Soul: Greek and Hellenistic Concepts

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The modern Western idea of the soul has both eschatological and psychological attributes, and the presence of the Greek word psuchē, or "soul," in concepts such as psychiatry and psychology suggests that the Greeks viewed the soul in the modern way. Yet the absence of any psychological connotations in the earliest extant usages of psuchē shows that at least the early Greek concept of the soul was different from later beliefs. Taking this difference as my point of departure, I shall first trace the development of the conception of the soul of the living, then look at the conception of the soul of the dead, and, finally, analyze the fate of the soul according to Hellenistic religions.

Soul of the Living

The Greek conception of the soul in the Archaic age (800500 bce) might best be characterized as multiple. Following the widely accepted terminology developed by the Scandinavian Ernst Arbman (1926, 1927), we can distinguish in the oldest literary textsHomer's Iliad and Odyssey (commonly dated to the eighth and seventh century, respectively)two types of soul. On the one hand, there is the free soul, or psuchē, an unencumbered soul representing the individual personality. This soul is inactive (and unmentioned) when the body is active; it is located in an unspecified part of the body. Its presence is the precondition for the continuation of life, but it has no connections with the physical or psychological aspects of the body. Psuchē manifests itself only during swoons or at death, when it leaves the body never to return again. On the other hand, there are a number of body-souls, which endow the body with life and consciousness. The most frequently occurring form of body-soul in Homer's epics is thumos. It is this soul that both urges people on and is the seat of emotions. There is also menos, which is a more momentary impulse directed at specific activities. At one time, menos seems to have meant "mind, disposition," as appears from related verbs and the fact that the Vedic manas has all the functions of the Homeric thumos. As is indicated by the related Sanskrit dhūmah and the Latin fumus, thumos probably once meant "smoke"; it later usurped most of the connotations of menos. A word emphasizing the intellect more than thumos and menos is nous, which is the mind or an act of mind, a thought or a purpose. In addition, there are a number of organs, such as the heart and the lungs, which have both physical and psychological attributes.

In Homer, then, the soul of the living does not yet constitute a unity. The resemblance of this kind of belief in the soul to that of most "primitive" peoples strongly suggests that it belongs to a type of society in which the individual is not yet in need of a center of consciousness. Studies that relate the structural elements of Archaic Greek society to the emotional realities of that society, however, are sorely missing; in fact, studies of belief in the soul never seem to investigate this question.

In the course of the Archaic age, we hear of journeys of the soulan important capability of the free soul that is not mentioned in Homer. Fascinating accounts tell of persons whose souls were reputed to wander away during a trance. It was told, for example, about one Hermotimos of Clazomenae, a city on the western coast of present-day Turkey, that his soul "wandering apart from the body, was absent for many years, and in different places foretold events such as great floods while his stiff body was lying inert, and that the soul, after certain periods reentering the body as into a sheath, aroused it" (Apollonius, Mirabilia 3). Here we have a clear case of a person lying in trance whose soul is supposed to have left the body.

A similar case is reported of Aristeas of Proconnesus, an island in the Sea of Marmara. Herodotus (4.14) tells the following local legend. Aristeas entered a fuller's shop in Proconnesus and dropped dead. But, after the story of his death had spread, someone said that he had just met Aristeas outside the town. And when the relatives came to fetch the dead body from the fuller's shop, they did not find it. After six years Aristeas reappeared and composed a poem, the Arimaspea, in which he related a journey to the far North. A later account relates that the soul of Aristeas was seen flying from his mouth in the shape of a raven.

Aristeas's disappearance from the shop suggests that his "death" was in fact a deep trance during which his soul was believed to leave his body. The bilocation at the moment of his supposed death fits into a general pattern according to which bilocation always takes place when the free soul leaves the bodythat is to say, during sleep, trance, or death. Aristeas's poem apparently used the first person to describe his journey to the Rhipaean Mountains in the North, as do the Siberian shamans when recounting their adventures during trances. Those who knew Aristeas personally would have known that he experienced his adventures only in a trance; others who knew only his poem must have concluded that he had experienced his adventures while awake. These and similar reports have been interpreted as manifestations of a shamanistic influence due to trade and colonization that had brought the Greeks in contact with the shamanistic culture of the Black Sea Scythians in the seventh century. Yet, the shamanistic parallels that have been adduced are either too generalecstasy and the journey of the soul occur in too many places to be distinguishing traitsor cannot withstand close scrutiny. It seems more acceptable to claim these legends as valid testimonies for the existence of the free soul in Archaic Greece.

Toward the end of the Archaic age, two important developments took place. First, the gradual breakdown of the aristocratic hegemony in the later Archaic age had promoted a certain degree of individualization, and thus the idea of ending up in the unattractive and impersonal beyond that was the Homeric underworld became less and less acceptable. These changes promoted an "upgrading" of the psuchē, which in the middle of the fifth century even came to be called "immortal." The philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the second half of the sixth century, introduced the speculative doctrine of metempsychosisa doctrine probably influenced by Indo-Iranian sources. Initially, the concept of metempsychosis did not enter the mainstream of Classical Greek religion and remained restricted to marginal religious movements such as Pythagoreanism and Orphism. It was not above ridicule: a contemporary satirist relates that when Pythagoras saw a dog being beaten, he exclaimed: "Stop! Do not beat him. It is the psuchē of a dead friend. I recognized him when I heard his whine." However, the doctrine became very popular in post-Classical times.

The second development of the late Archaic age was the gradual incorporation by psuchē of thumos, which made the psuchē the center of consciousness. This transformation has not yet been satisfactorily explained, but it was most likely related to the growing differentiation of Greek society. Because of our limited sources, we can trace the course of this process only in Athens, whence, through the work of the tragedians of the second half of the fifth century, we acquire a detailed look at the changing nature of psuchē. Dramatic situations present persons, especially women, whose psuchē sighs or melts in despair, suffers pangs, or is "bitten" by misfortuneemotions never associated with psuchē in Homer. Characters even address their own psuchē, and a particular personality is referred to as, for example, a "mighty psu-chē " or a "sweet psuchē." This development evidently reflects the growth of the private sphere in Athenian society, which promoted a more delicate sensibility and a greater capacity for tender feelings, such as we find more fully in the fourth century.

The culmination of the psuchē as the center of man's inner life was the necessary precondition for the Socratic view that a man's most important task was to take care of his psuchē. This view of the soul was taken up by Plato, throughout whose work concern about the psuchē remains axiomatic. As Friedrich Solmsen observes, "The psyche which he holds to be immortal and for whose fate after life reincarnation offered some meaningful answer, is now the central organ whose vibrations respond to the individual's sufferings and emotional experiences and whose decisions initiate his activities" (Solmsen, 1982, p. 474). Plato even goes so far as to include all intellectual functions in the psuchē as well.

Aristotle, on the other hand, almost completely discarded psuchē, but "care for the soul" and "cure of the soul" remained important topics for the philosophical schools of the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Cynics. Pursuing the concept of psuchē in these schools, however, belongs more to the area of the history of philosophy than to that of religion.

So far, we have been concerned only with psuchē as the soul of the living. However, in the second half of the sixth century, the philosopher Anaximenes seems to have used the term pneuma, the purely biological breath, to denote the soul of the cosmos in analogy to the soul of man (the testimony is debated, however). The Pythagoreans also believed in an "infinite breath" (apeiron pneuma ) that was "breathed in" by the cosmos. And in the course of the fifth century, various passages appear in which pneuma is used where we would have expected psuchē. Yet pneuma never completely lost its biological connection and it did not replace psuchē in designating the eschatological soul. In Hellenistic times, pneuma figures notably in various philosophies, but it rises to religious prominence only among Hellenistic Jewry and in early Christianity.

Souls of the Dead and the Afterlife

The Greeks, like many other peoples, considered the soul of the dead to be a continuation of the free soul of the living. In the Homeric epic it is always psuchē that leaves for the underworld; the dead in the afterlife are indeed often called psuchai. The body-souls thumos, menos, and nous end their activity at the moment of deaththeir connection with the body is the cause of their disappearance. The psuchē, however, was not the only mode of existence after death; the deceased was also compared to a shadow or presented as an eidōlon ("image"), a word that stresses the fact that for the ancient Greeks the dead looked exactly like the living.

The physical actions of the souls of the dead were described in two opposite ways. On the one hand, the Greeks believed that the dead souls moved and spoke like the living; the image of the deceased in the memory of the living play a major part in this activity. There is a corollary of this idea in the Odyssey (book 11) where Orion and Herakles are depicted as continuing their earthly activities. On the other hand, the souls of the dead are depicted as being unable to move or to speak properly: when the soul of Patroclus left Achilles, he disappeared squeaking (Iliad 23.101). The circumstance of death was also of some importance in the formation of ideas about the soul of the deceased. Homer (Odyssey 11.41) describes the warriors at the entrance to Hades still dressed in their bloody armor. Aeschylus (Eumenides 1.103) has the eidōlon of Clytemnestra display her death wounds, and Plato elaborately explains this idea, refining it in a way by adding that the soul also retains the scars of its former existence. On vases, the souls of the dead are even regularly shown with their wounds, sometimes still bandaged.

The idea of the soul of the dead in ancient Greece appears, then, to be influenced by the image of the deceased in the memory of the living, by the circumstances of death, and by the brute fact of the actual corpse. These ideas were never completely systematized and could occur in one and the same description. Just after his death, for example, Patroclus can be described as appearing to Achilles exactly as he was during his life. And as long as he has contact with Achilles he speaks like a normal mortal; only when the contact is over does he leave squeaking. With the passing of time the precise memories of a specific person fade away, and it is understandable that the more personal traits gradually recede behind a more general idea of the dead as the opposite of the living. In time, the individual soul becomes just a member of the countless number of "all souls." The souls move in "swarms" in the Homeric underworld and in the tragedies; the idea of the underworld found its way even into the famous description in book 6 of Vergil's Aeneid.

Earlier generations of scholars freely made inferences of belief in the soul from funeral rites. Nowadays we have become much more careful, but the evidence from Homer and other sources suggests that a proper funeral functioned as a rite of passage into afterlife for the dead. This seems to be reflected, for example, in the myth of Sisyphus, who instructed his wife not to perform the proper funeral rites after death so that he could persuade the queen of the underworld, Persephone, to let him return to the land of the living.

After a proper funeral the soul went to murky Hades, (the name is perhaps best translated as "house of invisibility"), which is ruled by the king of the same name and his wife Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter. The comfortless picture of Hades as "the land of no return" can hardly be separated from Babylonian and Semitic ideas as they appear in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). The exact location of Hades remained vague; in the Iliad it was situated under the earth, in the Odyssey at the edge of the world. In the Homeric epics, the underworld was still reached by just crossing the river Acheron, but in the course of the Archaic age the transition between life and death became less "automatic" than in Homer. The new concern for the soul reflected itself now in the introduction of the ferryman Charon and the idea of guidance by the god Hermes Chthonios.

Not everyone, though, went to Hades. In the Odyssey, various heroes, such as Menelaus, went to the Elysian Fields. Others, such as Achilles, went to the so-called Isles of the Blessed, where the poet Hesiod, who lived somewhat later than Homer, also situated part of the "heroic" race, which included all the Homeric heroes. From the seventh century on, initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis becomes one of the means for the common man to share in the happiness the heroes enjoyed. As the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (1.480ff.) says of those who have seen the secret rites: "Prosperous is that one of men upon earth who has seen them; but he who is uninitiated and has no share in the rites never has a portion of like happiness when he is dead and under the murky gloom." Any ethical requirements are still notably absent from this promise of the life eternal. At the end of the sixth century, however, clear indications of a more ethical view of the afterlife appeared, according to which the just were rewarded and the bad penalized, views especially connected with the Pythagorean and Orphic movements. These views also influenced ideas about the fate of Eleusinian initiates. However, despite the great interest in the afterlife that can be found in the literature connected with the mysteries, there is no specific mention of the soul or metempsychosis; the initiates apparently expected to arrive in the underworld in person.

On the whole, however, it must be stated that the ancient Greeks displayed only a limited interest in the life hereafter. It is in keeping with this limited interest that they did not worship their ancestors. The one festival that commemorated them had probably already ceased to be celebrated at the end of the Classical age. It is also part of this lack of interest in the afterlife that the Greeks of the Archaic and earlier Classical age rarely ever mentioned souls of the dead returning to the upperworld. Only the philosopher Plato, in the fourth century, mentions the existence of ghosts wandering around tombs and graveyards. It is true that during the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria the kēres were believed to appear on earth, but is is unlikely that these were the souls of the dead as earlier generations of scholars, who were strongly influenced by animistic views of Greek religion, liked to believe.

Hellenistic Religions

Toward the end of the fifth century the idea developed that the body remained behind on earth but the soul disappeared into the air. The celestial eschatology became highly important in the dialogues of Plato, who introduced the idea that the soul, or at least its immortal part, returned to its original abode in the heavenly area. The large-scale loss of Hellenistic writings makes it difficult to trace the idea of the soul in detail. However, a late oracle of Apollo at Claros, which contains Hellenistic views, declares:

When someone asked Apollo whether the soul remained after death or was dissolved, he answered, "The soul, so long as it is subject to its bonds with the destructible body, while being immune to feelings, resembles the pains of that [the body]; but when it finds freedom after the mortal body dies, it is borne entire to the aether, being then forever ageless, and abides entirely untroubled; and this the First-born Divine Providence enjoined." (translated in MacMullen, 1981, p. 13)

In various of his writings, the philosopher Plutarch (c. 40120 ce) also described the flight of the soul to the heavens, in particular to the moon, which became increasingly popular as the final abode of the soul. These views, like metempsychosis, remained popular among philosophers and the educated classes, but it is virtually impossible to establish to what extent they were shared by the lower classes.

As regards the mystery religions, which consisted of a mixture of Greek and native elements, it seems highly unlikely that the cults of Isis, the Syrian Goddess (Dea Syria), and Cybele had any specific teachings about the fate of the soul; at least there are no such indications within the considerable evidence we have regarding these cults. Rather late sources relate that the mysteries of Dionysos and Sabazios were directed to the purification of the soul, but the information is not very specific. Even the so-called Orphic Hymns do not display the otherworldly interest we might expect from hymns carrying the name of Orpheus. Mithraism is the only cult about which anything more detailed is known, that being only that the soul was supposed to pass through the seven spheres of planets after death.

When the rhetorician Menander (third century ce) composed a small handbook on oratory for such customary occasions as birth, marriage, and funerals, he also included some directions on how to speak about the afterlife: "for it is not unsuitable," he notes, "on these topics also to philosophize." He refers to Elysium,

where Rhadamanthus, Menelaus, Achilles, and Memnon, reside. And perhaps, better, he [the deceased] now lives among the gods, traversing the heavens and looking down on life below. Perhaps even, he is reproaching those who mourn for him; for the soul is related to the divine, descends thence, but longs again to mount to its kindas Helen, the Dioscuri, and Heracles, they say, belong to the gods' community (translated in MacMullen, 1984, p. 11).

The ambivalent view of the afterlife reflected in this passage is typical of Hellenistic religions. The gods of the Hellenistic period were generally thought of as gods effective in this life, just as the more traditional gods had been. Earlier generations of scholars have often considered the mystery cults competitors with Christianity in regard to the life hereafter, but it now appears more and more clear that the interest of most people in Hellenistic times rested firmly with this life. The inscriptions that have given us innumerable epitaphs display only a negligible interest in the soul or the life eternal. It was only with Christianity that there developed a new interest in the soul and the life hereafter, but its doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh always remained repugnant to the pagan world.


The standard study, still well worth reading, has long been Erwin Rohde's Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, translated from the original German edition (1894) by W. B. Hillis (London, 1925). Ernst Arbman's fundamental study is "Untersuchungen zur primitiven Seelenvorstellung mit besonderer Rucksicht auf Indien," pts. 12, Le monde oriental 20 (1926): 85222 and 21 (1927): 1185. My book The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (Princeton, 1983) confronts the Greek material with the latest insights from social anthropology and folklore. David B. Claus's Toward the Soul (New Haven, 1981) is a detailed, if conceptually limited, investigation of all the passages in Greek literature in which the term psuchē appears. Valuable studies of the development of the concept of psuchē are three by Friedrich Solmsen: "Phren, Kardia, Psyche in Greek Tragedy," in Greek Poetry and Philosophy, edited by Douglas E. Gerber (Chico, Calif., 1984), pp. 265274; "Plato and the Concept of the Soul (Psyche ): Some Historical Perspectives," Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (July-September 1983): 355367; and Kleine Schriften, vol. 3 (Hildesheim, 1982), pp. 464494. Fritz Graf discusses in detail the ideas of the hereafter connected with the Eleusinian mysteries in Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit (Berlin, 1974). Helmut Saake's "Pneuma," in Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, suppl. vol. 14 (Munich, 1974), is an up-to-date survey of notions of pneuma. Arthur Darby Nock's Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 296305, and Ramsey MacMullen's Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981) and Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1984) demonstrate the lack of interest in the afterlife in the Hellenistic religions.

New Sources

Adamson, Peter. "Aristotelianism and the Soul in the Arabic Plotinus." Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (January 2001): 211232.

Blumenthal, H. J. Aristotle and Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity: Interpretations of the 'De Anima. London, 1996.

Durrant, Michael, ed. Aristotle's De Anima in Focus. New York, 1993.

Levison, John R. The Spirit in First Century Judaism. New York, 1997.

Schibli, Hermann S. "Xenocrates' Daemons and the Irrational Soul." Classical Quarterly 43 (1993): 143168.

Steiner, Peter M. Psyche bei Platon. Göttingen, 1992.

Wagner, Ellen, ed. Essays on Plato's Psychology. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Yengoyan, Aram A. "Whatever Happened to the Soul? A Review Essay." Comparative Studies in Society and History 46 (April 2004): 411418.

Jan N. Bremmer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

More From