Page images
PDF
EPUB

Within the classic world, the ancient Egyptians were described as maintaining a doctrine of migration, whether by successive embodiments of the immortal soul through creatures of earth, sea, and air, and back again to man, or by the simpler judicial penalty which sent back the wicked dead to earth as unclean beasts. The pictures and hieroglyphic sentences of the Book of the Dead, however, do not afford the necessary confirmation for these statements, even the mystic transformations of the soul not being of the nature of transmigrations. Thus it seems that the theological centre whence the doctrine of moral metempsychosis may have spread over the ancient cultured religions, must be sought elsewhere than in Egypt. In Greek philosophy, great teachers stood forth to proclaim the doctrine in a highly developed form. Plato had mythic knowledge to convey of souls entering such new incarnations as their glimpse of real existence had made them fit for, from the body of a philosopher or a lover down to the body of a tyrant and usurper; of souls transmigrating into beasts and rising again to man according to the lives they led; of birds that were light-minded souls; of oysters suffering in banishment the penalty of utter ignorance. Pythagoras is made to illustrate in his own person his doctrine of metempsychosis, by recognizing where it hung in Here's temple the shield he had carried in a former birth, when he was that Euphorbos whom Menelaos slew at the siege of Troy. Afterwards he was Hermotimos, the Klazomenian prophet whose funeral rites were so prematurely celebrated while his soul was out, and after that, as Lucian tells the story, his prophetic soul passed into the body of a cock. Mikyllos asks this cock to tell him about Troy-were things there really as Homer said? But the cock replies, 'How should Homer have known, O Mikyllos? When the Trojan war was going on, he was a camel in Baktria !'2

1 Herod. ii. 123, see Rawlinson's Tr. ; Plutarch. De Iside 31, 72; Wilkin. son, 'Ancient Eg.' vol. ii. ch. xvi.

? Plat. Phædo, Timæus, Phædrus, Repub. ; Diog. Laert. Empedokles xii. ; in 'Edda.' 1 Eisenmenger, part ii. p. 23, &c.

In the later Jewish philosophy, the Kabbalists took up the doctrine of migration, the gilgul or rolling on' of souls, and maintained it by that characteristic method of Biblical interpretation which it is good to hold up from time to time for a warning to the mystical interpreters of our own day. The soul of Adam passed into David, and shall pass into the Messiah, for are not these initials in the very name of Ad(a)m, and does not Ezekiel say that 'my servant David shall be their prince for ever.' Cain's soul passed into Jethro, and Abel's into Moses, and therefore it was that Jethro gave Moses his daughter to wife. Souls migrate into beasts and birds and vermin, for is not Jehovah 'the lord of the spirits of all flesh'? and he who has done one sin beyond his good works shall pass into a brute. He who gives a Jew unclean meat to eat, his soul shall enter into a leaf, blown to and fro by the wind; "for ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth;' and he who speaks ill words, his soul shall pass into a dumb stone, as did Nabal's, 'and he became a stone'i Within the range of Christian influence, the Manichæans appear as the most remarkable exponents of the metempsychosis. We hear of their ideas of sinners' souls transmigrating into beasts, the viler according to their crimes; that he who kills a fowl or rat will become a fowl or rat himself; that souls can pass into plants rooted in the ground, which thus have not only life but sense; that the souls of reapers pass into beans and barley, to be cut down in their turn, and thus the elect were careful to explain to the bread when they ate it, that it was not they who reaped the corn it was made of; that the souls of the auditors, that is, the spiritually low commonalty who lived a married life, would pass into melons and cucumbers, to finish their purification by being eaten by the elect. But these details come to us from the accounts of bitter theological adversaries, and Pindar. Olymp. ii. antistr. 4; Ovid. Metam. xv. 160 ; Lucian. Somn. 17, &c. Philostr. Vit. Apollon. Tyan. See also Meyer's Conversations-Lexicon, art. "Seelenwanderung. For re-birth in old Scandinavia, see Helgakvidha,

iii.,

the question is, how much of them did the Manichæans really and soberly believe ? Allowing for exaggeration and constructive imputation, there is some reason to consider the account at least founded on fact. The Manichæans appear to have recognized a wandering of imperfect souls, whether or not their composite religion may with its Zarathustrian and Christian elements have also absorbed in so Indian a shape the doctrine of purification of souls by migration into animals and plants. In later times, the doctrine of metempsychosis has been again and again noticed in a district of South-Western Asia. William of Ruysbroek speaks of the notion of souls passing from body to body as general among the mediæval Nestorians, even a somewhat intelligent priest consulting him as to the souls of brutes, whether they could find refuge elsewhere so as not to be compelled to labour after death. Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela records in the 12th century of the Druses of Mount Hermon:

They say that the soul of a virtuous man is transferred to the body of a new-born child, whereas that of the vicious transmigrates into a dog, or some other animal. Such ideas indeed, seem not yet extinct in the modern Druse nation. Among the Nassairi, also, transmigration is believed in as a penance and purification: we hear of migration of unbelievers into camels, asses, dogs, or sheep, of disobedient Nassairi into Jews, Sunnis, or Christians, of the faithful into new bodies of their own people, a few such changes of ‘shirt' (i.e. body), bringing them to enter paradise or become stars.2 An instance of the belief within the limits of modern Christian Europe may be found among the Bulgarians, whose superstition is that Turks who have never eaten pork in life will become wild boars after death. A

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

1 Beausobre, “Hist. de Manichée,' &c., vol. i. pp. 245–6, vol. ii. pp. 496-9; G. Flügel, ‘Mani.' See Augustin. Contra Faust. ; De Hæres. ; De Quantitate Animæ.

2 Gul. de Rubruquis in 'Rec. des Voy. Soc. de Géographie de Paris,' vol. iv. p. 356. Benjamin of Tudela, ed. and tr. by Asher, Hebrew 22, Eng. p. 62. Niebuhr, 'Reisebeschr. nach Arabien,' &c., vol. ii. pp. 438–443; Meiners, vol. ii. p. 796.

party assembled to feast on a boar has been known to throw it all away, for the meat jumped off the spit into the fire, and a piece of cotton was found in the ears, which the wise man decided to be a piece of the ci-devant Turk's turban. Such cases, however, are exceptional. Metempsychosis never became one of the great doctrines of Christendom, though not unknown in mediæval scholasticism, and though maintained by an eccentric theologian here and there into our own times. It would be strange were it not so. It is in the very nature of the development of religion that speculations of the earlier culture should dwindle to survivals, yet be again and again revived. Doctrines transmigrate, if souls do not; and metempsychosis, wandering along the course of ages, came at last to animate the souls of Fourier and Soame Jenyns.

Thus we have traced the theory of metempsychosis in stage after stage of the world's civilization, scattered among the native races of America and Africa, established in the Asiatic nations, especially where elaborated by the Hindu mind into its system of ethical philosophy, rising and falling in classic and mediæval Europe, and lingering at last in the modern world as an intellectual crotchet, of little account but to the ethnographer who notes it down as an item of evidence for his continuity of culture. What, we may well ask, was the original cause and motive of the doctrine of transmigration? Something may be said in answer, though not at all enough for full explanation. The theory that ancestral souls return, thus imparting their own likeness of mind and body to their descendants and kindred, has been already mentioned and commended as in itself a very reasonable and philosophical hypothesis, accounting for the phenomenon of family likeness going on from generation to generation. But why should it have been imagined that men's souls could inhabit the bodies of beasts and birds? As has been already pointed out, savages not unreasonably consider the lower animals to have souls like their own, and this state of mind makes the idea of a man's soul transmigrating into a beast's body at least seem possible. But it does not actually suggest the idea. The view stated in a previous chapter as to the origin of the conception of soul in general, may perhaps help us here. As it seems that the first conception of souls may have been that of the souls of men, this being afterwards extended by analogy to the souls of animals, plants, &c., so it may seem that the original idea of transmigration was the straightforward and reasonable one of human souls being re-born in new human bodies, where they are recognized by family likenesses in successive generations. This notion may have been afterwards extended to take in re-birth in bodies of animals, &c. There are some well-marked savage ideas which will fit with such a course of thought. The half-human features and actions and characters of animals are watched with wondering sympathy by the savage, as by the child. The beast is the very incarnation of familiar qualities of man; and such names as lion, bear, fox, owl, parrot, viper, worm, when we apply them as epithets to men, condense into a word some leading feature of a human life. Consistently with this, we see in looking over details of savage transmigration that the creatures often have an evident fitness to the character of the human beings whose souls are to pass into them, so that the savage

1 St. Clair and Brophy, ‘Bulgaria,' p. 57. Compare the tenets of the Russian sect of Dukhobortzi, in Haxthausen, Russian Empire,' vol. i. p. 288, &c.

2 Since the first publication of the above remark, M. Louis Figuier has supplied a perfect modern instance by his book, entitled “Le Lendemain de la Mort,'translated into English as "The Day after Death : Our Future Life according to Science.' His attempt to revive the ancient belief, and to connect it with the evolution-theory of modern naturalists, is carried out with more than Buddhist elaborateness. Body is the habitat of soul, which goes out when a man dies, as one forsakes a burning house. In the course of development, a soul may migrate through bodies stage after stage, zoophyte and oyster, grasshopper and eagle, crocodile and dog, till it arrives at man, thence ascending to become one of the superhuman beings or angels who dwell in the planetary ether, and thence to a still higher state, the secret of whose nature M. Figuier does not endeavour to penetrate, because our means of investigation fail at this point.' The ultimate destiny of the more glorified being is the Sun ; the pure spirits who form its mass of burning gases, pour out germs and life to start the course of planetary existence. (Note to 2nd edition.)

« PreviousContinue »