I just listed six different takes on the afterlife, although my primary concern was for the first, specifically the Chinese view. I don’t regret writing them, and am glad I did. However, I still haven’t written my feelings on how Chinese, and later most cultures, see spirits.
Until the 20th Century, nobody pretended that folk beliefs and spirits were anything truly defendable against. After all, if you can’t see an invisible troublemaker, you can’t tell if you’re seeing him making mischief or not, or if he’s walked away from you or not, or even if he’s cleaning up his messs. Or not. Also, most people hadn’t heard of the scientific method, and had no idea how to go about testing the validity of folk beliefs. If they did try, they didn’t know how to keep constants and a single independent variable, nor more importantly the bias they themselves held while conducting the trial. Thus, once they did learn such things, it wasn’t long before they stopped marvelling at the glittering towers of science and decided to dig up the earthy stories they grew up on.
Many superstitions were discredited. Others were convincingly proved false by the confirmation or rejection of others. There are still plenty to be tested. Regardless, people hold onto their beliefs in the face of hard, tangible proof. For example, people trust that pyramids were built by aliens, rather than thinking that Egyptians might have also had geniuses like Newton or Galileo or Einstein to direct such endeavours.1 Or far closer to home are horoscopes. Supposedly the motion of the heavenly bodies affects our lives and thus the combination of natural events, other persons and personal experiences which together is luck. So if we know how to read those bodies, we can predict and anticipate booms and slumps in our lives and take advantage of them accordingly. However, few people know (or care, even sadder) that if you cover the signs and read the advice in a horoscope, most people can’t tell the difference, even if the advice contradict. This is a particular technique of speaking. The writer lists circumstances almost any human being should be going through or feels they are going through and then gives the sensible2 solution to dealing with it.
And besides, we have discovered flocks of galaxies in the gaps between adjacent stars, but no one has said how they determine when I will next nearly-faint when I see the girl of my (one-sided) affection.
The point is, humans believe what they will, no matter what other people say, if they truly, honestly want to.
Which brings me to spirits. Humans believe they are not alone. In a world where at least ten billion people have lived their lives, this shouldn’t be an object of dispute. But then humanity would prefer to think that there are other collective entities that exist in the universe. Namely, aliens and spirits. Aliens come later. Spirits come now.
Spirits can take charge of a specific landmark. A stone, a brook, a pile of dirt, any of these are viable dwelling places. Alternatively, they can be part of an organism, anything from a redwood to a mayfly. Disregarding the actual abilities of their hosts, spirits of the world can interact with humans, often manipulating the physical to bring across surprisingly human desires. A tree may demand a dish of cooked rice every day, though it lacks jaws and may indeed be touted as a form of cannibal for doing so. Failure to comply, however, leads to misfortune that the immobile tree has caused whilst hard at work smashing water and carbon dioxide molecules into their atoms and subsequently reforming them into sugar as it then takes the energy released by the reaction.
The spirits may in fact take human form at times, though it is clear that they are not human themselves. So say the many fae who have been taken by men and birthed halfling children. Supposedly being foreign entities with different origins as ourselves, they should also have few similarities in our ways of thinking. But they can fight wars with as much vigour as ourselves at times.
This view might be false. Maybe all spirits are human, simply at one time or another, but we can all be labelled as a member of spiritkind. The pontianak is a famous one in Southeast Asia. The ghost of a newly-wedded bride, if I remember correctly, it resides in banana trees.3 Any disturbance made to the banana tree is asking for trouble, for the pontianak will then harass you in your daily life, preferably at nighttime, when you are more vulnerable. The only way to sate it is to undergo a complex ritual filled with delightful ceremonies (also preferably at nighttime), at which the pontianak returns to its tree, waiting for the next hapless victim to offend it.
Here is my point of contest. If all spirits might be considered human in a human body, and that many feared spirits were in fact humans when alive, why should we be afraid of them? We can be afraid of people, but if we learn of their lives and the many facets of the singular human gestalt, our fear may lessen or be accompanied by feelings of empathy, pity or maybe even admiration. There is no such thing in spirits. Spirits are filled with one thing, and that is an emotion. Be it anger, hatred, fear, longing or love, that is their only manifestation and they fulfil it in all their sightings.
I put this down to public relations. Frankly, hearing a ghost speaking of the old days when people made their own chaptehs, not like now where they’re all assembled in a factory by a few bored workers, is not a ghost who is likely to be remembered. But a ghost who goes on and on and on about the wrongs done to it in its life seems a tad more intriguing, even if a moment’s thought reveals that the average human life is filled with wrongs anyway and contains pleasures if only a moment’s thought is spared.
Humans are not people of one emotion. That is one-dimensional. All people display at least three dimensions of thought in their lives, for the sake of analogy. Heart, mind and soul, which only by coincidence number three, are the minimum that make up a person. Surely those pontianaks have sly thoughts that ambush them in the middle of an outrage of security that remind them that their victim is someone’s child, someone’s friend and maybe someone’s parent. Maybe they too wonder what happens to bad pontianaks who don’t lash out at every person who touches their banana leaves properly. Perhaps they mourn for their grooms who moved on without them or effectively died on their deathdays. In short, if you talk of a human spirit, that spirit will appear a human under a sufficiently long period of scrutiny.
I am aware our so-called ways of such scrutiny are little more than mumbo-jumbo at worst and near-actual experiences that straddle the line between imagination and reality at best. I am also aware that most conveniently, spirits are said to shy away from humans and thus would not savour an interview.
In group dynamics, there are a majority of people who nod and mumble when a leader or makeshift one goes and lead them, a minority who join that leader to rise to positions of power and another minority who reject that leadership and gambol off to do things their own way. I like to think I’m the third. I assume that most spirits fall in the first category, and possibly the second as well. So in our entire span of existence, I don’t see why it’s unreasonable that humanity should have spiritual encounters of the third kind.
Sadly, knowing people, they probably thought such encounters weren’t good tales. We, after all, are never as sensible as we’d like to be, whether in confirmed life or unproved death.