ghost vs. spirit

Salvete Sodales,

I have a short question. What ist the difference between a ghost and a spirit. I am German and both words are translated to "Geist". So there is no distinguish between these two words in German.

Well, I guess that a ghost is something like a dead spirit. But I'm not sure at all ...

Can somebody please explain the difference? Or is there no difference?


In everyday English, they are often interchanged. "Ghost" has connotations of a specific individual, while "spirit" is perhaps a bit less personal, and perhaps a manifestation of a concept, but that's a fine distinction, and not one usually made in casual conversation. The word "ghost" also implies a haunting, a trapped soul, but "spirit" can have a passive, casual existence.

In Ars, a ghost is the manifestation of a dead person. A spirit can possibly be that, but more probably is the manifestation of the energy or "soul" of a thing - the spirit of a mountain, or a fire, etc.

The word "ghost" implies that it was once a living human being, and its soul is trapped here for some reason until it passes to heaven/hell. A spirit is more eternal, may never have been human, and may have started out in that form. (Thus, in Dicken's "A Christmas Carol", you have the Ghost of Marley, but you have the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present & Future.)

A living being could also have a "spirit", but once that being dies, the spirit if trapped on earth, could become a ghost.

A haunted house has ghosts (and maybe some spirits). Mt Fuji in Japan is a spirit mountain.

Cuchulainshound's explanation is very close to my own, but I thought that spirit was a larger category, that a ghost was the spirit of a dead human. All ghosts are spirits, but not all spirits are ghosts.

My German is pitable, but I think ghost (as in a dead persons spirit) can also be translated to "Schatten" or "Gespenst". And, to me, both of these words are much closer to the English "ghost".

"Spirit" (in the sense of a transcendent or disembodied being) needs to be "geist" in german.

Neither is my native language, though, so I could be way off.

(You're doing fine, I!)

That could work for me, too. That "ghost" is a subset of spirits.

As a native English Speaker (as if that helps!), when I hear "ghost", I think "haunt", something died and doesn't want to leave, or can't.

When I hear "spirit", the word is somewhat undefined without a context - something supernatural, an energy, a manifestation, an essence that represents or springs from something else. Could be a ghost, could be a world-geist, or a geist in a machine, or the geist of Christmas past, or the holy geist.

(Or a japanese fox-geist, with many tails!!!) :open_mouth:

Wohoo! Thanks!

Ok, so the usages of "Geist" and "Spirit" seems to be very similar, as both refer to metaphorical entities (Zeitgeist, Espirit d' Corps) or metaphysical beings (Heiliger Geist). The subcategories might be a bit more muddled, though.

(Small tangent follows)
As for the ghosts of mr. Dickens, I once saw a Swedish subtitled version of the Christmas Carol where the translator translated "the Ghost of Christmas Present" into "the Ghost of Christmas Gifts", only in Swedish, of course. That was rather badly done.

I don't dare to touch the Kami here with a ten foot pole, that's another of them foreign fuzzy spirit-words with multiple difficult meanings and I already have seven of them to figure out in this thread alone.

Edit: Ok, I got an idea from the reference to a ghost in a machine, so I checked the German titles of two movies in the vain hope of getting a greater understanding of the German language. This turned out not to be very productive:

English title - German title
Ghost in the Shell - Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Machine - Der Killer im System

I didn't even know "killer" was a German word.

thanks for the great anwers. I think I understood the concept :slight_smile:

So ghost referes to the German Gespenst (I never heard Schatten in this context) and spirit is translated as Geist.

While a spirit/Geist is the inermost essence of a person/animal/thing a ghost/Gespenst is a spirit that haunts something/somewhere.

Killer is an English loanword. While "Mörder" is somebody who had killed somebody else, Killer is used for someone who killes people regularly or as a business ...

In a nutshell, yes.

And while it's possible for the "innermost essence" (spirit) of someone to haunt after their dead, not all such essences do. Nor do all inner essences (spirits) come from people after they die - some already exist, in and of themselves.

Well, it's good to have a hobby, keeps folk out of trouble.

It's important to remember that English is the idiot bastard child of incestuous European cousins. (No, really!)

Ok, I was probably way wrong about Schatten, let's stick to Gespenst.

Excellent summary of our rather more long-winded explanations.

Aha, I suspected that it might be a loanword, but I was completely unaware that it has a slightly different meaning from "Mörder".

I am quite fond of the rather creative way English loanwords is treated in German. Like calling a mobile phone for a "handy".

We are taking Ars here?

I'd just say "ghost" = dead mortal being (usually human) and Spirit = disincarnate being - technically both are subdivsions of daemons I think, but hell that term has an technical meaning in Ars. A spirit may well have never lived - a ghost is a "dead guy". Ghosts are a subset of Spirits.

Not sure if that helps. :slight_smile: The other definitions may be more useful. Still technically a spirit can "haunt" a location - as in a genius loci, a spirit of a place - but it has usually never been alive, unlike the ghost. Spirit swhich once lived and have persisted beyond death are called ghosts.

Don't try and use these definitions in parapsychology (my field) or Philosophy of Religion though!

cj x

Hi cj,

At least I did :slight_smile:.
But I was also interested in the common interpretation ...

Now I'm curious. What would be the correct parapsychology definitions :slight_smile:
I never met someone who is engaged in parapsychology.


In Ars, the ghost of a person is that animating spirit of that person, that is, it is a type of spirit, but thn so are elementals and the spirits of rocks and trees.

A ghost is not, howver, the inmost essence of a person: a ghost is not a soul. The ghost is that energy that allows the soul to move the body during life (that is, it is made up of the animal spirits of the body.)

Yes - we are looking at a tripartite body/spirit/soul model - one I still use, though I usually describe myself as an unreconstructed cartesian dualist if pushed - after John Beloff really. The Body/Soul/Spirit division is derived from the Pauline Epistles where Paul talks about things of the spirit and "Soulish" things. From my recollection he uses spirit here to mean something like drives, personality, identity (id/ego) and that is the part which lives on in some cases as a ghost. It's not the real person though - the self actually resides in the Soul, which is the immortal bit, and indestructible except by God's will. I think that is vaguely correct though others can correct me. I'll happily define the uses of ghost and spirit in modern parapsychology, though a bit off topic, but need lunch first.

There were other models of personhood in medieval theology - thsi one just works well for Ars Magica purposes.

cj x

Sorry to be off-topic, but...

Would you mind expanding a bit on that? I don't know of John Beloff, and while I can understand what a Cartesian dualist is I'd be damned if I know what "an unreconstructed" one is.

I'll be very happy to read such a discussion.

Myself, I'm a low-level physicist (working on my PhD) and if pressed I'll admit to be a natural monist in the tradition of Russel.

Hi Yair,

yes be delighted to after lunch. Natural monism 9or Neutral monsim) is a very sensible position, and one I flirt with. John Beloff was a British psychologist/philosopher/parapsychologist whom I knew through the Society for Psychical Research. I have worked extensively on philosophy and psychical research - it's an interest of mine. I was also influenced by the extreme materialist reductionism of Susan Blackmore who I met through teh SPR as well - but rejected it for various reasons - still we stray far off topic here!

I'll write more later
cj x

This has taken a very interesting turn. I'm looking forward to getting to know a bit more about parapsychology. I only know of Blackmore and Beloff in a very second-hand kind of way.

I'm only a masters student, currently working on gnosticism within the field of history of religions. I am not sure what I would call my own worldview, but it is quite reductionistic, so Blackmore sounds like fun.

Oh, and I think we safely can assume that none of the definitions of "ghost" or "spirit" presented so far is usable in any of our fields.

This topics language: my study involves a reductionistic approach to natural mono- and polysaccharides, especially when used to create spirits with an intense body that changes your psychological state, but may leave ghosts future timeframes.

Normal English: I study food technology, they teach me how whiskey is made, how you get drunk from it and why you suffer a hangover.


Eh, ahem.

I meant to say that after this phrase, not the first.


"may leave ghosts furture timeframes" makes no sense as a phrase. Better to say "but may give rise to lingering ghosts". :slight_smile: