". . .according to Empedocles, it is necessary that
"'From the blest wandering thrice ten thousand times,
Through various mortal forms the soul should pass.'"
(Quoted by Celsus, in On True
Doctrine, Arguments of Celsus, Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian
Against the Christians, Kindle location 465).
. . .the body being a prison, but one we can't seem to help falling into,
given the recidivism rate as quoted above. According to this Christian
apologist, Empedocles went so far with this line of thinking as,
not only to promise his disciples new lives as toads, cattle and
squirrels, even as trees:
"If they have found out anything true, let them agree together about it, or let them join together, and I then will gladly listen to them. But, if they distract the soul, and draw it, one into a different nature, another into a different being, changing one kind of matter for another; I confess I am harassed by the ebbing and flowing of the subject. At one time I am immortal and rejoice; at another time again I become mortal and weep. Anew I am dissolved into atoms: I become water, and I become air: I become fire, and then after a little, neither air, nor fire: he makes me a beast, he makes me a fish. Again then I have dolphins for my brothers; but when I look on myself, I am frightened at my body, and I know not how I shall call it, man, or dog, or wolf, or bull, or bird, or snake, or serpent, or chimaera; for I am changed by the philosophers into all the beasts, of the land, of the sea, having wings, of many forms, wild or tame, dumb or vocal, brute or reasoning: I swim, I fly, I rise aloft, I crawl, I run, I sit. But here is Empedocles, and he makes me a stump of a tree."
(Hermias the Philosopher, Derision of Gentile Philosophers,
. . .rather a stand-pat and uneventful life-style, one would
think. Reincarnation was not the only option on the table however.
It does not seem to have been the native, indigenous view of the
peoples of the Mediterranean. The Greeks to whom Homer sang and the native Romans alike shared
a rather depressing vision of the afterlife, with pale, bloodless
shades all that remains of mortals:
"What madness is it to call black Death to us by
warfare! It is ever close upon us: it comes unseen on silent feet.
Below there are neither cornlands nor well-kept vineyards; only wild
Cerberus and the ill-favored mariner of the stream of Styx. There
wanders a sallow throng beside the dusky pools with eyeless sockets
and fire-ravaged hair." (Tibullus, Book I, Chapter X, 33, p. 247
Yet belief in reincarnation comes in. Was the view imported from
the East? If so, where did this information transfer between East and West take place:
Egypt, as tradition suggests? Several ancient authors attest to Egypt's
political hegemony over India in past time: "Among the tombs are
obelisks with inscriptions, denoting the wealth of the kings of that
time, and the extent of their empire, as reaching to the Scythians, Bactrians, Indians, and the present Ionia; the amount of tribute also,
and the number of soldiers, which composed an army of about a million of
men." (Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, Chapter 1, Section 46, p. 262).
However, though there seems nothing incredible about a rich and populous
country establishing an empire, modern Egyptologists scoff at the idea
that Egypt ever held sway over the East. There does however seem to have
been contact, at a minimum, sufficient to introduce this paradigm, if it
was not Egypt's own way of understanding the problem of mortality.
Herodotus however gives credit for originality to the Egyptians themselves:
"The Egyptians say that Demeter and Dionysos are rulers
of the world below; and the Egyptians are also the first who
reported the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal, and that
when the body dies, the soul enters into another creature which
chances then to be coming to the birth, and when it has gone the
round of all the creatures of land and sea and of the air, it enters
again into a human body as it comes to the birth; and that it makes
this round in a period of three thousand years. This doctrine
certain Hellenes adopted, some earlier and some later, as if
it were of their own invention, and of these men I know the names
but I abstain from recording them." (Herodotus, Histories, Book II,
If the Egyptians did invent this doctrine and then pass it on to
the inhabitants of India and Eastward, then that transaction is lost
in the mists of time. Certainly the dogma has been naturalized in those
regions, where it is all but universal. At a bare minimum they had their
own reasons for adopting it, as we shall see. Reincarnation was not the Greeks' native understanding, nor
was it Rome's. These latter nations, as readers of Homer's
epics are aware, had originally shared a depressing vision of wan, bloodless persistence:
"Nevertheless the quick-revolving moons repair their
wanings in the skies; but when we descend [to those regions] where
pious Aeneas, where Tullus and the wealthy Ancus [have gone before
us], we become dust and a mere shade." (Horace, Odes, Book IV, Ode
Not dust and shade, but lions and tigers and bears, says the Pythagorean Apollonius:
"The following incident also of
Apollonius' stay in Egypt was thought remarkable. There was a man [who]
led a tame lion about by a string, as if it had been a dog; and the animal
not only fawned upon him, but on anyone who approached it. It went collecting
alms all around the towns, and was admitted even in the temples, being
a pure animal; for it never licked up the blood of the victims, nor pounced
on them when they were being flayed and cut up, but lived upon honey-cakes
and bread and dried fruits and cooked meat; and you also came on it drinking
wine without losing its character.
"One day it came up to Apollonius when he was sitting in the temple, and
whined and fawned at his knees, and begged of him more earnestly than it
had ever done of anybody. The bystanders imagined it wanted some solid
reward, but Apollonius exclaimed: 'This lion is begging me to make
you understand that a human soul is within him, the soul namely of Amasis,
the king of Egypt in the province of Sais.'
"And when the lion heard that, he gave a piteous and plaintive roar,
and crouching down began to lament, shedding tears. Thereupon Apollonius
stroked him, and said: 'I think the lion ought to be sent to Leontopolis
["Lion's city"] and dedicated to the temple there [of
the god Mihos], for I consider it wrong that a king who has been
changed into the most kingly of beasts should go begging, like
any human mendicant.'
"In consequence the priests met and offered sacrifice to Amasis; and
having decorated the animal with a collar and ribbons, they conveyed him
up country into Egypt with pipings, hymns and songs composed in his honor." (Philostratus,
Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V, Chapter 42).