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Ghost and the other

Dangerous commensalities and twisted becomings
Ludek Broz
Traduction(s) :
Le fantôme et les autres


This article focuses on ghost-related othering: of those alive and those dead in a Siberian village; of those who subscribe to the existence of ghosts by certain Russian officials; of texts that do not reduce ghosts to a second order of reality from the genre of ethnography, and their authors from the rank of fellow anthropologists. Pushing the logic of the “ontological turn” in anthropology to its limits, it asks whether such instances simply resemble each other, or whether it is possible to discern some sort of ontological continuity between them. Could the similitudes be the effect of ghosts’ (perhaps fragmented and partial) existence, rather than their (monolithic, ultimate and unquestionable) non-existence?

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  • 1 I am grateful to Emma Welter, Grégory Delaplace, Jonathan Mair, Clara Royer and Filip Vostal for h (...)

1It was a long and pleasant evening for Azamat. He wouldn’t have minded continuing to drink, but his new colleague Yura’s wife made it rather clear that she wouldn’t tolerate any more drinking in the house and that Yura should stay home. Observing Yura’s drunken, apologetic smile, Azamat decided not to test whether local women were as fierce as their reputation, even though he didn’t know anyone in the village of Chibilia who could help him prolong the pleasant evening deeper into the night by sharing another bottle. In fact, he didn’t know anyone else in Chibilia but Yura. Azamat had recently moved to the neighbouring village of Ulagan for his job at an electric company that maintained the region’s basic infrastructure.1

2The sickly light of the shrinking moon soon saw Azamat ambling along the bumpy tarmac road from Chibilia to Ulagan. At this time of night, he would have to be especially lucky to catch a passing car, but he didn’t mind walking. The early summer night was reasonably warm – even in the Ulagan region, famous for its harsh continental climate – and the distance was negligible.

3His walk well under way, Azamat heard some jolly voices ahead of him and soon met a group of several men walking in the opposite direction. It turned out that they were as invigorated by booze as Azamat, that they knew Yura rather well, and that for them, too, the unexpected meeting was a wonderful occasion to sit down by the side of the road for another round or two of shots. In the end, the rounds were plentiful, for the men were well stocked with vodka and zakuski – snacks used to mask the unpleasant aftertaste of (low-quality) vodka. It was a while before Azamat and the jolly party continued in their respective directions at a typically boozy pace.

4The next morning found Azamat at work, telling his compassionate colleagues about his adventures between grimaces of hangover pain. As he proceeded to describe the lucky meeting on the road between Chibilia and Ulagan, the expressions of his colleagues changed to painful grimaces too. To their – and Azamat’s – horror, the names and faces he recollected when describing his drinking company were known to everyone – yet these men were all dead. Within months after his midnight drinking picnic, Azamat himself died in a road accident.

5I was told this “ghost story” in the village of Ulagan, the centre of a homonymous region of the Altai Republic, south-west Siberia, where I have conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork. I chose to open this essay with it because it illuminates rather well the topic of otherness or alterity, which seems as important for my local interlocutors (vis-à-vis ghosts and spirits) as it is for my colleagues in anthropology (vis-à-vis our local interlocutors). I will indeed focus on three instances of ghost-related othering, ranging from my Altaian field site right through to the discipline of anthropology. The question I will then ask, though not necessarily answer, is how we can conceptualize the relation between those otherings.


6The Altai Republic (part of the Russian Federation), with its territory of over 90,000 km2, hosts a permanent population of around 200,000, almost half of whom live in the capital, Gorno-Altaisk, and surrounding areas. The population density decreases in the mountainous heartlands of the republic. More than half of the population are Russian, whereas one third are native Turkic-speaking Altaians. In the heartlands and regions bordering Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China, however, Altaians form the majority.

7With less than two kilometres between them, Ulagan and Chibilia are regarded as almost twin villages in a region spanning a territory of 18,000 km2, in which there are only 13 settlements mostly separated by dozens of kilometres. Notwithstanding its negligible length, the road between Ulagan and Chibilia has a rather bad reputation. Quite a few people walk from one village to the other, regardless of time of day (or night) or weather conditions, simply because the two are so close. Drunk men from Chibilia are especially likely to cover this distance on foot in the middle of the night when they realize that no one in Chibilia, the smaller of the two villages, is willing to join them in binge drinking and decide to seek company in much larger Ulagan. Yet Siberian conditions can be tricky. At a temperature of, say, -30° Celsius, these two kilometres for a drunk person can quite easily turn out to be the last walk of his life. The comparatively high concentration of such instances along this short road seems to be the factor that sheds light on the opening story; it speaks, I will argue, to the causes of Azamat’s death rather than acting as an omen foretelling it.

8Larisa Fiodorovna, who hosted me and my friend Anatolii in her herding camp, shared a story about events that had happened some 10 or 15 years previously. A veterinarian was coming home from a herding camp to the village of Saratan at nightfall. Along the way, he saw two women approaching from the opposite direction on remarkably beautiful horses. He recognized them: they were women from Saratan who had both died some time ago. His horse stopped as if tied up by an invisible rope. The vet dismounted, trying to find a thorny bush to free the horse, a locally recognized means to cut the invisible fetter. Yet before he managed to do so, the horse started walking again. The man living in the herding camp shot himself shortly afterwards; the vet did not live long either, as less than a year later he accidentally drowned.

9“These körmös [evil spirits]”, Larisa concluded, “stole his süne [soul]!” A bit later, I discussed the story with Anatolii to make sure I understood it well, since Larisa could hardly speak any Russian and my Altaian was poor at the time. In my search for meaning, I pushed Anatolii about those two “revenant” women, trying to discern the rationale behind their “coming back”. Were they in any way related to the vet or the herder? Did they die some kind of unusual death? Why would Larisa call them körmös? I did not get a clear answer to the first two questions. Similarly, I could not find any details about the jolly revellers who were the beginning of poor Azamat’s end. Why did they come back? Had they themselves died on that road?

  • 2 In other contexts, notably in neighbouring Tyva during shaman-assisted funerals, the identity of t (...)

10Over the years I heard many similar stories featuring revenants, yet I never witnessed any clear elaboration on those characters or the reasons that they returned. In fact, stories featuring revenants are part of a larger corpus of narratives that pursue the following scheme. First, a person meets dead people (as in the story above), spots a stranger in an improbable place (such as a beautiful, unknown girl in the middle of the forest), has his or her horse or car stopped by an invisible force, or loses his or her personal belongings without explanation, only for them to later reappear in their usual place; then, after some time – usually no longer than a year – the person dies. In this sense, revenants do not lend any specific twist to the logic of these narratives, aside from perhaps making them better, more dramatic stories. When facing my subsequent questions, most of my local interlocutors were hesitant to make much of the revenant topic in this context. Rather, most people would agree that these were körmös; whether they chose the appearance of dead people for reasons unknown to ordinary people, or whether, as old ethnographies suggest, the souls of dead people (might) become körmös (see Anokhin 1994: 21) is an open question that my interlocutors did not seem to consider important.2

11The word körmös is nowadays the most common expression used in Altaian to denote an evil occult agent. It is most often translated into Russian as chert – “devil”. According to linguists (Baskakov & Iaimova 1993: 13), the original meaning of the term körmös is “invisible”, and even in its current usage it still denotes entities that are invisible under normal everyday conditions. The “interplay between visibility and invisibility” (Pedersen & Willerslev 2012: 466) epitomizes the dichotomy of normality vs abnormality, embedded in the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary situations, places, people and stories. The invisibility of körmös is associated with normality, and its visibility with abnormality; thus, the two realms are differentiated (see Humphrey 1996: 76).

  • 3 It must be noted that it is an extraordinary and bad feature for a place to have körmös (evil), wh (...)

12In the Altaian context, the ability to perceive the otherwise unperceivable is a well-established notion that reveals “the intrinsic link between perception and knowledge” (Delaplace 2013: 53). People endowed with the ability to perceive unperceivable entities are called neme biler ulus – people who know neme, a euphemistic word that literally means “a thing”. Those who can see neme are referred to as kösmökchi (kös means “eye”), and there are other names for biler ulus derived from the particular sensual channel they employ (e.g. touch or hearing) (see D’iakonova 2001: 198; Halemba 2006: 147–50). Ordinary (“not-knowing”) people can also, albeit rarely, see or in some other way perceive neme. Often this happens in dreams, yet all over the Altai there are also distinct places known for imposing such ability on people who enter them. Often, they are described as körmöstü (literally “having körmös”), which could contextually be translated as “haunted”.3

13Many meetings with neme described to me by my Altaian interlocutors closely resemble what Grégory Delaplace (2009: 240–241) has noted in neighbouring Mongolia, namely that encounters with invisible entities are realized through incomplete, intermittent sensations. In particular, these encounters are “only felt by one single sense at a time: e.g. frying smells with no one seen frying or bell rings with no bell in sight”. The story used to open this paper is nevertheless different in that respect: Azamat saw, heard and perhaps even touched those jolly drinkers. He even employed a sensual channel that is mentioned comparatively less often in accounts of ghostly encounters in Altai and elsewhere: taste. Indeed, he tasted – i.e. ate and drank – with neme what they had given to him.

14This is an important feature of the story because sharing food has a profound role in Altaian sociality. A local saying suggests that the food one eats oneself “turns into shit”, while the food that one gives to others “turns into praise”. Indeed, one cannot imagine Altaian hospitality without the sharing of food and drink. Guests are offered milky tea or fermented milk, if available, as quickly as possible after entering one’s home. Then, food available in the house is presented with the typical phrase “Amzaar (“Try it out’ or “Taste it”). It seems to be the act of consumption and sharing of the drink and food that makes one a guest and the other a host. Food and drink, using the vocabulary of Marilyn Strathern, objectifies a relation that in turn is constitutive of its relata, the two entities connected.

15Sharing, however, is not limited to humans. As one of my elderly informants used to say: “My fire shall eat before my mouth.” When cooking on an open fire or classical stove, drops of freshly made tea are sprinkled onto the fire before anyone else has had a sip, and the human master of the house makes sure that the fire is fed with pieces of freshly prepared food as well.

16To grasp the full picture of poor Azamat’s experience of commensality with neme, I shall describe yet another kind of sharing of food and drink that is performed 40 days after a person’s death, when people gather to assist the “soul” of the deceased to leave for “the other world”. At this moment, “the door to the other world” opens and the souls of deceased relatives come to collect their long-awaited loved one. The living, who have gathered for the ceremony, bring food with them and place it in piles according to their relationship to the deceased. In one pile, for example, there is food brought by relatives from the mother’s side; another pile is brought by former classmates, and so on.

  • 4 Association of a “mirror” movement with the other world is also expressed through the practice of (...)

17When the time for the actual ceremony comes, representatives of each group take a bit of food from the pile and leave the house where the gathering is taking place, beyond the fence. It is already dark. Under the guidance of an experienced elder or a person who knows neme, they send the food to “the other world” with the departing soul. Some say that the soul of the newly deceased will share that food with those from the other side who have come to collect it. Food and drink is sent by a specific outwards movement of the hand; over the course of my fieldwork, I have been disciplined many times, especially by elderly ladies, for not pouring liquid with a ladle in the correct way. “Deceased in the other world do it this way!” I was always told in a disapproving tone.4 At this moment during the 40-day ceremony, such a movement is not forbidden, but required. Food hits the ground, never to be touched by people again (dogs usually take care of it). The food left in piles is distributed to everyone present at the ceremony. It is referred to as the deceased person’s “last meal” and circulates even further within families of ritual attendees. Its consumption has positive effects of blessing.

  • 5 Azamat’s story works as a notional antipode to a story recorded by Delaplace in neighbouring Mongo (...)
  • 6 Such retrieval used to be the task of kams (shamans), yet most of my informants agree that such sp (...)

18Keeping in mind what has been said and returning to the opening story, I want to suggest that Azamat, while still alive, accompanied his soul on its way to the other world. He was tricked into having his first meal with “people” from the other side, and this act of sharing had profound implications.5 Just like other grim heroes of Altaian soul-loss stories, Azamat was left without his detachable soul – süne (compare with Halemba 2006: 145–47; Pedersen & Willerslev 2012: 480–81). Since, as my informants insist, one simply cannot live long without an important aspect of oneself, his subsequent death was thus inescapable unless his soul was retrieved.6 The actual way of death did not seem significant – soul-loss can lead to accidents, illness, murders or suicides (see Broz 2015).

The Other(ing)

19Azamat’s story features some core themes of hospitality such as “suspicious commensality”, “dangerous feasting” and “uncanny encounters with strangers” (see Candea & Da Col 2012: S3) or, more precisely, the interplay of the three with otherness. If the uncanny drinking fellows that Azamat met were evil spirits, they were other-than-humans by definition. If they were revenants coming back from ol jer (“the other land”), they were equally other. What I have described above suggests that the interlocutors who disciplined me for my use of a ladle are not simply Heideggerians in the sense of perceiving death as the ultimate “Other” to the human condition (Fuller 2017). Rather, they are “performativist-Heideggerians” convinced that the otherness of death should be achieved and maintained by performance. In this respect, it is apparent that Azamat failed in that task and that his failure owed a lot to his own otherness.

20Azamat, a stranger to the region, was transformed into a guest by Yura’s invitation. Yet he was not the kind of guest called solun kizhi in Altaian, “a person of news” – someone coming from afar who will share tidings and eventually move on, who should be well cared for rather than sent away by the end of the evening. In other words, Azamat was not the kind of guest whose otherness should be maintained and nurtured. He came to Ulagan with the intention to settle and, in congruence with Pitt-Rivers’s (2012: 513) classic take on hospitality, the relative hostility of Yura’s wife was the first signal that he had begun his journey towards acceptance in the community. Yet when meeting the drinking group, Azamat’s fragile integration proved too superficial. Unlike the “people who know neme” described above, ordinary “not-knowing” people have no direct sensual grasp of the true nature of their encounters. Hence, they rely on indirect signs, such as fragmented perception, to recognize disguised occult agents. Azamat’s otherness, moreover, meant a certain hypertrophy of “not knowing”, innate to all ordinary people, that facilitated and amplified the results of the uncanny encounter; not knowing his fellow villagers, he could not notice that those who offered their hospitality, or rather “hostipitality” to use Derrida’s word, were ghosts – “near and remote at once” (Kwon 2013: 19). These men had the appearance of locals, but in fact they were strangers to “the world of the living”. As a result, Azamat was turned into another kind of other: he became one of them, the dead, rather than one of Ulagan’s dwellers.

21The othering in which ghosts have a role in the Altaian context is not limited to Azamat’s story and other soul-loss accidents. To illustrate it requires a diversion in a seemingly unconnected direction. As made clear above, a remarkable number of my informants see causes of individual and communal misfortunes in the soul-loss described above; perhaps surprisingly, however, they link the supposedly high concentration of evil agents capable of soul-snatching to archaeology. Such conviction, I believe, contributes significantly to archaeology’s bad reputation in Altai, which in turn seems to inhibit – by legal but also informal and sometimes illegal means – most archaeological research in the Altai Republic (see Broz 2009).

22These anti-archaeology sentiments culminated in September 2003 when a major earthquake hit the Kosh-Agach and Ulagan regions, followed by an apparently never-ending series of tremors. The earthquake took place almost exactly ten years after a mummy of a young woman with spectacular tattoos, soon nicknamed “Ice-maiden” or “Ukok princess”, was unearthed in the Kosh-Agach region. In February 2004, Aulelhkan Dzhatkambaev, then head of the Kosh-Agach region, sent an open letter addressed to several high-profile politicians and the Siberian department of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Alexeyeva 2004). The letter, accompanied by a bundle of signatures from locals, called for the return and reburial of the body of the “princess” in order to prevent the continuation of these tremors (Halemba 2008: 285–86). In its careful, complex but explicit hinting at supernatural powers, this statement by an elected official attracted media attention across Russia. In April 2004, Leonid Drachevskii, Russia’s president’s envoy to the Siberian Federal District, visited the Kosh-Agach region to discuss the progress of disaster relief financed by the federal budget. At a meeting with locals, Drachevskii began by saying that it was “necessary to engage in tangible business instead of falling into metaphysics” (Petukhov & Reshetnikova 2004). “We are all educated people”, he continued, “and I just feel awkward to hear of awakened spirits as though we live in the period of Middle Ages. If instead of work we start studying metaphysics, nothing good will come out of that” (Alexeyeva 2004).

23In what he expressed, Drachevskii was adamant: ghosts and spirits do not belong to his time. The phrase “We are all educated people” suggests that education is mutually exclusive with superstition, i.e. with taking the realm of the occult seriously. “We” in Drachevskii’s address is more of an invitation than a description. It is an invitation to be one of “us”, i.e. educated people engaged in tangible business, rather than one of “them”, i.e. those engaged in nonsense talk of spirits. As my informants recall, his “invitation” also had a dark undertone: educated, reasonable citizens of contemporary Russia qualify for post-disaster aid; those willing to belong to the Middle Ages do not. Off the record, Drachevskii made it rather obvious that he was not keen to hear any other “nonsense statements” by local officials. Hence, through Drachevskii, the othering potential of ghosts and spirits took on a new spin: the othering of those who “believe” in them in political, moral and even temporal terms.

24Arrogant as it is, Drachevskii’s logic is in fact not far from the logic deeply rooted in the discipline of anthropology. Johannes Fabian (2014) argued in his now classic book Time and the Other that “the relegation of the ethnographic object to another time [is] the constitutive element of the anthropological project at large” (Bunzl 2014: x). The denial of coevality is nevertheless not the only mechanism in creating the Other as the classical subject of anthropological enquiry. As Mary Douglas (1975: 276) aptly remarked about the nature of anthropological focus: “Other people’s causal theories are put into two sets: those which accord with our own and need no special explanation, and those which are magical and based on subjective associations.” The latter set is the proper object to be studied by anthropology, understood as an intellectual project concerned with how to account for “apparently irrational behaviour, performances, utterances, etc.” (Gell 1998: 10; emphasis original). Given the paradox pointed out by Fabian, namely that coevality is denied to those with whom we share time-space during ethnographic fieldwork, a focus on what is “apparently irrational” – preceding our “rationality” on the evolutionist timeline, and hence “other than ours” – makes sense. Adherence to “irrational magic”, of which ghosts and spirits are the prime example, confirms that we have the right person, so to speak, to be rhetorically expelled from our time and placed in the other time frame.

25Whether due to the reflexive faculty of anthropology or other factors, it seems that the practice of creating anthropology’s subject via time frame gerrymandering is no longer dominant in the discipline (Robbins 2013). Yet while ghosts and spirits are losing their role in nurturing the aporia of denial of coevality, they themselves are central to another anthropological aporia: they are simultaneously all too powerful and non-existent. Even though references to esoteric, supernatural, occult entities and phenomena are often what trigger anthropological attention, i.e. the urge to interpret and explain, the “supernatural” is in fact absent in our work; it is not studied, but rather bypassed. Notwithstanding the often declared “interpretive stance of neutrality” (see Ewing 1994), until recently various anthropological schools have differed only in the actual way in which they have analytically substituted entities that are ontologically dubious from the point of view of Western science (Jensen et al. 2016: 165). Thus, ghosts, spirits, gods or demons are transformed into diagnostic and therapeutic devices of troubled (social) memory; by-products of cognition or kinship philosophy; undigested leftovers of political and economic transformation; and symbolic tools for dealing with the riddles of modernity (or its conceptual antipode, tradition), etc. (cf. for example, Pedersen 2011: 30–34).

26This dominant state of the art should not be surprising. Substitution of allegedly ontologically dubious entities by allegedly more respectable ones has been generative of the ethnographic (or, more generally, social scientific) discourse since its inception: “Social science takes some of its earliest and most important steps toward a separate disciplinary identity by means of a unilateral declaration of independence from metaphysics, including Christian theology” (Cannell 2006: 14). Hence, if spirits, ghosts or souls were not depicted as “primarily reactive” (Jensen et al. 2016: 150), made to represent something else and thus explained away, the ethnography itself would likely be transformed into something else, representative of another genre/discipline such as theology, occultist literature, New Age preaching or fiction. Logically, the same can happen to the ethnographer; cases of (former) colleagues, such as Michael Harner, who were “othered away” from our discipline are telling.

27Here, I am finally getting to the core question of this article. I have introduced, albeit in disparate levels of detail:

28The question I want to pose concerns the relationship between these otherings. Do we face a simple vague resemblance here, or is it possible to discern some sort of ontological continuity between them?

Towards strict ontological continuity?

  • 7 For overviews of the “ontological turn” in anthropology, see Holbraad & Pedersen 2017. For a criti (...)

29One way of describing the proposal of the “ontological turn” in anthropology is to claim it as a departure from the premise of a single world and multiple representations of it, offering the vision of a multiplicity of worlds instead.7 Where cultural relativism advocated mild otherness of points of view – contrasting worldviews in which, for example, ghosts and spirits are seen as existing with those that conceptualize them as pure collective phantasy – ontologically attuned anthropology seems to contrast worlds in which ghosts and spirits operate with those where they are mere fictitious phantoms. While Fabian and other authors involved in the reflexive (some might say postmodern) shift in anthropology would look for ways to escape essentializing the otherness of their interlocutors, proponents of the ontological shift would contemplate how not to suppress their interlocutors’ radical alterity. In many ways, this contrast is reminiscent of the debate about the appropriate premise of ethnographic enquiry: is the starting point the supposed unity of humankind, or rather the unsurpassable alterity of units of analysis, be they individuals, societies, cultures, or communities? No wonder, then, that advocates of the “ontological turn” are often accused of essentializing difference, endowing “ontologies” with the quality of ideal, bounded wholes, and thus turning “ontology” into a fancy word for culture at its worst.

30While, as James Laidlaw and Paolo Heywood (2013: 3) have stated, authors associated with ontological anthropology “have preferentially imagined themselves to be dealing” with the problem of “radical alterity”, alterity in itself does not need be approached solely as a matter of essentialized monades. As Amiria Salmond (2014: 178) stresses, it should be possible “to approach alterity relationally – that is, to see difference as a relation and to address it through relations with others”.

  • 8 Such a move fully exposes, to paraphrase Andrew Pickering (2017: 144), the anthropological dilemma (...)

31I would thus like to insist on the fact that what the three otherings described above have in common are indeed ghosts and spirits. Taking for granted the (implicit) ontological assumption that ghosts and spirits do not exist, one can see the relation between the three otherings only as merely analogical – a shallow resemblance. Yet when approached through a methodology that “refuses to place a bet either way when it comes to the question what is?” (Salmond 2014: 170), a new perspective opens, enabling the relation in question to be conceptualized in the very terms offered by my ethnography: not as vaguely and more or less tellingly analogical otherings, but as one continuous ontological process of othering found in different yet interconnected contexts. Indeed, couldn’t the othering that we run the risk of as anthropologists dealing with ghosts and spirits, vis-à-vis (other) sciences and societies that sustain us, be attributed to the workings of those very ghosts and spirits? What I suggest is that attuning to the worlds of ghosts and spirits also means taking seriously their “othering” effects – not only within the “safe space” of the field site, as I did in the first part of this article, but in the more intimate space of anthropology. In other words, if we start entertaining a symmetrical, open-ended look at ghosts that does not a priori rule out their existence (see Konopásek & Paleček 2011), perhaps we should list the potential discrediting of our work in the eyes of our colleagues among the effects of ghosts’ (perhaps fragmented and partial) existence, rather than their (monolithic, ultimate and unquestionable) non-existence.8

32It seems that “ontographers of spirit worlds” would not be viewed as Drachevskii’s “educated people” who are into “tangible business”. Quite likely, we would not qualify as his contemporaries and end up – rhetorically, that is – in the Middle Ages, or more precisely, in times prior to the social scientific “unilateral declaration of independence from metaphysics”. Though Drachevskii appears to be a distant figure, his views might nevertheless be closer to those of our scientifically minded colleagues and funding bodies than we are happy to acknowledge.

33Once we establish the axis for describing ghost-related othering across contexts, we clearly see that anthropologists are not alone in their dilemmas. Fear of “going native” seems to be a thorny issue for many “natives” as well. It is worth looking into the continuation of the “Ukok princess” story: quite contrary to what one might expect, Drachevskii left the position of president’s envoy at the end of 2004 and the mummy returned to the Altai Republic in 2012 (though it is not exactly reburied, but kept in a non-exhibited sarcophagus in the republic’s museum). It would be nevertheless misleading to conclude that Drachevskii’s position was somewhat defeated by the arguments of Dzhatkambaev’s letter, which he so fiercely opposed. The repatriation process was definitely multi-layered (cf. Plets et al. 2013), but one of its cornerstones was apparent: instead of referring to awakened evil spirits causing misfortunes at face value, influential supporters of repatriation pursued identity politics allied with “local culture”, “heritage” or “ancestry”. The process thus dwelled on the substitution of allegedly ontologically dubious entities with less dubious ones, judged from the stance of Western rationality; the same substitution is commonly practised in anthropology. (Ironically, to please ghosts and spirits it seems efficient to deny their existence.) In fact, such transformative manoeuvring through various discursive arenas is commonplace in Altai – more so than the kind of clash triggered by Dzhatkambaev’s letter, itself catalysed by the extreme situation of the earthquake’s aftermath.

34I lack precise data, yet following other examples I can safely claim that had Azamat from our opening story died in a road accident near Ulagan, soul-loss would not have been mentioned as a cause of his death in any official report. Rather, local policemen, though well aware of Azamat’s uncanny communion, would have recorded causes such as speeding, lack of seatbelts, poor state of the vehicle or alcohol consumption. For most of my informants in Ulagan, such causes are in no way mutually exclusive with the causality of soul-loss. In other instances, such as in negotiations about the status of local sacred sites, the workings of ghosts and spirits are transformed into other exclusively human affairs, such as freedom of religion, and ultimately become a matter of culture and its subjects – just as in the repatriation debate.

35This paper’s simultaneous examination of the three instances of ghost-related othering leads us to a motif discussed less frequently in debates about the ontological turn in anthropology. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2004: 4) importantly pointed out, “intracultural relations, or internal comparisons (the Strathernian ‘analogies between domains’), and intercultural relations, or external comparisons (the Wagnerian ‘invention of culture’), are in strict ontological continuity”. Indeed, the three instances of otherings in question seem strictly ontologically continuous. My local interlocutors, just like my fellow anthropologists, deal with the predicament of substitution to comply with certain ontological assumptions; their ability to do so might at times have profound implications for the question of being, including who they themselves are. Reflecting ontological assumptions and refusing to take them for granted means that ghosts, spirits and other commonly substituted entities might appear as the backbone of the strict ontological continuity of the substitution cases. Such a claim then feeds back into the very process of “othering” it describes, and the ethnographic description is either enriched or derailed – depending, I guess, on its reader.


36In this article I presented three instances of ghost-related othering, ranging from my Siberian field site into the heartlands of anthropology itself. Following the recent trend of anthropology of ontology, I speculated on what anthropology’s reflexive faculty might look like when given an ontological twist (cf. Swancutt & Mazard 2016) and what the consequent inclusion of “spirit worlds into view” (Jensen et al. 2016) would mean for the discipline. I warned that the transformation of hapless Azamat from the opening story might be a prototype of our own possible transformation. Are we not gambling with our anthropological soul, risking its “snatching”, which would turn us into theologians or prophets of New Age cults, ineligible for scientific respect or funding?

37In fact, many ontologically attuned anthropologists are hesitant to take such risk. Martin Holbraad and Morten Pedersen, for example, state explicitly that their approach does not imply any “full-scale metaphysical revision of [the] world’s make-up” (2017: 10). Yet, allowing, as they suggest, our ethnographic material “to dictate its own terms of engagement, … guiding or compelling me to see things that I had not expected, or imagined, to be there” (2017: 5) means that even “strictly methodological proposals” (2017: ix) are likely to have consequences for our idea about the world’s make-up. Recognizing this “onto-revisionist” potential of ethnography promises, despite undeniable risks, substantial gains in terms of the advancement of ethnographic description and reconceptualization of our interlocutors’ alterity.

38Messing with spirits and ghosts is dangerous – yet isn’t this exactly what my Altaian informants insist upon? They are generally very careful when it comes to ghosts and spirits, for these entities can truly transform who one is. Anthropologists are apparently not immune to such transformative powers; hence, just like my interlocutors in many contexts, they take the initiative, routinely transforming ghosts and spirits into something else. For that reason, spirits and ghosts might indeed be the right ambivalent bridges between me and my Altaian friends – too fragile and particular to serve ontological imperialism under the flag of “humanity united” (Robbins 2013: 450), yet too persistently present across contexts to be mere symptoms of our informants’ “otherness”. This is not to obscure the fact that the othering effects similarly delivered by ghost encounters could be premised on very different ontological presuppositions of their existence and non-existence, respectively. Yet giving anthropological reflexivity an ontological twist enables a symmetrical consideration of such similarity not conducted exclusively in terms of one – and only one – of the two ontological presuppositions.

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1 I am grateful to Emma Welter, Grégory Delaplace, Jonathan Mair, Clara Royer and Filip Vostal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article, as well as to Christine Langlois for its translation into French. I am also indebted to the three unusually insightful anonymous reviewers who really made me think, though responsibility for where it led lies solely with me, as usual.

2 In other contexts, notably in neighbouring Tyva during shaman-assisted funerals, the identity of the ghost seems determined beyond doubt by its strict visual resemblance to the deceased (see, for example, Stépanoff 2007). We should note, however, that while during such funerals the deceased’s soul is at stake, the stories I describe focus instead on the living person and his/her fate after the uncanny encounter.

3 It must be noted that it is an extraordinary and bad feature for a place to have körmös (evil), whereas having an eezi, a master spirit with an ambivalent attitude towards humans, is a standard characteristic in Altai (see Halemba 2006; Broz 2007).

4 Association of a “mirror” movement with the other world is also expressed through the practice of passing drinks counter-clockwise at funerals, which is otherwise forbidden.

5 Azamat’s story works as a notional antipode to a story recorded by Delaplace in neighbouring Mongolia. In it, a morsel of food served as bait in a trap set by the living: placed on a piece of paper, it attracted a disruptive ghost, who was then expelled back to the other world by the power of the prayer written on the paper (Delaplace 2013: 56).

6 Such retrieval used to be the task of kams (shamans), yet most of my informants agree that such specialists no longer live in Altai. Soul-loss is therefore a gloomy diagnosis.

7 For overviews of the “ontological turn” in anthropology, see Holbraad & Pedersen 2017. For a critical take on this, see Laidlaw & Heywood 2013.

8 Such a move fully exposes, to paraphrase Andrew Pickering (2017: 144), the anthropological dilemma of being trapped between explaining away such entities as ghosts and spirits “(as in social constructivism) or leaving the realms of ‘objective’ science”. We can perhaps ironically ask whether (constructivist) anthropology is in the realm of “objective” science in the first place, yet this would only obscure the fact that the stakes are potentially high.

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Ludek Broz, « Ghost and the other », Terrain [En ligne], 69 | avril 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 28 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Ludek Broz

Czech Academy of Sciences, Institute of Ethnology

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