John Steinbeck once observed, “Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.” Stretch that time to eternity, and you may run into one of the many phantasmal foragers that are collectively known as “hungry ghosts”. If you are foolish enough to live a mortal life of insatiable greed your recompense, in several mythologies, appears to be condemnation to wander the earth for all time, insanely hungry, but unable to eat, and desperately thirsty, but unable to drink. By this logic, Wall Street should look like a scene from the Walking Dead, but unfortunately the Abrahamic Western deity is a cruel, desert God and all indications are that there is very little justice in the universe. And it’s kind of an obvious punishment. I like to credit supreme beings with a little more originality, or at least a supernaturally twisted sense of humor (“Yeah, so I told him to build a boat and collect two of every living creature. Can you believe he took me seriously?) This does not change the fact that the notion of “hungry ghosts” is well-represented cross-culturally. Perhaps one day they will make a comeback, and foreknowledge is forewarning. Smart to be prepared for any eventuality, up to and including inundation with ravenous spirits.
Like a lot of good horror, traces of our hungry ghosts can be found in biblical Apocrypha, particularly the psuedepigraphical and apocalyptic Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) and the Slavonic Enoch (2 Enoch or “The Secrets of Enoch”), called Slavonic as the full text was only found preserved in Old Church Slavonic (the first literary Slavic language), with a few Coptic fragments identified as late in the game as 2009 A.D. The bulk of the Book of Enoch itself is generally attributed to Jewish sectarians in the 1st Century B.C. The Slavonic Enoch is regarded as a 1st Century A.D. Christian work. Interestingly, the portion of 1 Enoch that we are most interested in (“The Book of Watchers”) is thought to date to roughly 300 B.C, later redacted along with five other books into what we now know as the Book of Enoch. Basically, older than dirt. Now, hungry ghosts don’t figure all that prominently, but the Book of Watchers purports to describe the fall of the angels that fathered the Nephilim (dad’s an angel, mom’s a human), referred to as giants inhabiting Canaan in Numbers 13:33. So, we all know what happened to the divine baby daddy’s – cast down into the eternal gloom of Tartarus. Another bit of biblical Apocrypha (canonical for Ethiopian Jews and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), The Book of Jubilees, probably written somewhere 150 B.C., suggest that God sent the Flood largely to wipe out the Nephilim, but strangely decided to keep the disembodied spirits of 10 percent of the nasty giants around to use for tempting humanity. How humane. At any rate, the Book of Enoch explains their fate.
But you from the beginning were made spiritual, possessing a life which is eternal, and not subject to death for ever. Therefore I made not wives for you, because, being spiritual, your dwelling is in heaven. Now the giants, who have been born of spirit and of flesh, shall be called upon earth evil spirits, and on earth shall be their habitation. Evil spirits shall proceed from their flesh, because they were created from above; from the holy Watchers was their beginning and primary foundation. Evil spirits shall they be upon earth, and the spirits of the wicked shall they be called. The habitation of the spirits of heaven shall be in heaven; but upon earth shall be the habitation of terrestrial spirits, who are born on earth. The spirits of the giants shall be like clouds, which shall oppress, corrupt, fall, contend, and bruise upon earth. They shall cause lamentation. No food shall they eat; and they shall be thirsty; they shall be concealed, and shall not rise up against the sons of men, and against women; for they come forth during the days of slaughter and destruction. And as to the death of the giants, wheresoever their spirits depart from their bodies, let their flesh, that which is perishable, be without judgment. Thus shall they perish, until the day of the great consummation of the great world. A destruction shall take place of the Watchers and the impious (1 Enoch, XV – XVI).
Not nice. The Nephilim (equated with the Grigori in 2 Enoch, Grigori being a direct Slavonic transcription of the Greek word “egrḗgoroi”, meaning “watchful”, which itself was translated from the Aramaic “iyr” or “to watch”) who were suffered to survive the flood, were literally “disembodied” and condemned to hang around on earth for an eternity of hunger and thirst. It’s not like they asked to be born, so all things considered this seems a tad harsh, but that’s those stern monotheistic father gods for you. Clean your room or I’ll smite you, suck out your soul, and send you on a starving walkabout for the rest of existence. Spare the rod you nut, for heaven’s sake. Much as it would amuse me to lay this kind of theological monstrosity at the doorstep of monotheism, we have ample examples of hungry ghosts from a variety of traditions. Take for example, the Hindu preta (a Sanskrit term meaning “departed, deceased, a dead person”). Classical Sanskrit used this term to refer to any ghost, but especially in reference to one of our hungry phantom friends and versions are extant in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, and Jainism, and in most incarnations they are basically walking corpses with disturbingly specific needs.
First some basic Hinduism. Five elements constitute the universe: Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and Dark Matter (there are other karmically determined elements, but these are the essentials). Preta are held to be bodies made of only Air and Dark Matter (either due to an unnatural death or not having the appropriate funerary rituals – which incidentally, are thought of us “destroying” all remnants of the physical impression on the world), and because they are missing the other three elements representing the physical world, no intake of food or drink is possible for them. Sucks to be a preta, which is why appropriate treatment of the dead is way important in Hinduism. The Garuda Purana, a Hindu text dating to about 500 B.C. in the form of a dialog between Vishnu and the King of Birds (Garuda), deals with a lot of afterlife issues and instructions on appropriate treatment of the dead, and includes discussion of the preta.
The forty-eight Sraddhas destroy the condition of the ghost-life. He for whom this series is performed becomes a member of the assembly of the forefathers. The three sixteens should be performed so that the departed may join the assembly of the forefathers; if deprived of Sraddhas the ghost remains as preta always. If the performance of the three sixteens of Sraddhas is not carried out, either by himself or another, then he certainly does not join them (Garuda Purana, Chapter XII, lines 67-69 trans. Naunidhirāma).
Now, I’m a big fan of karmic retribution, but even I have to admit that the typically mellow Buddhists brought their mythological horror “A-Game” when they tackled the notion of the hungry ghost. Buddhism inherited much of its mythology from Hinduism. Whereas Hinduism largely attributed the existence of the preta to failure to properly observe funeral rites, Buddhism more explicitly linked the preta to excessive possessiveness or desire in a previous life, essentially translating the preta into one of the six possible states of rebirth, relegating unfortunate, ethically-challenged people to “The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts” represented in the Dharmic Wheel. The Petavatthu (“Stories of Ghosts”) is a Theravada Buddhist scripture in verse, and discusses the life of the preta as an entire realm of existence, wholly dependent on ours for sustenance.
They stand outside our dwellings, at our windows, at the corners of our streets; they stand at our doors, revisiting their old homes. When abundant food and drink is set before them, by reason of the past sins of these departed ones, their friends on earth remember them not. Yet do such of their kinsmen as are merciful bestow upon them at due seasons food and drink, pure, sweet and suitable. Let this be done for your departed friends, let them be satisfied. Then, gathering together here, the assembled spirits of out kinsmen rejoice greatly in a plentiful repast. “Long,” they say, “may our kinsmen live through whom we have received these things: to us offerings are made and the givers are not without reward” for in the land of the dead there is no husbandry, no keeping of flocks, no commerce ad with us, no trafficking for gold: the departed live in that world by what they receive in this. As water fallen upon a height descends into the valley, so surely do alms bestowed by men benefit the dead. As the brimming rivers fill the ocean, so do alms bestowed by men benefit the dead. Let a man consider thus—” Such a one gave me this gift, such a one wrought me this good deed; they were my kinsmen, my friends, my associates.” Then let him give alms to the dead, mindful of past benefits. For weeping and sorrow and all manner of lamentation are of no avail, if their relatives stand thus sorrowing it benefits not the dead. But this charity bestowed by you, well secured in the priesthood, if it long bless the dead, then does it benefit them indeed. And the fulfillment of this duty to relatives to the dead is a great service rendered, to the priests a great strength given, by you no small merit acquired (Petavatthu, Khuddaka pátha XII-XIII, trans. R.C. Childers)
Tibetan Buddhism calls it a “yidak” and adds a little more corporeal reality to its descendant of the Hindu preta, assigning it very specific anatomical characteristics, which ultimately result in its unquenchable thirst and insatiable hunger. We have an adequately graphic account related to us by Jesuit missionary to Tibet, Father Ippolito Desideri.
By Yidak they mean a certain kind of living being that has a very small and narrow mouth exactly like the eye of a needle, and a neck that is similarly narrow and constricted. Their eyes emit noxious and fiery exhalations that dry everything up, and their stomachs are huge and capacious…Their principal torments are a perpetual and extreme hunger and painful thirst. Their skin and flesh is dry and scorched like a firebrand half burned and quenched, their hair is bristly, their mouths extremely dry, and their tongues are like those of exhausted and thirsty dogs. To relieve their thirst they run anxiously and panting towards springs and pools, but as soon as they reach the longed-for water and eagerly stretch forth their necks and are about to drink, they are thwarted, and the torment of their thirst grows greater than ever…To relieve their hunger they run around from place to place in search of something to eat, suffering the intolerable pain of total exhaustion and finding nothing; or if they do find something, it is either instantly consumed by sudden flames or changed into the most revolting and stinking filth so that it is totally inedible. Even should they finally manage to swallow a little something, it cannot allay the great hunger and insatiable appetite of their huge bellies, and instead exacerbates their torment all the more, increasing beyond measure the inconsolable and incurable pain…Finally, to sum this all up in a few words, the state of such unhappy living beings is very similar to that of Hell. Such a birth and the enormous sufferings that accompany it are primarily the penalty and punishment for avarice” (Desideri, 2010, p349-250)
Oh Japan. When we want to get truly wacky with our folk freaks, we can always turn to you. Japanese strains of Buddhism elaborated thirty-six different classes of preta (which were called “Gaki”), ascribing specific desires for specific sins. A few examples of Gaki: the shikko-gaki (defile a grave, hunger for dead flesh), the kwaku-shin-gaki (allowed the poor to freeze, bodies continually scorched by fire with fuel they themselves are forced to collect), the gakimushi (mindless killers, condemned to be giant insects ripping up everything in their path until slaughtered by angry villagers), the jiki-kwa (arsonists, eternally forced to seek out and eat fire), and the doku-gaki (poisoners, forced to forever eat poison), to name just a few. They get pretty specific about the sins committed. For instance, if out of greed you sell bad incense, you are eternally damned to insatiable hunger for the smoke of incense.
Although the power of making visible the forms of the dead has been claimed for one sort of incense only, the burning of any kind of incense is supposed to summon viewless spirits in multitude. These come to devour the smoke. They are called Jiki-ko-ki, or “incense-eating goblins;” and they belong to the fourteenth of the thirty-six classes of Gaki (pretas) recognized by Japanese Buddhism. They are the ghosts of men who anciently, for the sake of gain, made or sold bad incense; and by the evil karma of that action they now find themselves in the state of hunger-suffering spirits, and compelled to seek their only food in the smoke of incense (Hearn, 1906, p54-55).
Chinese Buddhists offer their own version of preta, called the “egui”, exemplified by the story of Mu-lien and his mother in the Kuei wen mu-lien ching (“The Sutra on the Ghosts Questioning Mu-lien”). The hungry ghost found fertile ground among Chinese Buddhists, as it meshed well with existing folk concepts in traditional Confucian ancestor worship, this despite fierce resistance to Buddhism from Confucians. The result was an interesting holiday called “The Hungry Ghost Festival” (15th Day of the Seventh Lunar month in the Chinese Calendar), when restless spirits are released from the lower realms to roam the earth, and the living can ameliorate the suffering of the hungry dead by offerings of food and gifts, still celebrated to this day.
As soon as he [Buddha] arrives, the magic radiance that shines from the down between his eyebrows dissolves Hell. The Tree of Swords and the Forest of Knives turn to dust, and all the demon-gaolers fall on their knees, and do homage to Buddha. The damned are all transferred to Heaven. Not, however, Lady Leek Stem; she becomes a Preta, a Hungry Ghost. If in the distance she hears the sound of water, by the time she gets near it has turned into a river of revolting pus. Food the moment it touches her lips turns into fire. She implores Mu-lien to take his begging-bowl and collect some rice for her, thinking apparently that rice given as alms to a monk will not be subject to the laws of the Preta world. And he must be quick about it, she says, for she is in desperate need of nourishment. Mu-lien goes off to the city of Rajagriha and begs from a man of substance, who is at first shocked at a monk begging at so late an hour in the day. ‘Monk,’ he says, ‘you must already have had your early meal. The time for eating is over. What are you going to do with this rice?’ Mu-lien explains, and the man of substance tells his servants to bring rice immediately. Mu-lien hurries back to his mother and begins to feed her ‘with a golden spoon’. But all the torments of Hell have not cured her of her inveterate covetousness and greed. She is terrified that the other Hungry Ghosts will snatch away the food. ‘The monk who has come’, she says to them, ‘is my son. It is for me that he has brought this rice from the world of men. Just calm yourselves, and perhaps when I am feeling better I will do something for you. …” Looking round anxiously in every direction she protected the bowl with her left hand, while with her right she rolled the rice into balls. But before it entered her mouth, it turned into fire. She then implored him to get water to put the fire out, and he took her to the great river to the south of Rajagriha. When the people of the common world see this river, it is as pure, clear water that they see it. When gods see this river, it is as a stream of crystal that they see it. When fish see this river, to them it is a mountain brook. But when Lady Leek Stem saw it, to her it was a river of foul pus. Mu-lien was obliged to go back once more to Buddha who explained that not till the Avalambana Festival had been celebrated could his mother eat (Waley, 1960, p231-232).
Let’s face it. It sucks to be a ghost. All that haunting and insubstantiality has to wear you down after a while. Maybe you get a little jealous of the living, rattle a few chains, even go poltergeist in a ghostly tantrum. Boring, yes, but at least you are not consumed by unquenchable thirst and insatiable appetite, often for the most unsavory of items (decayed flesh, fire, human excrement, etc.). The theological lesson is obviously, “don’t be greedy, you might get stuck that way”. There’s a reason that hunger and thirst make up the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When they are not satisfied, we are fairly unpleasant creature. Compound that across eternity. Doesn’t make for a happy afterlife. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who spent a fair share of time in Soviet Gulags, acquiring expertise in hunger observed, “The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.” And all he wanted was some more bread.
Childers, Robert Cæsar, 1838-1876. Khuddaka Pátha: a Páli Text, With a Translation And Notes. [London], 1869.
Desideri, Ippolito [18th Century] Mission to Tibet: The Remarkable Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri S. J. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2010.
Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904. In Ghostly Japan. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1906.
Laurence, Richard, 1760-1838, and Charles Gill. The Book of Enoch the Prophet: Tr. From an Ethiopic Ms. in the Bodleian Library.
Naunidhirāma. The Garuḍa Purâṇa (Sâroddhâra). New York: AMS Press, 1974.
Waley, Arthur. Ballads And Stories From Tun-huang: an Anthology. New York: Macmillan, 1960.