The Navajo Ghost Sickness

When we examine the history of the paranormal, often we see how culture can influence the ways in which a society channels these experiences in very different ways.  Whether the actual manifestations are themselves more cause or effect is still open for debate, but one of the more interesting manifestations has to do with the legendary “Ghost Sickness” of the Navajo and Lakotah tribes.  Sufferers of this strange illness were afflicted by disease not thought to be caused by virus or bacteria, but rather a supernatural force from beyond the grave.

Ghost sickness, according to Navajo lore, was generally attributed to communication with the deceased or with connecting a person’s living thoughts with the thoughts and behaviors of the dead.  And while they were not likely to be able to conjure up the same incredible feats of supernatural affinity as mediums and even some modern day psychics, they did find themselves enraptured by something incredible – a deeply held personal connection with those that had passed on.  Unfortunately, the illness had more than its share of negative side effects.

Those effected by the Ghost Sickness were said to first associate their experiences with a pervasive and all encompassing sense of fear – a fear that followed them wherever they went.  This was soon followed by nightmares wherein the spirits of the dead contacted the living and conveyed messages to them – even harkening the living to join them in the mysterious world of the dead.  Other feelings that soon followed included a sense of dread and a feverish almost catatonic despondency – as though the sufferer was no longer living in the world of the living soon to be followed by hallucinations.

Ordinarily the sickness was combated with rituals, but in 1881 many of these rituals were banned.  As a result, the surviving members found themselves using western psychology – still in its infancy in the hopes of exorcizing the ghost sickness that swept through.  Many of the ritual’s elements were designed with both the pre-Jungian symbols surrounding grief and the more supernatural elements of the tribes’ respective traditions in mind.

Often the ghost sickness is seen today as something from the past meant only for the past.  Most people in modern society approach grief in far different ways, believing events to be causal rather than cyclical.  Today the dead are seen almost reverently as they were in life.  But the most interesting aspects of the Navajo ghost sickness are what they tell us about the human brain and the relationship the living have with those they have lost in the past.  Perhaps by connecting with this past through ritual these tribes found meaning for those that had to go on and became in their own way more connected with all things.  And perhaps the sickness can be traced back to the Navajo chindi – which was a concept that suggested the ghosts left behind after death carried with them the burden of everything negative in a person’s life.