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I always heard the terms "ghost" and "wraith" used interchangeably, until I read Lord of the Rings. Clearly the Ring Wraiths are not ghosts, since they interact with the physical world.

I also know, in the same work, there are the Barrow-Wights and I've heard wights and wraiths compared in the past.

What is the difference between a wraith, a wight, and a ghost? Are the Ring Wraiths the only wraiths in LotR? Are there examples of just regular ghosts in LotR?

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As an example of "regular" ghosts, see Dead Men of Dunharrow (the Dead who Aragorn called to help him defeat Umbar Corsairs)

The difference between a wraith, a wight and a ghost is that

  • A ghost is a pure immaterial spirit of a former Man.

  • Barrow-wights were demons/spirits of a somewhat unclear origin (most likely, spirits of the Dúnedain corrupted by the Witch-King of Angmar - he who later became the leader of the Ringwraiths), who inhabited the corpses/bones of the dead Heros/Kings (the concept was lifted by Tolkien from Germanic/North mythology, details on Wikia).

  • Ringwraiths were living men corrupted by the 9 Rings.

    They became "neither living nor dead" according to Aragorn, but they were physical beings (able to wear material cloths and wield weapons and fight), albeit not visible to others as far as their flesh.

So, ghosts and wights were both spirits, but the latter were animating corpses/bones and the former were fully immaterial. Wraiths were material for most part, and NOT spirits per se.

  • @leftaroundabout - all parenthesis seem to match. ? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 25 '12 at 20:45
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    @leftaroundabout - guess I can't pass an interview to work as a Lisp interpreter. Thx, fixed – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 25 '12 at 20:52
  • If the dead men of Dunharrow were immaterial how did they kill all the corsairs and those orcs at Minas Tirith? – jacen.garriss May 10 '13 at 18:09
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    @jacen.garriss - I'm not sure Tolkien explains in detail. Ask as a separate question. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 10 '13 at 18:25
  • If a spirit in this world is able to inhabit a corpse (physically dead + not even their own), it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to assume that immaterial spirits are able to affect the physical world in other ways. How exactly they do it seems almost irrelevant (although I'm curious too). – Pwassonne Feb 9 '16 at 7:34
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In Tolkien's world, a wraith is specifically the results of those affected by the Rings of Powe or other dark powers. The Ring Wraiths are obvious examples, but reference is made to Frodo almost becoming a wraith under the command of the Witch King after being wounded by his Morgul blade.

Ghosts are more representative of the traditional haunting spirits. You see them in the Dead Men of Dunharrow and the ghosts in the Dead Marshes. They are locked into a specific physical place and can't interact with normal matter but have a by-product of fear and emotional distress.

Wights aren't really fleshed out (pun intended) - we know that they exist in the Barrows, we know they were sent there by the Witch King, but we don't know exactly what they were. They may have been a form of wraith, except they seem more corporeal than what we know of wraiths.

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Outside of Lord Of The Rings the terms are fairly interchangeable like the differences between a dog, coyote, or wolf. Basically the same with minor (stylistic) differences.

In some mythology Ghosts are completely incorporeal unable to affect the physical world, Wights are able to affect the physical world but are mostly mindless (think zombie ghost), and Wraiths are able to affect the physical world and are intelligent and malicious.

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A wight might probably be simply best defined as an undead shaman or wizard king, whose hollow eye sockets glow with an eldritch light whilst their skeletal remains are kept animated by means of powerful necromantic magic.

Wights need not necessarily be confined to the role of undead necromancers though, as they may also be encountered in the form of some ancient warrior, whose soul similarly inhabits its own former or another's, corpsing husk.

As the previous respondents have already stated, a ghost is simply an immaterial entity, perhaps aware but just as easily unaware, of its own nature, surroundings or concept of time. It might simply just be replaying an event from its material life where great emotions were experienced. These events might be replayed over and over in a never ending loop.

Whereas a wraith I feel, is an entity that whilst not of material substance, is driven by a powerful purpose. This is an ethereal being of pure malice whose actions are governed usually by its own thoughts. Such a being exists to perform a very specific task/tasks and its existence is maintained until such tasks have been fulfilled.

  • ps. another name for a wight would be "lich" – Azhiraphale Feb 9 '16 at 5:12
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Wraiths are a spritual being they look just like someone who is living or dead, the sustain themself by sucking the spiritual energy from another being, it has no need for any other food then the life force of others the less life force a wraith has the more transparent it becomes until it fades from the world completly. It is possible for a wraith to suck enough life for from a person to both sustain itself and keep its victim alive however the life force that keeps a creature alive is more effecient to the wraith. In other words killing a living being buys it more time then leaving them alive. It is also know that a wraith will kill it's counterpart if seen by it and finally when a wraith does take the life force of another the taste of the spiritual energy depends on the thoughts of the person being harvested.

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