and Dionysian Concept of Palingenesia (Reincarnation)
origin of palingenesia in
ancient Greek philosophy may be traced to the Dionysian
cult-society and to its more mystical version called Orphic
was more elaborate, developed, controlled, and intellectualistic.
Cult of Dionysus is strongly associated with satyrs, centaurs, and
sileni, and its characteristic symbols are the bull, the serpent,
the ivy, and the wine. The Dionysia and Lenaia festivals in Athens
were dedicated to Dionysus, as well as the Phallic processions.
Initiates worshipped him in the Dionysian Mysteries, which were
comparable to and linked with the Orphic Mysteries, and may have
influenced Gnosticism. Orpheus was said to have invented the
Mysteries of Dionysus. The
popularity of the cult of Dionysus, introduced to Egypt by the
early Ptolemy rulers in the 3rd century BC, continued into early
Byzantine times (4th-7th century),
simplified theology of this early Orphic religion may be given as
follows: From the
ashes of the blasted Titans,
man was created. But these Titans had already consumed the
god Dionysus, and their ashes contained the vitality of a divine
being. Hence man by his very constitution was believed to be a
compound of two natures, one Dionysian and immortal, the other
Titanic and mortal. Translated into modern terms it means
"His soul was divine, but while in the body bound to
On the Petelian tablet (south Italy, third century B.C.) the soul
is represented as asserting its divine nature thus:
I am a
child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven.
on three Cretan tablets the soul answers the challenge
"Whence are you?" with a reiterated declaration of its
dual origin, "I am son of Earth and of Starry Heaven."
On the Compagno tablets found near Sybaris the soul makes a like
affirmation to the "Pure Queen of Them Below . . . .,"
"I avow me that I am of your blessed race." The dualism
thus fixed between body and soul was fundamental in Orphic
theology. Though the body was an evil thing, the soul was divine
and immortal. A
second-century (A.D.) inscription found in a Sabine village says:
"The soul is immortal for it came from God. The body is the
garment of the soul. Honor the God in me."
They were described as a
“self-contained group, with a common life centered in its
daemon” (Cornford 1957) a concept very similar to the Church as
the body of Christ. They
conceived that the daemon (or soul) “both resided in all its
members at once, and also [laid] beyond any one of them,”.
The concept was identical with the concept of the Holy
Spirit of God which was "within" every man and was also
the unifying divine component which transcended the immanence.
That the common life was divine and immutable and it was
what really led to the doctrine of reincarnation, because the
group held that this common life “which was perpetually renewed,
was reborn out of that opposite state, called death…”
its first analysis, therefore, the Orphic process of salvation was
a process of purification from bodily taint. The problem, however,
was not such a simple one as these words would indicate. It was
not merely from the evils of a single existence that the Orphic
sought deliverance, but from the evils of a long series of bodily
existences. The Orphic first, and the Pythagorean later, believed
in the transmigration of souls from body to body. On leaving the
corpse at death, the soul was normally doomed to inhabit the
bodies of other men or of animals even, passing on through a chain
of physical existences until finally purified. An Orphic fragment
preserved by Proclus reads: "Therefore the soul of man
changing in the cycles of time enters into various creatures; now
it enters a horse, again it becomes a sheep . . . . or as one of
the tribe of chill serpents creeps on the sacred ground."
and dualism, in Orphic theology.
the Orphic did with the idea of transmigration was to moralize it
into a cycle of purgations intended to free the soul from bodily
taint and leave it in the end a pure heavenly essence. According
to Pindar, the soul had to undergo three such periods of
purification in as many different incarnations before the process
would be complete. Only those who "thrice had been courageous
in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong" could
pass by the highway of Zeus into the tower of Cronus where the
ocean breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest." In Plato
the series of three incarnations was magnified to three periods of
a thousand years each, during which the process of purgation might
be completed. At the close of each thousand-year period, the souls
drew lots, thus choosing the manner of their next incarnation. One
of the most striking scenes depicted in any of Plato's writings
was the eschatological vision of Er, son of Armenius, recounted in
the tenth book of the Republic. At the place of judgment, Er saw
mortal souls allotted to a new cycle of life choosing their
saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a
swan out of enmity to the race of woman . . . . He beheld also the
soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale. Birds on the
other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men .
. . . After making choice and drinking of the waters of Lethe,
these souls shoot away like stars, to birth."
the time given for a soul to be reborn or complete its cycle of births
was not unanimous. Empedocles
announced three transmigration periods of ten thousand years each
ere the soul could be considered eligible for heavenly bliss. Stoics put ir as two
hundred and sixteen years (Fragment 14, 8; Kirk, GS. & Raven,
JE. 1957. The presocratic philosophers. Cambridge University
Press.), while for Plato it was a thousand years between any two
Again the transmigration took place in all spheres of life forms
“successively animal and vegetable bodies” (Burnet, J.
1950. Greek philosophy. Thales to Plato. London: Macmilan).
Pythagorus seems to
have remembered 10 to
20 past lives and claimed he was the son of the Egptian Thot who
discovered writing and arithmetics.
the ultimate aim of the Orphic mystics was the cessation from this
cycle of birth and death. Orpheus
Sons and daughters of the earth and starry
Escape from the Spindle of Necessity and
the sorrowful, weary round upon the Wheel
Enter the wreath of heaven
from mortals become Gods."
cease from the wheel and breathe again from ill.' is the ultimate
in certain prescribed rites of initiation was the prescription for
this redemptive escape.
Among the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato may be
numbered among those who made reincarnation an integral part of
his Phaedo, Plato wrote "The soul is older than the
body. Souls are continuously born over again into this life."
suggested that the body belonged to the physical world and would
decay, but that the soul belonged to a higher realm where eternal
truths, such as justice, love and goodness will endure forever.
And the soul will return to this higher realm to
contemplate the truth after death.
"Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of
each one can return to the place from whence she came." Only
the soul of the philosopher or of the lover can get back to its
original state in less time (i.e., in three thousand years). The
souls that fail to aspire to perfection and live in ignorance are
judged after their earthly life and then punished in "the
houses of correction, which are under the earth." One
lifetime is not enough to return to the original celestial state
of purity. For this reason "the soul of a man may pass into
the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the
is the Platonist idea of reincarnation.
It is a temporary punishment on the way back towards a
purified personal existence (the state of pure being). Between
Platonism and Eastern religions there is a big difference
concerning man’s identity in general and reincarnation in
particular. Plato says: "Those also who are remarkable for
having led holy lives are released from this earthly prison, and
go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer
earth; and those who have duly purified themselves with philosophy
live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansions fairer
far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time
would fail me to tell."
(570 - 495 BC)
claimed he could remember his past lives
- 399 BC)
the end of his life, Socrates said,
am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and
that the living spring from the dead."