Spirits and Souls: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Supernatural

3 credits


College of Arts and Science

Anthropology from its beginnings in the late 1800s found that people all around the world reported seeing and hearing spirits. Not only did they acknowledge spirits, they actively sought to communicate with them. Unchecked or ignored spirits could cause mischief and mayhem, but if spirits were called correctly, they might help a medicine woman heal a patient or bring rain to Aztec priests. Negotiations with spirits fascinated some anthropologists and horrified others. This fascination fostered many publications, ranging from why people believe in spirits to trying to discrediting such beliefs. Anthropology as a field of study in the social sciences seeks to understand how other people in different cultures conceptualize their world. No doubt, human perception of the world is based on cultural knowledge. Nearly all cultures (past and present) believe that humans have a least one soul, but the issue of whether an animal, a plant, or an object has a soul ranges from group to group. Many Native Americans maintain that animals, plants, buildings, objects, and certain kinds of weather phenomenon (e.g., dust devils) are more spiritual than natural, whereas many American scientists reject the very notion that spirits are active in the world. Thus, how one identifies, labels, and understands the characteristics of an animal, a plant, or an object is based on cultural knowledge. Such knowledge stipulates whether something has a soul and what happens to it when the creature dies or the object is broken. In this course, we will explore how souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, etc. are defined from humanistic and scientific approaches, conduct cross-cultural comparisons of spirits and rituals that surround them; touch on evolutionary theory, which explains beliefs in spirits and souls as being a byproduct of brain development; and briefly examine neurological findings that indicate how mystical experiences affect certain brain areas.