Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/December 1888/Beliefs About the Soul



FROM the standpoint of primitive man it seems impossible for him to escape the conviction of a plurality of souls or the belief of their survival after death. Troubled by no psychical problems, accepting all things with an unreasoning faith, the phenomena of dreams, of coma attending swoons, of apoplexy, and of kindred afflictions, are explicable only on the supposition of a plural soul. He lies down on his rude couch, closes his eyes, and in an instant is living over the scenes of his daily life. He visits again far-distant hunting-grounds, renews once more the joys and fatigues of the chase, indulges in his savage warfare, and encounters adventures at once weird and abnormal. The dead—those who have for years been moldering in the earth—come back and speak to him, and renew once more the pleasures of his social life. His body lies immovable, life and warmth remain with it, his breath comes and goes, his pulse throbs as in his waking hours, but he in the mean time has traversed leagues and leagues of forests, crossed broad rivers, scalped an enemy, or killed some savage wild beast. Upon the supposition of a dual soul, the mystery of his sleep is at once explicable. While one soul stays and watches over the body, the other soul has gone out to roam over the world at will.

This explanation of dreams seems to have received wide-spread recognition alike with the early civilized and savage races of men. The Chinese thought that the soul in dreams went out in a nightly ramble even to foreign lands. One day when the "spiritual man" of T'ih Kwalee, one of the gentry, was out roaming around, a wild beast found his body and ate it; so, when the spirit returned, it found only the skeleton, but fortunately near by was a beggar's corpse, black and lame; this he took as a substitute for his own body, and always afterward walked with a staff.[1] The Japanese believe that, if a sleeper is wakened suddenly and violently, he will die, because his soul is then rambling at a distance, and can not return to the body in time before it is awakened. This soul is supposed to have form and color, and to be a small, round, black body, and its adventures, when in the disembodied state, form a standard subject for Japanese novels and imaginative literature.[2] Pliny tells us that the soul of Hermotinus, one of the embodiments of Pythagoras, was in the habit of leaving his body and wandering into distant countries, whence it brought back numerous accounts of various things which could not have been obtained by any one but a person who was present. The body in the mean time was left apparently lifeless. At last his enemies burned the body, so that the soul on its return was, as it were, deprived of its sheath.[3] St. Augustine tells the story of a man who visited another and expounded a certain passage in Plato which formerly he had refused to do, and afterward, when questioned why he had changed his mind, denied that he had, but admitted that in a dream he had expounded the passage.[4] At the Temple of Isis, in Alexandria, an Egyptian priest, in the presence of Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry, drew a magical circle on the ground, decked out with the customary astrological signs, and then invoked from the body of Plotinus his own soul, so that he stood face to face with it.[5] Goethe[6] positively asserts that he had a similar experience. Aristophanes[7] tells us that Pisander betook himself to a certain lake to see his own soul, which had deserted him, evoked by Socrates.

The belief of savages in the possibility of the soul leaving the body during life has been widely traced. In western Africa, when a man wakes up with a pain in his body or muscles, it is because his spirit has wandered abroad in the night and been flogged by some other spirit.[8] The Feejeeans believe that the spirit of a man will leave the body to trouble other people when asleep, and, when any one faints or dies, his spirit can be brought back by calling after it.[9] Du Bose[10] tells us that in China often at night is heard the weird sound of a man calling back the body of a sick child. In the streets a cloth will be spread on the ground, with some beans thrown on it. An old woman stands by it, and calls the child by name: "Ah, do come back!" A voice up-stairs responds, "Ah!" Or the mother goes in front with a lighted lantern in hand, burning paper money at every corner. The father follows with the sick boy's clothing in his hat, crying, "My son, come back, come back!" An insect on the roof is caught, folded nicely in paper, and put beside the sick boy's pillow, and thus the lost soul is found. Sickness comes from losing his soul, and recovery follows its return home. Le Clerc recounts a story, current among the Algonquins, of an old Indian chief, whose favorite son having died, journeyed to the land of souls for his recovery. When once there, he begged so hard for his son's soul that the Indian Pluto finally gave it to him in the form and size of a nut, which, by pressing between his hands, he forced into a small leathern bag. Instructed to place the soul in the body of his son, who thereupon would come to life, the happy father hastened back, where he was greeted with dancing and rejoicing. Wishing to take part in these festivities, he handed the boy's soul for safe-keeping into the hands of a squaw. Tempted by a curiosity which has proved so fatal in all religious cults, the woman opened the bag to peep into it, when the soul escaped and returned to the land of the dead.[11] Turner[12] tells us that the soul of the chief Puepuemai was wrapped up and carried around in a leaf. The Ojibways describe how one of their chiefs died, but, while they were watching the body on the third night, his shadow came back into it, and he sat up and told them how he had traveled to the river of Death, but had been stopped there and sent back to his people.[13] The Malays do not like to wake a sleeper, lest they should hurt him by disturbing his body when his soul is out. Sir John Lubbock[14] has traced this belief in the power of the soul to leave and return to the body to the inhabitants of Madagascar, the Veddahs of Ceylon, the Mangaujas of South and the Yorubans of West Africa, the Tongans, the Peruvians, and other tribes.

Frequently the soul in its mundane journeyings took the visible guise of some animal. Grimm[15] tells us how King Gunthram's soul, while he slept on his faithful follower's lap, came out of his mouth in the form of a snake, and attempted to cross a stream. To aid the snake, the henchman bridges the stream with his sword, when it passes over, goes up a hill, and, after a little, returns and enters the king's mouth. Presently the king wakes, and relates how in a dream he had crossed an iron bridge, and entered a mountain filled with gold. Claud Paradin,[16] in his "Symbola Heroica," has a variant of this wonderful dream, accompanying the legend with an engraving of a sword with a small animal—possibly a mouse—standing on the blade, and the motto "Sic sopor irrupit." In this variant the king returns to his palace and summons all the wise men of his kingdom to interpret the dream, and for once in the world's history the opinions of the savants were unanimous. A large treasure was concealed in the hill, and its existence was thus revealed by a miracle.

Hugh Miller[17] illustrates the Celtic theory of dreams by a similar legend. Two young men sitting on a mossy bank overhanging a small cascade, one of them, overcome by the heat of the day, falls asleep, when his companion is surprised to see issue from his mouth a little indistinct form scarcely larger than a humble-bee, which disappears over the cascade. The watcher in alarm tries to waken his companion, but, before he succeeds, the cloud-like creature returns and enters the sleeper's mouth. Then he opens his eyes and relates a wonderful dream; how he crossed a broad river on a bridge of silver, and found on the further shore heaps of gold and jewels. It is more frequently the guise of a mouse that the wandering soul delights to masquerade in, though according to Grimm[18] it is the devil's brides out of whose mouths the soul runs in the shape of a red mouse. Thus we are told that in Thuringia a servant-girl fell asleep while her companions were shelling nuts, when they observed a little red mouse creep out from her parted lips and run out of the window. One of those present then shook the sleeper, but, not succeeding in waking her, moved her to another place. Presently the mouse ran back to the former place, and dashed about, seeking the girl, but, not finding her, it vanished, when the girl instantly died.[19] A miller, cutting fire-wood in the Black Forest, fell asleep over his work, when his man saw a mouse creep out of his mouth and run away; every one searched for the animal, but could not find it, and the miller never awoke.[20] In Bohemia it was considered dangerous to go to sleep while thirsty, as the soul was sure to wander abroad in search of water. Baring-Gould[21] tells the story of three laborers, having lost their way in the woods, and, parched with thirst, seeking in vain for water. At last one of them lay down and fell asleep, while the others continued their search until they found a spring. After drinking they returned to their comrade, when they saw a little white mouse run out of his mouth, go to the spring, drink, and then return to the sleeper. In German superstition the souls of the dead assume the forms of mice, and when the head of a house dies it is said that even the mice of the house abandon it, and that, in general, every apparition of mice is considered a funereal presage; the funeral of St. Gertrude, represented surrounded by mice, being thus accounted for.[22]

The position of the mouse in the folk-lore of the soul is not quite clear. The Mojaves believe that curling upward with the smoke from the funeral pyre the soul rises and floats eastward to the region of the rising sun; but, if its purity has been sullied with crime or stained with human blood, it is transformed into a rat and must remain four days in a rat-hole to be purified before it can share the joys of heaven.[23] Mr. Ralston[24] tells us that in the Nijogorod Government the Milky-Way is called the Mouse-Path, the mouse being a well-known figure of the soul. Miss Phipson[25] says that the dormouse, from its awakening from sleep with the return of spring, was sometimes employed in ecclesiastical art as a type of the resurrection. Per contra, Mr. Conway[26] assures us that the shudder which some nervous persons feel at the sight of even a harmless mouse is a survival of the time when it was believed that in this form unshriven souls or unbaptized children haunted their former homes, and from the many legends that report the departure of unhallowed souls in the shape of this timid creature.

Birds vie with mice in the honor of being human soul-bearers. The heathen Bohemians thought that the soul flew out of the mouths of the dying in the shape of birds. Grimm[27] says such ideas were common in pagan Scandinavia. In the Edda of Sæmund it is said that souls in the form of singed birds flit about the nether world like SAvarms of flies. The Bohemians thought that bird-shaped souls flew restlessly from tree to tree until the bodies were burned, when they had rest. The Finns and Lithuanians and later nearly all Indo-European people called the Milky Way the Birds' Way—that is, the way of souls.[28] The Moslems say that the souls of the faithful assume the form of snow-white birds, and nestle under the throne of Allah between death and the resurrection.[29] Another account says that in the intermediate state, until the resurrection, the souls of martyrs, according to tradition received from Mohammed, rest in heaven in the crops of beautiful green birds who eat of the fruits and drink of the rivers in that charmed region.[30] In China on the twenty-first day of the period of mourning for the dead three large paper birds resembling storks are placed on high poles in front of the house of mourning. These birds are supposed to carry the souls of the departed to Elysium, and during the next three days prayers are addressed to the ten kings of the Buddhist hades calling on them to hasten the flight of the departed soul to the Hindoo paradise.[31] On the Bosporus flocks of birds about the size of a thrush fly up and down the channel, and are never seen to rest on sea or land, and are believed by the boatmen to be the souls of the damned, condemned to perpetual motion.[32] Pliny[33] tells that it is stated in Proconnesus that the soul of Aristeas was seen to fly out of his mouth under the form of a raven. The Aztecs believed that the souls of those killed in battle, of prisoners sacrificed by the enemy, and of women dying in childbirth, went to the sun, where they passed four years of delightful existence. They were then turned into birds and animated the clouds with their brilliant plumage and harmonious voices, free to rise to the vaults of heaven or to descend to earth to taste the nectar of the flowers.[34] When a Kailta dies it is thought that the soul is carried to the spirit-land by a little bird, and, if it has been a wicked soul, it is overtaken on the way and devoured by a hawk or other bird of prey.[35] Among the Apaches the owl, the eagle, and perfectly white birds were regarded as possessing souls of divine origin.[36] The Maricopas believe that after death they will return and live in their ancient homes on the banks of the Colorado River, where their heads will be turned into owls and the other parts of their bodies into different animals.[37] The Icannas of Brazil think the souls of the dead become beautiful birds feeding on luscious fruit.[38] The Powhatans sacredly regard small wood-birds, thinking they inshrine the souls of their dead,[39] Among the Aht tribes it is believed that the soul issued from gulls and partridges, and that they will after death return to their original forms.[40] The Hurons, according to Brebeuf,[41] believed that the souls of the dead turned to doves; and among the cognate tribes of the Iroquois a dove was freed over the couch of the dying at the moment the last breath was drawn.[42] The Paris "Figaro" for October, 1872, gives an account of a similar observance as happening in the Rue Duhesme of that city. A young gypsy woman when dying was surrounded by her companions, when a man, who appeared to be the chief, entered the circle, carrying a bird in his hand, which he held beneath the mouth of the dying, and freed when she expired."[43]

The providing the dead with passports or money with which to lighten the journey of the soul to heaven is wide-spread. The Greeks placed an obolus in the mouth of the corpse, as toll for Charon, though this offering was omitted at Hermione, in Argolis, where men thought there was a short descent to hades, and thus avoided the fee.[44] Becker[45] doubts if this custom was universal among the Romans, the passages of Juvenal, vol. iii, p. 67, and of Propertius, vol. iv, pp. 11, 7, affording no sufficient proof. Among the Chinese, money was put into the mouth of the dead to buy favor in the passage to heaven.<[46] In Washington Territory, in 1879, the mouth of a dead Twana squaw was filled with money before burial.[47] At the present day, all over Europe at Irish wakes money is placed in the hand of the dead.[48] In Tuhkeim, the soul of the dead, having crossed the bridge leading out of hell with the aid of the priests, receives a letter of recommendation from them favoring its admittance into the western heaven.[49] The dead of the ancient Mexicans were furnished with several passports, the first one enabling the soul to pass between two mountains, which threatened to meet and crush it in their embrace; the second enabling it to pass the road guarded by a big snake; the third propitiated Xochitonal, the green crocodile; and the fourth insured the passage across eight deserts and over eight hills.[50]

That the soul materializes in the shape of the body it inhabited while on earth, is one of the tenets of modern spiritualism. The Chinese believe that decapitation makes headless souls in hades. During the T'aiping troubles as much as six hundred and sixty-six dollars was paid for a head to be buried with a body, in order to make a respectable appearance in the other world![51] The Australian who has slain his enemy will cut off the right thumb of the corpse, so that it can not throw the ghostly spear with the mutilated hand. A West India planter, whose slaves were committing suicide in order that they might come to life in their native land, cut off the heads and hands of the corpses, thus effectually putting an end to the practice.[52] In China the souls of the drowned are supposed to remain under water for three years, when they seize the shadow of some passing man, pull him in, and thus effect their own escape. Boatmen are in continual dread of these demons, and stone pillars are erected on the spots where they were drowned in order to control their souls.[53] Damascius tells us that, in a battle fought near Rome by Valentinian against Attila, the slaughter on both sides was so great that none escaped, and, when the bodies had all fallen, the souls still stood upright and continued fighting three whole days and nights, neither inferior in activity of hands or fierceness of mind to living men. The images of the soul were seen and the clashing of their armor heard.[54]

The idea of the plurality of the soul is met with in the oldest records of man, and is universally accepted by savage tribes to-day. The Egyptians considered man to have a soul, ba, represented by a hawk with a human head; a shade, khehi; a spirit or intelligence, khu, into which it became changed as a "being of light"; an existence, ka; besides life, ankh. The soul, ba, only revisited the body.[55] The Hebrews have nepesh, the animal life; ruah, the human principle of life; and neshamah, life considered as an inspiration of the Almighty, and from these the Rabbins taught the threefold nature of the soul.[56] The Persians divided the soul into five parts: The feroher, or sensation; the boo, intelligence; the rough, imagination, volition; the akho, conscience; and the jan, animal life. Of these, the first one alone was accountable for the deeds done in the body.[57] The Chinese believe in three souls and six spirits: the latter, being animal, go down into the earth at death, while, of the souls, one goes down into hades, the second enters the coffin, and is laid in the grave, but is not satisfied with its dismal abode; while the third lingers around its old home, and with the second soul receives the worship of its posterity.[58] The Hindoos designate between Brahmátmah', the breath of God, and jivátmah, the breath of life.[59] The Khonds of Orissa have a fourfold division of the soul, the first soul being absorbed by the Boora, or deity, the second is reborn into succeeding generations, the third goes out in dreams, and the fourth dies with the body.[60]

Plato located in the human body three souls, the rational and immortal soul occupying the head, the lower souls occupying respectively the region near the heart and the abdominal region below the diaphram, the latter subject to and connected with the higher by being fastened to the spinal marrow or cord. Of these lower souls, the thoracic was the seat of energy and anger, while to the abdominal soul belonged the appetites, the desires, and the greed of gain.[61] Aristotle divided the soul into the vegetative, the perceptive, the locomotive, the impulsive, and the noetic, all but the latter being shared with animals, while the nous was divine, perhaps pre-existent and imperishable.[62] Among the Romans the question of the plural soul is open to discussion. Ovid says: "The shades flit round the tomb; the underworld receives the image; the spirit seeks the stars" (Tumulum circumvolat umbra; orcus habet manes; spiritus astra petit). In his "Tristia"[63] he complains that, while his immortal spirit soars aloft into the vacant air, his shade will be wandering amid Sarmatian ghosts. Hardonin[64] says that the Romans made a distinction between the souls of the dead and their shades, umbræ. The former were supposed to remain on earth, while the latter were removed either to Elysium or Tartarus, according to the character or actions of the deceased. That the idea of a triple soul lingered in England we know from Sir Toby Belch, in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," asking, "Shall we rouse the night-owl with a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver?" Nares[65] says that the peripatetic philosophy, which governed the schools in the time of the old English dramatists, assigned to every man three souls—the vegetative, the animal, and the rational. In his quaint "Letters,"[66] Howell tells us that the embryon is animated with three souls: with that of plants, called the vegetable soul; then with the sensitive, which all brute animals have; and, lastly, the rational soul is infused; and these three in man, he adds, are like Trigonus in Tetragono.

The Iroquois and Algonquins believed that the soul which gave bodily life was of a vegetative character, and remained with the corpse after death until it was released by being reborn into another body; while the ethereal soul, which roamed at will while the body was asleep or in a trance, after death departed directly to the land of spirits.[67] Infants were buried by the sides of paths, that their vegetative souls might enter into the body of some mother, and their rebirth thus be hastened.[68] Among the Tucullus the medicine-man placed his hands over the breast of the dying, and then, holding them over the head of a relative, blew through the expanded fingers, in order that the next child born to him might be the representative of the departed.[69] Certain tribes on the Pacific coast believed that one of the souls had its dwelling in the bones, and, if these were planted, they would germinate like seed, and produce human beings.[70] The Choctaws believe that every man has an outside shadow, shilombish, and an inside shadow, shilup, both of which survived his body.[71] The Sioux believed in three souls, one of which went to the cold world, another to the warm world, while the third remained and watched over the body.[72] Mrs. Eastman[73] tells us that the Dakotas extended the number of souls to four, one of which wanders through the world, another hovers around the village where its possessor lived, the third stays by the grave, and the fourth goes to heaven. With certain Greenlanders one soul took the form of a shadow, the other that of the breath.[74] The Feejeeans distinguished between a man's dark spirit or shadow, which goes down to hades, and his light spirit, the one that is reflected in water or a mirror, and which remains when he dies.[75] The Malagasy say that the saina, or mind, vanishes at death; the aina, or life, becomes mere air; while the matoatoa, or ghost, hovers around the tomb.[76]

  1. Du Bose, "Dragon, Image, and Demon," pp. 369, 422.
  2. Griffis, "The Mikado's Empire," p. 472.
  3. "Natural History," vol. vii, p. 53.
  4. "De Civitate Dei," vol. xxviii, p. 18.
  5. Draper, "Intellectual Development of Europe," vol. i, p. 404.
  6. Elam, "A Physician's Problems," p. 386.
  7. "The Birds'," p. 1553.
  8. Wilson, "Western Africa," chap. xii.
  9. Williams, "Fiji and Fijians," vol. i, p. 242.
  10. "Dragon, Image, and Demon," p. 443.
  11. Parkman, "Jesuits of North America," p. lxxxiii.
  12. "Samoa," p. 142.
  13. Tylor, "Anthropology," p. 344.
  14. "Origin of Civilization," p. 214 et seq.
  15. "Teutonic Mythology," vol. iii, p. 1082.
  16. Chambers's "Book of Days," vol. i, p. 276.
  17. "Schools and Schoolmasters."
  18. Grimm, loc. cit.
  19. Baring-Gould, "Curious Myths," p. 424.
  20. Grimm, loc. cit.
  21. "Curious Myths," p. 461.
  22. De Gubernatis, "Zoölogical Mythology," vol. ii, p. 67.
  23. Bancroft, "Native Races of the Pacific Coast," vol. iii, p. 526.
  24. "Songs of the Russian People," p. 109.
  25. "Animal Lore," p. 131.
  26. "Demonology and Devil Lore," vol. i, p. 128.
  27. "Teutonic Mythology," vol. ii, p. 828.
  28. Kelley, "Indo-European Folk-Lore," p. 103.
  29. Brewer, "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," p. 840.
  30. Koran, Sale, "Preliminary Discourse," section 4; Alger, "Future Life," p. 201.
  31. Jones, "Credulities," p. 373.
  32. Hardwick, "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore," p. 158.
  33. "Natural History," vol. vii, p. 53.
  34. Bancroft, "Native Races," vol. iii, p. 533; Alger, "Future Life," p. 73; Biart, "The Aztecs," p. 86.
  35. Joaquin Miller, "Among the Modocs," p. 241.
  36. Schoolcraft, "Archæology," vol. v, p. 209.
  37. Bartlett, "Personal Narrative of Exploration," vol. ii, p. 222.
  38. Clavigero, "Messico," vol. ii, p. 5.
  39. Brinton," Myths of the New World," p. 107.
  40. Bancroft, "Native Races," vol. iii, p. 522.
  41. "Rel. des Jesuits," 1636, p. 4.
  42. Morgan, "League of the Iroquois," p. 174.
  43. Jones, "Credulities," p. 380.
  44. Tylor, "Primitive Culture," vol. i, p. 490.
  45. "Gallus," Excursus xii.
  46. Ball, in Williams's "Middle Kingdom," vol. ii, p. 244, note.
  47. "American Antiquary," October, 1880, p. 53.
  48. Tylor, "Anthropology," p. 347.
  49. Du Bose, "Dragon, Image, and Demon," p. 452.
  50. Bancroft, "Native Races," vol. iii, p. 537.
  51. Williams's "Middle Kingdom," vol. ii, 244.
  52. Tyler, "Primitive Culture," vol. i, p. 451.
  53. Du Bose, "Dragon, Image, and Demon," p. 454.
  54. Southey, "Commonplace-Book," vol. i, p. 287.
  55. Birch, in Wilkinson's "Ancient Egypt," vol. iii, p. 465, note.
  56. Farrar, "Language," p. 188.
  57. Fraser, "History of Nadir Shah"; cf. Emerson, "Indian Myths," p. 179.
  58. Du Bose, "Dragon, Image, and Demon," p. 81; 'Williams, "The Middle Kingdom," vol. ii, p. 243.
  59. Farrar, loc. cit.
  60. McPherson, "India," p. 91.
  61. Plato, "Timæus"; Grote's "Plato," vol. iii, p. 271, 272; Bain, "Senses and Intellect," p. 613.
  62. Cf. "De Gen. et Cor.," vol. ii, p. 3; "De Anima," vol. iii, p. 5.
  63. Vol. iii, p. 3.
  64. Pliny "Natural History," vol. vii, p. 57, note.
  65. "Glossary," vol. ii, p. 817.
  66. I., vol. iii, p. 36.
  67. "Rel. des Jesuits," 1636, p. 104.
  68. Ibid., 1635, p. 130.
  69. Waitz, "Anthropology," vol. iii, p. 95.
  70. Bancroft, "Native Races of the Pacific Coast," vol. iii, p. 514.
  71. Brinton, "Myths of the New World," p. 251.
  72. "Hist. Coll. Louisiana," vol. iii, p, 26.
  73. "Legends of the Sioux," p. 129.
  74. Tylor, "Primitive Culture," vol. i, p. 432; Spencer, "Principles of Sociology," vol. i, p. 191.
  75. Williams, "Fiji and the Fijians," vol. i, p. 241.
  76. Ellis, "Madagascar," vol i, 393.