Hidden Futures: Death and Immortality in Ancient Egypt, Anatolia, the Classical, Biblical and Arabic-Islamic World

By J. M. Bremer; Theo P.J. Van Den Hout et al. | Go to book overview

The Soul, Death and the Afterlife in Early and Classical Greece

Jan N. Bremmer

In this century the Western world has seen a meteoric rise of the sciences of psychiatry and psychology: clearly, we all want to care for our soul in this world.1 However, an early Greek would not have understood this usage of the word 'soul'. In the poems of Homer (ca. 800 BC), the Iliad and the Odyssey, the word psyche has no connection with the psychological side of man whatsoever. Taking this difference from modern ideas as my point of departure, I would like to discuss in this chapter the Greek concept of the soul of the living (1), the Western attitudes towards death (2), the moment of dying (3), the soul of the dead, including reincarnation (4), the underworld (5), and ghosts (6). The direction of my approach will be twofold. On the one hand, I will make use of ideas of anthropology in order to understand the Greek idea of the soul. On the other hand, I will apply the insights of modern historians who have shown that even death has a history to the extent that every time and culture approaches death in a way that can be related to other aspects of that society, such as its religion, family relations and technological level.


THE SOUL OF THE LIVING

We start with the soul of the living.2 The first surprising thing we notice about the use of the word psyche in the earliest Greek literature, the poems of Homer, is its near absence. It is only mentioned as part of the living person at times of crisis, but never mentioned when its owner functions normally. For instance, when the embassy of the Greek army beseeches Achilles to suppress his anger and resume fighting, he complains that he has been continually risking his psyche ( Il. IX.322). And when a spear was pulled from the thigh of Sarpedon, one of the allies of the Trojans, "his psyche left him and a mist came upon his eyes" ( Il. V.696). Other passages show that this psyche was located in such curious places as the limbs, the chest or even the flank. In no Homeric passage does it have any psychological

____________________
1
For an extensive, excellent bibliography see now Herfort-Koch M., Tod, Totenfürsorge und Jenseitsvorstellungen in der griechischen Antike ( Munich 1992); see also P. Habermehl, "Jenseits, Jenseitsvorstellungen," Reall. f. Antike und Christentum 17 ( 1996?).
2
I stick closely here to Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul ( Princeton 1983) and Bremmer, "Greek and Hellenistic Concepts of the Soul," in Death, Afterlife, and the Soul, ed. L. Sullivan ( New York and London 1989), 198-204. For a completely different approach see R. Padel , In and Out of the Mind. Greek Images of the Tragic Self ( Princeton 1992).

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