Ghost Tales and The Lessons They Teach Us
Among the themes found in folklore, one often used to teach lessons is the paranormal; or to be specific, ghosts. Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is spread largely through speech and behavior. Every group has their own folk traditions, which are things that people traditionally believe, do, know, make and say. (What Is Folklore?) For example, while the use of ghosts is popular in American society and is mainly used for entertainment purposes, such as for horror stories and selling movies, the origination of these paranormal tales can be traced back to folklore. In fact, ghosts, and death in particular, are two things that frequent the folklore of many cultures. One of the many reasons this is so is because ghosts disrupt the rite of passage—or the process by which an individual leaves one group to enter another; this usually involves a significant change of status in society. An example would be moving from being a child into adulthood. (Rite of passage) Another is because they disrupt the cycle of life and death; meaning they make us question if there really is something after death. It is through the use of themes like this that values such as perseverance, trust and self-control are taught. In order to understand why the use of ghosts in text can lead to the teaching of lessons such as these, it is important that the term liminality is understood.
The theory of liminality came into being in 1906, when anthropologist Arnold van Gennep published his ‘Rites de Passage.’ The work explored the rituals of small-scale societies, and distinguished between “those that result in a change of status for an individual or social group, and those that signify transitions in the passage of time.” He placed an emphasis on rites of passage and claimed that “such rituals marking, helping, or celebrating individual or collective passages through the cycle of life or of nature exist in every culture, and share a specific three-fold sequential structure.” This three-fold structure was made up of preliminal rites, which involves a metaphorical “death” where the person is forced to leave something behind through the act of breaking with previous routine; liminal rites, which involves the “removal of previously taken-for-granted forms and limits;” and, finally, post liminal rites, where the initiate is re-incorporated into society with a new identity or place. (Liminality) When it comes to ghosts, however, these rites of passage are disrupted; particularly those of the human lifespan, which is described as covering birth, maturation and death. It is because ghosts are in an altered middling state of neither life nor death, that they are considered to be in liminality.
Continuing Gennep’s work, Victor Turner examined not only “the importance of in-between periods, but also … the human reactions to liminal experiences: the way liminality shaped personality, the sudden foregrounding of agency, and the sometimes dramatic tying together of thought and experience.” In fact, according to Turner, all liminality must eventually end. Due to the fact that it is a state of such great intensity, he said that it “could not exist for extended periods of time without some sort of structure to stabilize it. Either the individual returns to the surrounding social structure … or else liminal communities develop their own internal social structure.” (Liminality) This idea is very predominant in folklore.
An example of such a thing can be found in the Greek story Orpheus and Eurydice, located in the book Favorite Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen. While the story revolves around the two characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, and their love, many would argue that the tale is far from being a love story. In it, Orpheus, the son of Apollo, marries Eurydice despite being presented with various bad omens. For example, Hymen, the god of blessings and marriage, is called to bless the wedding ceremony, however, it is said that “though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears to their eyes.” (422)
Shortly following the ceremony, Eurydice, “while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus.” (422) The shepherd is said to be “struck by her beauty” and tries to force himself on her in retaliation. Scared, Eurydice flees, and in the process steps on a snake, is bitten, and then dies. When Orpheus finds out that his wife is dead, he is stricken with grief. He sings to “all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men,” but finds no help. (422) Instead, he seeks out his wife in the Underworld. Due to the fact that he has to do so in order to be heard, it can be understood that music, or Orpheus’ music at least, is akin to a form of life, and is therefore unable to be heard by the dead.
Descending into the Underworld via a cave, he presents himself at the throne of Pluto and Proserpine, the gods that rule the dead. He sings to them, confessing that he has “come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky hair who guards the entrance” as so many have before him. This creates a distinction between those that come to the Underworld primarily for glory and stories and Orpheus, who does it for love. This is highlighted when he tells them that he has come for his wife.
In addition, his words “whose opening years the … viper’s fang has brought to an untimely end” points out the very cycle of life, maturation, and death. (422) Eurydice was killed shortly after they were married, meaning that she hasn’t gotten to experience the middle part of life, which is meant to be dedicated to married life and children. He pleads with the gods, using this argument. In fact, his very words are “We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours.” He also adds that “if you deny me, I cannot return above; you shall triumph in the death of us both.” (423) This leads back to his sole motivation in coming to the Underworld; love for his wife. It is said that as he sang, the very ghosts shed tears, feeling his grief and sincerity. Due to the fact that the dead could not previously hear his music, it can be inferred that the fact that they were able to show an emotion such as sorrow so greatly that they were able to cry means that Orpheus imbued them with life through the use of his music.
Moved by his story, Proserpine and Pluto call Eurydice forward. Orpheus is then told that he is permitted to take her away on one condition: that he does not turn around to look at her until they have reached the upper air, or the living world. He agrees and they head back the way they came in total silence. This is where the first lesson lies.
Taking in Orpheus’ tale, it can be understood that determination and devotion is being encouraged. Orpheus does not give up on his wife, and even goes so far as to find his way down to the Underworld to reach his goal. When he is rewarded through getting his wife back, this determination is also being rewarded, as well as his love. However, this is not the only lesson to be found in the text.
Continuing the text, it is said that in a moment of forgetfulness, just as they had nearly reached the upper—or living—world, Orpheus looks back to assure himself that Eurydice was still following him. Eurydice is instantly borne away and vanishes. This leads to the second lesson of the story.
The fact that Orpheus looks back to “assure himself” brings to light the fact that he doubted Pluto was telling the truth when he said she would be following him. On top of that, the text also says that he looks in a moment of “forgetfulness,” which can also be seen as a display of impatience. This means that Orpheus’ entire journey—from traveling to the Underworld, to convincing the gods to let Eurydice live once again—was made a moot point in one moment of not only distrust; but also impatience. This is where the lesson lies. It is through Orpheus’ mistakes that we can understand that no matter your devotion, love, or the measures you take, if you’re too hasty, or distrustful of the ones that help you reach your goals, then you could ruin all the hard work you’ve done up until that point.
Another example of a ghost tale that can be used to teach lessons is an American Indian story called The Spirit-Wife, also found in Favorite Folktales from Around the World. In it, a man is explained to be grieving for his dead wife. He decides to join her in the afterlife, placing a series of items around her grave that the reader can assume is meant to summon her. At nightfall she comes to him, and tells him she is leaving for another life and to not cry for her. Unable to let her go, he confesses that “I love you so much that I will go with you to the land of the dead.” (424)
She tries to convince him otherwise but eventually gives in. She tells him that she will be invisible during the day, and that he must tie a feather in her hair so that he can follow her. This is normal in ghost tales, since usually the dead are only seen at night, when the ‘veil’ between the living and dead world becomes thinner. He obeys and they set off. The journey is hard on the man, due to the endless pace. His wife does not need to stop to eat or rest, so he walks to exhaustion during the day, sleeping during the night before continuing on. Eventually they make it to a canyon and his wife drifts across. Unable to do the same, the man calls for her to wait. He tries to climb down the side of the canyon, but soon enough he is unable to go any further. A squirrel sees his struggle and stops to reprimand him—“You young fool, do you think you have the wings of a bird or the feet of a spirit? Hold on for just a little while and I’ll help you.” (425) Taking a seed out of its cheek, the squirrel puts the seed in a small crack. Out of the crack the seed grows across the canyon. The man uses the plant to climb across, able to do so safely without having to worry about climbing. It is on the other side that he finds his wife waiting for him.
Continuing to follow his wife, they eventually come to a lake. This time, she dives under the surface of the lake. He grieves, knowing he can’t follow her. He sits beside the lake for a day, hoping for his wife to return. An owl is the one to find him.
As a member of the bird family, the owl has many different beliefs surrounding it. However, when it comes to Native Americans, owls are mostly seen as evil, or bad omens. For example, hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen. In fact, the bird is often used in ‘bogeyman’ stories that are meant to get children to stay inside at night, or to not misbehave or cry too much. In some tribes the owl is often associated with ghosts, as the ones in this story are. It is said that the circles around an owl’s eyes are made up of the fingernails of the dead. They are also spoken of being messengers, bringing messages from beyond the grave to the living. (Americas) The owl that finds the young man, however, is only helpful.
Asking the man why he is weeping, the man explains that his wife is in the land of the dead where he cannot follow her. The owl tells him to follow him back to his home in the mountains, where he can tell him what to do. He tells the man that, “if you follow my advice, all will be well and you will be reunited with the one you love.” The man proceeds to follow him, and they eventually make it to a cave full of owls. They invite him to eat and drink while he rests. The owl that lead him to the cave sheds his clothing and reveals himself to be a “manlike spirit.” (426)
The owl then shows the man a small bag, telling him that “I will give this to you, but first I must instruct you in what you must do and must not do.” The man grabs the medicine bag after the words, only for the owl to pull back. He calls him a “foolish fellow, suffering from the impatience of youth!” and points out that “If you cannot curb your eagerness and your youthful desires, then even this medicine will be of no help to you.” (426) This is, in fact, eventually the downfall of the man.
With a promise to be patient, the owl tells him that in the bag is a sleep medicine that will put him in a comatose like sleep. He says that when the man wakes he will follow a trail to his wife. On top of this, he also reminds the man to be “patient”, and “to curb eagerness” for if he touches her before reaching their village she will be lost forever.
The man is then put into the deep sleep. While he sleeps the owls go to the land of the dead, also putting the spirits in charge to sleep before taking the spirit-wife to where the man was sleeping. When they both awake, the wife is surprised, claiming that the man’s love for her is “strong, stronger than love has been” otherwise they would not have reached the point of almost being together again. (427) Again, the man is being rewarded for his persistence, as Orpheus was in the previous story. It is through his devotion to his wife and his determination to follow her that he has gotten this far. However, as was the case in Orpheus, this is not the only lesson to be learned.
They start to head back to their village, traveling for four days. On the fourth day, the wife tells her husband that she is very tired and needs to rest. The man agrees and watches over her. Up until this point the man had abided the no touching rule, but it is said that as he was “gazing at her loveliness, desire so strong that he could not resist it overcame him, and he stretched out his hand and touched her.” She wakes up instantly, and cries when she realizes what has happened. She tells him that “you loved me, but you did not love me enough; otherwise you would have waited. Now I shall die again.” (427) She fades before his eyes, and it is said that the man sank into despair, his eyes vacant as his mind wandered.
The second lesson of this story is pointed out in the text, claiming that “if the young lover had controlled his desire, if he had not longed to embrace his beautiful wife, if he had not touched her, if he had practiced patience and self-denial for only a short time, then death would have been overcome. There would be no journeying to the land below the lake, and no mourning for others lost.” (427) On top of this, the message of patience and self-denial can also be seen as advice to control our actions/emotions within the etiquette of society, with a warning that there are consequences if we fail to do so. Take the man losing his wife for example.
On top of teaching lessons, the paranormal can also be used to explain strange occurrences or ‘miracles,’ and are often chalked up to god. For example, there is a story circling the internet called Ghostly Rescue. In this story, a couple is traveling on the road when all of a sudden they see a woman in the middle of the road asking them to stop. The woman wanted the husband to keep going but the man insisted on driving slowly to make sure that he wouldn’t have to live with the doubt of something wrong having happened. They notice that the woman has injuries all over her body as they get closer and stop in the end. The woman tells them that she’s been in a car accident, and that her husband and son were inside the car. She adds that her husband was already dead but that the baby still seemed to be showing life. The husband decides to get down and try to rescue the baby. He asks the hurt woman to stay with his wife inside of their car. As he goes down he notices that there were two people in the front seats, but doesn’t pay much attention. He brings the baby up to its mother but cannot find her anywhere.
It turns out that the woman was one of the people in the front seats, and was dead as well. When the man looked closer he noticed that the woman in the front seat looked exactly the same as the one that they had stopped for. (Mikkelson) For those that are religious, stories like these can be seen as lessons from their god. Through these tales someone can become more in touch with their faith, or feel strengthened in their beliefs. This is why there are so many stories similar to this one floating around the internet. Take the story Ghostly Moth Saves Train, for example.
In this story, a British express train was traveling through the night. It carried Queen Victoria. All of a sudden the engineer saw a weird figure in a black cloak through the beam of the headlights. The engineer stopped the train when he saw the person flapping its arms. When he exited the train the figure was nowhere to be found, but they found that the bridge they had been about to cross had been washed out in the middle. If it had not been for the ghostly figure they would have died.
While the tracks were being repaired, they tried to find the figure. However, it wasn’t until the engineer noticed a huge dead moth at the base of the engine’s head lamp. On impulse he wet its wings and pastes it to the lamp. When he next turned the light on, it turned out that the moth was their savior. When Queen Victoria found out, she said that she was “sure it was no accident. It was god’s way of protecting [them].” (Ghostly Moth Saves Train)
There are many themes found in folklore. From family values, to gender roles and things such as proper etiquette, ghosts are only one example among a wide variety of categories used in stories such as the ones mentioned above. In fact, it is through the use of tales such as Orpheus and Eurydice, The Spirit-Wife, and Ghostly Rescue, lessons such as self-discipline, devotion, perseverance and faith are taught.