Humans have almost always held beliefs about the spirits of those who once lived, chalking up some of their most mysterious and inexplicable experiences to the general idea that perhaps some lost souls remain trapped here on Earth with the living. In modern society, we simply call them “ghosts.”
According to some cultures from around the world, it actually gets a lot more detailed than that. It turns out that there are many different types of ghosts that are thought to hold all sorts of eerie intentions as they lurk among us.
The Hungry Ghosts of East Asian Religious Texts
From Buddhism and Taoism to Hinduism and Sikhism, the “hungry ghost” is a type of demon-like apparition present in the religious texts from most eastern cultures.
Believed to be the spirits of dead ancestors who are constantly tormented by their hunger or thirst, it’s been said that they were condemned to haunt the dark and dreary places of the living world, suffering from their insatiable appetites as punishment for their wrongdoings when they were alive.
It’s believed that depending on how bad a hungry ghost’s karma was in their previous life, they may or may not be able to eat or drink. For some, anything they try to eat or drink bursts into flames and burns to ashes. Others have pinholes for throats and are unable swallow anything.
In China, the Hungry Ghost Festival is meant to serve as a feeding ritual for the tormented spirits to help bring them some relief. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (July or August). On this day, a number of specific rituals are carried out for the ghosts, which include placing the family’s ancestral tablets on a table, preparing offerings of food three times throughout the day, and burning incense.
The “Chindi” Ghosts That Inflict Sickness on the Navajo People
While the Chinese and other East Asian cultures believe their hungry ghosts could use some help from humans from time to time, the Navajo natives of the Southwestern United States have a different taken on ghosts (which they call “Chindi”).
When a person dies, they believe that the last breath that exits their mouth releases the Chindi from the body, which also contains all of their sin.
If a person doesn’t receive the proper burial rites after death, the Navajo believe that their spirit will be doomed to roam the Earth in misery. As a result, they take it out on the living by making them physically sick. This malady is commonly referred to as “ghost sickness,” and the Chindi are thought to be the cause of some people’s nausea, fever, and fatigue. It is even believed that they can cause people to hallucinate or feel like they are being drowned.
If a person takes his last breath inside a home, the Navajo believe that the home must either be cleansed by ritual or abandoned entirely.
To protect themselves from the Chindi who remain on Earth, the Navajo have been known to carry what they call “ghost beads” in the form of bracelets and other jewelry made from cedar berries. It is thought that their turquoise color helps to keep the Chindi away. Also, whatever you do don’t say “chindi” out loud.
The Servant Ghosts of Dead Babies in Southeast Asian Mythology
It’s unpleasant to think that a Navajo Chindi ghost could make people sick, but it isn’t nearly as disturbing as what stems from Malay mythology.
Shamans or witch doctors across Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore have long been thought to have the ability to conjure up the spirits of dead human babies so that they can be used for black magic.
Called a “tuyul” or “toyol,” the dead corpse of a baby is mummified in cloth and decorated to look just like a miniature demon. With a name that literally translates to “mischievous thief,” the tuyul is kept in a jar or box. During this time, it’s believed that the infant spirit runs around at night stealing things for its master, like wealth and power from other people.
Because owning and using a tuyul is such an evil practice, owners are required to do all sorts of things to keep it happy, just like taking care of a real child. They’re expected to make offerings of toys, candy, cookies, and anything else a deranged and devilish child might want.
Perhaps the worst part of it all is that in exchange for its services, someone must either prick their thumb regularly to feed it with their own blood or allow it to breastfeed from a female family member— but it suckles on blood rather than breastmilk.
Even Today, People Love Believing in Ghosts
A lot of very old cultural beliefs about ghosts may seem a little far-fetched and silly in the Western world today, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t think they exist.
People may not exactly imagine that there are ghosts out there that are starving, purposely making people sick, or running around at night as demon infants stealing stuff from everybody, but a poll conducted in 2013 showed that 45% of Americans do indeed believe that the spirits of the dead can reappear among the living in certain situations.
And so the ghost stories that have been around for thousands of years continue to live on through folklore (and Hollywood entertainment too, of course). Whether you sense any truth behind their tales or not is entirely up to you.