16. Ghosts in Belief, Practice and Metaphor

Vernacular Knowledge - Contesting Authority, Expressing Beliefs - Ülo Valk

Paul Cowdell [+-]
Independent Scholar
Paul Cowdell wrote his doctoral thesis 'Belief in Ghosts in Post-War England' at the University of Hertfordshire. In addition to extensive research on ghost belief and urban legend in the UK, he has collected Irish Traveller songs, Banshee stories and family anecdotes in Ireland, and has done innovative field research on folksong in diverse geographic and occupational contexts, focussing particularly on issues relating to folk music performance, aesthetics and transmission. He serves on the Committee of the Folklore Society, for whom he undertaking research on the history of The Folklore Society and British folklore in relation to Irish and European folkloristics generally. He has worked as a fieldworker for the Smithsonian Institute in America, and serves on the editorial board of the Folk Music Journal, as well as his refereeing work for journals of international standing such as Folklore.


Some recent scholarship has attempted to treat newly emergent broadly neo-pagan religious observation as primarily a matter of practice rather than theology. While this allows for some investigation into the eclectic aspects of observation, it also tends to sideline the practitioners’ own thinking about their belief and its construction. Ghost belief offers a helpful case study for considering the interplay of belief and practice. It can be found across denominational groups, quite often in antagonism to the official doctrines of the religion, and vernacular eschatological thinking can quite often inform moves towards a newer syncretic practice. Similarly, the current academic enthusiasm for metaphors of ‘haunting’, ‘spectrality’, and ‘ghosts’ often proceeds by the deliberate exclusion of ethnographic data. Basing myself on recent fieldwork data, I will here examine the relationship between the thinking and practice I encountered around ghost belief. I will also look at the ways informants described their beliefs and practices. From this I will aim to place informants back at the centre of any consideration of these questions, and offer some suggestions for understanding the relationship between formal and informal spiritual beliefs.

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Cowdell, Paul. 16. Ghosts in Belief, Practice and Metaphor. Vernacular Knowledge - Contesting Authority, Expressing Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Oct 2022. ISBN 9781781792377. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=29222. Date accessed: 19 Sep 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29222. Oct 2022

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