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The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Dualism and Metempsychosis


The concept of the soul has long fascinated humanity, occupying a central place in the collective consciousness. In the framework of ancient Greek history of thought, the notions of it formed a vibrant and evolving tapestry. The ideas surrounding the soul that emerged from ancient Greek thought exerted a profound influence on subsequent intellectual developments, particularly within the realm of Christianity and Western European philosophy. From the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophers, the soul remained a focal point of inquiry and speculation. Even in modern times, the legacy of the Greek understanding of the soul persists, shaping the contemporary conceptions and debates. The exploration of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and ethical considerations all bear traces of the enduring influence of Greek philosophy on the existent beliefs on the matter.

This series of articles seeks to explore the multifaceted concept of the soul in ancient Greek literary, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Beginning with foundational literary works such as those of Homer and Hesiod and progressing through the profound theories put forth by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others, it aims to unravel the diverse and evolving understanding of the soul in ancient Greece. The series is divided into the following chapters:

3. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Dualism and Metempsychosis

4. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plato’s Tripartite Soul

5. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Aristotle’s Psychology

6. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms

7. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Air and Fire of Pneuma

8. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Dualism and Metempsychosis

Ancient Greece stands out for its profound examination of the soul, delving into its complexities through intricate philosophical debates and religious doctrines The rich tapestry of Greek intellectual tradition provides a backdrop against which emerged two compelling movements: Pythagoreanism and Orphism. Pythagoreanism started as a school of thought in ancient Greece, founded by Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE. It mixed religious beliefs with philosophical ideas. Despite evolving to encompass diverse fields such as politics, mysticism, music, mathematics, and astronomy, the unifying factor among Pythagoreans has consistently been allegiance to the foundational principles and religious beliefs set forth by Pythagoras himself (Schibli, 1998). Orphism, on the other hand, was a mystical branch of ancient Greek religion. It's linked to Orpheus, a mythical musician, and was popular from the 6th century BCE onwards. Characterised by hexameter poems—poetic works written in a specific metre, often used for epic or heroic tales—and mystery cults—religious groups that practised secret rites and rituals—, its focus was on achieving soul salvation (Burkert, 1998). These religious and philosophical movements have contributed to a profound, intricate understanding of the nature of the soul—particularly through the lens of dualism, which is the belief that the body and soul are separate entities, and metempsychosis, the idea that the soul moves from one life to another through reincarnation. This article aims to delve into these nuanced viewpoints to explore their impact and relevance in both historical and contemporary contexts.

Dualism and metempsychosis, while individually intriguing, gain added complexity when examined together. These doctrines illuminate different facets of the soul's experience—its fundamental separation from the body and its cyclical journey through various incarnations. Thus, according to the concept, the soul lives multiple lives in different bodies. The combination of these two ideas creates a composite picture of the soul's existential predicament and potential transcendence within the frameworks of Pythagoreanism and Orphism. Dualism posits a dichotomy between the material body and the immaterial soul. Rooted in Pythagoreanism, and later adopted by Platonic philosophy, dualism casts the body as a 'prison' for the soul, a concept that has far-reaching ethical, moral, and spiritual implications (Plato, 2017, p. 272). Metempsychosis, or the transmigration (the movement from one body to another after death) of the soul, a concept prevalent in Orphism, posits that the soul undergoes a cycle of death and rebirth, inhabiting different bodies over successive lives. This eternal cycle is not an endless loop but a journey toward purification and eventual union with the divine (Long, 1948). The intersections between dualism and metempsychosis provide a rich area of study. These two notions are intrinsically linked, each illuminating different facets of the soul's complex relationship with mortality and the quest for spiritual purification. They also offer insights into how ancient Greek society reconciled life on Earth and spiritual goals, a challenge that resonates with contemporary philosophical debates.

Figure 1: Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Corot, 1861).
The Concept of Dualism

One of the most captivating and enduring ideas to emerge from ancient Greek philosophical discourse is the concept of dualism. This way of understanding existence outlines a clear distinction between the material world of the body and the immaterial essence of the soul. The Pythagorean perspective on dualism was radical in its time, challenging prevailing Homeric views—which derived from foundational ancient Greek texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey—, whose concept of the soul was merely a shadowy version of the physical body (Kahn, 2001). Instead, Pythagoreanism put forth a version of dualism that depicted the soul as an eternal, divine entity temporarily encased within a mortal body. This idea from Pythagoreanism heavily influenced Plato, especially in works like Phaedo, where the body is seen as a prison restricting the soul (Plato, 1966, Phaedo, 82e). Within this metaphysical prison, the soul's true capabilities are confined and hindered by bodily desires and sensations:

“The lovers of knowledge,” said he, “perceive that when philosophy first takes possession of their soul it is entirely fastened and welded to the body and is compelled to regard realities through the body as through prison bars, not with its own unhindered vision, and is wallowing in utter ignorance. And philosophy sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment is the fact that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his own imprisonment […]”. (Plato, Phaedo, 82d-83a)

The symbiotic interplay between Pythagorean and Orphic dualism—where each philosophy enriches and illuminates the other—is intriguing. Both perspectives share the idea of the soul as a divine, immortal entity subjected to a bodily existence. However, they diverge when it comes to the mechanisms through which the soul can attain its eventual freedom. Pythagoreanism relied on rational introspection and philosophical inquiry, while Orphism leaned towards mystical rites and secret knowledge. These differences are a mirror of the wider Greek society of their time, where philosophy and religion were not separate fields but mixed together in complex ways.

Figure 2: Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld (Rosa, 1662).
The Orphic Tradition

The Orphic Hymns, a collection of 87 poetic compositions attributed to Orpheus, serve as a profound source for understanding the ritualistic and cosmological aspects of the Orphic tradition. The Orphic Hymns act as a bridge between theoretical constructs and practical application within the religious tradition. Often recited during initiation ceremonies and religious rites, these hymns encapsulate the essence of Orphic beliefs about the soul, offering both a practical guide and a philosophical foundation for adherents of the faith. At a foundational level, the hymns address various gods, spirits, and cosmic entities, acknowledging their roles in the creation and maintenance of the universe. In these hymns, the intricate beliefs of Orphic dualism come to light. They present the soul as a divine essence that, although confined by its physical body, can still achieve a higher state through sacred knowledge and ritual cleanliness. These hymns serve a purpose beyond mere worship or requests for divine favour. Rather, each one is designed to trigger a specific spiritual change within the individual. (Athanassakis & Wolkow, 2013). For example, the Hymn to Dionysus addresses themes that are often associated with concepts like birth, death, and rebirth:

I call upon loud-roaring and reveling Dionysos, primeval, two-natured, Thrice-born, Bacchic lord, savage, ineffable, two-horned and two-shaped. Ivy-cover, bull-faced, warlike, howling, pure, you take raw flesh, You have triennial feasts, wrapt in foliage, decked with grape clusters. Resourceful Eubouleus, immortal god sired by Zeus, When he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union. Hearken to my voice, O blessed one, and with your fair-girdled nurses, Breathe on me in spirit of perfect kindness. (The Orphic Hymns, 30)

Another noteworthy element in the Orphic Hymns is their emphasis on ritualistic purification. The Hymn to Persephone includes detailed invocations aimed at assisting the soul in its journey through the underworld. Such hymns serve as navigational aids for the soul, embodying the Orphic belief that the body is a 'tomb' from which the soul seeks liberation. The practical implications of these hymns extend beyond individual spiritual pursuits. They provide a collective framework for communal rituals, often involving collective singing, dancing, and the offering of sacrifices. These rituals aim to collectively purify the community's soul and, by extension, align the earthly realm with the cosmic order. Importantly, the hymns also serve as analytical lenses for understanding Orphic worldviews—specifically, their cosmogonies and eschatologies. Cosmogonies are narratives that explain the origin of the universe and the gods, while eschatologies concern the fate of souls and the ultimate destiny of the world. The verses frequently delve into mythological narratives, detailing the origin of the universe, the gods, and human souls (Athanassakis & Wolkow, 2013).

Figure 3: Orpheus among the Thracians (Manner of the Kleophon Painter, c. 430 BCE).

The religious movement of Orphism, closely aligned with Pythagorean thought, suggests an even more mystical form of dualism. Originating from ancient religious rites and mythologies, Orphism conceives the body as not just a prison but also a 'tomb' ('body-tomb' or 'soma-sema' in Greek) for the soul (Casadesús, 2016, p. 6). In contrast to the more rational Pythagoreanism, the Orphic tradition is saturated with ritual and symbolic connotations. However, even though Pythagoreanism was a primarily philosophical movement, its focus on dualism had religious implications as well. This is evident in Pythagorean lifestyle rules, such as the prohibition against eating certain foods that were considered to be impure, such as meat, fish and beans. (Petrovic & Petrovic, 2016).

The Concept of Metempsychosis

While dualism offered a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between the soul and the body, the concept of metempsychosis brought dynamic movement into this dualistic model. Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, is the term introducing the notion of a cyclical journey that the soul undertakes across various lives and bodies. This concept is a cornerstone in Orphic doctrine, adding layers of complexity to the understanding of the soul in ancient Greek tradition. Orphism, with its deep roots in mystical rites and mythologies, offered a compelling narrative of metempsychosis. Orphic texts, such as the Orphic Gold Tablets (small pieces of gold foil that have been found in ancient Greek graves), describe an afterlife scenario where the soul faces a series of choices between different paths, or springs to drink from (Bernabé & Jiménez San Cristóbal, 2008).

Figure 4: Gold Sheet with Orphic Prayer (350-300 BCE) (J.P. Getty Museum).

In contrast to the Orphic tradition, Pythagoreanism offers a more intellectual framework for understanding metempsychosis. Pythagoreans utilised this concept not only as a mythic narrative but as a philosophical tool to explore the essence of existence and the acquisition of knowledge. Both traditions engage with the River Lethe, believed to obscure memories in the cycle of rebirth. Orphic thought posits that unenlightened souls consume the water from the River Lethe and thereby erase their memories, whereas enlightened souls are said to choose water from a different stream, known as the River of Memory, near the entrance to the Elysian Fields—the heavenly realm reserved for heroes and the virtuous (Coassin, 2000). Whether approached through philosophical inquiry or mystical rites, the importance of memory stands as a unifying theme in both the Orphic and Pythagorean concepts of the soul's afterlife journey.

The notion of the soul's transmigration extended its influence beyond metaphysical considerations to also shape ethical worldviews. For instance, the belief that souls can inhabit animal bodies promoted vegetarianism among Pythagoreans and certain Orphic communities (Osek, 2015). The dietary choice amplified the ethical implications of human actions, which were understood to have consequences in future lives. This ethical focus prompts further examination of the underlying assumptions about the soul's nature and immortality for the Pythagoreans.

Figure 5: Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism (Rubens & Snyders, c. 1628-30).
The Immortality of the Soul

Conventional scholarly opinion holds that early Pythagorean thought supports the concept of an immortal soul. Much of this belief stems from the writings of Dicaearchus of Messana, an ancient Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE and pupil of Aristotle, who clearly aligns the Pythagoreans with four key tenets concerning the soul: its immortality, transmigration into other animals, eternal recurrence, and the categorisation of embodied creatures into the same genus. However, Phillip Horky, a scholar in the field of Classics and Ancient Philosophy, identifies a critical flaw in relying on Dicaearchus for historical accuracy. He notes Dicaearchus' tendency to conflate Platonic and Pythagorean philosophies. Horky instead turns to overlooked passages in Aristotle's De anima to provide new insights into Pythagorean psychology. The first passage he examines suggests a connection between Pythagorean beliefs and the material theories of the soul found in Democritus' and Ecphantus' atomism—philosophies proposing that the soul is made up of minute, indivisible particles. The second passage entertains the notion that paralleling arguments in Plato's Phaedo, a soul might undergo transmigration yet still be mortal. This challenges the long-standing assumption that early Pythagoreans believed in an immortal soul, suggesting instead that they likely viewed the soul as material, mortal, and capable of transmigration (Horky, 2021).

However, Leonid Zhmud, a renowned historian specialising in ancient philosophy, challenges the traditional portrayal of the Pythagorean community as a unified doctrinal sect (2020). Instead, Zhmud argues, that they were more akin to a 'hetairia,' a social association with diverse views on metaphysical, ethical, and social matters, rather than being monolithic entities with fixed beliefs. This diversity within the Pythagorean community is particularly evident when considering their views on the soul and the concept of metempsychosis. While it is common to attribute to them a specific belief system involving the transmigration of souls, the reality appears more nuanced.

Figure 6: A Pythagorean School Invaded by Sybarites (Tedesco, 1887).

The Pythagorean concept of metempsychosis diverged significantly from the Orphic tradition, which emphasized the soul's path to salvation. In the Pythagorean framework, metempsychosis did not offer an ultimate liberation or salvation for the soul. The Orphic tradition posited a more linear journey for the soul, one that eventually culminates in its liberation. The absence of this study of salvation element in the Pythagorean perspective hints at the differences in their metaphysical viewpoints. Moreover, the absence of a 'sacred scripture' or authoritative religious text within the Pythagorean community further undermines the notion that there was a unified perspective on the soul or any other spiritual matter. Though often credited with deep religious or philosophical teachings, there's little evidence to suggest that Pythagoras' authority rested on a codified doctrine that his followers adhered to (Zhmud, 2020). The complexities surrounding the Pythagorean community reveal that there was no unified perspective on the soul, unlike what is found in the Orphic tradition. This understanding encourages a more refined interpretation of the socio-spiritual dynamics of ancient societies.

Another example of the philosophical elaboration of the concept of metempsychosis is evident in Plato's Timaeus. In this framework, the transmigration of the soul acts as a form of suitable degradation, dependent on one's prior life. One of the most compelling facets of Plato's perspective is his account of the transformation from humans to other life forms, including animals and women. In Timaeus, Plato posits that the first generation of humans might have been sexless or at least physically androgynous. The subsequent generation of women emerges as a punitive measure for men who led lives marred by cowardice and injustice. It is noteworthy that Plato introduces the notion that one's gender in the next life could serve as a sanction based on their ethical character in a former existence (Plato, 1925, Timaeus). Timaeus goes on to detail how humans metamorphose into animals as a form of retribution. Plato categorises animals into four groups: birds, quadrupeds, crawling creatures, and aquatic animals. Each group serves as a suitable penalty for the individual's transgressions in their previous life. For example, frivolous men who focused excessively on the heavens but failed to attain wisdom were transformed into birds. This idea of 'suitable degradation' argues that the form an individual assumes in their next life is shaped by their moral and intellectual shortcomings in their past life. However, this perspective raises multiple questions about Plato's overall worldview. It remains unclear whether all animals are reincarnations of humans facing punishment or only a subset. Moreover, the relationship between 'ethical failings' and 'lack of intellect' in determining one's future life is ambiguous. These unresolved questions suggest that, although Plato established some foundational principles for metempsychosis, the system is neither entirely infallible nor consistent (Robinson, 1977).

Figure 7: The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium (Stanhope, c. 1880).

An important aspect of grasping ancient Greek views on the soul involves understanding the subtle differences between transformation and transmigration, as suggested by Plato. Transformation means that the reincarnated being has a soul that adjusts specifically to its new bodily form. In this sense, the transformation does not merely alter the body; it also changes the very nature of the soul to align with its new existence. In contrast, the notion of transmigration suggests that the human soul persists in its entirety as it passes into a new body. This could mean that the rational faculties, emotional complexities, and even specific memories could potentially be transferred from one life form to another. Thus, transformation implies that the new being possesses only the soul suited to its new form, while transmigration suggests that the rational human soul persists in the new body. This introduces philosophical complexities, such as the dual nature of the soul within a single body, issues which the text implies even Plato himself may not have fully resolved (Robinson, 1977).

Studying ancient Greek views on the soul, reincarnation, and dualism shows they weren't uniform. These differences point out challenges in reading old texts. Therefore, these discussions should be seen not just as historical but as evolving topics involving complex ethical and spiritual issues. When looking at dualism and reincarnation in ancient Greece, their lasting cultural impact becomes clear. Both Pythagoreanism and Orphism are key, providing deep insights without needing mystical concepts. They focus on ethical concerns that still affect today's debates on ethics and spirituality. These ideas have not just shaped history but also continue to intersect with current ethical discussions. These legacies offer more than academic interest; they remain relevant for ongoing debates in various fields.

Bibliographical References

Athanassakis, A. N., & Wolkow, B. M. (2013). The Orphic Hymns. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bernabé, A., Jiménez San Cristóbal, A. I. (2008). Instructions for the netherworld: The Orphic gold tablets (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, Vol. 162). Brill.

Burkert, W. (1998). Orphism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis.

Casadesús, F. (2016). The transformation of the initiation language of mystery religions into philosophical terminology. In M. J. Martín-Velasco & M. J. García Blanco (Eds.), Greek Philosophy and Mystery Cults (pp. 1-26). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Coassin, F. (2000). The Function of Lethe. In M. Baker & D. Glenn (Eds.), Dante Colloquia in Australia: 1982-1999 (pp. 95-102). Australian Humanities Press. Retrieved from

Horky, P. (2021). Pythagorean immortality of the soul? In A. Long (Ed.), Immortality in Ancient Philosophy (pp. 41-65). Cambridge University Press.

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Plato. (2017). Euthyphro. Apology. Crito. Phaedo (C. Emlyn-Jones & W. Preddy, Eds. & Trans.). Loeb Classical Library 36. Harvard University Press.

Robinson, T. M. (1997). Plato on metempsychosis and the concept of appropriate degradation. Méthexis, 10, 45–49.

Schibli, H. (1998). Pythagoreanism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis.

Zhmud, L. (2020). Orphics and Pythagoreans: Craft vs. Sect? In A. Meriani & G. Zuchtriegel (Eds.), La Tomba del Tuffatore: rito, arte e poesia a Paestum e nel Mediterraneo d'epoca tardo-arcaica (pp. 347-368). Arganautica. Retrieved from

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