We don’t like thinking of consciousness as temporary—with cause, as a world without you in it isn’t a world at all—so we’ve, across cultures, created an elevated state of being following brain-death. Call it a myling, a lemure, a wight, whathaveyou—regardless of dialect or argot, these are the echoes of what were once people, of what was once complete consciousness, and theyappear in the folklore of every culture.

We all, bar none, create ghosts, but we take the word “ghost” from the Old English gast, meaning an extensive gamut of things: “breath; good or bad spirit, angel, demon; person, man, human being.” Really take a second and look at the breadth of that word—see the antonyms, see how much human understanding of the world is covered in a word that incorporates both “breath” and “human being.” To have breath is to have a spirit; to be breathing is to be characterized by some intangible animating force. No culture has wantedthat spirit to dissipate with a dying person’s last breath, as that would mean we lose the dead irrevocably.

We do, of course. The dead don’t come and go like comfortable old friends; they vanish like breath and cease to exist. To think we’ll see them again is to strain sunlight into honey or wish piss into beer. So we create fantasies and phantasms out of our honored dead and see them reflected in mirrors and captured on celluloid. Quick aside about a fun false cognate: the Dutch word for “honored guest” is “eregast,” with the -gast suffix meaning “guest,” not “ghost.” Compare to the French word for “ghost”: revenant, meaning “one who has returned.”

Ghosts, guests, and those who come back—it’s worth noting that, when we talk about ghosts, we talk about place. We talk about belonging and how it feels to have that sense of belonging challenged by an intruder. The only thing worse than a haunted house is a haunted home. We see ghosts as warnings of upcoming disaster, as tragically-separated lovers returning for one last goodbye, as unquiet haints leading new tenants to hidden treasure. Those relationships carry over to Magic, where the dead are our neighbors and our protectors—they’re the press-ganged chump blockers that throw themselves in front of Hellkites, they’re the collective of wraiths that drain our opponent and flicker out of harm’s way, they’re the skulking phantoms that can be dispersed by a strong breeze.

Magic’s relationship to ghosts is complex—much as each Earthly culture has a facet of a crystallized idea of what ghosts are, each planar culture has a different attitude towards the lingering dead. Ravnica has an entire spiritual shtetl where the dead hang around and undermine lands or something, it’s pretty opaque. They’re trapped and seemingly exploited by the Dimir as couriers and cutpurses, though, so fair enough—I’d be lobbing some ectoplasmic bombs myself. Kamigawa’s spirits are alternately (possibly simultaneously) ghosts of the dead and the dynamic endemic forces of natural objects given form by focused worship. Good luck figuring out the dynamic there, although Wandering Ones demonstrates that “confusing worldbuilding” doesn’t invalidate “effective worldbuilding.”

Innistrad’s geists are essentially just spectral villagers with full-fledged roles in the communal ecosystem, from warriors (Geist of Saint Traft) to what amount to flying cats (Topplegeist). They also have a minor theme of being the lingering echo of those who died suddenly (Doomed Traveler) or in defense of the weak (Elgaud Inquisitor, Dauntless Cathar), playing into the traditional interpretation of ghosts as the souls of those who died with unfinished work.

Interestingly, Zendikar, which worshipped false gods in the chthonic cultural memories of the Eldrazi titans, has no apparent conception of the afterlife (which makes Agadeem Occultist an odd card—what, is he making people hallucinate ghosts?), nor do Mirrodin or Kaladesh, two technologically-advanced worlds. There are five total spirits in Zendikar, Worldwake, Battle for Zendikar, and Oath of the Gatewatch combined; Kaladesh and Aether Revolt have none.

Kaladesh, though, has a startlingly modern attitude towards the dead—they live on through their creations and through the memories of those they leave behind (Lost Legacy, Inspiring Statuary). I’m disappointed that Wizards didn’t have the innumerable gearhulks, golems, and constructs take the form of dead loved ones, similarly to the flavor of Feldon of the Third Path, a native artificer of Dominaria.

Dominaria, as a hodgepodge of concepts without the rigidly concrete worldbuilding Magic would later embrace, is all over the map with regard to its treatment of ghosts. The early years of Magic are Western fantasy with a preponderance of Dungeons & Dragons influence, so Will-o’-the-Wisps and Blinking Spirits were the order of the day—ghosts as mindless (or at least warped or inhuman) echoes of humanity without intelligence or function. These ghosts were malign, misleading travelers into death (Bog Wraith) or confusion (Will-o’-the-Wisp); note that this is a very British interpretation of ghosts, drawing from folklore and the mythology of the Anglican church. Dominaria also gives us spirits as forces of nature, particularly in Mirage block and Prophecy, which melds spirits and djinni and ghosts without any kind of rhyme or reason. Revered ancestors, malevolent djinni, powerful spirit—all the same to a Dominarian wizard, with the only distinction in upkeep costs.

In the Western canon, ghosts have always been harbingers or catalysts, from Seneca’s Agamemnon back in 50 BCE to Hamlet’s dad in 1605 to the brooding specters of Charlotte Riddell’s Gothic ghost stories. Ghosts have a motivation, whether it’s protection, entrapment, or warning. Magic’s ghosts stick to these resonant roles: Spirit of the Hearth guards you like a loyal pet, Aurora Eidolon wafts in and out of existence, saving you from pain, and Dearly Departed bolsters you with the memory of those who lived and died to ensure your life was better than theirs. Much like in the traditional conception of ghosts—from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to Gothic literature—Magic’s ghosts aren’t much for metamorphosis.

In creating ghosts, we’ve clung to the comfortable; we want our dead to be recognizable and familiar, and so we don’t expect a transmutation into another form. The current specter a la mode is the gravity-defying, translucent dead; it’s a holdover of Victorian ceremony (seriously, when was the last time you saw winding-sheets? Ask a child to draw a ghost, though, and they’ll give you the sheet-wrapped, hollow-eyed paragon without any real understanding of what those signifiers mean—the sunken eyes and gaping mouth of pre-Maybelline mortuary technique, the garments of innocence and piety. An American ghost is a fat dead guy in a suit with an overabundance of blush, but you won’t get that from an elementary school student), rather than something with current relevance.

That’s the point of ghosts, though—they’re echoes of something that came before, they’re a pallid representation of something that has vanished, something tragic that abides for some impenetrable purpose but doesn’t belong. In Japanese, they’re yūrei, or “yu-rei,” meaning “dim soul.” That pretty much sums it up—a photocopy of a person, without the full force of their intellect and personality to govern them, driven only by a fading but vital desire to save or protect or harm, a hollow imitation of a person, but something to cling to when they leave us behind. In folklore, ghosts are ephemeral but persistent—something anyone who’s faced down a board of Lingering Souls tokens can sympathize with—which is the greatest joke of all: we assume the afterlife to have the same qualities as our current, finite lives.

Next Week: Let’s continue the existential trend as we get ephemeral with cultures.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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