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The print depicts a samurai fighting snakes, which are conjured by a ghost as the ghosts of Heian court ladies watch. Japan, 1850.

Malevolent Phantoms, Corpse Brides, and Ancestor Spirits: The Ancient Belief in Ghosts – PART II

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Many ancient civilizations had beliefs surrounding the hauntings of ghosts and malevolent spirits, and so they relied on careful rituals and exorcisms to keep the supernatural at bay. 

Read Part I

Thieves, Murderers and Wizards Doomed to Haunt the Living in Africa

Africa has a rich ancient tradition of folklore and myth involving the supernatural. Due to the mix of many faiths, the ancient beliefs vary, but ghosts abound in stories, and were thought to have great power over people. The tales were not only of ancestor spirits, but ghosts of dead kings or heroes. They were honored and remembered, much like Christian saints.

Contrary to many belief systems, throughout many African traditions it is felt that rewards and punishments are for this life, and not found in the hereafter. Additionally, as long as burial rites are carried out correctly, you travel to the afterlife automatically. However, if a person was considered to be a wizard, a thief or murderer, someone who broke social codes or taboos, or who happened to have an unnatural death, they may might be doomed wandering as a ghost. Alternatively, in the afterlife they might be beaten or tortured by long-dead ancestors.

The modern African belief in sorcery and witchcraft means that some people are accused and then killed brutally by means of burning, dismemberment, or other body-destroying punishments. This is thought to ensure an improper burial and as such the soul will not travel to be with the ancestors—the nearest African equivalent of hell.

As for supernatural spirits, the Humr people of Sudan drink a concoction made from the liver and marrow of the giraffe, called Umm Nyolokh. This mixture also contains hallucinogenic plant substances from the diet of the giraffe. When consumed, it is said to cause strange visions of giraffes, and these are believed to be the ghosts of giraffes by the Humr.

Corpse Brides and Ghost Killers of Ancient China

Ancestor worship played a powerful role in the ancient Chinese belief in ghosts. Ancestor spirits could send important information or warnings through dreams, and this was not considered a ‘haunting’, but assistance. That being said, ghosts were typically considered malevolent, and apt to cause harm, and a common appearance was a young, beautiful girl with long black hair who would suddenly transform into a hideous creature. It was believed that the more one was wronged in life, the more powerful (and potentially vengeful) they would be in the afterlife.

Tales and beliefs from neighboring cultures such as Japan and Southeast Asia have blended with Chinese myth to form a base of folklore today.

Yūrei (Japanese ghost). Painting circa 1737

Yūrei (Japanese ghost). Painting circa 1737 (Public Domain)

The Chinese believed, like the Romans, that ghosts could only be seen at night by torchlight. Often ghosts were thought to be the spirits of those who had suffered a horrible death and whose body had not been properly buried. They were possessed of supernatural powers. Renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius warned, “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.”

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the Chinese year the Ghost Festival was held, and continues as tradition in modern times. This month is believed to be the time of year when the barrier between the living and the dead is thinnest, much like the concept of Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead. During Ghost Festival special dishes are prepared and paper money is ritually burned. This festival serves to both honor and appease ghosts with food and offerings so as to bring good luck and ensure ancestors remain happily in the afterlife. Small paper boats and lanterns are released into water, symbolizing the act of comforting and navigating lost ghosts and wandering ancestors to their final destinations.

Yan Wang is the god of the Chinese underworld, and decided if spirits would have good or evil existences. Buddhist teachings invoked karma in the affairs of the living and ghosts. writes, “Buddhism forbids murder; in folklore, people believe that butchers return in the next life in the form of the animals they killed. People who treat others badly or do cruel things become pathetic beings, suffering for the rest of the next life.”

Ghost hunter and vanquisher of evil beings, Zhong Kui was said to scare away malevolent spirits with his fierce visage and magical sword.

Ancient Chinese ghost killer, Zhong Kui.

Ancient Chinese ghost killer, Zhong Kui. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Just because someone had died didn’t mean they could no longer fulfil their duties to their loved ones. Ghost marriages were an ancient practice that carries on to this day. In traditions dating to 221 BC-206 BC, the joining an unmarried living person to an unmarried dead one was thought to ensure that the ghost traveled to the afterlife with a legitimate spouse (and gave unmarried living women a husband, a traditionally important social requirement). This was done to preserve family names and fortunes, and to make sure the lonely specter didn’t return to haunt the living.

Appropriate rites must be performed to ensure the dead stay dead, and traditionally this was overseen by experts in Feng-Shui in order to ensure an auspicious time and place for burial. Mediums are still often tasked with speaking with the dead to see if they need assistance, and in return gain advice on how to live (or how to win the lottery).

Daykeepers Banished the Wandering Souls in Ancient Mesoamerica

Ghosts featured widely in ancient Mesoamerican beliefs. The afterlife was considered to be a dark and horrible place featuring many lords of the dead who would delay and trick the soul on its way to paradise. Souls who lost their way and returned to walk the earth were unnatural, a sign of impending doom, and the help of Daykeepers (Shaman) armed with amulets and charms would be required to ward them off.

The Maya believed that restless ghosts would return as good, beneficial plants with a lovely scent, or dangerous, perhaps poisonous ones such as cacti—it would depend on the type of life they led before death.

Women who died in childbirth were said to become Cihuateteo. These dangerous specters would wait at crossroads, not to tempt men, but to attack women with children so she could steal the kids away as her own. Cihuateteo were also said to take children from their homes at night.

A terracotta statue of Cihuateotl, the Aztec goddess of women who died during childbirth.

A terracotta statue of Cihuateotl, the Aztec goddess of women who died during childbirth. (Public Domain)

Proper burials with the correct rites were the ways in which to avoid hauntings. If the body of a ghost could not be found it was believed that a spirit dog would locate the body itself and deliver the soul to the afterlife.

Dead ancestors were celebrated rather than mourned, and this tradition is continued today in the renowned Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) festival, when relatives gather to remember the dead, offering special foods and an abundance of skeleton- and death-themed art.

Day of the Dead Figures, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Day of the Dead Figures, Oaxaca, Mexico. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

No Such Things as Ghosts in Islam

In the Islamic faith there is no such thing as ghosts, and traditionally the appearance of any such supernatural beings were attributed to jinns (djinns or genies), powerful creatures from another universe. Ancient Koranic scripture described them as spirits made of a scorching fire. Considered creatures of free will, like humans, they were good, bad, or neutral in their actions.

The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, in the late 14th century Book of Wonders.

The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, in the late 14th century Book of Wonders. (Public Domain)

Avoid the Ghost-tainted Milk in Ancient India

In ancient India ghosts, or Bhoots, were restless souls of humans dressed in white who would walk around on backwards feet, a symbol of humanity in an unnatural state. It was felt the ghosts returned from death when their lives had been prematurely cut short, and they haunted the living in search of a host body (dead or alive) so that they could possess it and carry on with their undead lives. Bhoots could shapeshift into many forms, but avoided touching the ground (as the earth was considered sacred) and so were easily identified by their hovering. They were said to cast no shadow, and even spoke with a distinctive nasal voice. They’re had an affinity for milk, and would seek it out to immerse itself in it. The unfortunate who drank the bhoot-posessed milk would become the new host for the ghost.

Ghost possession was a great concern, and researchers believe this is the reason cremation of bodies was practiced. Cremation, in combination with the burning of turmeric spice, along with tokens of protection and exorcism or prayer, were all thought to ward off wandering ghosts in search of bodies. Sprinkling oneself with dirt (sacred earth) was said to repel ghosts.

The frightening image of a ghost of a woman that had died in childbirth, known as churail, would have backwards feet, or upside-down body parts. Like many female ghosts across cultures they were said to lure and trap young men at crossroads in the hopes of killing or marrying them.

Baba Balnath was a holy man who is believed to have cursed Bhangarh after its buildings cast a shadow over his abode.

Baba Balnath was a holy man who is believed to have cursed Bhangarh after its buildings cast a shadow over his abode. The “House of Ghosts”, Bhangarh Fort, India (

Ghost hunters now use sophisticated scientific tools in attempts to detect evidence to prove that ghosts are visiting us from beyond the grave, but opinion on their existence remains divided. That being said, the most pervasive ancient tales of ghosts or undead beings certainly haunt us today through folklore and legend.

Featured image: The print depicts a samurai fighting snakes, which are conjured by a ghost as the ghosts of Heian court ladies watch. Japan, 1850. (Public Domain)

By: Liz Leafloor


Mark, Joshua J. “ Ghosts in the Ancient World” 2014. [Online] Available at:

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “ The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion”. 1978. Yale University Press

Finucane, R. C. “ Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts.” (1984) Prometheus Books

Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. “Chinese Ghost Culture”. 2003. [Online] Available here.

Karen Eva Carr, PhD. “ Ancient African religions - Christianity, Islam, and other faiths” 2015. [Online] Available at:

Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. "African Religions". 2015. [Online] Available here.

Leafloor, Liz. “ Ancient Remains: Iron Age Necromancy on the Bones of the Dead?”. 2014. [Online] Available here.



Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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