A JOURNEY INTO THE SPIRIT WORLD
A belief in the spirit world was once shared by all mankind. These beliefs continue to live in contemporary cultures around the globe today.
THE SPIRIT WORLD - FACT OR SUPERSTITION?
Whether the spirit world is real or nothing more than imaginative superstition is not as important as recognizing the key role the spirit world plays in past and present societies. Spirit beliefs lie at the very heart of human culture. They provide the foundation for religious beliefs and rituals. Even monotheistic faiths have their angels, saints, and demons. The spirit world continues to play an important role in societies around the globe, especially those beyond the reach of Western influence.
HOW OLD IS THE BELIEF IN THE SPIRIT WORLD?
Humans emerged from their long path of evolution hand in hand with the spirit world, and to really understand traditional spiritual beliefs we need to look back over the vast uncounted millennia of human history.
Cave paintings have been especially valuable in docummenting man's timeless relationship with the spirit realm. Remarkably sophisticated cave paintings found near Avignon, France date from 31,000 years ago, and the famous paintings at Lascaux are 18,000 years old. These paintings lie deep inside the caves, indicating they were used for ritual ceremonies. Some chambers even produce special acoustical effects that would have enhanced the sound of drumming and chanting.
Looking further back,Neanderthal burials of 125,000 years ago, discovered in Europe and the Middle East, indicate these early humans belived in an afterlife. In a more speculative area, some experts feel that mankind's ancestors gained religious beliefs when they learned to tame fire. Evidence of the first use of fire dates from 800,000 years ago.
Exactly when mankind formed a belief in the spirits is open to conjecture, but the great age of man's relationship with the spirit world seems to confirm its significance for humanity.
SPIRITS IN THE MODERN WORLD
Humans moved on. We spread across continents and back again. We traveled the seas. We became an incredible mixture of races, tribes, nations, languages, and cultures. The spirit world changed with us. Animal spirits transformed into a more symbolic, human form. Philosophical, ethical and social concepts were attached to them as societies became more complex.
SPIRIT WORLD AROUND THE PLANET
Today, the spirit world continues to thrive in societies in all corners of the globe. Most are tribal societies that live apart from the modern culture. These include indigenous communities from Africa to the Arctic Circle and from Siberia to South America. Regional differences and history account for the variations in ritual and mythology, but many beliefs and practices are common to all.
Some indigenous people have adapted their traditional beliefs to a monotheistic religion that was imposed on them. Patron saints replaced protective spirits. A church or mosque now stands in a sacred place. Traditional healers, like the curanderas of Ecuador and the bomohs of Malaysia, continue their shamanic healing under the guise of accepted scripture.
East and South Asian societies have kept the same connection to the spirit realm as tribal societies. Japanese Shinto, Chinese Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Indian Hinduism have each developed their own philosophies, but their rituals reflect their belief in ancestor spirits and and a pantheon of dieties.
WHO ARE THE SPIRITS
Traditional religions hold the view that a natural energy, a life force that underlies physical reality, flows through all existence and connects us to the earth and the power of the universe. East Asians call it chi, in West Africa it is known as nyama, and in Europe it is called elan vital. Spirits are unseen forces within this flow of energy.
Spirits live in rivers, lakes, and mountains. The forest is filled with spirits, and a spirit can live in a single tree. There are spirits of the earth, the sky, the ocean, and the four directions. Some spirits can be helpful to man, while others are harmful or simply mischievous.
Traditional beliefs view the world as everything living in unity. There is no separation between people, spirits, and animals, no separation between earth, sky and the underworld. All are participants in a supernatural cosmos. Within this natural unity, animals and animal spirits are considered helpers and protectors of mankind.
An animal species, like lion or crocodile, will adopt and protect a clan. Birds and snakes are believed to carry peoples messages to the gods. Animals also provide warnings and omens to their human brothers. A shaman relies on animal spirit helpers to bring him power in his magic.
In Asian mythology, animals symbolize spiritual concepts and they often appear in folktales.
Spirits and gods take many different forms in the societies that worship them, but the beliefs that surround the spirit world remain virtually the same. The primary belief is that spirits must be appeased with offerings. They want food and drink. They respond to song, dance, and drumming. They like the fragrance of incense or burning pine.
Some spirits protect a tribe, a village, a clan. Some bring fertility, control the weather, make crops grow, or bring luck in the hunt. Some reside in the hearth and watch over family and home. There are dark spirits too, bad juju, the negative that balances the positive.
Another universal belief is that ancestors live on after death as spirits in the Otherworld. Deceased family members must be laid to rest with proper ritual and ceremony to prevent them from turning into trouble causing, wild ghosts. Departed ancestors need to eat and drink. They need the attention of their family, but if properly cared for, they will bring prayers from the living to the ears of the gods.
The ritual of offering is practiced daily in all societies, and this is one area in which monotheistic religions seem to merge with worship of the spirit world. Raising the voice in prayer is common to all humanity, and so is the lighting of candles. Pressing the palms together, although not completely universal, is a widespread gesture of worship.
Those who believe in the spirit world offer a variety of gifts to honor and feed their deities. Offerings bring harmony between the worshiper and the spirit realm. Offering in Nepal and India consists of a plate of food and colorful pigments to sprinkle on a statue of the deity. A tikka dot is dabbed on the forehead for both men and women. In Thailand, brightly colored scarves are offered, as well as fruit and flowers, while the Japanese ring ancient bells in their Shinto shrines. Burning incense is a ritual found everywhere in East Asia, and the Chinese add the burning of intricately decorated prayer paper and spirit money.
Indigenous people communicate with their spirits through song, dance, and music. From Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia to North and South America, the rythm of the drums is raised to the spirits. The drums have their own complex language that tell a story or offer a prayer, and the drummers are often initiates of special drumming societies. Along with the drums, dance, song, and incantations are filled with sacred meaning.
Even though we are in the digital age and Western culture has become the global culture, the spirit world is still an intimate part of daily life for people on every continent.
www.tao.org is a center for traditional taoist studies.
www.shamanism.org has information on a wide range of shamanic topics.
www.sacredpassage.com offers classes and retreats on shamanic subjects.
www.african-shaman.com is a resource for African shamanism.
www.allaboutspirituality. covers many aspects of spirituality.