Ghost sickness is the belief that ghosts are able to cause a living person to fall ill. This particular term is used by the Native Americans, especially amongst the Navajo people. Nevertheless, this belief can also be found in other Native American cultures. Furthermore, this concept may also be found in other cultures of the world, though with certain slight variations. So how does a ghost make you sick, and why?
Navajo Attachment Belief
According to the Navajos, as well as certain other Native American cultures, ghost sickness is caused by a spirit of the dead attaching itself to a living person. This attachment causes harm to the living person, as the ghost drains his or her energy. The effects of this energy drainage manifest itself in certain symptoms, including weakness, a loss of appetite, depression and nightmares. Furthermore, it is believed that ghost sickness can even result in death, as the soul of the affected person could be carried by the ghost into the realm of the dead.
The Navajos believe that ghost sickness is caused by a person communicating with the dead or by connecting the thoughts of a living person with those of the deceased. In a case mentioned by Putsch, for example, a Navajo woman develops nightmares about her father following his death from a ruptured appendix. The woman’s mother felt that her daughter was somehow connected with her husband’s death, and that she was plagued by the malignant influence of his spirit.
Several years later, the woman had a child, and it was after giving birth that she was stricken by ghost sickness. Some of the symptoms experienced by the woman included “irritability, decreased interest in daily activities, and inability to relate well to her husband”. The woman’s ghost sickness was treated using an approach that addressed both the traditional causes of the illness, as well as the biomedical ones she was facing. For instance, a traditional Navajo ceremony was conducted to treat the nightmares, whilst diagnostic measures were taken to determine if her post-partum depression was caused by other endocrinological problems or not.
Chinese Ghost Treatment
Apart from Native Americans, other cultures also believe that illnesses may be caused by ghosts. In ancient China, for instance, illnesses were sometimes attributed to the influence of ghosts. This idea may still be seen in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine today, though with some modifications. In acupuncture, there are a set of special points known as Baxie, which may be translated as the ‘Eight Ghosts’ or, in modern texts, the ‘Eight Pathogens’.
For the Chinese, illnesses may be attributed to the influence of ghosts if they are very serious, unusual or cannot be treated by Western medicine. The Chinese believe that the main reason for ghosts to return to the realm of the living is that they had not received a proper burial. Nevertheless, these spirits may also return to seek vengeance, or to seek help in righting a wrong they had caused / had suffered. Illnesses caused by ghosts may be physical or mental, though unexplainable by modern Western medicine, as mentioned earlier. Therefore, to treat these illnesses, other measures have to be taken, for instance, by praying to a particular god, by seeking the aid of a local healer, or by appeasing the spirit.
Samoan Spirit Sickness
A form of ghost sickness can also be found in the beliefs of the Samoans. In this culture, ghosts are also thought to have the power to punish the living. Amongst the causes of a spirit’s displeasure is a living person still harbouring hatred towards the dead person, or not showing proper respect to him or her. Some common symptoms of a possessed person include spitting, grimacing, and bulging eyes. In some cases, the presumed possession has been diagnosed as ‘hysterical excitement’. To cure suspected possessions, Samoan folk medicine is often used, and involves removing the ghosts from a person’s body.