The days around Halloween are all about ghosts. Of course, outside of the holiday itself, ghosts are nothing new: the belief in ghosts dates back to prehistoric cultures, when man was first attempting to develop an understanding of the supernatural realm. Still, while it may be something as simple as a person wearing a white sheet with eyeholes or as complex as mist figures, phantoms, or even spirit orbs and goblins, how did we come to associate these entities with the word ghost?
Our word ghost comes directly from the Old English gast, which originates as the Proto-Germanic gaistaz. Though our word is Germanic in origin, it was actually initially used as a continuation of the Latin spiritus, which, though basically meaning ‘spirit,’ in Christian terms implies the Holy Ghost, the Third entity of the Trinity. In fact, the first use of our word appears soon after the Christianisation of Britain and within the first century’s use of Old English: appearing in the illuminated Vespasian Psalter in the latter half of the 700s (Hwider gongu ic from gaste ðinum/Whither go I from your ghost).
Over a century later, we start to see a gradual usage of the word in order to name the soul or spirit or to represent it as being separated from the physical body as in this quote from the Old English Texts circa 900: “The emperor ordered she be martyred & glorifying God, she gave up her ghost.”
Despite this advance in understanding, it would take almost another 500 years until we begin to see the word used to represent the visible manifestation of a person’s spirit as we have come to accept it. This new usage of the word comes to us via the poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s story of Dido in The Legend of Good Women (circa 1385), who writes that, “This night my father’s ghost Hath in my sleep so painfully tormented me.”
Although Halloween as well as the pre-dating Celtic festivals are a part of our Western culture, ghosts transcend cultural boundaries. From the Indian bhoot to Japanese Yokai to references in the writing of Confucius and Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which incorporates pre-Columbian spiritual beliefs, every culture has their own understanding of ghosts. In our own culture, though there may be considerable scepticism, approximately 35-40% of people in the US and UK believe in ghosts- the others, apparently, will take more convincing.