Ancient Greek Theories Of The Human Soul

The soul has been a subject of mystery and intrigue for millennia. Greek philosophers formed various theories of the human soul, many of which originated in the East.

Mar 13, 2021By Danielle Mackay, BA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical Studies
ancient greek theories
Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld, Pieter Fris, 1652, via Museo del Prado; Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism, Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-30, via Royal Collection Trust; Hymn of the Pythagoreans to the Rising Sun, Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, 1877, via Sotheby’s


The great Greek philosophers first theorized ideas about ethics, metaphysics, politics, and even theatre. But what were their beliefs pertaining to the mystery of the human soul? How did these theories come to Ancient Greece? This article will review some of the prevailing ideas of ancient philosophy regarding the human soul and how they came to be. 


Early Definitions Of The Human Soul

jacques louis david death of socrates
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787, via MoMA, New York 


There are many different words used by the early Greeks and Greek philosophers (the Presocratics especially) to refer to the human soul. While the ancient definitions do not fully encompass our modern understanding of the soul, the ancients’ terms do reflect their attempts at understanding the concept. Perhaps the most well-known term the ancients used was psyche. For Greek philosophers and poets, psyche referred to breath. However, it did not denote the literal act of breathing but rather the final exhalation one takes at the moment of death. In Homer’s ‘Iliad,’ the psyche is often used to refer to the final breath or fainting. 


The second-most common term used by the ancients was thumos. A person’s thumos represented their will or life force and compelled them to action or fulfill their desires. A separate but important concept for the Greek philosophers was the eidolon, a fully-realized image of the individual in the afterlife. According to Greek mythology, once a person had died, their psyche would be released from their bodies. The psyche would travel to Hades where it would live as a shade of that person’s former self, or – if they had been sufficiently virtuous – an eidolon.


The Presocratic Theories Of The Human Soul

pythagoras advocating vegetarianism
Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism, Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-30, via Royal Collection Trust


Theories of the human soul transformed throughout antiquity, but these definitions generally held fast amongst most ancient Greek philosophers. Presocratic philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras wrote that the soul is what distinguishes animate from inanimate objects. They went so far as to believe that plants, too, had a soul. Other presocratics, like Anaxagoras and Democritus, referred to plants as though they were animals, purely by the view that they were living things. 

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Pythagoras’ Theories 

hymn of the pythagoreans to the rising sun
Hymn of the Pythagoreans to the Rising Sun, Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, 1877, via Sotheby’s


Pythagoras and his School of Philosophy have been confounding and engrossing scholars for centuries. Nobody really knows much about Pythagoras – other than he came from Samos in the 6th century BCE. Even long after his death, the Pythagoreans were a structured philosophical sect that continued to follow his teachings. 


Pythagoras’ lectures on the immortality of the human soul, or metempsychosis, were well documented by other Greek philosophers. One of these was Xenophanes, who reports that Pythagoras once saw a puppy being beaten. He stopped the beating and told those present that the puppy was occupied by the soul of a friend, whom he recognized upon hearing its cry. Like many of their contemporaries, the Pythagoreans believed that the body was a tomb in which the soul is trapped. The only release from a continuous cycle of rebirth into this trap was by living a pure life. They practiced rituals of purity, abstained from wearing wool, and helped animals achieve their own transcendence by exercising devout vegetarianism.


Orphic Beliefs Of The Human Soul

orpheus roelandt savery
Orpheus, Roelandt Savery, 1628, via The National Gallery, London


The Orphics are a part of the ancient world, which, like the Pythagoreans, continues to fascinate modern scholars. They were not a unified order but a variety of sects with similar beliefs, religious practices, and philosophy. The Orphics followed the teachings of their namesake, the mythical figure of Orpheus. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus possessed a gift for music that drew birds and animals to him. He took part in the Argo expedition and saved Jason and the Argonauts from the deadly Sirens with his singing. Orpheus was also able to descend into the underworld and released his wife, Eurydice, from Hades. Some Orphic communities practiced vegetarianism as part of a general prohibition on shedding the blood of living things. They also believed that the body was a tomb for the human soul, which underwent a cycle of rebirth.


The Orphics considered the human soul immortal and divine. They believed it to be a part of Dionysus, who in their mythology was dismembered and devoured by the Titans. As retribution, the Titans were destroyed by Zeus, and humanity was created from their ashes. What was left of the partially-consumed Dionysus was then used to make the immortal human soul. As penance for the Titans’ original sin from whom humans were created, everyone must suffer endless cycles of rebirth. The only way to escape this cycle was through initiation into the sacred mysteries of Dionysus. Only after undergoing the telete, or purification rites, that one could become an initiate. 


The Orphic Gold Tablets

orphic gold tablet
Orphic Gold Tablet bearing an inscription that warns the soul not to drink from a particular spring in Hades, but to seek one by the Lake of Memory, where, after drinking, it shall be equal with other souls, c. 3rd century BCE from Petelia, Italy. via The British Museum, London


Once initiated, the Orphic adherent learned the secrets of release and was forgiven of their Titanic guilt. Initiates would then receive instructions on how to navigate the afterlife. 


Little golden trinkets, like the one in the image above, are known as the Orphic Gold Tablets. Many of them have been found in Orphic initiates’ tombs throughout the Mediterranean, including Thurii, Hipponium, and Crete. Their purpose was to remind initiates what to do upon arriving in the Underworld. Simply, they must refrain from quenching their thirst at a particular spring in Hades and rather find and drink from the ‘Lake of Memory.’ The initiates must do this to ensure they do not forget what they have learned in the mysteries and life. By doing this, they can finally achieve release from the cycle of metempsychosis. Those not initiated into the mysteries must endure the boundless cycle until they eventually become initiated.


Plato’s Theories Of The Human Soul

plato symposium
Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869, via Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe


Theories shifted during the 5th-century B.C.E when Plato made known the teachings of his mentor, Socrates, in his Socratic dialogues. The most important of these dialogues for our discussion is the Phaedo. It is there that Socrates reiterated that the human soul is immortal and must suffer a series of reincarnations. For Socrates, the physical body (soma) was a tomb (sēma), which trapped the soul, and death was simply the separation of the human soul from the physical body. He posited that during the process of rebirth, the individual would forget everything they had learned in their previous life. It is through the keen study of philosophy that the individual eventually remembers – a process known as anamnesis. The philosopher’s life’s goal was to release the human soul from this loop through purification and contemplation. 


Eastern Origins Of The Theories Of Greek Philosophers

Hindu Theories Of The Human Soul

buddha amoghasiddhi eight bodhisattvas
Buddha Amoghasiddhi with Eight Bodhisattvas, from Central Tibet, 1200-50, via MoMA, New York


In India, the theory of reincarnation, or punarjanma, was established in the Upanishads. An individual’s selfhood transcended the physical to include the spiritual essence which is part of an immortal soul or atman. After death, this atman is born again into the physical world in a cycle known as saṃsāra. The ultimate achievement is to earn release (moksha) from the cycle and for the soul to re-join the Divine One or Brahman. This release can only be achieved by resolving one’s karma and coming to a realization of ‘God’ through meditation. These beliefs require the followers of Hinduism to live their lives in strict observance of their karma. Scholars theorize that this concept of the human soul traveled to Greece at some time in the 6th-century B.C.E. 


The Buddha And The Human Soul

seated buddha thailand
Seated Buddha from Thailand, 15th century, via MoMA, New York


Buddhism is another Eastern source of human soul theories. This philosophy was developed from the teachings of the Buddha or ‘Awakened One’. He is believed to have lived in India between the mid-6th and mid-4th centuries B.C.E. The historical Buddha was an Indian prince named Siddhārta Gautama, who decided to pursue a holy man’s life. He left for the countryside and went to a remote area called Bodh Gaya. There he practiced a life of austere asceticism and meditation, through which he was able to achieve nirvana. This realization of nirvana led to him becoming the revered figure known as the Buddha. 


In Buddhism, the cycles of rebirth are filled with duḥkha or suffering. These rebirths can also happen in any one of six realms. These include three good and three evil realms. The good realms are Deva (heavenly, of gods), Asura (of demigods), and Manusya (of humans). The three evil realms, on the other hand, are those of Tiryak (animals), Preta (ghosts), and Naraka (hellish things). The cycle only ceases once nirvana or enlightenment is attained. This nirvana can only be secured through the observance of karma in one’s previous, and current life. 


Egyptian Theories Of Human Soul

weighing of heart papyrus
A papyrus depicting the weighing of the heart and the feather of Ma’at by Anubis, 19th Dynasty, Egypt, via The British Museum, London


Other ideas of the human soul hailed from Ancient Egypt. Despite metempsychosis not finding popularity there, Egyptian theories influenced Greek philosophers of subsequent centuries. 


Ancient Egyptians believed that the human soul was immortal and that death was a temporary interruption rather than an end to life. To ensure that their souls would live on in the underworld, Ancient Egyptians practiced reverence towards their gods. They tried to live a good and honest life in the physical world so that they would be judged well by Anubis in the Duat (underworld). In Egyptian mythology, the heart of the deceased would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at (truth or order). If the heart weighed the same or less than the feather, the individual was judged worthy. They were then allowed to spend eternity in the Field of Reeds. If the heart weighed more than the feather, however, it would be devoured by Ammit, a demon of Duat


To further complicate things, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the human soul had two parts: the ba and the ka. The ka was the embodiment of one’s life force, and the ba was their unique personality. In life, the union of these with several other elements made up the akh. Once a person died, ‘akh’ became referent to the nightly reunion of the ba and ka in the deceased’s tomb.


Similarities Between The Theories of the Human Soul

pieter fris orpheus and eurydice
A papyrus depicting the weighing of the heart and the feather of Ma’at by Anubis, 19th Dynasty, Egypt, via The British Museum, London


Although the theories explored in this article don’t cover the full morass of beliefs on the nature of the human soul, they do provide us with insight into how people in antiquity viewed death and the afterlife. Through trade and conquest, Eastern ideas of the soul were able to infiltrate the Greek world. The Greek philosophers then adapted these ancient beliefs into their own philosophies for life and the afterlife. While there are some differences in their adaptations, the common roots of these theories are self-evident throughout these ancient beliefs and mythologies. Regardless of which one you subscribed to, one principle held true everywhere: the obligation to live a good life.

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By Danielle MackayBA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical StudiesDanielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.