By Randy Jackson
In Canada, back in the early 1980s, one could get a government grant to study French. Many college and university students, including me, did just that. I went to the University of Laval in Quebec City in the summer of 1982, a memorable summer of camaraderie amongst fellow students from across Canada.
The Haunted Manitoba Farmhouse
One evening, on the terrace of the Le Pub Universitaire, a brother and sister (students at the University of Manitoba) held a number of us spellbound with the story of their parents moving their family into a haunted farmhouse. They witnessed numerous poltergeist effects. which terrified them initially, but over time they came to see this ghost as more of a harmless trickster. This Manitoba farm family got to the point they liked having the ghost around. They told us the house would seem empty without it, and it kept unwanted relatives away.
Normally though, it’s the ghosts (not the relatives) that are unwanted. On that warm summer night in La belle province, the brother and sister from the haunted Manitoba farmhouse explained that ghosts were the trapped spirits of people who had died unexpectedly, or by suicide, and most often they died violently.
I now know this is a commonly held belief across virtually all civilizations of all time, from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, from early Chinese civilizations to Polynesia. It seems that no matter what the various beliefs different societies hold about the afterlife, ghosts represent an aberration from whatever afterlife system a culture holds. As Obi-Wan Kenobi is supposed to have said, “I sense a disturbance in the force, Luke.” Ghosts are spirits that are not supposed to be here.
The Malevolent Ghosts of Mesoamerica
In all the pre-conquest societies of Mesoamerica, the cosmos, creation, and the afterlife, were the domain of malevolent supernatural forces. Chicunamictlán was the nine-level Land of the Dead to the Aztecs (for most but not all the departed). Here the departed suffered a four-year journey of great pain and hardships to reach Mictlán, their final resting place. At Mictlán they were met by the god of death who received them with vengeance. The departed lived (and suffered) there until finally being extinguished altogether. Spirits of departed people (ghosts), you’d think, would want out of an afterlife like that. But to the Aztecs, ghosts were feared and unwelcome spirits of the underworld who brought only bad news or the foretelling of doom.
To the Aztecs, even women who died in childbirth were not benevolent. These spirits (known as Cihuātēteoh in Nahuatl) returned to earth on five specified days each year where they were thought to steal children, cause madness, and induce adultery in males (I wonder how many Aztec men used that as an explanation for their infidelity). The modern-day Mexican legend of La Llorona may have had its origin in this Aztec belief. La Llorona is thought to be the malicious spirit of a woman who murdered her children. To some, she is believed to be a siren, who lures men to their deaths, or she steals children to replace those she had murdered. Hardly the phantom door knob rattler of that Manitoba farmhouse.
Another sinister ghost-belief of the Aztecs was the origin of the modern day El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, although to the Aztecs, it was not the respectful, upbeat celebration of one’s ancestors, as it is practiced today. The original ritual was held in August, when family members offered food, water, and tools to assist their deceased relatives in getting through the difficult four-year afterlife journey to Mictlán where they were put out of their misery.
Christianity Rescues the Ghosts
Under European Christianity, this ritual morphed into the somewhat similarly purposed Christian observation of All Souls Day. To the Christians, All Souls Day was introduced in the 10th century for people to pray for their departed friends and relatives stuck in Purgatory. Purgatory was believed to be an afterlife realm for deceased persons who had sinned a little too much to enter the kingdom of heaven directly after death. So prayers on All Souls day were a type of appeal to the divine to reduce the amount of punishment for these souls, and get them released into heaven. And, although this can be seen as a kind of parallel to the original Day of the Dead ritual, there is one principal difference as well.
To the Christians, the afterlife is eternal. To the Aztecs (and earlier Mesoamerican civilizations), life after death was limited. It was believed, following a period of suffering, that existence in any form was terminated – full stop. And this distinction, I think, reflects back on the cultural view of ghosts overall. It seems to me, the ancient Aztec belief system where the endpoint of an afterlife is individual obliteration (ending one’s suffering), any ghost appearing in this earthly realm could only be malevolent. But in all other societies, including Mexico post-conquest, ghosts are seen as far less threatening.
In fact, ghosts in today’s western hemisphere, although generally considered scary, are not thought to be physically harmful. They even make great tourist attractions. And in this light, the story of a welcomed ghost in that Manitoba farmhouse has some degree of cultural believability. To an ancient Aztec though, such a benevolent spirit would be inconceivable. But then again, if this ancient Aztec first visited a modern-day celebration of Día de los Muertos, he or she could probably be convinced.