Ghost month is a curious holiday celebrated in many Asian countries, especially those of Taoist and Buddhist traditions, such as China and Japan. It is commemorated during the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts
This late summer means for the Chinese the release of old ghosts, the appearance of vengeful spirits that seek on Earth to free themselves from an ancient curse, and so much their faith in these Chinese legends that they lock themselves in their homes in the middle of that seventh month at nightfall.
The 15th day of that seventh lunar month (August 12, 2022) is the most feared by all.
Not only the benign spirits take to the streets, but also the evilest ones. Punished souls wander the streets amidst the whispers of the night ready to avenge their death; to capture from among the living those who will replace them in their fatal purgatory.
Generally, these hungry ghosts are beings who died without descendants and who did it in a tragic way or who committed suicide.
In these Asian cultures where Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and rituals in honor of the ancestors are mixed, it is considered that life in the afterlife is a kind of continuation of the one lived on earth; that is why during this month the ancestors are honored by offering them incense, food, wine, tea and money paper in beautiful altars built on the sidewalks of the houses.
The ghost month
The ghost month besides being a time to remember relatives who are no longer in this world, also has a dark side, it is the most dangerous of the year because it is when evil spirits come out in search of souls.
During this month the oriental tradition advises against taking night walks, traveling, moving house, or starting a new business. Many people avoid walking along rivers, where popular beliefs believe all these troubled souls gather.
They also avoid swimming because they believe that the water is inhabited by many spirits that might try to drown them, take special care when driving late at night or when traveling to destinations away from home.
On the first day when according to tradition, the gates of hell open to allow ghosts and spirits access to the world of the living. The spirits of the deceased can visit their relatives, dine with them and in case they are not received as they should, they go out to look for victims.
The night of the hungry ghosts
On the fifteenth day of the month, the ghost festival or festival of hungry ghosts is celebrated. Celebration of Buddhist origin, Ullambana in Sanskrit, but with the introduction of Buddhism to China is also known as Yu Lan Pen, and for Taoists is known as Zhongyuan Jie.
Both Taoists and Buddhists perform ceremonies on this day to alleviate the suffering of the deceased.
During this day the communication pathways between the three realms (Heaven, Hell, and Earth) are interconnected, which facilitates communication with the beings that inhabit these places, and makes the rituals in their honor and healing more effective and powerful.
On this night the offerings are made at home, in the framework of elaborate banquets; traditionally some empty chairs are left so that the spirits of the ancestors can take a seat around the table since it is believed that the souls of these beings will attend the dinner prepared in their honor.
Almost as important as honoring the ancestors, it is also important to give offerings to the spirits that lack relatives to prevent them from causing harm. So it could be said that it is a holiday similar to Halloween and the Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico.
Rich culture and tradition have emerged around this festival.
In Japan, for example, during the O-bon festival, it is customary to buy or make paper boats or lanterns, which are left in the currents of rivers and lakes, to serve as a guide for the ancestors on their way back to the underworld.
People believe that the farther the lantern floats, the luckier the family will be in the coming year.
According to tradition, they are creatures with huge empty stomachs, mouths too small, and necks too thin to be able to ingest food.
Sometimes they possess fire breath, other times the food they try to eat turns to ashes in their mouths, so they are doomed to live with incessant hunger.
No one knows who they are, or what they look like
They can deceive you by pretending to be women or men, domestic or wild animals, or simply a shadow that slips by your side with a soft whistle and a breeze that cools your face.
Many cases are blamed on these hungry ghosts, and perhaps the most famous of these is the one that became known as the outbreak of the severed pigtails.
There are writings of a rare occurrence in Taiyuan, where in the year 1844, many men carrying their pigtails suddenly saw them fall to the ground.
Everything happened in daylight and nobody could find an explanation for what was happening. panic spread in that town for fear of ghosts attacking the most sacred thing in the presence of a Chinese: his ponytail.
So much so, that for a long time, those Chinese, not only always walked with the fear of watching their backs, but they combed their hair and made their ponytails forward instead of backward.
That same event was repeated 32 years later, in 1876, in Xiamen. All fears end on the last day of the seventh lunar month. According to Eastern tradition, the realm of hungry ghosts is one of the six realms of Samsara in which living beings can be reborn.
More understood as mental than physical states, the realm of hungry ghosts can be reached by indulging in a life of addictions, obsessions, greed, and jealousy.
The feast of the hungry ghosts is performed as a way to alleviate for a moment the suffering of these beings, offering them food and performing games, dances, and operas in their honor.
The origins of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts
Its origins are found in the Ullambana Sutra, in which a disciple of Buddha, upon learning that his mother had been condemned to be reborn as a hungry ghost, offers her a plate of food but before she could eat it, it is transformed into burning coal, lamenting Mahamaudgalyayana went to find Buddha to instruct him on what he should do to help his mother.
Buddha told Maudgalyayana that from the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, the entire community should fill clean bowls with food and fruits, along with other offerings such as incense and candles to be offered along with prayers and mantras on altars built for the occasion.
By doing so seven generations of ancestors are freed from the lower realms, (hungry ghosts, animals, or hell) and will be able to receive the offered food and be blessed for 100 years.
The day when the gates of hell close
On the last day of this month, the gates of hell close again.
With chanting and ringing of bells, a priest waves the so-called “sword of the seven stars” with which the evil spirits are announced that their time on Earth has passed and that they must return to the afterlife, and it is time to return to their confinement in the underworld, while they say goodbye with an unearthly groan.