For centuries the incorporeal undead were classified as the collective “ghosts”, with variations and synonyms depending on the culture. It was with the rise of fiction in literature and film that a distinction of the incorporeal undead was made. A common attribute of the collective ghost is in its materialisation as a misty air-form likened to that of its previous living body.
- Wraith: a Scottish term for “ghost” or “spirit”;
- Revenant: Latin for “returning”;
- Spirit: Latin for “breath”;
- Spectre: French for “image” or “ghost”, derived from the Latin “spectrum”;
- Banshee: a Gaelic word meaning “woman of the fairy mound”.
What separates wraiths, revenants, spirits, spectres, and banshee from ghosts? Are they different at all? To determine this, we need to go back to folklore and factor in various forms of ghosts throughout cultures and fiction:
Some pre-literate folklores believed that the soul/spirit of the deceased could not leave the Earth until there was no one left alive who could remember them. Apparitions of the deceased would naturally manifest as they wandered the Earth. These were mostly benevolent ghosts, and rituals and rites were performed at death to prevent malevolence in the deceased’s soul, which would otherwise create revenants who envied the living. This belief was generally held in cultures of animal or ancestor worship, as those ancient China, Japan, Egypt, Rome, and Africa.
Originally called the Book of Going Forth By Day, it is a compilation of texts written regarding death, the soul, and the afterlife. The Ba are the free-range spirit aspect of the deceased, portrayed as a bird with a human head that could roam outside the tomb during the day. Likewise, the Shut being the shadow aspect of the deceased.
Classical antiquity remade the collective ghost into conscious entities who could speak to the living and, in some cultures, foretell the future. The majority of ghosts were benevolent and hardly ever encountered without a summoning. Classical Greek ghosts became haunting entities, though some benevolent ghosts remained, who were believed to linger close to their corpses. The Classical Roman belief held that people could use ghosts to exact revenge onto the living by a ritual of scratching on lead or pottery and placing it into a grave.
Composed in the 8th Century BC, The Odyssey is a poem about a Greek hero named Odysseus and his adventures and tribulations. During his quest to return home to Ithaca, Odysseus reaches a harbour in the western edge of the world (his journey into Hades) where he sacrificed to the dead and encountered the spirits of a crew member, prophet, his mother, and famous men and women including that of Agamemnon and Achilles. Odysseus’ encounters with spirits were through the practice of summoning (necromancy). The spirits told Odysseus about the affairs in the present and the future in vague dialogue. The spirits in the poem were benevolent, although some were at unease, and could only visually manifest and communicate with the living.
The fall of Rome and birth of the Middle Ages saw ghosts again in a new light. Ghosts were believed to be souls in Purgatory who would occasionally manifest on Earth to ask the living to pray for them to end their suffering, or demons who existed solely to torment the living. The ghosts of Medieval times took on a new attribute: the material world could physically interact with the incorporeal undead. The living could restrain ghosts and some reported to have wrestled with them. Ghost knights challenged living knights to combat in England. The ghosts of the Middle Ages were pale versions of their living selves, always dressed in tattered rags. Some cultures were the exception in their pre-Christian beliefs. Norse folklore, for example, made distinctions between the ghosts that wander and wraiths who were cursed to cause dread and misery.
Written sometime in the 13th century, the saga tells of the transition of religion in Iceland over two decades. The saga’s main character is a chieftain named Snorri Goði, who ruled over an area called Snæfellsnes. Most ghost stories within the saga consist of animals rising up through floors and of revenants with animated corpses warming themselves by the fireplace in people’s houses. One story tells of a shepherd who died and haunted a house at Frodis-water. Thorir Wooden-leg encountered the ghost, became ill, and died. Together, the ghosts of Thorir and the shepherd haunted the area and four more people got sick and died one after the other. A seal’s ghost started coming out of the floorboards in a house while the town’s inhabitants gathered. Many guests tried to hit the ghost back down but with every strike, the ghost rose higher up from the floor until a young man named Kiartin hit the ghost back down into the ground using a sledgehammer. Thorir and his ghastly followers began throwing mud at the living during dinner by shaking out their clothes in the house, killing servants along the way. Snorri eventually banished the ghosts from Snæfellsnes with rituals.
Culture and the arts boomed at the turn of the Renaissance, and the undead with it. Ghosts were once again re-envisioned into romantic concepts; the souls of the dead yearning for release or atonement from living loved ones. In the romantic era, ghosts could take on the complete appearance of a living man and interact with the living without suspicion. Ghosts became both corporeal and incorporeal as they willed and, strangely, they remained mostly benevolent with this ability.
Fair Brow is a short fairy tale published in 1885, about a merchant’s son who helped settle the debts of a dead man with his father’s money, intended for merchandise. The merchant’s son, Fair Brow, then purchased a slave woman and married her. She turned out to be the Sultan of Turkey’s kidnapped daughter. Fair Brow and his wife were chased from his father’s home, and his wife was captured by Turks. Fair Brow later encountered a fisherman and helped sell the man’s fish. A storm carried them to Turkey where they were enslaved. After reuniting with his wife, Fair Brow escaped with her and her maidens but returned to rescue the fisherman before leaving again. The fisherman claimed half of all the wealth they now possessed, including Brow’s wife. Brow relinquished some of his wealth to the man if he could keep his wife to himself. The man then revealed himself as the ghost of the dead man whose debts Brow had paid off in order for his body to be buried, then he disappeared.
The Modern Age branched out in specialisation, separating the types of incorporeal undead through works of fiction: ghosts, spirits, revenants, spectres, banshee, wraiths, etc. The distinctions being as small as the manner in which the person died. Ghosts are shown as the incorporeal likeness of the deceased who died unexpectedly. Spirits generally refer to the souls of the deceased who have attained ascension of some form such as being pure, good, or Holy. Revenants, much like ghosts, died unexpectedly but in a more troublesome manner which leaves the soul of the deceased at unease. Women who have been dealt an injustice or died pure and denied the indulgences of life often rise again as banshee; scornful and angered at the living. Spectres and Wraiths occur when the soul of the deceased is risen through necromancy and commanded to perform hauntings and terror against the living; wraiths being able to manifest and interact with the physical world, where spectres use magic or energies to perform their master’s will.
First appearing in 1954, in The Fellowship of the Ring, the Nazgul made a terrifying and dark entrance into fantasy literature. These nine creatures, also called Ringwraiths, were once the leaders of men before their downfall that led to the disintegration of their physical bodies and eternal servitude to Sauron. Tolkien portrays them as ghost-like creatures who stand as men, shrouded in black robes that gave them physical form. The Nazgul are otherwise invisible to the mortal eye. They mainly use physical weapons (some with curses), though they also have an aura of death called Black Breath which can cause unconsciousness, nightmares, and eventual death in beings who remain in close proximity or get too close to them.
Is there a difference between the variations of ghosts? Yes, and no. While the variations are distinguished from each other, they are in essence still ghosts: the incorporeal undead who haunt and help us, the physical beings.
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