This is something I've been struggling with for a while now, something that I'm hoping someone with a background in mythology, folklore, and/or anthropology might be able to help me with.

I come from a religious background: I was raised as a Christian and as such, my ideas on "spirits" are heavily influenced by the trappings of those teachings. There's a pretty narrow cultural understanding of what a spirit is and what it isn't. Oversimplifying, and not taking into account subtleties in belief across the board when it comes to Christian teachings and disagreements, a "spirit" is usually an incorporeal being, or a facet of being. It's almost universally used to describe demons or angels, but also a facet of the human being, especially when you bring the whole "God is a triune being" thing into it, where the "spirit" is an incorporeal part of us as living things. There isn't - universal agreement as to what that means, as far as I can see.

Many I've heard or spoken with agree, a spirit is not the same as a soul, but the difference between them is less certain. Some believe the spirit to be a sort of repository for things like emotions, desires, things you've learned, biases, etc., stuff that might influence or make up your personality...others equate that to the soul, and not the spirit, and it just muddies the situation up even further. I'm really no clearer on what a spirit is than when I began my research into the matter.

Touching on angels and demons briefly, this becomes even less clear to me...because both tend to have historically corporeal or physical qualities. Depending on who you ask, in Christian tradition, it's possible to mate with and have children with, spirits. You can literally wrestle or grapple them. They have the ability to change their appearance and I guess even their metaphysical qualities, as needed. So that's...interesting...and hard to reconcile with my understanding.

Then I get into other religions, belief systems, myths and legends, etc. Spirits become increasingly less "spiritual," at least when it comes to the area of physicality. Some consider fay and faerie as spirits. Some consider mythological creatures, like dragons, or the griffon, as spirits. Asian traditions have many, many spirits, due to polytheistic and pantheistic ideas, many of which are living breathing "things," and not necessarily wispy, bodyless beings. Obviously the idea of a spirit is going to differ from culture to culture, like anything, but I'm finding very little by way of commonality between them all.

All I can really say, from the meager research that I've done, is that the only thing that is universally shared between "spirits" is that they are (A) more powerful than human beings or normal living things in some regard, often having magical or religious power, and (B) they have a quality that is noticeably inhuman in some way. That's harder to nail down. The importance of their distinction seems to be that they are respresentative of, or are even a manifestation of, something less tangible and more - conceptual? Emotional, maybe? - than a normal living thing is. It's what makes them reverant and worthy of our awe, or terror, etc. But I feel that's missing something fundamental.

It's very hard for me to put this into a question.

I guess I'm hoping someone who has far more experience in this kind of thing can add something meaningful to this, so I can have a better grasp of what a "spirit" is when it comes to studying folklore, myth, legend, culture, etc. Is there some kind of list of qualities that spirits have? I don't know. I hope someone out there can detect what I'm hoping to have answered.

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Let me try to answer your question by example of Eastern mythology and philosophy as I'm most familiar with those academically.

The origin of much the confusion is that the first translations from the scriptures of other cultures were either written or based on dictionaries created by Christian missionaries, as they were obligated to learn enough about the local languages to proselytize. But in fact, in the original language of these mythologies, people don't use the word "spirit" or our associated concepts. These terms were often translated intentionally into Christian jargon to "claim ownership", as if the natives were, as Pope Benedict once said of the Native Americans "silently awaiting salvation". This is not exclusive to Christianity: during the Enlightenment, Western scholars started to translate the Buddhist canon and chose the term "enlightenment" for the Pali word Bodhi or the Japanese Satori, which is a terrible translation.

In Buddhist and Hindu cosmology there are said to be different realms, inhabited by different beings, the human and animal realms being two of these. There is also a realm inhabited by "Preta", usually translated as "hungry spirits", beings with huge desires and no means to fulfill these desires. The concepts associated with "spirit" in Christianity do not carry over to Buddhism or Hinduism.

Similarly, in Japanese Shinto -which we in the West would consider a form of animism- it is said that everything has its own Kami, which is usually translated as spirit as well. The Japanese character for Kami, 神 derives from the archaic form

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which semantically refers to show; reveal; demonstrate; manifest in nature. In other words, Kami are seen very much as part of the natural world, not the supernatural, much in the same way the Native American people would think of nature spirits. Incidentally, the Japanese word for the Judeo-Christian deity is Kami-Sama, where "sama" is a superlative honorific.

My general recommendation would be to find the actual word(s) used for "spirits" in the original language of the culture where it originates and look at the etymology. Incidentally, spiritus in Latin predates Christianity and used to mean "breath", "air" or "life". Consider that many of the Western examples you mention (faeries etc.) also predate Christianity. In fact, a lot of the Christian stories about the physical properties of spirits find their origin in the pagan Fay

  • Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. This was an immensely helpful response. I am looking into all of the things you mentioned now. I infinitely appreciate this. :) – bsideswiped Nov 7 at 16:22
  • @bsideswiped Glad I could help :) – Codosaur Nov 10 at 9:10

Everything you know about spirit is wrong. The idea has been corrupted, banalized and embellished until it is unrecognizable. But the evidence remains that tells us it was important and worthy of retelling.

The Christians got it right when they called it “the holy spirit”, because the spirit is a hole. More accurately a torus, a ring, a halo, as it is correctly depicted above original icons. Incidentally the halo was not a Christian tradition, is was syncretized from Gnostic sources after it found popularity among artists.

What the Christian artists got wrong was that the torus resided around the neck, not above the head. An example is the legend of Jesus, where the spirit is likened to a white dove, I think, that descended on his shoulder. There are many legends of this neck-torus in various cultures. In Judaism it is called “the yoke of heaven”, referring to the ring around the neck of a beast of burden. In Norse mythology it was called Brisingamen, the necklace their goddess wore. Among European cultures it was generically called a ‘torc’, a solid ring around the neck. The ancient Egyptians represented it as the Ankh. This is supported by the Arabic word for ‘neck’, which is ‘anak’. The Anakim were mentioned in the bible but the word was wrongly interpreted to mean ‘giants’, but in Hebrew the same word ענק also means ‘neck, just like the English word. Strongs #6062 ‘Anakim’ actually gets close, he said meant “long-necked”. The prophet Isaiah 48:4l calls it “sinew of iron on your neck”. Other Semitic cultures depicted the halo as the crescent moon above their deity, or as the horns of the crescent moon, or as animal horns.

Even the word is wrong, but only because the p/f sound is phonetically interchangeable. The word ‘spirit’ is an anglicization. The word originally was ‘sefar’ ספר, the closest English idea is ‘sapphire’, as described in Exodus 24:10. But because nobody remembered what “the sefar” was, they said it was a scroll, which is only partly true. The sefar appears later in Jewish mysticism as the Kabbalistic ‘Sefirot’, a mystical ‘sphere’ of biological energy. So as you can see, the sfr/spr word took may forms and permutations. So that spirit and sefirot are the same words, amazingly enough!

The sefar must have obsessed the ancients trying to possess it. A ‘safari’ was a quest to find the sefar, but the reason has long been forgotten. There are numerous historical words that come from sefar/sapphire. Spar is a mineral crystal. A collection of disparate words like sphere, spore, super, spire, spark, saffron and zephyr all come from the Hebrew ‘sefar’, because nobody could remember exactly what it was.

So what is spirit, really? The physics of “Toroidal vortices” is pretty interesting. I understand spirit as a supernatural energy torus that oscillates around a human's neck. In physics it may be called a “quantum-mechanical knot”, a “soliton torus”, or as the mathematical entity “Hopf fibration”. These energetic formations are theorized to exist but there is no way to verify it. In modern times we are fortunate to have a scientific explanation for spirit that has vexed humans for so long.

  • And for the Christian who are not English? Does that not represent a lot??? No because, in French, holy spirit is saint esprit. In Portuguese, Espirito santo, should be the same in Spanish. In German heiliger Geist. And none of them are toroid at all... Saint in french rhyme with... sein, breasts in English. In Portuguese with sento... feeling... So doomed we are! – Gibet Nov 16 at 7:54
  • @Gibet The meaning of the word ‘saint’ was lost early on. ‘Saint’ is a contraction of the strange Hebrew word ‘tsintsenet’ צנצנת used only in Exodus 16:33. The Tsintsenet was said to be a vase or jar stored in the Ark of the Covenant that held the Manna, the ‘portion’ of blessing given to the Israelites. It was how the ancients explained a torus, as a jar containing a mystical substance. That is why Christian saints have a torus above their head. Also I should point out that German ‘heiliger’ means holy, once again referring to the hole in the torus – Gnarlodious Nov 16 at 18:32

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