Ancient Greece

Orphic and Dionysian Concept of Palingenesia (Reincarnation)

The origin of palingenesia  in ancient Greek philosophy may be traced to the Dionysian cult-society and to its more mystical version called Orphic Traditions. Orpheus was more elaborate, developed, controlled, and intellectualistic.  


The 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),


The 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 death"


. 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.

Similarly, 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…” 

In 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."


Reincarnation, and dualism, in Orphic theology.

What 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 several destinies.

"He 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 births.

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.

However the ultimate aim of the Orphic mystics was the cessation from this cycle of birth and death.  Orpheus says:

                   "Pure Friends!

                   Sons and daughters of the earth and starry sky!

                   Escape from the Spindle of Necessity and

                   the sorrowful, weary round upon the Wheel of Birth.

                   Enter the wreath of heaven

                   from mortals become Gods."


'To cease from the wheel and breathe again from ill.' is the ultimate aim.

Participation 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 their teachings.

Plato (429-348 BC)

In his Phaedo, Plato wrote "The soul is older than the body. Souls are continuously born over again into this life." 


Plato 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 man."


This 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."

Pythagorus (570 - 495 BC)

Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives








Socrates (470/469 - 399 BC)

At the end of his life, Socrates said,

"I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead."