The Tangibility of Ancestors: Being in Touch with Spirits on Two Continents

Misty Bastian, Lewis Audenreid Professor of History and Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, Franklin & Marshall College

Common Hour event series
Sponsored by Office of the Provost

Thursday, February 6, 2014
11:30 a.m.-12:35 p.m.
Common Hour web page

In the late 1980s, an Igbo speaking woman in Nigeria related to me the story of how she was possessed by her deceased father at his funeral after she donned male attire in his honor. During the funeral she was “held captive” by her father’s domineering spirit, as he took over and (re)arranged the proceedings to his liking—including giving orders about the deposition of the corpse, showing the location of important but hidden papers to his sons and generally making his presence felt among his kindred.

In the 2010s, a Pennsylvania paranormal researcher told me about his frequent, very tangible connections with the ghost of his father who sometimes wanders into his bedroom, sits on the bed and holds conversations with his son about things that have happened since his death. In each instance, ordinary people experienced the presence of their ancestors in quite tangible, material ways—whether through radical, bodily possession or the more subtle, physical sensations of weight on the bed, the scent of a father’s aftershave and the fleeting warmth of a touch on the hand. Information is exchanged with the dead in these encounters and loss is mitigated, while continuity of interest and care is demonstrated for both sides of the divide between life and death.

Among Igbo-speaking people ancestors must be made by the living, who help the dead to develop into their proper ethereal and knowing state through the funeral process. Among paranormal researchers in the United States, ancestors often must be searched for and tenuous contacts with ethereal bodies strengthened through technology. For both, it is important that ancestors continue to interface with the living, using the human sensorium. How that can be accomplished for Igbo people and for Pennsylvanians with an interest in ghost hunting is the subject of this presentation.


Professor Bastian spent most of her academic career before F&M at the University of Chicago, taking the AB in 1983 (in Anthropology with General Honors, Phi Beta Kappa), the AM in 1985 and the PhD in 1992. Her predissertation work was supported by an NSF graduate fellowship, her field studies in Nigeria were supported by an IIE Fulbright, and her dissertation writing was funded by a generous Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship. She also received two postgraduate positions -- as a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study & Research in the African Humanities (Northwestern University) and as a Junior Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies -- and taught for a year as Visiting Assistant Professor in Tufts University's Department of Sociology & Anthropology. She is a member of a number of academic associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the African Studies Association. During academic year 1998-99 she was a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, partially funded by an AAUW American Fellowship.


Instead of pizza and fruit, there will be a reception in the lobby of the Roschel Center immediately following the talk.

This event is open to the public.

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