So last year in my English class we read Hamlet, and the culminating essay involved the question whether or not the ghost of Old Hamlet is real. I stipulated a middle ground where the first two meetings with the ghost were real since they were during the witching hour. In the scene where Hamlet sees him in the middle of the day, I said the ghost was a hallucination or something similar. My question is: what was the cultural understanding (and Shakespeare's) of the time regarding hallucinations?
It’s a great question, but unfortunately there’s no concrete answer. Just like today, different beliefs about ghosts and the imagination could be found among different people. The biggest factor was probably religion; Hamlet offers a conundrum in that Hamlet and his friend Horatio follow a very Protestant line of thinking (and the fact that they go to school at Wittenberg–the famed site of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses–probably isn’t an accident), but the ghost himself basically explains that he’s in Purgatory, which is a distinctly Catholic concept. This conundrum has been stumping scholars for years, and it wasn’t simply artistic sloppiness, because Shakespeare has Horatio comment on it: in the early scenes, he warns Hamlet not to follow the ghost because it might be a trick conjured by the devil, which is a textbook Protestant interpretation. And Hamlet spends the next two acts of the play trying to determine whether or not the ghost is telling the truth. In the Mousetrap scene, he decides he is. Now, whether or not that means the ghost is really his father or a conjuration of the devil is still up for debate; consider Macbeth, wherein Banquo warns “…oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths.” Again, a very Protestant idea. However, there’s also a reference in Macbeth (made again by Banquo) to hallucinogens: “Were such things here as we do speak about? / Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” And of course, in Midsummer there are quite a few mind-altering plants in play. Then of course there is the possibility that Hamlet is just seeing things: early in the play Horatio and Bernardo and Marcellus can also see the ghost; later in the closet scene Hamlet is the only one who can see it. But again, that also happens in Macbeth–Macbeth is the only one who can see Banquo’s ghost. Does that mean it’s a drug trip or a hallucination? We’ll probably never know.
So what was the cultural understanding? Depends on the culture. Depends on the circumstances. There are a few patterns with ghosts in early modern drama–they are almost always the ghosts of people who have died unjustly, and they almost always come back as a spectral manifestation of another character’s guilt–but there are no hard and fast rules.
Is the shape of a nature spirit given form over time by a culture and its linguistic perception of that spirit or is it formed in a more immediate way through the prism of cultural perception in the individual having the experience, defined by that culture’s language?
When we look at the cultures of the world, both classic and contemporary, we see a spectrum of belief in “spirits” that is prevalent in all cultures continuously throughout history. In some form or another the concept of spirits is as wide ranging as language itself. An instrumental part of the development of all socities, the nature of these spirits takes on a wide variety of roles depending on the culture in which they have blossomed.
From the ancient jinn of the east, to the nagas of Asia, the fae and sidhe of the Celts, the ancestor spirits of Africa and her diaspora in the new world, the German goblins, Norse trolls, the Vodoun lwa, the saints and demons of Judeo-Christian pantheons, the world over is full of the belief in beings whose form is transitory yet whose power is recorded as often enormous in scale. Who exist at the edge of temporality and are supplicated with offerings, orisons and rituals.
Yet while the concept of spirits is one that is universal, little contemporary thought has been given to the nature of these beings and their origins on a practical level. Relying heavily on pre enlightenment ideas of corporeality the contemporary magician is often working under conditions that have proven to be obscure at best, fraudulent at worst.
What then is the nature of these beings with whom all magicians the world over interact? How are we to express in terms scientific and yet openminded, those entities with whom our craft is indebted? Where are we to find the headwaters of these beliefs and their origins in human culture?
To say that nature is the source of all life is axiomatic, for nature is itself all life, the very mathematic formula that drives evolution on all its scales. While the boundaries of what makes up life may be little understood its form, as we perceive it, tends toward that which is measurably obvious to the viewer. As mankind has developed intellectually over the past few centuries our understanding of the complexities and subtleties of living beings has grown immeasurably. From the first understanding of the nature of germs to CRISPR gene editing in under two centuries mankind is just now beginning to scientifically understand the fields of energy that surround us that have long been overlooked.
The electromagnetic fields of all living things stretch far beyond the boundaries of their physical masses. The electromagnetic field of the earth itself functioning like an engine driving our planetary variables, steering tectonic plates, controlling weather systems. The interplay of these electromagnetic forces, coupled with energies we are barely able to understand that exist in quantum interactions and dimensional concepts too complex for a blog post, are just now being looked at, let alone fully grasped at this stage in our intellectual enlightenment.
It is in this realm, of complex energies, vibratory frequencies, and misunderstood quantum mechanics, that we find the root of those beings who can be grouped into the categories of “spirits”. From Grecian daemons to Galician mouros, lwa to kitsune, wight to ghost, the patterns of energy that make up these beings are all drawn from that stream of energies which is invisible to mankind, though slowly being revealed under the lens of contemporary technology.
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” ― Nikola Tesla
While this river of energies may be just now coming into focus through accepted scientific practice the craft finds its very roots at the base of this tree of knowledge. The varieties of dealing with these spirits are as complex as the cultures that bore them. The negotiations of these relationships across the world playing similar tunes, yet varied in their composition to reflect the variables and practicalities at hand.
Yet we must wonder at the nature of these manifestations against the cultures in which they are perceived. What causes such a diverse narrative and a motley assortment of creatures that have long interacted with mankind? How are we to know wight from lwa? What defines the differences and commonalities of these beings? How can a river of energies so universal manifest so differently among disparate cultures, while retaining distinct core similarities in their nature?
I propose that these manifestations are given form via the specific language a practitioners understands and communicates in. That the culture whose folk narrative has given form to these spirits is manifesting the boundaries of said beings through the use of language itself.
We are linguistic beings by nature. Our entire world perception is defined through the language we speak, and not all words in all languages easily translate across linguistic boundaries. We may speak in one language of emotions and concepts that are entirely alien to the thoughts of a native speaker in another language. The sounds of one culture’s joy may be the sound of aggression in another culture and its linguistic palette.
Thus as a culture has become defined throughout time, like the polishing of the facets of a jewel, mankind’s perception of these entities that exist at the boundaries of our perception have come to reflect the inherent peculiarities of a given culture. Our fears as a people, our inhibitions and immoralities, our taboos and desires projected onto these entities we encounter in the natural world.
Thus the differences that have grown between cultures are the differences in mankind’s pantheon of spirits the world over. Some are to be feared, as that culture is one of fearfulness, others to be befriended, as that culture is one of openness and sharing.
Though as much as there are differences, more striking still are the commonalities between cultural perceptions of nature spirits. That their roles remain often identical in light of their polarized appearances, that they are more common among the untouched places of the natural world, that they can be bound, threatened, supplicated, bribed.
When in the course of the practice of the craft a magician of any ilk encounters a spirit, through accident or intention, it’s best to be aware of the shape that they manifest in relation to our perceptions and expectations. That their form is one that easily fills the container of our language and its inherent biases and preconceptions about the nature of reality. We give to these spirits as much of their form and power as they themselves, much the way we give to our rulers the power over us that we must yield in order for them to rule.
While much research in this field has yet to be done the current of this form of spirit anthropology is just now awakening. Considerable historic documentation exists to outline the ever evolving relationship between mankind and that other. Yet a fuller look at the extent of human participation in spirit interaction may be a decade or more in the making.
It would do well for the practitioner to keep in mind that the nature of the spirit catalogues of antiquity are that of slow evolution, where names shift over time via generations of misspelling and misappropriation. Recent research has been done in tracking these changes, yet the full scope of how the spirit is given specific form by the language, and thus the perception of reality that the practitioner holds, has yet to be done.
To they whom traffic in the boundaries of the landscape, know that your expectations place you in a precarious position. Those beings with whom you court and barter, supplicate and invoke, are more than your perception of them. They are merely being given form by your expectation of their presence. When the magician commands the demon to appear in a “comely form” it is to oneself the words are spoken. For the eyes only deceive us in our dealings with that world, no truth can be had in the illusion that is sight. The lies our eyes tell us have names made of the words we have been raised with, a set of linguistic boundaries on which perception is given form by that great deceiver that is culture.