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Speak! Speak! by John Everett Millais (1895) captures the ambiguity of the revenant. Millais deliberately makes it uncertain whether the luminous woman who appears at the foot of the young man’s bed is real or a spirit.[1]

A revenant, from the French revenir, (“to return”), is the spirit of a dead person come back to visit the living, the common conception of a ghost. Such spirits may appear of their own volition or as a result of being summoned by a necromancer such as the Biblical Witch of EndorFemale sorcerer who appears in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 28:3–25). .[2] The paranormal investigator Peter Underwood categorised ghosts as belonging to one of eight types, of which the traditional/ historical spirit of the dead is one.[a]The other categories are elementals, poltergeists, mental imprint manifestations, crisis or death-survival apparations, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects.[3] This article uses the shorthand form ghosts when discussing the spirits of the dead rendered visible.

The cultural historian Susan Owens has observed that ghosts are “mirrors of the times”, their nature reflecting our changing preoccupations.[4]


The earliest ghosts, such as the one haunting the house rented by the Stoic philosopher AthenodorosAthenenodorus (c. 74 BCE – 7 AD) was a Stoic philosopher and the subject of the first recorded ghost story. more than two thousand years ago, were translucent, insubstantial affairs, able to communicate with the living but unable to directly affect the material world. A common reason for the appearance of such apparitions was the belief that a deceased person who had not received a proper ritual burial was in some sense not yet fully dead, and so was unable to enter the afterlife until the proper ceremonies had been observed,[5] as was the case with the ghost encountered by Athenodoros.

Early Christianity

Soon though ghosts began to be seen as increasingly corporeal, even indistinguishable from the living, and able to wreak their vengeance on those inhabiting the material world, a theme recognisable in the 1985 film The Pale Rider. But long before the appearance of the lead character in that film, identified only as the Preacher, the English monk John of Worcester described the intervention of St Edmund in vanquishing the Viking invader Sweyn Forkbeard. Edmund, a former East Anglian king, had been killed by earlier Viking invaders in 869. John was writing in the first half of the 12th century, but the earliest account comes from an East Anglian archdeacon, Hermann, dated to about 1095. According to Hermann, Sweyn had demanded an “outrageous” payment from the town of Bury St Edmunds, in tribute to him. The people appealed for help from the dead saint, and on 3 February 1014 Sweyn was confronted by a fully armed and mounted St Edmund advancing towards him. Sweyn was surrounded by his troops, but his appeal for their protection fell on deaf ears, as he was the only one to whom St Edmund was visible. The saint attacked Sweyn with a spear, causing him to fall badly wounded from his horse; he died later that same day.[6][b]In some accounts St Edmund attacks Sweyn with his spear while the Viking is asleep in his bedchamber, but all agree that the saint was responsible for Sweyn’s death.[6]


The medieval Christian Church’s invention of the concept of purgatory – a “third place”[c]The “third place” was Martin Luther’s critical name for purgatory, a place not mentioned in the Bible. Instead of adopting the monistic sheol of Judaism, the early Christians had chosen to follow the dualism of the classical Elysian Fields and Hades, transforming them into heaven and hell respectively.[7] where certain sinners could redeem themselves before being allowed into heaven – became established during the latter half of the 12th century,[8] and it had a significant impact on the perception of ghosts.[6] Until then the deceased were generally admitted either to heaven or to hell directly upon their deaths, but purgatory introduced a third option, that of securing an entrance to heaven even for those who had led less than blameless lives by passing through a kind of temporary hell.

In order to gain some remission from their time in purgatory the spirits of the dead might return to appeal for assistance from those who knew them in life, or to atone for whatever crimes they had committed while alive, such as the spirit of a dead clergyman who accosted a man as he was walking through his fields. The apparition identified itself as the Canon of Newburgh, who had been excommunicated for stealing some silver spoons. The spirit told the man to report the whereabouts of the stolen goods to the prior and ask him for absolution, which was duly done; “The spirit then rested in peace thereafter.”[9] One of the most famous ghosts in English literature is of this type, that of Hamlet’s father:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Til the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

Following its initial visitation, the spirit sometimes returned to inform those who had performed suffrage on its behalf (paid for masses, given alms, prayed, fasted and so on) of the success or otherwise of their efforts by reappearing partly covered in black. If, for instance, two-thirds of the apparition was in black, then that was the proportion of its sins yet to be redeemed.[10]

Protestant Reformation

The spectral landscape was changed once again during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, when the Protestant Churches split from the Catholic Church. Purgatory was consigned to superstition; after the body’s death souls went either to heaven or to hell, with no possibility of returning to haunt the living. The clergyman Robert Wisdom, writing in 1543, expressed it thus: “sowles departed do not come again and play boo peape with us”.[11]

Reports of ghost sightings still occurred however, which Protestant theologians explained must be demons that had adopted human form – “because ghosts did not officially exist, they had to be invented”.[11] The Swiss theologian Ludwig Lavater published one of the first post-Reformation treatises on the subject of ghosts, De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus (“Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Night[d]The English translation was published in 1572.[12]) in 1569,[13] finally laying the revenant to rest. In his introduction to Of Ghostes and Spirites, the translator Robert Harrison summarised its main theses, that many ghosts are optical illusions, or hallucinations produced by overwrought minds; the remainder are good or evil spirits that have adopted human form.[12] In the words of Susan Owens, “While before the Reformation anyone was liable to see a ghost, by the end of the seventeenth century it had become, at least in part, a matter of temperament”.[14]

Problem of clothing

Most medieval ghosts manifested themselves dressed either as they had been in life, or all in white. Grave clothes were traditionally made from undyed linen, or in England after the introduction of the Burying in Woollens ActsThere were three Burying in Woollens Acts passed during the 17th century, to support the domestic woollen trade in the face of increasing competition from foreign imports in 1666, in woollen shrouds, both of which were white.[15] Eleanor SidgwickPhysics researcher, activist for the higher education of women, Principal of Newnham College of the University of Cambridge, and a leading figure in the Society for Psychical Research. , research assistant to the physicist Lord Rayleigh and a leading light in the Society for Psychical ResearchRegistered charity founded in 1882 to conduct scientific investigations into psychic and paranormal phenomena., concluded that as clothes had no souls then ghosts could not possibly be the returned dead.[16] Perhaps this objection to the idea of clothed ghosts was expressed most forcibly by the caricaturist George Cruikshank in his 1863 pamphlet A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, With a Rap at the ‘Spirit Rappers’ ”:[17]

… as ghosts cannot, must not, dare not, for decency’s sake, appear without clothes; and as there can be no such things as ghosts or spirits of clothes, why, then it appears that ghosts never did appear, and never can appear, at any rate not in the way in which they have been hitherto supposed to appear.




Clarke, Roger. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. Ebook, Penguin, 2012.
Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Owens, Susan. The Ghost: A Cultural History. Tate Publishing, 2017.
Staff writer. “Revenant.” Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, edited by Una McGovern, Online, Chambers Harrap, 2007.
Stapelberg, Monica-Maria. Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions. Ebook, Crux Publishing, 2014.