What is the reason for the existence of ghosts

Should one believe in ghosts? - Pros and cons

Field spirits in Laos © Guido Sprenger

Southeast Asia: Dealing with ghosts is often scorned by those who call themselves modern: as fearful, as backwoods, as backward-looking. Nevertheless, compared to doctrines of modernization or world religions, animism has the advantage that it is based on the local everyday world of the people. Because it's about dialogue instead of indoctrination.


It is not easy for people who associate with ghosts. One is thought to be superstitious and backward-looking by people who believe in science, progress, or one of the so-called world religions. People who keep up with ghosts, it is said, live in constant fear. A benevolent God, a surge of science or a little bit of reason would quickly free those who believe in the spirit from their supposed derangement.

But the spirits are persistent. They are ubiquitous, especially in Southeast Asia. In multiethnic Laos, for example, according to the census, almost a third of the population has no religion other than that of spirits. But followers of Buddhism and other religions also show respect for their ancestors or the invisible inhabitants of their environment. Small houses with flowers or food, discreet offerings along the way but also elaborate rituals testify to the continued attention that is given to them. Ghost media, many of them women or transgender people, mediate between their customers and the invisible in order to cure illness or avert misfortune. More than a hundred years of Western influence could not change that. Even earlier attempts that came from the region itself failed. As early as the 16th century, the Laotian king Photisarat, a devout Buddhist, tried to ban the spirit cults - without success.

Haunted house in Bangkok, Thailand © Guido Sprenger

Perhaps there is more to dealing with ghosts, which is often referred to by the word animism, than tenacious delusion and tradition that inhibits progress. The phenomenon may persist for good reasons. In any case, animism does not offer a uniform appearance. Rather, the term is a reservoir for very different practices that relate to the spirits of the deceased as well as to those of the environment, to animating objects and to controlling invisible and impersonal forces in ritual. However, if one looks at the advantages that animism offers in Southeast Asia, a number of similarities can be found in diversity - similarities that in turn produce differences. I am mainly referring to my research focus, mainland Southeast Asia, and especially the highlands of Laos.

Religion without doctrine

If one compares animistic practices with the world religions, one difference is immediately apparent. Animists do not go out into the world to proclaim that they have the only true doctrine and that everyone else is nothing but idolaters. Nor do they wage wars because the way they treat ghosts differs from that of their neighbors. That doesn't make animists pacifists. The manipulation of harmful spirits, curses, and magic offer numerous opportunities to harm or feel harmed by your neighbors. But these conflicts are not about questions of faith.

Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, on the other hand, assume that they apply to all people, and exclusively. Whoever is a Muslim cannot be a Christian at the same time. Those who are Christians commit themselves to a certain system of rituals and must avoid the others. Animists don't understand such a thing easily. The ethnologist Krisna Uk reports from the Jora, a traditionally animistic ethnic group in the highlands of Cambodia, that they find the teachings of Christianity extremely interesting, but do not quite understand why they should not care for their ancestors. God is fine with them, but his jealousy is not. Deborah Tooker, also an ethnologist, met Akha in Thailand who converted to Christianity because the rituals that their own cosmology imposed on them became too expensive. When they got the money, they became animists again.

Animism as pluralism

Animism in Southeast Asia goes against the established doctrine. The rituals and practices don't just differ from society to society. Each village does it a little differently. Why not? The spirits usually belong to two classes - deceased and ancestors on the one hand, and spirits of the earth and place on the other. Both are specific. Every village, every neighborhood has different spirits. Why, then, Southeast Asians argue, should customs be the same everywhere?

Because the exact form of the rituals results not least from practice. The needs and the character of the spirits are not known in advance. This is easy to see among the Rmeet in Laos. As the experts there explained to me for the annual village rituals, the protective spirit of a village does not yet exist when it is newly founded. It only arises with the growth of the settlement. At some point a wave of diseases will seize the village - and these diseases, it is important to understand, are messages from the newly created protective spirit who demands animal sacrifice. A man who knows the customs and can demand the necessary respect from the spirit is determined to perform the sacrifices as part of a lavish festival. In future he will perform these rituals annually. When that has the desired effect, the sacrifice conformed to the requirements of the mind. If you were wrong, it will be repeated in a different way. With this approach, human and spirit get to know each other better in the course of their relationship. In this way, differences arise between the villages.

Ritual for village ghosts at the Rmeet © Guido Sprenger

This animism makes such differences expectable. It is based on dialogue, not indoctrination. The ritualists use past experience and knowledge of all kinds to determine what kind of spirit they are dealing with. Her approach is similar to that of the experimenter who uses known procedures to explore the unknown. They rely on tradition, but do not cling to it.

The cosmos is not based on immovable laws, but only solidifies in conversation.

In addition, many of the animist-oriented societies in Southeast Asia never formed states. Political authority is no stranger to them, but in their communities they have repeatedly experienced how unstable it can be. It is no different in their religious life. Nobody has unquestionable authority. I have often seen the rmeet debating lively during a ritual how to properly perform it. The cosmos is not based on immovable laws, but only solidifies in conversation. This conversation encompasses both human and non-human actors. The spirits have a say - sometimes through the mouths of the media, sometimes by causing or preventing illness and misfortune.

In conversation with nature

These symmetrical relationships have another consequence - an increased awareness of the natural environment. The old term animism is currently experiencing a renaissance in the humanities, and this is not least due to the ecological crisis. The distinction between nature and culture in modern thinking is increasingly proving to be a problem, as the ideological side of the destruction of ecology. A look at other societies that have never made this separation - or at least in a completely different way - therefore promises to show alternatives for how humans and the environment can interact with one another. In today's debate in disciplines such as ethnology, archeology or the sociology of science, animism does not simply designate the belief in the animation of all things. Rather, he outlines systems of relationships in which not only people can be acting persons, but also spirits, animals, plants, even parts of the landscape or objects. From an animistic point of view, life is not limited to the biological alone.

The distinction between nature and culture in modern thinking is increasingly proving to be a problem, as the ideological side of the destruction of ecology.

The line that modern thought draws between society and its man-made rules on the one hand and nature, which is ruled by irrefutable laws, on the other is not relevant here. That's not to say that animists don't make a distinction. Ghosts are treated differently than people. But a comprehensive idea of ​​communication shapes the relationships between humans and non-humans. If the forest is the habitat of the spirits, it cannot be cut down as needed. The ethnologist Nikolas Århem found entire mountain forests among the Katu on the Lao-Vietnamese border, which are under the protection of the same spirit that oversees the moral behavior of the villagers. Here you can only fell and hunt with caution. The katu's ideas may not be those of modern environmentalists, but their effect is the same.

Politicization of animism

However, this understanding of animism is mixed with a good dose of romance, a thoroughly modern image of good "primitive peoples" who know how to protect the environment better than scientists and business leaders. In its simple version, this image is certainly a distortion of indigenous reality. But maybe it is not so out of place - it gives the indigenous peoples of the world a means by which they can counteract access to their land and the degradation of their way of life. There is nothing inauthentic about this politicization of animism. Rather, with their relationships with spirits and animals, the animists regulate their relationships with states and companies at the same time.

But the idea of ​​the indigenous environmentalist doesn't always work. Timor Leste, the youngest state in Southeast Asia, has found its religious identity in a combination of Catholicism and animism. That is why it is one of the few countries that state sponsors animistic rituals. This is done primarily for the purpose of protecting the environment. Ritual bans are imposed on forests and landscapes that are worthy of protection so as not to disturb the local spirits. But as the ethnologist Lisa Palmer writes, the hoped-for effect often failed to materialize - the Timorese continued to make use of natural resources. Perhaps the government had trusted too much that the lives of the indigenous peoples were governed by "brazen tribal laws". In fact, the people did nothing else than in other parts of Southeast Asia - they trusted that the ghosts would come forward if something did not suit them. Spirits are not like laws of nature. You can negotiate with them, and they don't always behave the same way. A modern-western concept of environmental protection based on the laws of nature and an animistic concept of mindfulness and negotiation rub against each other.

The burden of the ghosts

But dealing with ghosts can also be exhausting. Animism doesn't come cheap. You don't have to build cathedrals, but sacrificing a pig or even a buffalo for every disease is difficult for a rural household. Then there are the increasingly complex rules. Every negotiation, every experience with the spirits may lead to a new ritual prohibition. When I moved into a small room in one of the family's households with the Rmeet, my host father told me that in the past I couldn't have typed a typewriter or rubbed mosquito repellent on myself - the house spirit was far more petty in the past than it is today.

Spirit ritual of the Loven, Laos © Guido Sprenger

At some point in the history of the Rmeet there must have been a phase in which the taboos piled up, a time in which it seemed just as plausible for the Rmeet to always introduce new ritual rules as it seems inevitable to the modern, to become more and more bureaucratic Subject to regulations. Nobody remembers how these rules came about, but at some point they became a burden for even the most conscientious. Today the Rmeet speak of having learned through traveling and comparisons that it is possible to do so with fewer bans.

The Kelabit in Sarawak reported something similar to the ethnologist Matthew Amster. Last but not least, the animists' heightened attention is reflected in ever new restrictions. The environment is full of messages that require interpretation. Every bird call can be a warning from the spirits. Under such conditions, simple and radical solutions become attractive. Conversion to a world religion is one of them. With Jesus Christ, many animists believe that they have drawn the strongest spirit to their side. However, it is not entirely clear to some that this is not one of their usual experiments. The conversation through which the world comes about is over. The differences between different societies that are normal in animism now look like deviations from the truth.

Buddhism is more flexible in some ways. Buddhists in Laos also continue to turn to the spirits, but assume that the Buddhist practices back them up. This is how it is for the lovers in the south of the country. Only a few decades ago a society dedicated exclusively to the spirits, they are increasingly turning to Buddhism. In the past, one of their ritual experts told me, the ghosts of father and mother would have been in the house and they would have made the residents sick when they were hungry. Today, however, father and mother go to the temple, where the monks give them food - because gifts to the monks go to the dead immediately. With Buddhism, the lovers have evidently found a form of animism that is more effective for them.

The pressure of the state

But this change does not take place without government pressure, and this is another characteristic of Southeast Asia. Like other states in the region, Laos does not recognize animism as a legitimate religion and refuses to state awards to villages without Buddhist temples. So a good Thai, a good Lao is a Buddhist. The others have yet to be developed. If the lovers adopt Buddhism, it is also in order to be better off with their government.

Because like science, like the world religions, the modern state with its sense of development and progress believes itself in possession of the doctrine that makes everyone happy. But when someone who cannot and does not want to negotiate their positions meets someone who is incessantly negotiating, the second often loses out. Animism, with its flexibility and openness, is confronted with states that do not want to unite it with progress, with a science that considers it to be unprovable, with religions that treat it as superstition, and a market logic that in it is nothing but waste of resources sees.

It is precisely the strength of animism that changes here - from a modern perspective - into a weakness. But, as I said, the spirits are persistent. In Thailand, donations to Buddhist institutions are steadily increasing - at the same time, spirit worship and the media are flourishing in the cities. Since the end of the socialist planned economy, Vietnam has experienced a rapid resurgence of cults of spirits and gods, which the state even promotes as cultural heritage. Even devout Muslims in Aceh or Bima in Indonesia admit the existence of Djinni - after all, they are even mentioned in the Koran. Perhaps to all of them a cosmos that only obeys the strict rules of scriptural religion and science, a world without dialogue between humans and non-humans, ultimately seems uninhabitable.