The Haunting of Voices

“If I met a skin-changer who demanded my shoes, I’d give him my shoes.” This is what a Navajo guy once told me. I didn’t inquire about why a skin-changer would want his shoes, but it was a nice detail of mundane realism. This conversation happened when I was living in Arizona and working at the Grand Canyon. Some might see this anecdote as the over-worked imagination of the superstitious. That probably is how I took it at the time. But I wouldn’t now be so dismissive.

While there, my job was to do housekeeping in the El Tovar. It’s an old hotel located directly on the South Rim of the canyon. It has the feeling of a building that has been around a while. It’s age was hard for me to ignore in its lacking an elevator, something I became familiar with in carrying stacks of sheets up the stairs of multiple floors. I worked there a few times late at night and there was an eerie atmosphere to the place. You could viscerally sense the history, all the people who had stayed there and passed through.

There were stories of suicides and homicides, of lonely lost souls still looking for their lovers or simply going through their habitual routine in the afterlife. The place was famous for it having been one of the locations where the Harvey Girls worked, young women looking for wealthy husbands. There was a tunnel that was once used by the Harvey girls to go between the hotel and the women’s dorm. This hidden and now enclosed tunnel added to the spookiness.

Many Navajo worked at the Grand Canyon, including at the El Tovar. And sometimes we would chat. I asked about the ghosts that supposedly haunted the place. But they were reluctant to talk about it. I later learned that they thought it disrespectful or unwise to speak of the dead. I also learned that some had done traditional ceremonies in the hotel in order to put the dead to rest and help them pass over to the other side. Speaking of the dead would be like calling them back to the world of the living.

I doubt this worldview is merely metaphorical in the superficial sense. Though it might be metaphorical in the Jaynesian sense. Julian Jaynes hypothesized that ancient people continued to hear the voices of the dead, that the memory would live on as auditory experience. He called this the bicameral mind. And in bicameral societies, voice-hearing supposedly was key to social order. This changed because of various reasons and then voice-hearing became a threat to the next social order that replaced the old one.

The Navajo’s fearful respect of ghosts could be thought of as a bicameral carryover. Maybe they better understand the power voice-hearing can have. Ask any schizophrenic about this and they’d agree. Most of us, however, have developed thick boundaries of the egoic mind. We so effectively repress the many voices under the authority of the egoic sole rulership that we no longer are bothered by their sway, at least not consciously.

Still, we may be more influenced than we realize. We still go through the effort of costly rituals of burying the dead where they are kept separate from the living, not to mention appeasing them with flowers and flags. Research shows that the number of people who have heard disembodied voices in their lifetime is surprisingly high. The difference for us is that we don’t openly talk about it and try our best to quickly forget it again. Even as we don’t have ceremonies in the way seen in Navajo tradition, we have other methods for dispelling the spirits that otherwise would haunt us.