“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
People have spent a lot of time thinking about ghosts. This is because death is scary. And awfully final. And we’re too pretty and filled with great ideas to be summarily extinguished like a match. Or so we tell ourselves, and invent complex theologies, ideologies, and eschatalogies to fend off the nagging suspicion that we aren’t all that special in the grand scheme of things, just self-important lumps of matter that hold our own consciousness dear. I mean, sure you’re special, but I’m talking about the rest of the unwashed masses. Have you seen their hygiene? They really need to take more showers. Not you of course. You smell like a rose.
Nobody wants to wind up a ghost. Those sheets are itchy. And all the moaning, clanking of chains, throwing of plates, reliving past wrongs, and floating about is likely rather tedious, but ghosts suggest to us that there is an “afterlife”, and that if one doesn’t screw up to too badly while loitering about this mortal coil, the average Joe can partake in something greater than themselves. Ghosts just represent what we find unsavory in others – you know, homicidal tendencies, failure to pay on one’s debts, both moral and fiduciary, and a general dissatisfaction with our lot in life. This is understandable as for most of human history, our time was pretty much commandeered growing staple crops and building ziggurats, when we weren’t digging canals and singing the praises of the current God-King.
Along comes modernity, where we had relatively abundant free time, which we largely wasted on shopping, but in those spare moments we engaged in that second favorite human pastime – theorizing about stuff. Our favorite is clubbing each other over the cranium, both literally and figuratively, but that starts to hurt after a while. So, we were laying in our collective hospital beds, recovering from head trauma or terrible tongue-lashings, and we started to think about ghosts, and assumed, being all modern and all, we were the first to consider such things from an enlightened perspective. Rumors of our enlightenment are clearly overblown considering the state of the world today (not to mention the past few Millennia or so).
When we wanted to seem scholarly, the hip thing to do in the Western World for a few hundred years was reference speculations from the Romans and Greeks, who admittedly had lots of bright ideas, but with the Ancient Greeks everything was couched in how awesome it was to be Greek in contrast to the surrounding barbarians, and the Romans, who figured they themselves were some pretty smart cookies, brushed off such concerns as ultimately irrelevant since they were in charge of everything anyway. It’s good to be the king. Ask any king. They’ll happily confirm. Or chop your head off. Kings are kind of edgy like that.
What’s curious is that in a few thousand millennia of pondering the nature of ghosts, we really haven’t evolved much or elaborated a sophisticated notion of what they are except to say either (1) they don’t exist at all except as figments of our imagination or (2) a good ghost requires a solid back story to explain its presence. These TV Shows don’t write themselves, after all. Well, once the West started sending anthropologists all over the place and collecting cultural information on people that they had largely ignored, a pattern started emerging. Everybody has ghosts. And everybody tries to explain them. And we haven’t moved the bar much, theoretically speaking.
Oh, we’ve got our hypnagogic hallucinations, magnetic anomalies, “Stone Tape” theories, the sensitivity of human peripheral vision, and all our various religious and secular interpretations of ghosts, but we really haven’t moved too far beyond the fact that people die, some part of them reappears, and chaos ensues. A lot of fancy gadgets get sold based on various interpretations of what your typical ghost is surmised to be capable of or interested in (chatting you up on a spirit box, moving a planchette to spell out cumbersome and cryptic pronouncements, and messing with electromagnetic radiation for our amusement), but since nobody seems to have reliably gotten a ghost into a room and interrogated it as to what all this nonsense is about, our theories underlying their behaviour haven’t really advanced beyond whatever our narrow cultural interpretation of the phenomena happens to suggest. The truth is, you can line up any modern Western theory of ghosts alongside any other cultural or historical interpretation of ghostly phenomena, and we can all pretty much understand each other. We’re nasty and brutish and we just don’t change that much. Consider if you will, the Wakulwe Theory of Ghosts.
The Wakulwe are Bantu (a generic label for roughly 300-600 different ethnic groups in Africa that happen to speak some version of the Bantu language, of which there are around 250 using the criteria for a language of mutual unintelligibility) and have lived along the southern end of Lake Rukwa in modern Tanzania for at least a few hundred years. The Wakulwe make an interesting comparison for a theory of ghosts in that they are possessed of the one thing that seems to be fundamental to our Western conception of the spirit world. They have a high god. Don’t get excited, they’re not up and monotheistic or anything, but the notion that some celestial critter is directing things is prominent. The Wakulwe call him Nguluwi, and he is a righteous creator dude (Frazer, 1926). Dead souls of our ancestors hang around his radiance and intercede with him on our behalf.
At the time information was collected on the ghost theory of the Wakulwe, present-day Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania were effectively the colony called German East Africa. A gentleman whom I can find almost no information about boldly named P. Alois Hamburger is responsible for what we know about Wakulwe ghost theory (published an article in the German language anthropology journal Anthropos [July-August, Vol. V:4]).
Their theory of ghosts is interesting. Besides the mzimu, the spirit, which is the soul or surviving personality of the dead man, there is a species of vampire-ghost called kiwa (pl. viwa). When the corpse has decayed (or during the process of decomposition) the bones may become vivified and “walk” usually with mischievous intent. The kiwa is quite distinct from the mzimu, which is reverenced and prayed to; yet it still has some connection with the person to whom the bones belonged in life, since it is that person’s family who are persecuted with its attentions. The native theory is that the kiwa is bored by wandering about alone, and wants to find a companion among those dear to him in a former state of existence; he therefore gets up at night and tries to “twist the neck” (anyonga shingo) of some near relation. In some cases this is to be understood literally, in others, the ghost causes a disease which sooner or later produces the desired effect. The only remedy is to dig up the bones and burn them to ashes—so long as one finger- joint remains whole the survivors will never be safe. Strangely enough, this procedure (which recalls the vampire superstition of Eastern Europe) is comparatively recent in Mkulwe, having been adopted from the Wabemba to the south. The people themselves say that, in the days of their chief Chungu—apparently from ninety to a hundred years ago—the plague of ghosts became intolerable and caused many deaths, until the doctors (sing’anga) heard of the right treatment from the Wabemba (Royal African Society, 1911, p107-108).
Any good anthropologist worth his salt would certainly observe, “Hey dude, that’s a vampire in the Transylvanian tradition”. And said anthropologist would be accurate in observing that the rituals for ridding oneself of a kiwa were largely the same as for vampires in Europe.
The corpse is dug up and burnt to ashes. Not a bone must be left, for even the smallest would suffice to give shelter to the Nkiua [kiwa, presumably]. A witch-doctor, or diviner, presides at the ceremony, while an assistant appoints the body with a sort of holy water, saying, ‘Sleep in peace, sleep in peace’ (L’Anthropologist, XVL  875). The Nkiua thus roughly corresponds with the Vampire of Europe, whose misdeeds were often stopped by a similar process of burning. But there is this difference that, whereas in Europe only some persons were credited with becoming vampires, among the African tribes in question all corpses are exhumed and cremated. We have already seen that persons who die an evil death are denied the ordinary rite. Among such persons are usually reckoned those who die of smallpox, in childbed, by murder or suicide (Gray, 1951, p424).
Clearly, the Wakulwe have a good handle on general prevention measures. Not all folks become kiwa, but just in case, all dead people are exhumed and cremated. While an extreme solution, it no doubt cuts down on the return of a wide range of living dead. Why fuss when it comes to the undead? They clearly do not have your best interests in mind, otherwise they’d be sun-tanning in the warm glow of Nguluwi. Sadly, it’s hard to get a decent ethnographic interview with the dead. They are poor communicators. Thus, our theory of ghosts are generally based on a lot of speculation and wishful thinking, not to mention cool gadgets. One wonders what ghosts think about all this, for as Lao Tzu said, “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides”. Unfortunately, the dead never get the last word.
Frazer, James G. The Worship of Nature. London, 1926.
Gray, Louis Herbert, 1875-1955, John A. (John Alexander) Selbie, and James Hastings. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. New York: Scribner, 1951.
Royal African Society. “Editorial Notes”. Journal of the African Society v10. London: MacMillan, 1911.