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[W]hile we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers.
2d Century AD Church Father, Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 20

So, we're going through ideas Christianity shares with other ancient religions, and we're up to the human soul. Christianity shares a theology of the soul that was popular among Paganism at the time Christianity began. People are more than physical bodies; they are animated by souls that live on after physical death. The souls of good people are rewarded, the souls of bad people are punished.

The point here is not that the Christian idea of the soul squares up with Pagan ideas (although it does). The point is that the idea itself, the idea of the human soul, is Pagan. Pagans had it first; Christians got is second. Christianity is a product of its time and place.

   Reasons preview


While you're going through the basic facts about ancient ideas of the soul, here is some cogitatulation that will help out when we get to POCM's Reasons tab. We'll be looking for a consistent, comprehensive explanation of the facts. Paganism had the idea of the soul first, Christianity had the idea of the soul second. Did Christianity borrow —adapt, adopt absorb—the idea, or did it come up with the idea of the human soul all on its own?

Every culture believes in the human soul, so maybe the divine human soul is real and we know about it because God beamed the idea into our DNA. Could be. Can't prove it ain't so. Of course like all magical "explanations" this one isn't really an explanation at all.

Maybe Christianity and Judaism came up with the idea of the soul all on their own. OK. So, how'd they do that? How do you come up with an idea all on your own that everybody else already has, and you know about? How do you grow up in America and then invent hamburgers, all on your own?

Also, the notion of the soul was all over the place. By what criteria can we decide which Hellenized ancient countries borrowed Hellenized ideas, and which ones invented the same Hellenicalistical ideas all on their own?


History of the soul
If you yourself believe people have souls, if you believe souls are real things, it may surprise you to learn the idea, the concept of the human soul has a history. It does.

Early Greek ideas about the soul are weird. To us. Of course they are, these are not the ideas we inherited. The earliest surviving Greek books, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, have life souls, and death souls, dream souls, like that, on and on, a zoology of animating spirits. It's all too involved to detail here, but it is very cool history-of-western-ideas-wise. If you're interested, have a gawk at Dr. Bremmer's book. For now, from the many available, an example or two. From Homer, in the 8th century BC...


In this bit a lady in Troy, I can't remember her name but I think maybe Mary Queen of Scots, sees her fella' Hector being dragged by a chariot. She faints. As she faints her spirit = psyche ψυχη leaves her.

For Homer consciousness came from having a thing, a psyche, inside you. When you lost consciousness, the psyche left.

Mary QoS revives, and her spirit, this time called a thumos, returns.

Also, did you notice how in Homer's day after they died people went to the place under the earth, aka Hades? They did.

But when she was come to the wall... she stopped and looked, and was ware of him as he was dragged before the city; and swift horses were dragging him ruthlessly toward the hollow ships of the Achaeans. Then down over her eyes came the darkness of night, and enfolded her, and she fell backward and gasped forth her spirit [psyche = ψυχη] .... And round about her came thronging her husband's sisters and his brothers' wives, who bare her up in their midst, distraught even unto death.

But when she revived, and her spirit [thumos = θυμος] was returned into her breast, then she lifted up her voice, in wailing, and spake: " Ah Hector.... Now thou unto the house of Hades beneath the deeps of earth art departing...

Homer, Iliad, Book 22, line 460 ff (8th century BC), -- which you can find in: Murray, A. T. Homer; The Iliad I, Loeb Classical Library #170 (1925/ 1985), pg. 489
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Same book, different scene. Guy is willing to die, which he puts poetically, "let life depart from me." That's the translation. He doesn't really say "life," he says "aion"—aion being another one of / term for a human life giving, animating spirit. Lose that ensouling spirit, and you're a gonner. And vice versa. As far as Homer knew.

Then glad at his coming was Sarpedon, son of Zeus, and spake to him a piteous word: "Son of Priam, suffer me not to lie here a prey to the Danaans, but bear me aid; thereafter, if need be, let life [aion = αιων ] depart from me in your city."

Homer, Iliad, 5.685 (8th century BC), -- which you can find in: Murray, A. T. Homer; The Iliad I, Loeb Classical Library # 171, (1928/ 1988), pg. 245
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

All the way back to the edge of prehistory, western people believed in the human soul.


By the time of Plato (early afternoon), the soul, aka psyche, had become the thing that gives people life.   >>

“Now answer,” said he. “What causes the body in which it is to be alive?
The soul,” he replied. [105d]
“Is this always the case?”
“Yes,” said he, “of course.”
Then if the soul takes possession of anything it always brings life to it?”
” he said.



And by now (later in the afternoon) the soul was immortal.   >>

“Is there anything that is the opposite of life?”
“Yes,” said he.
“Now the soul, as we have agreed before, will never admit the opposite of that which it brings with it.”
“Decidedly not,” said Cebes.
“Then what do we now call that which does not admit the idea of the even?”
“Uneven,” said he.
“And those which do not admit justice and music?” [105e]
“Unjust,” he replied, “and unmusical.”
“Well then what do we call that which does not admit death?”
“Deathless or immortal,” he said.
And the soul does not admit death?”
“Then the soul is immortal

One good thing about being Socrates was, people generally came around to seeing things your way.   >>

“Very well,” said he. “Shall we say then that this is proved?”
“Yes, and very satisfactorily, Socrates.”

Plato, Phaedo, 105c ff Loeb Classical Library 1999
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Aristotle believed the human soul was immortal.

Aristotle also wrote a whole book on the soul, called On the Soul, (Aristotle had a very orderly mind) which I will spare you quotes from. lives in virtue of himself, because the soul is a part of the man, and life is directly contained in it

Aristotle. Metaphysics section 1022a, Loeb Classical Library #271, 1979
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

By the fourth century AD the archaic Greek idea of several life-force souls had evolved into the idea of an immortal human soul that was the substance of human life. Pagans had the soul first. Christians got it second. Christianity is a product of its time and place.


The destiny of the soul, Pagan and Jewish
Remember how I said Christianity shares a theology of the soul that was popular among Paganism at the time Christianity began. This is that part. People are more than physical bodies; they are animated by souls that live on after physical death. The souls of good people are rewarded, the souls of bad people are punished.

Here's Lucian, a 2d century AD Pagan, describing what Pagan people believed happened to souls after death.


Souls of good, just men were rewarded after death.     >>

Well, Pluto and Persephone, as these people said, are the rulers and have the general over-lordship, with a great throng of understrappers and assistants in administration-Furies, Tormentors, Terrors, and also Hermes, who, however, is not always with them. As prefects, moreover, and satraps and judges, there are two that hold court, Minos and Rhadamanthus of Crete, who are sons of Zeus.

These receive the good, just men who have lived virtuously, and when many have been collected, send them off, as if to a colony, to the Elysian Fields to take part in the best life.

Souls of bad people were punished in Hades.     >>


But if they come upon any rascals, turning them over to the Furies, they send them to the Place of the Wicked, to be punished in proportion to their wickedness. There-ah ! what punishment do they not undergo? They are racked, burned, devoured by vultures, turned upon a wheel; they roll stones uphill; and as for Tantalus, he stands on the very brink of the lake with a parched throat, like to die, poor fellow, for thirst!


But those of the middle way in life, and they are many, wander about in the meadow without their bodies, in the form of shadows that vanish like smoke in your [119] fingers. They get their nourishment, naturally, from the libations that are poured in our world and the burnt-offerings at the tomb; so that if anyone has not left a friend or kinsman behind him on earth, he goes about his business there as an unfed corpse, in a state of famine.

  [Lucian, On Funerals, (second century AD), -- which you can find in: Harmon, A. M. Lucian Volume IV (Loeb #162) (1953 / 1999), pg. 117- 9]
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.


Jewish ideas about the immortal soul
Here's Josephus, a Jew who went Roman, describing the beliefs of his people.


Like the Pagans, the Pharisees believe in souls.

Like the Pagans, the Pharisees believe souls are immortal.

Like the Pagans, the Pharisees believe souls of good people are rewarded after death

.Like the Pagans, the Pharisees believe souls of bad people are punished after death—in the bad place under the earth.

These, says Josephus, were the most common Jewish beliefs.

18.1.2. The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves; the sect of the Essens, and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of those called Pharisees; of which sects, although I have already spoken in the second book of the Jewish War, yet will I a little touch upon them now.

18.1.3. Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason's dictates for practice....They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people....

Like the Pagans, the Sadducee Jews believed in souls, but not that the soul is immortal.

18.1.4. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them....

Like the Pagans and the Pharisees, the Essene Jews belived in rewards for the immortal soul.

18.1.5. The doctrine of the Essens is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for....



[Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, Chapter 1]
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.


   Reasons preview


Paganism believed in the human soul. Paganism believed the human soul was immortal. Paganism believed in immortal humans soul first. Then Judaism and Christianity came along, and Jews and Christians believed in the human soul.

How'd that happen do you suppose? Please give an answer that is consistent and comprehensive .


  Greggy's Guess preview   


People are complex. Purposeful. Our instinct for cause and effect makes us figure anything purposeful has an ordered cause. A cause we can spot and understand. When you start with that idea, but the actual physical cause is too complex for you to see, it's pretty much a sure thing you're going to end up "reasoning" your way to some sort of magical force or power or being. The soul: psyche ψυχη , thumos θυμος, aion αιων .

A cool thing about puzzling through the facts about Christian origins is, it gives us a place to stand to look back at how we ourselves got where we are. Chances are you yourself believe in a human soul. But what you see when you study the history of the soul—the western idea of the soul—is that the soul isn't so much a thing as it is a concept, an idea straight downstream from our monkey instinct to see causation.

The soul is not a thing. The soul is a concept.

I exclude from this analysis males between fourteen and forty. Girls, you know what I mean.

Is our religion the pinnacle of refinement? Ha! The meaning of our stories is the meaning invented by the illiterate, innumerate, (occasionally) cannibal stone age American indians. Here are the facts, from a book by a 19th century white captive who went native..

Like us, the indians reasoned their way to resurrection.



and the human soul.

They [the Comanche Indians] are buried with their heads to the west, because they believe at the resurrection, of which they have vague and indefinite notions, they will arise and march eastward, again to take possession of all the country from which the accursed white man has driven them and their fathers. They bury their property with them and kill their horses because they suppose their souls will have need of them in the other world. ...

and God who created the heavens and the earth








and a bad place for the souls of the wicked



and a nice place for the souls of the good.


They believe in God, a great spirit, who created and governs the earth, sun, moon, and stars.
They have an unwavering and undoubting faith in a future state of existence, and in future rewards and punishments. They hold that the soul of the wicked coward or thief, after death, will be driven before the frown of the Great Spirit, afar off into a region barren and cold and desolate, there to wander forever through thorns and among rocks, thirsty, hungry, and in pain; but the good Indian, who has been brave in battle and walked uprightly among his tribe, will be translated to a valley ten thousand times ten thousand fold longer and wider than their own valley of Mannasaw, where the climate is always mild as it is in the moon of plants; where there is cool water, and pounded corn and mustang meat forever at his hand, and where buffalo and deer abound, and the horses are fleeter than the wind.

  Lee, Nelson. Three Years Among the Comanches (1859/ 2001), pg. 123- 4
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

When you start with the idea that every complex event has a cause you can understand, it's pretty much a sure thing you're going to end up "reasoning" your way to some sort of magical force or power or being.

The soul is not a thing. The soul is a concept. Fuckin' A.


Good Books for this section

The Early Greek Concept of the Soul
by Jan Bremmer

What you'll find:

The historical development of Greek beliefs about the human soul


Life After Death
A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion

by Alan Segal

What you'll find:

A 700 page, evidence based history of ancient ideas about eternal life, and how they moved from paganism into Judaism and Christianity.