Definition of Spirits Broken Down by Background

Updated July 27, 2021
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If you spend any amount of time around the paranormal, you'll probably hear people use the word "spirits." This may leave you searching for exactly what they are trying to say, since the spirits definition can vary. One way to zero in on the meaning of spirits is to pay attention to who is using it. For instance, a parapsychologist may use the term differently than a psychic, who uses it differently from someone with a religious background.

What Are Spirits?

To the general public, the dictionary definition of spirit is likely the one they use, as well. According to YourDictionary, a spirit (as it relates to paranormal and spiritual phenomena) is one of the following:

  • A supernatural being
  • The immaterial sentient part of a human

Spirits in Parapsychology

In parapsychology, they don't officially use the term "spirit," although many paranormal investigators use it to mean the non-physical essence of someone who has passed away that remains after bodily death. In other words, a ghost. In general, paranormal investigators may be referring to a ghost or an apparition when they use the word "spirit."

According to Loyd Auerbach, parapsychologists break spirits down into further categories.

  • Apparitions are spirits that appear to have some level of sentience. That is, they appear to be interactive with living people.
  • Hauntings are non-intelligent anomalous events, such as sounds, sights, or smells. They appear to be more of a recording than a sentient being; some people call these residual hauntings.

Paranormal Meaning of Spirits

Paranormal investigators often use similar definitions of the word spirit, but they may break sentient spirits (apparitions) into further categories.

  • Ghosts - These are people who have died, but some essence of their intelligence lingers in the physical realm to create noticeable phenomena.
  • Poltergeists - Technically "noisy ghosts," these are spirits that move objects, make lots of noises, and generally cause a ruckus.
  • Demons - Some believe demons are evil spirits that are out to steal or possess human souls.
  • Elementals - Some also classify elementals, which are earth creatures such as faeries and gnomes, as spirits.

Psychic Definition of Spirits

Psychics may use the term differently. While in paranormal investigation, the term "spirit" typically means an earthbound spirit; that is, the sentient, non-physical part of a person who has died that has not yet crossed over (i.e. "gone to heaven"), psychics use the term to describe any sentient intelligence with whom they communicate. This may include people who have died and remain earthbound, as well as those who have died and are communicating from "the other side" or "heaven." Some psychics may also define spirits as their angels and guides that exist in the "spirit realm." Some even call Divine (Source or God) "spirit" as a way of conveying that their information comes from a higher power. These spirits help provide people with direction in life and keep them on their path.

Energy Healers and Metaphysicians Spirits Defined

Energy healers and metaphysicians tend to be closer to a dictionary definition of spirit. They believe people are body, mind, and spirit combined in a living person. Therefore, they tend to define spirits as the etheric part of a living human, as well as the intelligent part of a person that remains after the person has died. Spirit is, according to metaphysicians and energy healers, the Divine aspect of one's nature that always was, always is, and always will be, regardless of whether the physical body of the person is living.

Religion's Definition of Spirits

Religions may also have their own definitions of spirit. For example, in Christianity, spirit can refer to the Holy Spirit, which is the breath of God that animates living beings. Alternatively, spirit in Christianity and other religions may describe the aspect of a person that God created, put in a body, and brings back to heaven after death - in other words, the soul. Other religions have similar views of spirit.

In religions that believe in reincarnation, the spirit is the part of the person (or soul) that returns from lifetime to lifetime, embodied in different bodies and lives but of the same essence. Alternatively, Buddha taught the principle of anatta (no soul), which is the doctrine of non-self, or the belief there is no overarching soul or spirit that defines and animates the self. So, in some religions, there is no spirit as it relates to the human soul.

Other Spirit Meanings

Every culture has its own types of spirits or spirit creatures. While this list is far from comprehensive, it can give you an idea of cultural meanings of spirits.

  • Fae or faeries - Mythical creatures from European folklore
  • Nature sprites - Mythical creatures from European folklore similar to faeries but associated with nature elements such as wood sprites or water sprites
  • Banshees - Spirit from Irish folklore that screams when a death is imminent
  • Krasue - Southeast Asian female spirit that appears as a floating head sitting on body organs with no other body
  • Jinn - Pre-Islamic spirits similar to genies
  • Dybbuks - Malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore
  • Gjenganger - Scandinavian spirit that returns from the dead
  • Onryō - Vengeful Japanese spirits
  • Ancestors or Ancient Ones - Spirits of ancestors from Indigenous American legend

Many Ways to Define Spirits

There are multiple definitions of the term "spirit" as it relates to the paranormal, psychic phenomena, energy healing, parapsychology, religion, and more. In general, all refer to the etheric part of humans that is not of the physical realm or to other supernatural intelligences that may or may not be embodied.

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Definition of Spirits Broken Down by Background