Imagining the Soul: A History

Imagining the Soul: A History

by Rosalie Osmond

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Basing her approach on historical sources, Rosalie Osmond explores the way the soul has been represented in different cultures and at different times, from ancient Egypt and Greece, through medieval Europe and into the 21st century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752494869
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/06/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 305 KB
Age Range: 7 - 9 Years

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Imagining the Soul

A History

By Rosalie Osmond

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Rosalie Osmond
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9486-9


The Idea of the Soul: Classical and Early Christian Images

What do we say about the soul, then?

Plato, Phaedo, 79b

When we think of the soul it may be as one of two distinct things – our essential self in this life, made up of our desires, will and power of reason, or that part of us that survives death and is immortal. We may not even be conscious of these as quite different things, because for the last two thousand years we have thought of them as a single entity, the person, embodied while we are alive and disembodied after death. But this single entity, both individual and immortal, was not how the idea of the soul began.

Primitive people could never quite believe that the physical – either in themselves or in nature – was all there was. Animistic ideas, that saw everything in nature as possessed of a soul, were common among our earliest ancestors. But quite what they meant by the 'soul' in nature – or even whether different peoples meant remotely the same thing – is not at all clear.

The simplest view is that, for primitive people, nature was 'ensouled' in the sense that it was endowed with feeling and purpose not totally dissimilar to that which human beings feel. Oddly enough, it seems easier for us to imagine things as endowed with sense and will than as completely inanimate. We still find this idea in certain children's stories and fairy tales, where not just animals but trees, rivers and even rocks may speak to the hero, and help or hinder him in his quest. The Romantics' feeling of communion with nature has links to this primitive past, as do certain strands of modern 'green' philosophy. In these ways we still retain some connection with the 'ensouled' primitive world, but our understanding is necessarily impressionistic and incomplete. It is only from the time of written records that we can begin to have a reasonably clear idea of what people meant when they spoke of the soul.

The Egyptians placed tremendous importance on the burial of the dead. The pyramids are a surviving testimony to the need for a grandiose dwelling for the person after death. But did this necessarily indicate a belief in a soul or an afterlife that we would recognize? They conceived not of a single soul but of 'souls' in various guises. One of these was the ka-soul. This soul could be either a vital force associated with breath, or a double of the individual. It could also mean one's personality or intelligence. These diverse ideas about soul are all developed in important ways in later Greek thought.

It is the ba-soul (or heart soul) of the Egyptians that comes nearest to the concept of the soul that survives death. Significantly, this soul has a clear visual identity. It is pictured as a human-headed bird, thus combining the idea of a surviving human identity with the notion of free flight. Winged creatures – birds, butterflies, bees – are all among the earliest images of the soul. Yet the Egyptian ba, though it is winged and leaves the body at the time of death, does not travel far but remains nearby. This shows the extent to which the Egyptian notion of the life after death could never really divorce itself from the physical. In fact, one of the functions of the ba-soul was as an agent to reintegrate the dead person into a whole being. It could also mediate between the living and the dead, bringing funerary gifts from the earth's surface down into the deep tomb for the use of the dead. The functions of the ba-soul are in essence physical, designed to help preserve the body and person in his/her totality. In this they are perfectly consistent with everything else we know about the Egyptian attitude to death with its emphasis on mummification, the preservation of the body. Life after death would ideally be not that different from the good life before death. Funnels from the surface down to the dead in the tomb facilitated the giving of food and water to the dead and emphasized the physicality of the Egyptians' ideas. There is no indication that they had a concept of the soul as an entity capable of surviving alone after death.

No one is certain of the precise route the image of the ba-soul took, but we do know that, as a visual concept, it migrated from Egypt to ancient Greece. Here it took on a new and less physical role in keeping with the general Greek belief that death involved a radical severance of soul and body. Thus, while in its new context the ba-soul became one of the pre-Socratic visual images of the soul, that does not mean that the Greeks in general took over Egyptian beliefs concerning the life after death. Quite the contrary! It is the Greeks who have given us the first ideas of a soul that is separable from the body and can survive death independently of the body.


Memorable images that convey particular ideas of the soul begin in ancient Western literature with Homer, the author to whom the two great epics of the ancient world, the Iliad and the Odyssey, written in the late eighth century BC, are attributed. The tale of the Trojan War and the subsequent account of the homeward journey of one of its greatest heroes, Odysseus, provide ample descriptions of death, ceremonies for the dead and, in the case of the Odyssey, a journey to the Underworld as well. In the story that Homer is telling, of course, we do not find a consistent system of thought, but the hopes and dreams of a people.

The common Greek word that we associate with the soul is psyche. Today we connect it with feelings, with our whole interior life as its incorporation into the word 'psychology' shows. But this meaning would have been totally incomprehensible to Homer. In Homer psyche means only two possible things. First, it is the life lost at death and then, in Hades, it is a shade or phantom.

Other words are used to express the elements of man that feel and think during life. For the most part, these are words that also signify a part of the body, thereby showing the close connection the Greeks of the eighth century BC perceived between emotions and bodily states. Two such words are kradie, and phrenes. Kradie, which is the anatomical heart, also means courage, or a combination of courage and wrath. Phrenes, which is identified with the breast, is the seat of deep emotion. (Later in Greek thought, the location of phrenes migrates to the head, which perhaps says something about changing notions concerning where emotion is generated.) It is difficult for us today to be certain whether this identification of body parts with emotion indicates that the early Greeks actually believed that the emotion was produced by the particular part of the anatomy, or whether it was rather another example of the desire to make the abstract concrete – to personify the emotion by linking it to a body part.

Psyche itself was not linked with a specific body part, but it is linked etymologically with the Greek psychein, to blow or breathe. This meaning is suggested in Homer when the psyche leaves the body in a swoon and returns afterwards:

The darkness of night misted over the eyes of Andromache. She fell backward, and gasped the life breath from her ... And about her stood thronging her husband's sisters and the wives of his brothers and these, in her despair for death, held her up among them. But she, when she breathed again and the life was gathered back into her, lifted her voice among the women of Troy in mourning.

(Iliad, xxii. 466–7; 473–6)

The breathing out of the psyche in a swoon or in death is a concept familiar to us, and is, as we shall see, closely associated with pictures of the dying man breathing out his soul as a small body in medieval pictures. But in Homer's time there was another word for breath as well. This was thumos, and it was thumos that was also frequently described as leaving the body at death. Thumos, unlike psyche, was also clearly a part of the living body and, like phrenes and kradie mentioned above, was also associated with emotion – in this case with joy, fear and grief. The thumos was the warm, vital element of life that is extinguished by death, and the psyche 'the cold evanescent quality of death and extinction itself'. There appears to be a stage (as there is in physiological reality), when the prospect of death cannot be reversed but is inevitable, and this, in Homer, is pictured by the soul reaching a point of no return on its journey out of the body via the mouth: 'a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted | nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier' (Iliad, ix. 408–9).

Interestingly, once death has occurred the thumos is heard of no longer. It has been essentially a part of the body, and when the body dies it disappears. The same is not true of the psyche. As a 'free' soul, it must leave the body, but it does not cease to exist. Rather it becomes the wraith-like surviving part of the individual in the Underworld.

There are two completely identical passages in the Iliad describing death, the first the death of Patroclus and the second that of Hektor:

He spoke, and as he spoke the end of death closed in upon him, and the soul fluttering free of his limbs went down into Death's house mourning her destiny, leaving youth and manhood behind her.

(Iliad, xvi. 855–7 and xxii. 361–3)

The imagery here is very suggestive. The soul (psyche) 'flutters' as it frees itself from the limbs of the dying man, implying a flying, bird-like creature. Unlike the warm breath, the thumos, it does not disappear but leaves the body to go down into Death's house. Thus we can see the transition from the living soul or life force that controls the body in life (though not endowed with many of the qualities we would attribute to the soul today) to the free soul, existing independently of the body, transformed into a shade in the Underworld.

The other significant thing to note in this passage is that there is no suggestion of joy or happy release in it. The psyche that is changed into a shade in Hades is a rather poor creature, 'mourning its destiny', not to be remotely compared with the felicitous souls who will later enjoy the Christian heaven. Nothing good can be expected in the future. The good things, youth and manhood, have been left behind with the end of earthly life. In his famous descent to Hades in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets the shade of his mother. It is a disastrous encounter, as he is appalled to find that she will not wait for him so that they may 'throw [their] dear hands | Round each other and take pleasure in cold lamentation' (Odyssey, XI. 211–12). To this plaint she replies with sorrow and resignation, indicating that it is not her personal will, or even her personal fate, that dictates the limitations of their meeting:

But this is the rule for mortals, whenever one dies. No longer do the sinews hold the bones and the flesh, But the mighty power of burning fire subdues them When first the spirit has abandoned the white bones, And the soul, flying off like a dream, flutters.

(Odyssey, XI. 218–22)7

Again, the image of 'fluttering' reinforces the notion of a bird-like entity, but in combination with 'dream' suggests also something wraithlike and insubstantial.

This raises one of the fundamental problems for anyone discussing the soul, which persists down to the present day. As a philosophical concept, it may be immaterial and invisible, but if it is to be pictured in art or visualized in literature, then the abstract must, to some extent, become concrete. Pictures on Greek vases from the fifth century (much later than Homer, but still pre-Socratic) flesh out the suggestive but vague images of Homer. They depict the soul as a tiny winged body, sometimes bearing incense to welcome the dead, congregating in swarms around Charon in the Underworld, or hovering over the head of a body mourning at its grave.

There is yet another way in which the souls of the dead are shown in early Greek art – the image of the eidolon. This, while clearly also a picture of the dead, is not usually found in Hades but appears, rather like a ghost, in earthly places that are particularly associated with the dead person on earth. Perhaps because of this closer connection with the dead as they were in life, it is more physical than the winged psyche and resembles the dead person in some detail. Between death and burial or cremation, the soul may remain in this form near its body, as various illustrations on Greek vases show. But while these eidoloi may resemble the living in general physical characteristics, they are shades, not concrete beings. Even more significantly, they lack the psychological qualities associated with the parts of the living body and its vital qualities. Once the soul has passed into the Underworld, its existence, as the passage spoken above by Odysseus' mother shows, is very limited indeed. Here it cannot even speak without drinking blood, which gives it temporarily some of the powers of a living being. At other times, souls are described as squeaking like bats as they fall away from the rock to which they cling (Odyssey, XXIV. 4–9).

There is a suggestion in the speech of Odysseus' mother, quoted above, that the funeral rites, cremation or burial, help the soul on its way to this Underworld. Patroclus appears to Achilles after his death to beg him to bury him for this very reason:

The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance, and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them, but I wander as I am by Hades' house of the wide gates.

(Iliad, xxiii. 72–4)

Despite the phantom existence that awaits the dead in Hades, it is still better than lingering in the no-man's-land between life and death, and as such is to be desired. But in comparison with life – life of any kind – it is a poor substitute:

I would rather serve on the land of another man Who had no portion and not a great livelihood Than to rule over all the shades of those who are dead.

(Odyssey, XI. 489–91)

In summary, what we find in Homer is, first of all, a number of 'souls' connected with psychological activity in life that are seen to be closely associated with body parts. This gives them a certain concrete and visual quality. However, these 'souls' that govern feeling and thinking during life are not linked in any precise way with the psyche that appears only as it is about to be lost in death and survives as a shade in the Underworld. This psyche may retain some of the physical attributes of its body in life, but only in an attenuated and insubstantial form. And it does not possess, as it did not in life, anything of the psychological essence of the person. Even in this most limited state, it is not necessarily immortal. It will only survive as long as the memory of its possessor survives in the minds of the living. This clearly presents the famous with a more optimistic prognosis than those 'who have no memorial'!

There is no real connection between the individual soul in life and the surviving soul in death; consequently, the notion of individual immortality in any meaningful way does not exist. The Homeric soul shows the beginnings of a resistance to annihilation at the time of death, but there is no optimism about the quality of the survival for the individual. All this begins to change in the succeeding centuries.


As early as Hesiod's Works and Days (early seventh century BC), there is the suggestion of a more optimistic scenario for men after life on earth. In Hesiod the best among the race of Heroes (those who died in the wars at Thebes and Troy) are rewarded not by dying absolutely and being sent to Hades as shades (a view of the afterlife not likely to encourage heroism in battle), but by being translated to the Isles of the Blest where they live 'with no sorrow on their spirit ... beside the deeply swirling Ocean, prosperous heroes for whom the grain-giving field bears honey-hearted harvest ripening three times a year ...'. Significantly, these Heroes are not really souls since they have been translated to the Isles of the Blest without dying, and the emphasis on the physical delights of their life reinforces the idea that they are enjoying an eternity not dissimilar to a life they might ideally have hoped to enjoy on earth. The physicality of their state suggests an Egyptian influence, but the precise way in which this may have come to Greece is uncertain.


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Table of Contents


ONE The Idea of the Soul: Classical and Early Christian Images,
TWO The Soul as a Beautiful Woman,
THREE The Soul in Conflict,
FOUR The Soul at Play,
FIVE The Soul is Like ...,
SIX The Soul at the Time of Death,
SEVEN The Immortal Soul: Doomsday and Beyond,
EIGHT The Soul in the Modern Age,

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