The evolution of the ghost


The Ghost: A Cultural History. By Susan Owens.Tate Publishing; 288 pages; £19.99 and $29.95.

KINGS, queens, horses, dogs, crows. A “whirling heap of hay”. A wronged lover, an old friend, a stillborn child, an atmospheric light. As Susan Owens highlights in her new cultural history of ghosts, phantasms and spirits have assumed many guises and taken up numerous causes over the millennia. In the medieval period restless souls inhabited whatever shape they thought might get them noticed. One fashion was for a shroud tied at the top of the head in a topknot, and later a loose sheet (for ease of mobility). Some sought revenge or intervened on the side of the oppressed. Others offered moral lessons, or simply popped by for a friendly chat.

Though often dismissed as superstitious piffle, ghosts have proved surprisingly durable. The living have long spied the dead—and sought new explanations for doing so. In the 15th…Continue reading

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Personal pronouns are changing fast

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