Ghosts And Fairies And Gnomes, Oh My!

Nov 11, 2016

Are ghosts real? Why do some cultures believe in fairies and gnomes and some don't? We'll learn about how beliefs in ghosts vary in different parts of the world with Justin McDaniel of University of Pennsylvania. Then we're off to Iceland to learn about magical creatures with Terry Gunnell.

"Are ghosts real?" - Avery, 9, Jeffersonville, VT

"Every culture, religion, race, ethnicity, for as long as we have recorded history, has had some belief in ghosts. No matter what time period, no matter what religion, and no matter what part of the world, every culture has some sort of belief in ghosts, or some belief that we have a life after our death.

"That doesn't mean that every person on earth believes in ghosts. It means that all cultures have had some belief, and all religions have had some form of belief.

"There are many different theories about why humans believe in ghosts. Some theories are that when people die they have a soul and that soul goes out of their human body and that it goes to another place, and that ghosts are those souls reaching out to us because they miss us. Some cultures in places like India, believe that these beings that exist after death want to guide us. They may not have had a chance to tell us that they loved us in life and that they missed us. In some places like Thailand and Cuba, there's a belief that beings that live in the afterlife can heal us if we do certain rituals.

"Many cultures, especially Anglo-American cultures, in the United States and parts of Europe, believe that when a person dies their soul goes to an afterlife and that they had unfinished business on earth. They died before they had a chance to tell someone they loved them, or resolve an issue, so they are trying to get back to human life and finish that business.

"All of these different cultures have different beliefs about the afterlife. Some cultures believe that there's a heaven, others believe there are many levels of heaven and you go to certain levels based on what you did when you were alive on earth. Also, some of these cultures believe in different levels of hell, and that the beings in the hell realm are trying to contact the earthy realm.

"Scientists have no proof that ghosts exist. There may not be any ghosts. It may just be a belief that humans have, but there is actually no scientific proof of ghosts. There have been some studies of it, but we have no definitive proof. We have no facts that there are ghosts. If there's no scientific proof and no facts, then why do we continue to believe in ghosts?

"Some people believe that even if there's no factual proof that we have ghosts, it can't hurt, so why not believe in it?  It's nice to believe that if your loved on passes away that we can contact them, that they don't fully disappear. Some scientists believe that believing in ghosts makes us different from animals and that believing and hoping that you have a life after death makes you work hard in this life. Ghosts aren't necessarily scary, believing in ghosts means that there's hope after life and that maybe in this life and the afterlife we can have more people to communicate with us and more people who care about us, even if they're ghosts."

--    Justin McDaniel, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania

"Why do some cultures believe in fairies and gnomes and some don't?" - Aurelia, 5, St. Paul, MN

Aurelia has spent her first five years in St. Paul, MN being curious about everything from the Beatles to Claude Monet, selkies to leprechauns. Currently in kindergarten, she spends most of her free time building homes for the fairies and gnomes that might live in her backyard.
Credit Aurelia's mom / courtesy

We just heard about different religions and cultures that incorporate ghosts into their belief systems. Well, fairies and gnomes are kind of the same. But, often, these creatures have less to do with religion and more to do with landscapes.

One country where there's still a strong cultural belief in things like gnomes and elves is Iceland.

The Icelandic language has words for Hidden People and elves: huldufolk and alfar.

"They're not like the elves we imagine in England or America. They are the same size as us, they look like us. But people who say that they have experience of these beings, they talk about imaginary friends that they had to play with when they were children," said Terry Gunnell, who studies folklore at the University of Iceland.

"We're living in a country here that is very alive. My house can be destroyed by something that I can't see, in the shape of an earthquake. I can be knocked off my feet by the wind. I can turn on a tap and boiling water comes out, which tells us that out of sight, below the ground, there is lava flowing there. The snow makes shapes in the wind outside. As you walk into the landscape, the land is made of lava and it has strange shapes to it, which encourages people to see things within it. You know the land you're standing on was once upon a time alive. The landscape is alive and will talk to you in its own way. You can understand why farmers believed they needed to work with it, that they needed show respect for it, for the nature around them."

But Gunnell says it's not quite as simple as saying that everyone in Iceland believes in elves. "The figures are that maybe only 10 percent believe in these things, but only 10 percent don't believe...I think it's more of a superstition than anything else."

As for why some cultures don't believe in elves and gnomes, Gunnell says most original cultures had beliefs in the supernatural. But, in some cases, those beliefs have been lost.

Read the full transcript.

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