Something inside all of us makes us who we are. It makes us unique individuals and (or so we tell ourselves) sustains us after our physical form has long turned to dust and ashes. The idea of the soul is powerful, and it has gripped our minds and imagination for as long as history has been recorded.
A Truly Ancient Idea
Archaeologists from the University of Chicago have uncovered a stone memorial in Sam’al, Turkey that proves people in the region believed in the soul almost 3,000 years ago. The memorial dates back to the eighth century B.C., and the inscription on the monument was made by a man named Kuttamuwa. The stone was destined to be his burial monument, and it asks those he leaves behind to celebrate his mortal life and his “prolonged life,” as his soul will live on inside the monument.
Of all afterlife options, we’re not sure why anyone would choose to live on inside a stone. But the monument has (perhaps poignantly) done exactly what the inscription wished. It’s concrete, textual evidence of ancients believing in the soul outliving the body—and because of it, Kuttamuwa’s memory lives on as well.
The concept of the soul in the stone has archaeologists scratching their heads a bit. In other surrounding cultures, the normal belief was that the soul remained in the body after death, attached to the bones. This idea of soul transference is an odd one to find in Turkey. That’s more in line with beliefs like those from Egypt, but there’s no other evidence of a meeting of the cultures.
The World Soul
This idea comes up in several religious theories, especially in the ancient world. Greek philosophers like Plato saw the world as a spiritual being, and the idea of the world soul received the name anima mundi.
Anima mundi was a spiritual essence that enveloped everything in the world and all of nature. Later, people said the world wasn’t nearly so spiritually developed. With creation came sin and a separation between the worldly and the divine, and the world lost its soul.
The Renaissance saw a resurgence in the belief that the world had a soul, and much Renaissance artwork focuses on a spiritual connection between the world and all living things. While Christianity firmly believed in a divide between the worldly and the spiritual, artists saw concepts like the sacred proportions as proof that everything was connected.
The Rosicrucians were also noted for their belief in the world soul. The world was often represented as a black dot in the middle of a circle, called the Germ within the Cosmic Egg. The dot in the center is the focal point for everything, and the world soul itself consists of a fine, ethereal substance woven around everything in creation.
The symbol of the world soul as a cosmic egg is a common thread throughout ancient religion, mythology, and philosophy. The idea is found throughout Greece (the Orphic Egg), Egypt (the egg of Seb), and in stories such as Kalahansa, the Swan of Eternity, and the laying of the golden egg. You can even tie it into the practice of giving Easter eggs.
Alchemists And The Search For The Soul
Alchemy was about a lot more than turning base metals into gold. Because the world had a soul, alchemists theorized that the soul enveloped everything and everyone. Alchemy is the science of transformation, so isolating the inner light of the world soul should transform the world.
Since we are all connected by the anima mundi, we each have the potential to discover the wisdom contained within the world soul. With the philosophy of people like Carl Jung, alchemists began to look not only to external alchemy but internal alchemy as a way of transforming one’s own soul to channel and change the world around us.
Alchemical theory states that everything in the world grows from seeds planted within the soul. Nature is in itself an alchemist, creating from these soul seeds. When we emulate nature by embracing the soul and guiding growth, we can create diamonds, precious gems, or anything that we desire. Some seeds are more naturally inclined to become certain things, making the alchemical process easier. But learn how to find and cultivate the soul of a thing properly, and the alchemist can do in a few minutes what might take Nature thousands of years.
The Homeric Death Of The Soul
We’re all going to die, and those sacrificing their lives in battle can turn to the idea that the physical death isn’t a permanent one. But in ancient Greece, and most notably the poems of Homer, that absolutely wasn’t the case.
The soul is referred to as the thing that makes a person alive. After a person dies, the soul dies, too. The soul doesn’t leave the body and live on, a whole reflection of who we were in life. Instead, only a weak, pale version of our former selves travels to the afterlife. Rather than existing in all our spiritual glory, we’re nothing more than a vague, sad shade.
It puts the idea of heroic sacrifice in battle in a whole new light. The heroes of Homer’s works aren’t able to comfort themselves with going on to a better place or rising to a position of status within the Elysian Fields. Instead, they risk their lives in battle and give up their entire essences—making the sacrifice much more impressive.
The Bible traditionally reserves beheading for only the worst of crimes—and that’s because of beliefs about the soul.
Rabbinical law covers four deaths: stoning, slaying (decapitation), strangulation, and burning. Beheading is reserved for the most serious of all crimes—murder and idolatry. The severity of the punishment is linked to ancient beliefs about how final it was.
According to the Egyptians, the soul lives in the head, and beheading destroyed the soul completely. The beheaded had no afterlife. There was no forgiveness. There was nothing. As common as beheading seems throughout history—especially with inventions like the guillotine—it was once among the worst ways to die and among the worst things you could do to your enemy because of the permanent, absolute death that went along with it.
Later tradition also held that the beheaded were buried separately from criminals executed in other ways. Anyone beheaded had been deemed among the most wicked of people, and even burying another executed criminal beside them was considered taboo.
According to one story featured in the Midrash (a group of teachings based on the Torah), a sneeze meant death in the earliest days of mankind’s existence. When someone sneezed, the soul left the body.
It was that way until Jacob prayed to keep his soul after a sneeze. He was the first allowed to do so, and now, when we hear or see someone sneeze, we say “bless you” to wish for them to keep their soul and their life.
Sneezing can be a good thing, though, according to the same doctrine—especially when it’s done while someone is praying. Sneezing provides a sense of relief in the body, and, by extension, it relieves the soul. It’s a sign that the person’s prayer has been heard and received.
That’s not the only bit of lore connected with sneezing and the soul, either. According to Polynesian beliefs, a sneeze could mean a couple of different things. Sometimes, it’s a sign that a person’s soul isn’t leaving but returning from wherever it temporarily wandered. It’s also said that the violence of a sneeze is the culmination of a struggle between the person and the soul. It can be the struggle of the soul to leave, or it can be another soul fighting to enter the body.
The 613 Channels Of The Jewish Soul
Reincarnation is perhaps most associated with Buddhism, but Jewish theology also teaches that every soul goes through reincarnation. According to Kabbalah (ancient wisdom), there are 613 different channels within the soul, each associated with the limbs and the blood vessels. When the soul is present in its earthly form, the mortal person is faced with choices throughout their life. Making the good, moral choices purifies parts of the soul, while choosing poorly does quite the opposite.
A soul can only be raised into the Garden of Eden when all 613 channels have been purified. That requires pure thoughts, actions, and words. It can take a few tries before the mortal creature attached to the soul gets it right. That’s where the Jewish belief in reincarnation comes in. In a process called giligul haneshamot, a soul is reborn repeatedly until all 613 channels reach a state of purity. As channels are purified, they are raised, and the parts still awaiting purification are reborn into the new body and given another chance.
It was also believed that this process of reincarnation stems from Adam, whose own soul contained within it all souls that would ever exist in the future. The soul of Jacob held 70 souls, which were then divided into 600,000 more souls—the souls of the people of Israel.
Reincarnation tasks an individual with repairing the sins of his previous lives. You must forgive those who sinned against you in a previous incarnation to purify your soul. In some cases, the soul can be so attached to something in this world that even once it is purified, you do not ascend; instead, you return for the sole purpose of helping others.
Head-Hunting For Soul-Substance
Albert Kruyt was a Dutch missionary working and living in Indonesia at the turn of the 19th century. His work with the indigenous people allowed him to consolidate the theories behind head-hunting and the soul into a theory based around a mysterious life-fluid. According to Kruyt, head-hunting tribes valued the heads of their enemies not because they were trophies but because they contained a soul-substance. This soul-substance could be transferred from one person to another, it could be stored, and it could strengthen an entire community.Photo credit: Joe Mabel
Taking heads increased the soul-substance of a family, a community, or a village. The village became more fertile, crops would be healthier and productive, and animals would be bigger and stronger, all ultimately leading to a better life. Without extra soul-substance in the villages, crops would wither and die, villagers would fall ill, and the community itself would fall into decline.
Other anthropologists working with different cultures have failed to find this concept of a life-giving fluid and have suggested that it’s a very European way of justifying the link between taking heads and fertility and prosperity.
Do Zombies Have Souls?
Countless horror movies have taught us that zombies are soulless, empty shells. But the zombies of voodoo are quite different. (It’s also important to note that zombies absolutely aren’t a part of everyday voodoo practice. They’re as far to the outside of traditional voodoo as you can get. Some practitioners believe in them, and others don’t.)
The word “zombie” is thought to come from the Kongo word nzambi, which means “soul.” When a person dies, their body and soul separate. If the person dies in a traumatic, sudden way, that can open their soul up for capture by a sorcerer, or boko. Once the soul is captured, the boko controls not only the soul but the body as well. The boko makes the body rise and do his bidding, whether for everyday labor or more evil intentions.
The theoretical philosophical zombie is indistinguishable from another human. It doesn’t have a soul or a consciousness, but outwardly, it acts like everyone else. It behaves in the same way as every other person, it speaks the same, and it moves the same—it only lacks the internal motivations that we say our soul provides.
If others can’t tell the difference between a normal person and a philosophical zombie, where does that leave the importance of the soul? While it seems like it might be something of an inane thing to debate, machines theoretically will soon look and behave indistinguishably from living people. Does that mean they should be treated the same as living people who are said to have a soul?
Do Animals Have Souls?
Traditionally, animals haven’t been designated the same type of souls as humans. Many religions—including Catholicism and related denominations—teach that animals are capable of feeling but won’t receive divine forgiveness, absolution from sin, or eternal life the way people can.
But in the 1960s or 1970s, Pope Paul VI told a boy, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” The boy was mourning the death of a beloved dog. (This quote was recently widely misattributed to the current pontiff, Pope Francis.)
That’s by no means the end of the discussion—quite the opposite. The church’s longest-reigning pope, Pope Pius IX, not only said that animals have no consciousness, but he tried to put a stop to the creation of Italy’s branch of theSociety for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Almost a century later, Pope John Paul II disagreed, elevating animals not only to having souls but being as important to God as mankind is. Pope Benedict then went on to say that clearly, animals don’t have souls; comments from Pope Francis seem to suggest that he’s leaning in the direction of animals going to heaven with us.
The argument is something of a problematic one for a couple of reasons. The suggestion that all animals have souls puts mosquitoes on the same level as our beloved dogs and cats and forces us to wonder if we should be treating them all the same. That also goes for the animals we eat on a regular basis. If cows have souls and will be meeting us in heaven, steak-lovers will have a lot of explaining to do.