Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
The Human Soul

Mythological, religious, and contemporary pseudoscientific ideas about the human soul

One of the most important concepts of human culture is the concept of the soul. Expressions of the type “take a load off [one’s] soul, to rest one’s soul, my soul, commend [one’s soul] to God, a soulmate, etc. have long entered the linguistic culture of the Russian people. What is behind this? What is the story of this concept? Today people of various ages, professions, and social strata ask themselves these questions.

In Russian and in other languages this concept is connected with the word “to breathe”. A living person breathes. A dead one doesn’t, and therefore is not alive. Even in earliest times simple observations of living and dead people led to the conclusion that there is something inside each person which makes him alive. This something, the main attribute of which is associated with breathing, received the name “soul”.

Along with the concept of a person’s “soul” there exists in many myths and religions a closely related concept of a person’s “spirit”. The relationship of these two concepts can vary from complete division to complete fusion. The ancient philosophers Democritus (5th century B.C.E.), Epicurus (4th century B.C.E.), and Lucretius (1st century B.C.E.) considered that the soul is an organ materially giving life to the body guided by a material source, the spirit or, otherwise, reason. Plato (5th century B.C.E.) thought otherwise, stating that it is the soul which is the vessel of the mind. The Roman poet Juvenal (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.E.) said that the Creator gave animals only a soul, but gave people a spirit, too.

In the teachings of a number of religions animals and plants also have a soul and a spirit. The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods also had souls. Natural objects had them, too: mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, fields, and also heavenly bodies, the stars and planets, had their doubles in the form of spirits. These were powerful and usually invisible beings. Some of them gave people good and others strives to bring them harm. One more difference between a soul and a spirit was that the spirit could have a different source and could also be manifested in the form of a mythological being. In the latter case, as distinct from gods, spirits were on a lower level of the mythological system. Thus the concept of a “spirit” is broader than the concept of a “soul”.

Sometimes these concepts from one to the other. Thus, according to the beliefs of some peoples after death the soul of a person becomes a spirit. For example, among the Slavs the soul of the dead was turned into a spirit called “nav”. Similar views are held by followers of one of the oldest religions in India, Jainism. According to their beliefs, at the moment of a person’s death his soul is freed from the bonds of any matter and then dwells like a spirit.

As labor productivity and social stratification of society grew, spirits were turned into gods. In one of the world’s religions, Christian, the spirit is turned into God and gets the title of “God of the Holy Spirit” and is on a level with two other gods (God the Father and God the Son) as a full member of the “Holy Trinity” comprising the unique Christian pantheon. In Christian teaching besides God the spirit there is also the concept of the spirit of man. The truth is, it is quite vague. For example, in the second 1988 issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, Archpriest Aleksandr Vetelev wrote that the word “spirit” means “a certain elusive essence in a given being, a certain vivifying origin, something originating from a being besides the will”.

However, it ought to be noted that, unlike the soul which, according to the Bible, God gave Adam, a gracious God also gave him a spirit, about which nothing is written. In those places of the Bible where it writes about the spirit of Man, it is in essence talking about the soul. And the best evidence of this is the phrase from Ecclesiastes, “And dust will return to the Earth as it was, but the spirit will return to God who gave it” (12:7). And insofar as this is the only description of the moment when God gave Adam “the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), then accordingly he received a soul, not a spirit. It is therefore no accident that many Catholic and Orthodox theologians think that “soul” and “spirit” have the same substance. For example, in the Catholic catechism it says that “the soul is a spirit, an immaterial being which does not need material form but is found in the human body and guides it”.

At the same time there is in Christianity and in Orthodoxy in particular the opinion that the soul and spirit are different concepts. “Spirit” became ascribed to a person by several Christian preachers under the influence of pagan beliefs about Man having something besides a soul, some sort of special spirit. Theosophists went still further, for example H.P..Blavatskaya who has now again become popular here. She stated that, besides the soul, which she called an “astral body”, a person also has a “higher, enduring spirit”. Desiring to be original, Ye. P. Blavatskaya gave this spirit the designation “non-human”. Why? Evidently so that her concept of the spirit would be distinguished from the generally accepted one.

According to some beliefs, besides the soul or spirit there can reside in a human body…a god. For example, the residents of ancient Mesopotamia believed in this. A personal god was viewed as a creator, parent, guardian, endowing [one] with descendants. According to clay tablets from Susa of the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. this personal god was considered not only an assistant during life but also the one who gave a person the sign of death and also accompanied him to “that world” and even helped him there.

Besides the idea about the soul of an individual there exists the concept of a “world soul”, a reflection of all existence. According to Buddhism death is a transition from a lower stage to a higher one, continuing until the spirit reaches such a degree of purity and perfection as to enter the “world soul”, toward which everything which exists on Earth strives.

The problem of life and death is undoubtedly the most burning question for mankind. For thousands of years people have been thinking about why they die, how to avoid this, and how to gain immortality. The fruits of these thoughts have reached us in the form of myths and religious teachings.

There are two main themes throughout these thoughts: the cause of the physical death of a person and the possibility of prolonging the existence of a person (or his soul) in some other world. On one hand, the death of a person was completely obvious and evoked no doubt. On the other hand, it was not completely in people’s consciousness that a person was alive, had lived and then suddenly was no more since he had died.

In one of the oldest literary memorials of world culture, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4600 years ago, the King of Uruk, a city-state in Sumeria located in Mesopotamia, thought about death this way:

People die in my city, the heart is sad! People die and the heart is heavy! I glanced from a wall and saw bodies floating in the river. And I? Does that fate await me? Yes. That fate awaits me, too.

And all people have dreamed of eternal life. Myths were created about how at one time there was no death on Earth. People lived happily, there was abundance in the world, but then they offended the gods (or god) and became mortal. The Bible contains a version of this myth. The Ewe people of Africa have another version of this myth. The cause of death came because the first woman, the wife of the first man on Earth, did not listen to her husband and threw a rock at the sky. As a result the sky suddenly rose high into the air and then a voice came from there predicting death for the people.

There is another version for the appearance of death. The Melanesian tribes of the islands of Bank and the New Hebrides think that people did not die because they shed their skin like snakes and crabs and then became young again. But one time the son of a woman who had shed her old skin did not recognize her. Having regretted it, she put it on again and from that time people stopped shedding their skins and began to die.

A reason connecting the death of people with the overpopulation of the Earth was also invented. For example, in the myths of ancient India it says that descendants were born from people who gradually filled the entire Earth. The Earth became heavy and turned to the creator and architect of all existence, the god Brahma. And then Brahma created death in the form of a woman dressed in a dark red dress which he do commanded to away with all living creatures.

The myth of the peoples of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine Archipelago, is close to this cause of death. People grew old; many could not only not work but move, but did not want to die. The number of old men always increased. Then god caused the waters to rise, which flooded all dry land except the tops of the mountains on which only young people were rescued. After this flood diseases appeared from which people began to die in old age.

Besides ideas that people were immortal in the distant past there existed a faith that on Earth there was a country where people do not die. For example, among the Tupi Indians there was a widespread faith in the existence of a “country without evil”, whose residents were always happy and immortal. From time to time one or another shaman declared himself a prophet who knew the way to this promised land. His tribesman travelled hundreds and thousands of kilometers, abandoning villages and following him with most of their belongings. Such journeys of resettlement occurred right in front of Europeans even in the XVI century.

Myths about a “country without evil” are essentially one of the versions of the myth about a world beyond the grave where people not only have eternal life but also forever remain young, healthy, and happy.

In connection with the abolition of many ideological prohibitions in the last 10 years people in Russia are experiencing an increased interest in everything religious and mystical. They come to think of the futility of existence and the folly of the years they have lived. Previous ideals have been depreciated and have disappeared. Today former Party officials, especially high-ranking ones, now turn to God and faith in the transcendental. People are losing their bearings, and do not know in what to believe and where now values are authentic, but where they are imaginary. People reach out to religion, to God, and to mysticism, hoping to find the sense of their existence there. Hence the interest in religious teachings, in particular in the study of life beyond the grave and the topic of the soul and eternal life.

It is so pleasant to think that life is eternal, even not in the form in which a person lives right now but eternal all the same! The mass media promote this, disseminating religious ideas of the past, especially of the present about otherworldly life, citing stories of people who have supposedly been on the border of this and “that” world as “evidence” of its existence.

Let’s look at what are the main ideas about the human soul in the world today, what properties are ascribed to it, and where the soul goes after death, where it is now and what it does. This will give an opportunity to create a complete idea of the current status of the issue of the human soul and offer the reader food for thought about the difficulty of searching for truth and the eternal secrets of existence.

Common Ideas About the Human Soul

In the opinion of the famous ethnographer and historical of primitive religions E. Taylor, primitive people thought that the soul is a subtle, immaterial human form, somewhat like steam, air, or a shadow in its nature; it forms the reason for life and thought in that being which it animates. On the other hand, there is the idea that the soul is a cluster of energy which cannot be measured by any instruments. This is what the Jain think.

In the view of primitive peoples and the religions which have inherited these views, the soul leaves the person after the death of the body. At the same time, in antiquity as with many peoples today, there exists the popular belief that if the soul is preserved then the life of the body will continue. People also believed that if a person manages to extract his soul and preserve it in a secret place then he would ensure himself immortality and nothing could threaten him any longer. In accordance with these views during a period of danger a person would extract his soul and the souls of his friends beforehand and put them in a safe place for storage.

For example, in the islands of Southeast Asia today many people consider moving into a new home a critical moment threatening their souls with death. In the XIX century on the island of the Celebes during the move to a new home a priest collected the souls of his entire family in a bag until the danger passed. On the Kai Islands a hollowed-out coconut split in half and put back together still serves today as storage for the soul of a newborn in order that it not be the target of evil spirits. Not along ago the Eskimos in Alaska took unique precautionary steps for the soul of a sick child. The doctor forced it into an amulet through an incantation and concealed it in his medicine bag where the soul was the most safe.

A whole series of interesting beliefs are devoted to the behavior of the human soul during sleep. For example, in the philosophical texts of ancient India, the Upanishads, the state of deep sleep is viewed as some sort of border between life and death. The critical beginning of a person (jiva) on this border “achieves itself” and “is liberated from fatigue”, but the spiritual substance of a person, his soul (purusha), is sort of detached from it.

Unlike a dead person, the soul of a sleeping person never flies away. When the time comes to wake up the soul returns to its owner. This occurs in a moment and is independent of how far it is from his body.

A majority of religions think that a soul which leaves the body during the night has no contact with it. At the same time according to the teachings of Lamaism (one of the types of Buddhism) the soul and physical body are connected to one another by a special “silver thread” able to extend infinitely and elastically. The soul is afraid to leave the body and therefore all the time remains connected to it by this thread. In spite of the thread, the soul is nevertheless free and can fly where it wants. It relocates with lightning speed, with the speed of thought itself. However, if the soul is distracted and moves sharply away from the body the silver thread begins to shorten and the soul quickly returns to its body.

Similar ideas which arose in deep antiquity in almost primordial form have survived to our time. For example, today at the beginning of the XXI century an Orthodox Jew must believe that the God Yahweh takes his soul at night for safekeeping and returns it to its owner in the morning. For this good deed in his morning prayer the Jew, together with thanks to God for making him a man (and not a woman), must thank the Almighty for returning him his soul. One is left only to be surprised that this Yahweh is not confused about to whom to return which soul and also how he is wise enough not to be late to wake millions of Jews living in different countries and waking up at different times. The followers of Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions can only envy Jews and complain that their gods are not so solicitous of their needs as Yahweh is to his people.

A number of superstitions have arisen in connection with the belief in the return of the soul to the body of an awakening person. If it occurs that in returning to its owner the soul does not recognize him, it cannot enter him. Another superstition is associated with the prohibition of moving a sleeping person to another place - if the spirit does not find its owner it will be confused and never return to him. Well, without a soul the person himself will become sick and die.

There is one more superstition than the Evenks had before the beginning of XX century - it was forbidden to waken a sleeping person since his soul might not manage to return to him. Evidently no one could warn it that it was necessary to quickly return “home”, that is, to the owner’s body. A version of this superstition is a warning recorded in the Upanishads not to waken a sleeping person quickly since his soul might not find the way back to any of his sensory organs, a consequence of which might be deafness, blindness, or other ailments.

Well, but what does a soul do while its owner is sleeping? Ethnographers have observed that back in the 19th century and in some places today (in remote corners of India, Southeast Asia, and South America) there are tribes which think that the soul of a sleeping person wanders and does the same things which a person does in a state of wakefulness, hunting for large and small animals, catching fish, making snares for birds, etc.

Besides innocent wandering, in the beliefs of several peoples the soul of a sleeping person, especially a sorcerer, can also commit some improper acts. For example, having left its body immersed in deep sleep, it can in the form of a straw or feather get into the house of an enemy through cracks or a keyhole and attack him. If the latter awakens at this time and manages to catch this delicate form of the soul he can take revenge on its owner through it by destroying or mutilating his bodily form.

There also exists the idea about vampire souls: the soul of the corpse leaves his buried body and sucks blood from living people. As a result, the victim loses weight, wastes, and quickly loses strength and dies.

In myths and religious stories about the human soul a place was found not only for sleep but also dreams. What is the connection between the soul and dreams? For some peoples, for example, North American Indians, a dream is the result of the visit by the soul or a object of the person who is sleeping.

On the other hand, a dream is imagined by him as a sight revealed to a wise soul which has left the owner’s body to wander at a time when his other soul, sensing this, remains in the body. Thus, according to these views, dreams are what the soul of a person which has left to wander sees. After wandering it returns to the owner’s body enriched by new impressions.

The lamaists understand dreams somewhat differently. They think that dreams are the impressions of the soul from its travels transmitted to its owner along the silver thread by which it is connected to the body like a television cable (its body, but more precisely, the brain).

Clever and mercenary people have existed in all times. Naturally, they could not make use of the soul’s flight like a bird. To “capture” it they used nets and snares. In the process the souls of tall people were caught in strong nets with a large mesh and short people with thin nets with a small mesh or snares. Even in the last century in several parts of Western Africa sorcerers who had caught the soul of a sleeping person this way “bound” it over a fire. Its owner wilted and died as it wrinkled.

Some sorcerers have kept real “shelters” for captured souls. A sorcerer might catch a soul to scare its owner and get a good ransom, a hunk of good meat, poultry, or fish. At those times people unquestionably believed that a sorcerer or priest actually had caught their souls and did everything possible to bring the ransom and get their soul returned.

However, it is known that for each act there is a countermeasure. Thus in this case various means were thought up to prevent the “theft” of souls from sleeping people. According to a report of James Fraser on the Celebes Island fishhooks were sometimes attached to the nose, navel, and legs of a person so that during any attempt to escape the soul would be confused among them and remain with the owner. A similar means of saving one’s soul was common among several tribes of the Indians of North America.

It was possible to affect the soul of one’s enemy without resorting to capturing it. For example, if an ancient Egyptian wanted to bring evil upon his enemy he wrote the name of one of his souls on a scrap of papyrus and then burned it. Similar ideas also existed not long ago in Europe. The Romanians believed that if the shadow of a person (that is, his soul) were covered by a dark rock then he would die in 40 days. Echoes of these beliefs exist among the Armenian people in the form of the curse “May your soul disappear!”

Souls were caught not only to harm or kill a person. Among the Toraja tribe (central Celebes) souls were caught to protect them and their owners from danger. A priest accompanying a detachment during a military campaign gradually carried a long string of shells on his neck dangling toward his chest and back. Inasmuch as the strings were bent and had branches it was thought that the soul in it could not be taken picked out.

A soul was caught in order for its owner to always be with the person who caught it. For example, in the XIX century Jamaican sorcerers caught a soul of favorite women with their turbans carried them with themselves on their belts during the day and at night put this belt under a pillow.

These ancient views of the human soul and “hunting” for them have come down to our time not only in the echoes of primitive beliefs, but also in current religious rituals. For example, this ritual exists among the Kankanash people living in the north of Russia: in order to return a soul which has flown off during sleep and not returning when awakening, one needs to address it with a request to return. In a similar situation at the beginning of XX century the Tuz of the Fiji Islands laid down on the ground and, shouting loudly, asked their souls to return.

Several peoples had the idea that the soul could leave the body not only when a person was sleeping but also when awake, which would lead to illness or death. For example, according to the beliefs of one of the mountain peoples of northern Luzon, during a fire the souls of living people might fly off along with the tongues of flame and smoke floating upwards. Even at the start of our century those among these people had lost all their possessions in a fire held a special ritual during which they prayed for the heavenly gods to return them their souls.

According to an idea of the Hindus a soul might leave a person even when he was yawning. In order not to permit this, someone seeing another yawning must immediately snap his fingers. The sound of the snapping will stop the soul and it won’t want to leave the body. Something similar also exists among Russians when a person sneezes. Those around him wish him good health. This is associated with an old idea that during sneezing the soul flies out and the person gets sick. Those present wish him good health so that this does not happen and this means that they save his soul.

According to the beliefs of the lamaists, if in spite of the entreaty of a lama the soul of a sick person does not return it is necessary to conduct a special ritual. The patient is dressed in the finest clothes he has and all his valuables are placed on him. Friends and relatives circle his house three times, tenderly calling upon the soul by name. During this time the lama himself reads from a sacred book a description of the hellish torments and dangers threatening the soul if it does not return to the body of the patient. At the end of the ritual those gathered there declare in a single voice that the departed soul has returned and then the patient will recover.

If the soul is resistant and does not itself wish to the patient’s body then several peoples resort to capturing it and settling it by force. For example, in Burma the Karens run around the patient, wishing to capture a roaming soul or, as they say, his butterfly and, having “caught” it, throw it at the head of the patient.

According to the ideas of northern peoples, for example, the Evenks, the soul might also leave a person by his own will. True, this affects only shamans. In order to treat a patient the spirit of an Evenk shaman might be sent to the world below in order to find out from ancestors, let’s say, why an epidemic of measles in nomadic camp began. The illness might have occurred if the soul of a person had been stolen by evil spirits. And then the shaman’s task is to liberate this soul. To do this he goes to the world beyond the grave, “the land of shadows”, in order to ask the lord of that world to permit the patient some more time to delight in life. Having acquired the soul stolen by spirits, the shaman conceals it in the folds of his clothing and then draws it into himself, covering his ears for reliability. Now the soul cannot jump out and will be delivered safe and sound. The shamans not only return souls to people which have ended up outside their bodies. If necessary, they delivery the spirit of a child not yet born from “the other world”.

The Orochi believe that the souls of shamans might even make journeys to the Sun, but do not do this often since it is quite a feat for them to fly there. The source of danger on this trip is a young woman who lives on the Sun. One can go blind if one looks at her face, but if one approaches her quickly one will burn up. In order to get to the Sun the soul of a shaman must first fly to the Moon from which leads the only road to the Sun. Of course, the shaman’s soul might fly to the Moon itself but it turns out that it is easier to do this on a horse since the horse has wings (so that it’s easier to get there). But this is easier said than done. According to the conditions of the journey it cannot be done entirely on a winged horse. One can go only part of the way on it, after which the soul of the shaman gets off…guess, onto what. Onto a ball of threads, on a winged ragged ball. It can fly on it among the constellations and it’s not at all cold. But this is still not all. It then gets off onto a bird, and approaches the Sun in an iron boat with wings (so that it’s not so hot). The return route is not exotic: the soul makes it on a unique spacecraft which in this myth is represented as a winged iron…coffin! The coffin disappears before the Earth and the soul of the shaman lands softly and returns to its owner.

The souls of the Nanai shamans also fly to the Sun but not from the desire to achieve a feat but on business - for infertile women, for the souls of children which are located there. And not only the soul of the shaman himself might travel. On special days the souls of his relatives might join it, too. For example, during the “clean tent” holiday of the Nganasan a shaman “ascends to the heavens” in order to ask the lord for happiness and good for his people in the upcoming year. And the souls of all his relatives made the journey together with him. When the shaman who had taken on the form of a white bear crossed the underground sea the spirits of his relatives accompanied him in the form of foam. In the process a thoughtful shaman watched carefully that no soul was lost. At one of the stages of the journey the shaman saved a soul of a Nganasan floating in the form of a fish from disease. He scooped them out with a net and “instilled” them in himself.

The Keti of Siberia believed that in autumn and winter, when all the harmful forces came to life, the shaman held the souls of his fellow tribesman with him and protected them. Before the onset of winter he “collected” the souls of his nomadic camp: he drove them into a dark part of a tent with a rattle where they spent the entire winter.

How Many Souls Does a Person Have and Where Do They Dwell?

The majority of the peoples of the Earth think that a person has one soul and that as a person matures it grows in size. But there are more inventive peoples who imagine that there is not just one, but several souls.

The sources of these ideas are quite ancient. For example, the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium B.C.E.) thought that a person has many souls: a “double” - ku; a “manifestation” - bi, a “ghost” - akh, “power”, “name”, - rin, “shadow”, and others. In the process one and the same person could have several souls of the same kind (“doubles”, “manifestations”, “ghosts”). On the one hand, the souls were identical to the person or part of him, but on the other, they were beings located within him. To make anything a “double” meant to make this to the person himself. He himself might be called a “manifestation” after death, but the “manifestation” or “power” might have been inside him.

In later times there appeared the idea among the Egyptians that three parts of his being remained after a person’s death - the “name” (rin), “soul” (ba), which flies out of the body in the form of a bird with a human face and is carried off to the sky, and, finally, the secret double of the person - ka. The soul “ba”, although it leaves his mortal shell, at any moment it might return to it, for it is immortal. Therefore, the desire arose to retain the shell, that is, the body (here is where the explanation for routine mummification in Ancient Egypt is found!). But if the “ba” might return, then who might come before the god Toth (the god of wisdom, counting, and writing, who occupies such an important place in the world of the dead)? Each Egyptian had a double for this purpose, his second “I” - ka, who was represented as a bearded person with a crown on his head. The “ka” was a unique soul, an invisible double of a person, whose posthumous fate was secretly connected with the fate of his own body. The “ka” was not immortal. It could die from hunger or thirst if during burial the decedent was not supplied with everything necessary. In the best case, when the mummy was preserved or even if there was a statue of the dead person, the “ka” might survive him for a long time. Moreover, they started to cut the “ka” itself from wood, sculpt it from clay, cut it from stone, or make it from pottery. Such a “ka” received the name “ushebti”, a “defendant” before the god Toth. The “ushebti” was prepared for the trip the same as was a person - the mummy was wrapped with hands folded on the chest, with an open face having the portrait appearance of the dead person. The “ushebti” was laid in a special coffin in a burial chamber next to the sarcophagus. A portrait of the dead person, sometimes with his family, was drawn on the wall of this coffin so they could find one another in the Kingdom of the Dead. An inscription was made in black hieroglyphs: “Oh, ushebti, when they call upon the deceased to perform his responsibilities in the Kingdom of the Dead - to irrigate the fields, to strengthen the river banks - say, ‘I am here!’”. Where was the wise Toth to discover in the darkness who was in front of him, the original or the copy? Thus the people deceived the god. In time people began to note that the “ushebti” did not disappear from the tombs but it meant…they did not appear before Toth. And then there appeared the first heretics in Egyptian history (and probably the first in the ancient world), that is, nonconformists. We can judge this from the inscriptions on several papyruses which called for taking pleasure in the life in this world and not to hope for the “other” one, which evidently did not exist.

But in our time there are people who believe that a person has several souls in our time. For example, the Evenk-Orochi still today are of the opinion that at a person’s birth his soul “omi” is seen as a match. When a child grows up, begins to walk and talk, the “omi” grows into a soul, “kheyan”. A person lives his whole life with this soul. Outwardly the “kheyan” is a copy of the person to whom it belongs and is in his chest. It is interesting that in sunny weather the “kheyan” leaves to warm itself like a kitten and is next to its owner, following him everywhere.

In ancient times and in the Middle Ages ideas were widespread that a person has thinking, sensing, and vegetative souls. In the opinion of Plato (5th century B.C.E.), a sensitive or wise soul was in the head and the sensitive one in the chest, but the vegetative (it’s abdominal) was below the diaphragm.

Members of the Bambara tribe of Africa think that a person has two souls - the breathing soul and the shadow soul. During sleep the first soul can move about freely when the other remains in place. Members of another African tribe think that a person has not two, but four souls - light shadow, dark shadow, protective shadow, and invisible shadow.

Even more complexly organized are souls according to the beliefs of the Dogon tribe in western Sudan (Africa). They think that a person has several mixed pairs of souls “kindu kindu”: “kikinu say” (“clever soul”), responsible for the will, mind, and consciousness, and “kikinu bumone” (“stupid soul”), representing a reflection of the first, sort of like its shadow. In addition, a person also has a “n’yama”, which imparts integrity and life to these elements. It is interesting that the n’yama is treated like a principally material element but without a visible shell.

Several peoples of Indochina count even more souls. According to their ideas the number of souls of a person vary from 32 among the Lao and Shan of Myanmar (Burma) to …120 (!) of the red Thais of Vietnam. They have souls of the head, forehead, nose, elbow, lungs, liver, etc. Generally speaking, you don’t see us with the souls of body parts now. But the red Thais leave all other peoples far behind with respect to inventiveness and fantasy, for according to their beliefs not only the organs of the human body have a soul but also manifestations of the human mind - laughter, grief, happiness, meditation, etc. Their souls have different skills - work, artistic, and sports.

It ought to be noted that 120 souls is not the limit for a human. Per the religious views of the followers of Taoism a person has more than…30,000 spirits (=souls). The overwhelming majority of religions imagine that only his own soul (or souls) inhabit the owner’s body. But the residents of the Bali Islands (Indonesia) think that, besides his own soul, in each person there also live the souls of his parents: in the right eye is the soul of the father, represented by the symbol of the Moon, and in the left, the soul of the mother, the symbol of the Sun. The Balians call these symbols of the souls of the father and mother “atma” and believe that, like a husband and wife in real life, they desire a connection, which is located in the middle, between the brows.

Well, where is the soul of a person? As in other questions regarding the soul there is no common opinion. Each religion has created its own answer. Its location in the body is determined by the wealth of fantasy of a particular people and the level of its cultural development.

Some peoples think that the soul is in the head, others put it in the diaphragm, stomach, liver, or heart. Some think that the soul is in the hair. For the Ob Ugry (one of Siberia tribes) the hair is considered the location of one of four souls on whose presence a person’s strength and courage depends. The ears also served as the home of the soul. This is what the residents of old Babylon thought, for example.

And the ancient Hebrews thought that the soul of a person was in his blood: “…the soul of any body is its blood” (Leviticus 17:14). You can’t refute the ancient Hebrews’ logic - a person loses his blood with his life. Hence the conclusion that the soul is actually located in the blood. Many centuries passed until people understood that “post hoc” does not mean “propter hoc”. It is evident, in particular, that the Eskimos, relying on the same ideas of the importance of any part of the body for the preservation of life, think that the abode of the soul is the neck, specifically the cervical vertebrae.

Along with the idea that the soul is in some organ or human body part there is the opinion that it occupies its entire body. Thus, for example, one of the authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Dmitriy Rostovskiy thinks: the soul is in the entire body and “there is no body part without the soul”.

An original and, obviously, quite ancient idea about the abode of the soul can be found among the Tibetans: it can be both in a person’s body and…outside it - in trees, mountains, lakes, birds, animals, etc. Magic tales are a reflection of these ancient ideas about the location of the human soul being outside its body. For example, in the well-known Russian fable about Kashchey the Immortal, his soul is in the tip of a needle which is in a duck egg, which is in the duck, etc. The antiquity of this theme is stressed by its presence in old Russian charms and Hittite ritual songs.

Besides the permanent location, it turns out that the soul wanders throughout the body. Tibetan astrologers, who made the following order of the soul’s (“la”) movement in the human body on different days of the month, tell in the greatest detail about the movement of the soul in a person’s body:

1st day - in the big toes, 2nd day - in the anklebone, 3rd day - in the muscles, 4th day - in the area of the knee, 5th day - in the area of the lap, 6th day - in the area of the hip, 7th day - in the hip, 8th day - in the kidneys, 9th day - in the ribs, 10th day - in the area of the shoulder blades, 11th day - in the forearm, 12th day - in the palms, 13th day - in the cervical part and in the area of the thoracic vertebra, 14th day - in the ears, 15th day - in the entire flesh, 16th day - in the inner ear, 17th day - in the thoracic vertebra, 18th day - in the palms, 19th day - in the forearm, 20th day - in the shoulder blades, 21st day - in the ribs, 22nd day - in the kidneys, 23rd day - in the thoracic vertebra, 24th day - in the hip, 25th day - in the bend of the knee, 26th day - in the knee, 27th day - in the muscles, 28th day - in the anklebone, 29th day - in the shin, 30th day - in the entire flesh.

Thus it is like quick-moving and travels throughout the body month after month, not finding a haven. Evidently, the author of this tale could not find a suitable place for the soul and therefore condemned it to constant wandering from one part of the body to another.

In connection with the travel throughout the body the question arises: how the soul returns by morning after night wanderings around the world without making a mistake and going to the wrong organ or the body part it is supposed to be in on that day? Probably it has a calendar which it follows where it’s supposed to be tomorrow.

The expression “the heart sank into his boots [literally, “the soul went to the heels”]” is an echo of ideas that the soul can move about in the body, that is, the soul, frightened by something or someone, drops from the upper parts of the body to the legs.

Where Does the Soul Come From?

It is natural that even back in ancient times people were interested in where their souls came from. The religious and mythological view of the world gives a simple answer - the gods or God gives the person a soul.

Judaism and its relative, the Christian church, teach that a person receives their soul from God at birth. Imagine that 100 people are born on Earth every second. This means that 100 times a second God has to manage to manufacture and immediately put souls in the bodies of newborns or children located in the mother’s womb.

God’s task is complicated by the fact that He has to do this in all corners of the Earth at the same time. But inasmuch as this work must be done all the time without pause (for it is impossible to stop the process of childbirth), this means that a good God has to also do this constantly. Naturally there is practically not enough time for other matters, including such important ones as listening to the prayers of hundreds of millions of people.

To the question of what God makes souls the Christian church and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church answers very simply: from the souls of the parents. This was the finding of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (6th century A.D.E.). In the process if the formation of the body occurs in the mother’s womb gradually (during 9 months) then, according to the Church’s teaching, the soul can only be created in an instant.

Of course, no huge Church alone can leave unanswered the question of when the soul is put in the body of a child by God.

The Russian Orthodox Church separates the idea of the creation of souls from nothing by God at the time when the body also is being formed. In other words, having created the child’s soul, God doesn’t put it in the fetus immediately after conception (it means he constantly watches over it!) but only the several weeks later needed to form the child’s body.

The difference of Christian views about the process of the “ensoulment” of the human fetus is not exhausted by this. Today the religious philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, who is strongly popularized by the Russian Orthodox Church, thought that the soul cannot be created, that is, created at the moment of conception, that it cannot be the product of the birth process. He also said that the preexistence of souls in a spiritual world ought to be assumed. And although N. Berdyayev did not develop this thought, it follows from his assumption that God created souls beforehand (but just when? Evidently before the creation of Adam, since he has been occupied all the time with the distribution of souls among children being born), having formed a sort of bank or storehouse of souls from which he delivers them for gifts to children as needed (managing to withdraw 100 souls from it per second).

Looking into the question of the origin of our soul it is also interesting to find out, how eternal is the human soul?

In connection with an growth in the activity of Church organizations and an increase in information about religious teachings, the problem of immortality and eternal life has recently began to be discussed more often.

A person is primarily given eternal life by the innumerable gods he created. True, not all gods were immortal - part of them were mortal, like people. However, people did not want to forget themselves: they were very reluctant to believe that life ended with death, after which there is nothing more. There exists myths and magical stories among many peoples of the world in which they talk of means of reviving people with ordinary and energized water.

But this is not back luck - a dead body, like the body of a living being and a plant decomposes, decays, and disappears. But there was no magic water, so there isn’t! Therefore all the peoples of the world and in all religions animation and resurrection are associated primarily with the existence of an eternal soul.

Thus in the Bible, the holy book for members of three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and more precisely in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes it said: “And dust returns to the Earth where it was, but the spirit returns to God, who gave it”.

At the same time, for many it would probably be surprising to find out that not everyone always thinks that the soul is eternal. For example, according to the views of the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus (5th century B.C.E.) and Epicurus (4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.), not only the body does not avoid decomposition, but the soul too. In the process the body decays at first and then the soul. The Stoics, who said that although the soul remains alive after death, in time it subject to disintegration, also expressed a similar view.

Besides two extreme, contradictory views on the issue of the immortality of the soul there also existed in ancient times the belief that not everyone has an immortal soul, only selected people, great leaders in particular. Today such views are shared by some primitive tribes. For example, according to the beliefs of the Tuz of the Tonga Islands, after death their leaders are transported to a divine enlightenment in Bolotu, the land of bliss; ordinary people are endowed with souls which die with their bodies.

Those selected for the eternal life of their souls can be people who merited this right by their just life and, most of all, of course by special love of God. According to the beliefs of ancient Iranian tribes, followers of the teachings of Ahuramazda (the supreme deity in Zoroastrianism), eternal life is given only to the souls of the righteous, but at “the end of the world” the souls of sinners will be destroyed. Thus the souls of some are eternal, but not the souls of others.

Not long ago several groups of tribes of the Congo (central Africa) held the idea that the souls of a majority of people were mortal. They had the concept of “dual death”, according to which only the body, but the soul (moyo) continued to live for some time. For some time the souls of the dead lived in trees, rivers, and lakes. A second death, the death of the soul, came within a period from several months for women and children to several years for men and several decades for the leader. And only the souls of individual outstanding people were thought to live forever.

This question is resolved in an even simpler manner when a person has not just one but several souls. Then one (or some) soul(s) can enjoy eternity and the other (others) remain mortal. For example, the (Kondi) tribes of India have three immortal souls, but the fourth is not so lucky - it has to die together with the body.

As regards the largest number of Church believers, the Christians (approximately 1.5 billion believers), it is thought that faith in the immortality of the soul was inherent to it from the beginning. In fact, a surprising difference of opinion reigned for centuries among the fathers of the Christian church.

Father of the Church Iriney Lionsky, who lived in the 2nd century A.D.E., taught that the soul does not absolute immortality that “as the body in and of itself is not the soul, but only shares the fate in the life of the soul, then the soul in itself is not life, but takes the life needed for itself from God”. And such a point of view was no accident, for the first books of the Old Testament do not give any sound basis for faith in the immortality of the soul. Even in the New Testament it says plainly that only God “the only One having immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). In referring to this statement, theologians have tried to avoid the contradictions which inevitably arise.

Actually, if the soul is immortal by its nature then an all-powerful God cannot destroy it. However, from theological positions it is blasphemous to think this way. In order not to fall into this some theologians have declared that the soul is mortal and can exist only so long as God wishes. Titian (2nd century A.D.E.) thought that the soul “has an earthly origin: in itself it is nothing else than darkness and there is nothing bright in it; it is not immortal by its own nature, but mortal and able to be destroyed”. Another father of the Christian Church, Tertullian (2nd - 3rd centuries A.D.E.), generally considered the soul to be corporal.

Some theologians, for example, Climent Aleksandriisky, a contemporary of Tertullian, in trying to avoid extremes declared the same thing that some pagans had, that the sol is a complex substance and it consists of two parts, one of which is mortal and other, which is not.

Such confusion in the views of Christian theologians is primarily associated with the fact that in the very main part of the Bible for Christians, the New Testament, the word “soul” has the meaning of both a mortal living being and an immortal immaterial [being] in a person.

Disputes about the essence of the soul continued for several centuries and, although finally the Christian Church decreed that the human soul be considered immortal, yet to this day faith in its immortality has simply not become generally recognized in this religion which is the largest in the world in the number of believers.

Well, probably you will say that the Orthodox Church and, in particular, the Russian Orthodox Church is firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the collection of articles “The Human Soul” published in 1992 by the Svyato-Troitsky [Holy Trinity] Novo-Golutvin Monastery, which belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, it says quite unambiguously, “…speaking of the immortality of the soul, its immortality cannot be proven with the necessary strictness, for He who gave the soul simplicity could completely destroy the soul”. So, while is the guarantee that an all-powerful God might not destroy it?

No one can give such a guarantee, even God himself! If the conservative Orthodox Church cannot confirm the immortality of the soul then, one asks, can you get from the free-thinking Protestants? Two important Protestant Churches of the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the idea of the immortality of the soul, for example.

One of the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I. Rutherford, wishing to stress the extreme degree of dislike of the idea of an immortal, indestructible soul, even declared, “the thought of an immortal soul was born of Satan”.

Almost all peoples of the world think that between living relatives and their ancestors (their souls) there exists invisible, but close and constant communication. The souls of the dead in the other world are of interest to the living, they protect them, and care about them. Their primary “help” is in providing a good harvest of crops.

Even today, if a person does not sense help from his ancestor, he can reproach him. For example, the Swazi in Africa say “Why have you turned away from us? This is bad on your part. Care for us, as we care for you!”

In some individual cases “the help of ancestors” might not be limited to supplying descendants with good grain and herbs, but the delivery “from the other world” of…various goods. The Papuans of the island of New Guinea firmly believe in this, for example, thinking that various articles, useful objects, and work tools (for example, metal household articles, various types of equipment, tractors, bulldozers, etc.) which the white people have are sent “from the other world” by the souls of their deceased ancestors. It is true that most often these articles do not reach the Tuz since, in their opinion, white people intercept them. It is interesting that they regard the famous Russian explorer N. N. Miklukho-Maklay as one of their ancestors. The Papuans are convinced that various useful articles are also under the tombstone of this cultural hero whom they revere.

For their part, the living are obliged not only to remember the souls of their parents and other dead relatives but to also periodically share the fruits of their labor with them, giving them signs of attention, respect, and deference. Otherwise the parents would “take their own” anyway and in addition might inflict harm on living relatives and their farm. In connection with this in the not so recent past Hindus thought that it was obligatory to feel the souls of the dead daily. They brought a pitcher of milk and a rice cake as a gift, not forgetting fresh flowers and even water for washing. All this was placed in a small depression in the ground specially dug around the doors of the house. And today in India in a number of places women annually bring food to the skulls of their relatives. For example, a wife looking at the skull of [her] husband laying right on the ground talks quietly with his soul. In the process from time to time she interrupts her speech, bows low to the skull, and presents him with a dish with rice and fruits.

The majority of peoples “feed” only the souls of their relatives. Evidently, only the Chinese are an exception, for as shown above they go further and also feed the souls of other people. And the relatives of the ancient Egyptians, caring for the welfare of the souls of their poor dead, buried small tombs in which they laid wooden likenesses of the mummy of the dead person near a rich burial site in order that the soul “ka” of the poor man not go hungry, but have an opportunity to eat the sacrifices of the wealthy man.

But now let us look at how the souls of the ancestors of the peoples of Asia are honored. One of these peoples whose honoring of ancestors has been turned into a well-organized, one might say, model cult, is the Chinese. On the day of remembrance of ancestors, Tsin-min Day, back in the XIX and the beginning of the XX centuries in the morning the heads of families made bows to the souls of ancestors at the household altar, bringing them an offering, that is, treating them to 5, 8, or 10 dishes with meat, dumplings [pel’meny], and wine. Then family members, bringing provisions prepared for this occasion and everything necessary for the ceremony of bringing offerings - incense sticks, crackers, etc., headed for the family cemetery. Every family tried to treat their ancestors as well as possible.

The Chinese presented to the souls of their ancestors that, if you will, no other people had hit on the idea - the so-called “donated money” - packets of specially drawn “money” on white paper prepared in each home. But in order that this money be for the good souls of ancestors it was more desirable that a cup of wine be poured on it. Then the “money” was burned. Only in burned form could it travel to the world beyond. It is understandable that there was no sense at all in burning real money. So this could be done complete with money that was drawn. There can be no doubt that the souls of the ancestors were quite satisfied by getting this “donated money” since they could buy themselves many delicious and useful articles with it.

If the reader thinks that sending paper money, paper clothing, and utensils to “the other world” are matters of days long gone by, that today people no longer believe that these items of paper are no longer used in the world beyond the grave, then they are deeply mistaken. On the island of Taiwan they do not simply share old beliefs about the need to supply the dead with everything necessary but have updated these ideas to conform with modern life. If in olden times the Chinese made money for the souls of the dead by simply representing it on paper, their modern descendants reject this forgery and print special banknotes for this purpose. However, one cannot buy stock or dinner in a restaurant with them. They are designed only to go to the world beyond.

O-Bon, the rituals for remembrance of souls, were held not long ago in neighboring Japan. Meeting and entertaining the “dear guests” were touching as in China. But the farewells especially stuck in the memory. Judge for yourself. On the last day of O-Bon they prepared so-called farewell dumplings [kletski] which were to maintain the strength of the ancestors’ souls before their return to the world beyond. And in order that the souls not lose their way in returning to the “other world”, at midnight on a full moon family members escorted them away with lighted lamps. Sometimes the lamps were hung on a tall pine tree and then by carefully putting it in the grave it was obvious that the soul did not go into the wrong one.

As in China, in Japan souls were accompanied not only to the cemetery but also to the water. Small lamps with lighted candles were lowered into the water. And then eggplants, melons, and watermelons were dropped in a number of place in order that the souls not be hungry on their way to their world beyond the grave.

Christians only grin when finding about the customs and rituals of pagans about meeting, entertaining, and saying farewell to the souls of [their] ancestors - “look at them, these pagans”. But Christians need not forget that their own rituals and customs are associated with the remembrance of the souls of the dead are essentially pagan.

The custom of feeding the souls of the dead also has a long tradition in Russia. At banquets in honor of the dead the ancient Slavs threw bits…under the table. They thought that the souls of the dead were present there which feed on the smell and steam from the meat.

At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries in Russia on Thursdays meat, milk, and eggs were prepared for the souls of the dead. They heated a bath, poured water into the stove, stewed the ashes in the bath in order that a residue remain and then invited people: “wash”. They didn’t forget to put a towel and fresh linen in the dressing room - it would be unsuitable for clean souls to go in dirty.

Back in the XIX century among the Slavs there was widespread feeding of the dead and preparation of ritual meals for them. The Belorussian’s holiday [called] dzyady (that is, “grandfathers”) was one of the primary ones in their system of ceremonial rituals. On the day of remembrance of the dead they burned candles in huts and the windows and doors were opened in order that the souls of those being honored could enter. After prayers the family sat at a table and the ritual meal began. On this evening the poor had up to seven dishes, and the rich had up to 11 or more, but an odd number of seats was required (the odd number was associated with the world of the dead). During the ritual meal a bit from each dish was placed on a corner of the table, food for the souls of the ancestors. This food was left untouched on the tablecloth until the next morning.

According to documentation of M. Zabylin, a collector of Russian customs and rituals, in the 19th century in Belorussia, if the remembrance of the dead occurred far from the cemetery they covered the table at home and at the conclusion of the funeral meal the owner hung a towel out the window. A tumbler of vodka or a glass of water was placed on the end of the towel which remained in the hut and it was wrapped in a piece of all the food prepared for the funeral meal.

In Ukraine the souls of the dead were fed honey: after return from the cemetery a dish with honey was placed on the table. The flies settling on this honey were taken as the souls of parents flying in to regale themselves. Nevertheless, all this is very simply and unobtrusive in comparison with the Chinese - it is evident that the souls of Slavic ancestors did not manifest themselves in any special way- the didn’t help win a victory or grow good harvests. Therefore they did not deserve great signs of attention. But possibly the Slavs relied more on themselves and not on someone else’s aid?

They were more zealously concerned about the souls of the dead in Western Europe than in Christian Russia, particularly in Christian France. After the death of Louis XIV his wax impression was placed in his own palace - he sort of continued to live in this form. Most remarkable is that the courtiers brought him dinner as before. Servants covered a table and brought in food and the head waiter gave a napkin to the highest-ranking person present to pass to the king; the bishop, as before, blessed the meal, and a basin with water was brought to the empty chair. Glasses of wine were raised in sequence and, finally, a priest read the usual prayer of grace, adding a funeral hymn. What a wonderful example of combining paganism and Christianity!

Mikhail Bogoslovsky

Translated by Gary Goldberg