, forms that illustrated different functions in life (Tigunait, 1983). In interaction with humans, these ghosts had their own form of communication, a form that mainly relied on the transmission of ideas through subtle autonomic stimuli. That is, ghosts didn’t communicate with words or ideas; they “spoke’ directly to the body. That means ghosts manifested through gut feeling, not through intellect. Since ancient people were a lot better at gut communication than we are today, ghosts of antiquity (of all kinds) were more widely accepted. If nothing else, the living used communication with ghosts to learn about “the other world.” That is, interest in ghosts was based mainly on curiosity of alternate worlds, not on earthly horror.
Since many ancient cultures believed that life and death were merely two sides of one coin, they wanted to know how to deal with the whole of being. In short, they wanted to understand how life connected to death and how death influenced life. Life and death were merely stops on the great line of continuation. As a result of this belief, the educated elite of antiquity pursued studies that, today, we’d consider unworthy of study. Indeed, for many early scholars, ghosts were a normal phenomenon that, as I have mentioned, included many forms of spirit. As an example of what I mean, consider the Christian expression “Holy Ghost.” Obviously, this ghost doesn’t mean a dead being restlessly roaming the earth. In contrast, it refers to the essence of Christian ideology, a classification that was common during the days of early Christianity. In earlier times, a Holy Ghost made perfect sense.
Qualities of Early Ghosts
While early ghosts could be scary, their “scariness” wasn’t necessarily due to fear of death. If anything, many ghosts linked to deities that were connected to fertility and the concept of re-emergence from darkness, positive qualities that were traditionally feminine. For this reason, female fertility ghosts/gods often represented the harvest and/or birth and were symbolized by cows, grain, and other classically female attributes. In short, the dynamic life/death cycle was second nature for female divinity.
Male gods weren’t so lucky. In contrast to female deities who peacefully expressed laws of nature, male symbolic figures expressed the dramatic struggles that we now associate with ghostly activity. Indeed, some important male gods only became spiritually significant as ghosts after a violent (and often bloody) end. I speak of gods like Egyptian Osiris who, traditionally, was dismembered and later reassembled as a powerful deity.
Osiris wasn’t the only one who met a dreadful end. In fact, the theme of dismemberment and resurrection as a nonmaterial, but conscious, form occurs so often in stories of male gods that one may suppose that, in some respects, divine male ghosts were evolved spiritual beings who were forced to give up body to survive as a god/ghost.
Not Just Gory Ghost Stories
Resurrection tales aren’t just violent ghost stories. The stories apparently illustrated the concept of an active libido that transcended death. Yes, sex played a role, although not as eroticism. Rather, as Jung (1976) suggests, the libido of spirits was a symbol of longing and the restless urge of unsettled spirits that look, but never find, a desired object. Perhaps, the greatest desire rested on an unconscious wish to re-emerge from the darkness of ignorance. The bottom line was that, because many male gods didn’t have an innate understanding of the female life/death cycle, they had to learn the hard way, namely, by undergoing a major crisis that transformed libido from sexual urge to transcendent understanding. Death presented the choice between becoming a demon, an ogre, a ghost of repetitive action, or an enlightened, godly ghost.
Is there an example of the fate of a god/ghost? Yes, take the example of Dionysus, a god who began as a quirky elevated spirit, but who, unfortunately, later became Bacchus, the Roman god of sensual overindulgence. In many ways, rediscovering the original Dionysus is a form of resurrection.
Yes, Dionysus was the god of wine but wine was only a material symbol for spiritual intoxication and frenzied abandon. As an ethereal, otherworldly being, Dionysus represented symbols of the occult world that we frequently associate with ghosts: moon, night, fig tree, cold, and moisture. Escape from human ego was the ultimate goal. In essence, Dionysian spirituality didn’t deny the existence of a supernatural world. Intoxication was escape from rationality that took the form of controlled madness (Shlain, 1998). In this spirituality, the world of darkness wasn’t necessarily dead.
Frequently associated with the horns of a bull (Wilson, 1973; Shlain, 1998), Dionysus later became an early relative of the Devil, particularly because the two horns hinted that there isn’t one exclusive form of consciousness. There are many realities. To emphasize this point, Dionysus was usually portrayed as a man with female qualities.
Gaskell (1960) writes that, although Dionysus was divine, the Supreme Zeus sent him to Earth where he was brought up in the darkness of a cave. From this humble cave, his goal was to find his way back to divinity. The vine that represented Dionysus symbolized earthly life that, if guided correctly, grew upwards to the heavens bearing worldly fruit. In effect, Dionysus was a child of two worlds who acknowledged both the natural and the supernatural. Nothing was impossible.
Such breadth of consciousness seems desirable, but it also has a dark side: Dionysus, like a number of other god/ghosts, didn’t act in ways that were clearly good or bad. Good or evil depended entirely on the quality of underlying wishes (Woods, 1973). In this respect, the association of Dionysus with magic was appropriate because, like dual Dionysus, magic could be positive or negative, depending on a practitioner’s intent (Wilson, 1973). In the same vein, ghosts could either be positive or negative. Positive ghosts were good. They were a desirable addition to a household.
Dark or Light?
In spite of his dual nature, Dionysus was a god/ghost with a purpose. Under the influence of his mad dissolution of boundaries, he could bestow the gift of divination just as easily as he could condemn a person to the depths of emotional turmoil (Shlain, 1998). In short, as a god/ghost, Dionysus was a source of both creativity and insanity. Sure, dealing with Dionysus posed a risk, but, as many creative artists would attest even today, the inspirational rewards are almost always worth the risk. There’s no one way to do anything . . . even hunt ghosts.
The best way to investigate is to keep an open mind. Once again, the power of Dionysus rested on destruction of the ego that blocks the experience of what Washburn (1988) calls the “dynamic ground,” or the state of being that influences mystical illumination. With dissolution of the ego, an open soul recognizes that ghosts, or other forms of the paranormal, fit neatly into a broad psycho-dynamic universe in which harmonious cooperation between light and dark plays a vital role in our understanding. That we’re frightened isn’t the fault of ghosts. Our ignorance is to blame. In fact, we’re the ones who must be helped. Worship of god/ghosts like Dionysus offered help because, as Washburn further suggests, the dread and ecstasy of Dionysus are the same. To get the full picture of reality that we need, we must accept all forms of consciousness because we can also use them for investigation.
The Message of Dionysus
That ghosts exist because of ignorance is a radical suggestion, but, to reach the state of mind that’s best for the investigation of spirits, we must face all fears of the unknown. Why? Because these fears say more about us than they do about gods, ghosts, and monsters that we try to study. If we wish to discover more, we must go beyond intellect into, yes, a sort of Dionysian frenzy in which unconscious fears rise into the light of consciousness without intervention of intellect (Jung 1968; 1976).
By doing so, we rediscover that light is dark and dark is light. In this way, we find that, when we finally reintroduce intellectual analysis into investigation, there will be a lot more profound insights to work with. Happy hunting!
Campbell, J. (1968). The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ:: Princeton UP.
Gaskell, G. A. (1981). Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths. New York; Avenel, New Jersey: Gramercy Books.
Jung, C. G. (1968). Psychology and Alchemy. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP. (Original work published 1944, revised 1952)
Jung, C. G. (1976). Symbols of Transformation (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP. (Original work published 1912, revised 1952)
Robinson, C.E. (1972). Everyday Life in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shlain, L. (1998). The Alphabet Versus The Goddess. New York: Viking Penguin.
Tigunait, P.R. (1983). Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy. Honesdale, Pennylvania: The Himalayan International Institute.
Washburn, M. (1988). The Ego and The Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development. Albany: SUNY Press.
Wilson, C. (1973). The Occult. Frogmore, St. Albans, Great Britain: Mayflower Books Limited.
Woods, W. (1996). A History of the Devil. London: W.H. Allen.