Friday, October 25, 2013

Cultures of Eternity

The Last Shaman of the Oruqen
Public domain photograph
by Richard Noll, 1994
Last week’s interview with Yangsze Choo got me thinking. Not to give away any spoilers—much of what she describes in The Ghost Bride is her own invention—in the interview she mentions that the family remains the basic unit in the Chinese afterlife just as it does in Chinese culture. Ghosts depend on their families for money, food, housing, clothing, luxuries—all the essentials, burned in greater or lesser quantities by surviving relatives to indicate their devotion or their affluence or both. People who die outside that family structure become “hungry ghosts,” miserable creatures who wander unfed and poorly clothed through the afterlife except once a year, when the community gets together and burns offerings for them.

Tatar ghosts, too, belong to communities based on blood ties. Nowadays, most Tatars profess one of the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, for the most part) or an atheism adopted during the seven decades of Soviet rule. Older customs survive, such as tying strips of fabric to lone-standing trees in supplication, but the main religious impulse lies elsewhere. 


In the sixteenth century, though—the time depicted in my Legends of the Five Directions series—the sense of a multigenerational community comprising ancestors, current family members, and those yet to be born remained all-pervasive. Although the dead existed on a plane separate from the living, shamans could visit them. The ancestors could interfere in the lives of their descendants—to influence, warn, or protect. They guaranteed victory in battle, assisted in childbirth, and welcomed those who lost their struggles with enemies or disease. “By God and my ancestors,” was the oath sworn by warriors. The system of support supplied by the living seems to have operated more informally than the equivalent system in China, but it formed an essential and frequent element of daily life. Nomads tossed ladles of milk to honor the ancestors and fed them through grease dropped into the hearth fire or rubbed on the mouths of the wooden spirit dolls who represented the grandmother guardians. Decisions—whether political, economic, religious, or personal—took place within that larger community constituted by the dead and the living working (ideally) in harmony.

Western ghosts, in contrast, almost invariably haunt as individuals. The Celts, once a steppe people, do retain a sense of the dead as occupying a separate level of existence on the other side of a curtain that sometimes thins enough to cross. Hallowe’en, which we celebrate next week, is the much-diluted version of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pron. Sav-in or Sow-ain, depending on whether you are Scots or Irish). On the night before the New Year, ghosts were believed to cross into the realm of the living, who had to guard themselves against this incursion. Today we protect ourselves from small children in fancy costumes who can be bought off with candy.

But the more usual Western ghost is not part of a horde, spiritual or otherwise. The abandoned lover who cannot let go, the monk who opposed the dissolution of his monastery, the captain of the ship who met an untimely end—these are Western ghosts. Their tragedies are individual, and they must be laid as individuals. We have no communal ritual to feed, honor, or appease them. Most of the time, we don’t believe they exist: what more shattering fate for a poor ghost can a society conjure up?

One system is not better or worse than another. The Western emphasis on the individual lies at the heart of our dedication to human rights and the value of every life as well as a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy. The Eurasian embrace of community supports those within the group even as it constricts their choices to those approved by the group. Moreover, the two systems overlap, and neither is perfect or complete. Other places in the world have their own views of the afterlife, their own mixes of individuality and collectivism.

But one thing is certain: the rules of life here on earth, however our own community defines them, do not end here. They bind us for eternity.

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