REINCARNATION

IN ANCIENT GREEK RELIGION

PALINGÆNÆSÍA – ΠΑΛΙΓΓΕΝΕΣΙΑ

WHAT IS WRONG WITH REINCARNATION?

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There are several articles online having the title, “What is wrong with reincarnation?” The theme of most of these essays is the same: Is the idea of reincarnation plausible? Can a reasonable person accept this belief? The Orphic tradition of the ancient Greek religion teaches reincarnation as a reality. Some individuals claim to have had memories of past lives, in which case, belief in rebirth would come naturally, but very few people have had such an experience. In a way, belief in reincarnation is like belief in God or Gods; there are some rational proofs, but they are thought of as questionable by most people. Therefore, how someone comes to believe, or not believe is a personal journey, like the belief in God or Gods. This author has no intention to address the validity of the concept of rebirth. For some people, reincarnation is a very appealing proposition. “What a great theory! It doesn’t matter if I do a bad job this time around. I get another chance and I’ll be back!” But this is a mistaken idea, for when the actual implications of reincarnation are understood, it completely loses its appeal. Therefore, what I do attempt, is to convince people that if reincarnation is actually a reality, it is not quite a happy or desirable situation.

In ancient Greek, there are two words for reincarnation, and they are synonyms: παλιγγενεσία [1] and μετεμψύχωσις [2]. This author prefers παλιγγενεσία, an older word [3].

The idea of the transmigration of the soul in Greece is an ancient one and often associated with the teachings of the great theologian Orphéfs (Ὀρφεὺς). The belief was also held by Pythagóras (Πυθαγόρας), who claimed to remember some of his past lives. You can find the idea in the writings of Æmbædoklís (Ἐμπεδοκλῆς), in several of the dialogues of Plátôn (Πλάτων) [4], and elsewhere. Many people think that παλιγγενεσία has its origin in Asia and is a relatively new theory in Ællînismόs (Hellênismos, Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, but this is not true, for even by the Classical period, reincarnation was regarded as an ancient idea. Nonetheless, it actually does not matter where the idea came from if reincarnation is a reality, and there is no dispute that reincarnation is a teaching of the ancient Greek religion, although there were alternate beliefs as well.

It is hard to deny that the world has ineffable beauty and offers tremendous reward for one who takes the time to appreciate it. There is the remarkable splendor of the magnificent mountains, the charming rolling hills, the grand rivers and trickling streams, the vast plenitude of life with its endless variety of insects, animals, and beautiful birds of every kind, and the verdure of the many forests, and the mystery of the deserts, the clouds, and the ocean deep, with all its great array of fish and sea creatures, to say nothing of the sun and moon and the infinite stars and constellations in the heavens, and so many other things. And to grow up as a human being, and to learn about all this, and to fall in love with great romance, and to have children, and a chance at great success in life; these are beautiful things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have another go at it, and to enjoy the world over and over again? The teaching on reincarnation does not deny the exquisite experience of merely being alive, of being human, with vigor pulsing through your veins, of the many beautiful people you may encounter in your day-to-day experience, of the love you have been given by parents, friends, and even strangers. But the teaching on reincarnation points out some things that actually should be obvious, but may not be so to those unfamiliar with the idea.

First, it must be understood that the transmigration of your soul is not voluntary, nor is it something that is imposed on you. Reincarnation is a natural process governed by natural laws, and it is inevitable. It is not inherently evil or good. When the Dîmiourgós (Δημιουργός) brought this generation into being - our generation - he created a situation as good as possible, constrained by natural laws. The Dîmiourgós is Zefs (Ζεύς). It is said that Zefs is ýpatos (ὕπατος), the highest of all the Gods, and that Íra (Ἥρα) is his equal [5], yet even these great Gods cannot free your soul from this condition. No person, no God, and no thing can instantly free you of it.

But why would anyone want to be freed from being reincarnated? There are many reasons. We can begin with uncertainty. There is absolutely no assurance as to where you will be reborn or who will be your parents. There are various opinions concerning even what a soul will come back as, as Orpheus says:

οὕνεκ’ ἀμειβομένη ψυχὴ κατὰ κύκλα χρόνοιο

ἀνθρώπων ζώιοισι μετέρχεται ἄλλοθεν ἄλλοις·

ἄλλοτε μέν θ’ ἵππος, τότε γίνεται - - - - - - -

ἄλλοτε δὲ πρόβατον, τότε δ’ ὄρνεον αἰνὸν ἰδέσθαι,

ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖ κύνεον τε δέμας φωνή τε βαρεῖα,

καὶ ψυχρῶν ὀφίων ἕρπει γένος ἐν χθονὶ δίηι.

(σχόλιον Πρόκλου επὶ Πολιτείας Πλάτωνος II 339, 4)

“Because the soul changing through the circles of time,

from humans into the living creatures, from one place to another:

sometimes a horse, but then it becomes …

at another time a cow, at times a dreadful bird to see!

...at another time in the shape of a dog with its strong bark,

and the cold race of snakes crawling upon the sacred earth.”

(trans. by the author)

And from Empedocles:

ἤδη γάρ ποτ' ἐγὼ γενόμην κοῦρός τε κόρη τε

θάμνος τ' οἰωνός τε καὶ ἔξαλος ἔλλοπος ἰχθύς.

(τμῆμα 117 τοῦ Ἐμπεδοκλέους [Diels I3 268, 9])

“Once on a time a youth was I, and I was a maiden,

A bush, a bird, and a fish with scales that gleam in the ocean.”

(trans. Jane Ellen Harrison, 1903)

In the Myth of Er [6] from the Republic of Plátôn, it says that we choose our next life, but the choices made by many of the characters in the story are disastrously misled. This may indicate that our moral character may be a factor in future lives. Nonetheless, Plátôn’s myth is one opinion, and not at all so optimistic altogether, for the future is not quite certain, even if you have the ability to choose one factor, and fate is very complicated. Obviously, no person would deliberately choose a painful life, yet the evidence for difficult and severe lives is ubiquitous in our world, so if we choose our lives, we, as human beings, obviously make bad choices, and make those bad choices often.

There is the issue of life itself. The experience of being born is usually very painful in itself, but of course we have forgotten this. Next, you are alive and instantly in trouble, because to be alive itself is trouble. As you begin to grow, you find yourself in a type of captivity for many years until you mature. Perhaps your parents are good people, but perhaps they are not ideal. There are the factors of family wealth, the location of the home, what type of schooling is available, etc. Once you achieve adulthood, you are still not free, because food and shelter are not free, so a means of support must be acquired, and your career may not turn out well for you, as is often the case with many people. Then there are the issues of finding a mate and possibly raising children, and the challenges of doing a good job with that. In the midst of all this, you are subject to illness, accident, or even attack by enemies or criminals. If you are fortunate to have an attractive appearance, you will lose it incrementally to old age. And you are subject to every kind of sickness: asthma, obesity, leukemia, cancer, diabetes – the list is endless - and then there is the possibility of psychological maladies of every kind. If you are blessed with a long life, you will endure the death of your parents, and all of those you love. Your body will become fragile and fraught with pain. Your hearing and eyesight will become poor, and you will need help with many things, almost as though you are a child again. In the end, you yourself will die, either by natural causes or by accident or violence – there is no escape. You will lose everything you acquired in life and your body will be buried or burned. In a hundred years or less, you will likely be completely forgotten. After death, there is a time of rest, after which, whether you like it or not, you will be re-born into new and very possibly difficult circumstances which may be worse than those of your last life, or possibly better, but there are so many more lives.

Yet, there really is no guarantee. Recently, this author found out that one of his relatives is near the end of a long battle with diabetes; first they started removing toes, next came one of the lower legs, then they have taken off the other leg (against his will, after he had become unconscious) above the knee. He wanted desperately to die, and actually, he is now dead. But perhaps your situation is not so dire; you are fine, life is good. “Too bad for him, but I am enjoying life. And even for him, while I can’t understand his pain exactly, shouldn’t he embrace the life he has? Isn’t the alternative oblivion?” But certainly, life can be much worse. The list of possible unfavorable outcomes is endless, from poverty to genocide, from religious persecution to control by the state. But again, you say, the alternative is death, although sometimes you do not even have that choice as, for instance, when they force-feed political prisoners and prevent them from committing suicide. But despite all the pain and suffering, life is preferable. Perhaps. Easy to say if you are not the victim, but nonetheless, there is some truth to it. As an example, many prisoners on “death-row,” living in subhuman conditions, often fight for their lives. They choose life, and, if they succeed, they spend the rest of it with the endless shouting of the prison, the beatings by prison-guards, the abuse by fellow prisoners...and it has been proven that many prisoners are completely innocent of the crimes they have been convicted of. And some die without anyone but the Gods knowing the truth. And the family tries to forget their black sheep.

Even in a so-called “good life,” behind it, is a feeling not quite settled. There is always anxiety. You see, this type of anxiety can be subtle, but it is still present. You cannot actually have the good things of life. Even if you possess gold, beautiful things, exquisite clothing, you somehow cannot actually have them. Oh, they are there, in your possession, but are they actually yours? Of course they are, in a way, but it is like beautiful music; you can’t exactly have it. But why go out of one’s way to see the bad? Why not put the bad aside and identify with the good. Enjoy life for what it is, and don’t let the bad pull you down. Indeed. Most certainly. That is good advice. But to completely accomplish that is not possible. There is a gnawing something which is not settled. Even if you are in perfect health and retired with a great nest egg, there is something not exactly ideal. Even if you are relatively satisfied, there is a nagging something. Actually, you can only relatively say, “I am satisfied.” This is the anxiety, and that anxiety is present in the souls of every mortal being. And then you are gone. Dead. Perhaps you had a good life. If that was it, that, of course, would be the best we can do. Embrace life, for that is all we have. Live life to the fullest, for life may be short. Enjoy this beautiful world as best you can. What else can you do? And that would be fine, if reincarnation is a lie.

The object of the above arguments is not to depress anyone, or to encourage someone to suicide (Gods forbid!), but simply to argue that life is not exactly ideal, even in the best of circumstances, and to state that if reincarnation is a reality, the fragility of a favorable life is uncertain, and foremost, that reincarnation itself is not a pleasurable thing. Its purpose is not to be “a great second chance.”

Why does reincarnation occur at all? There are various opinions concerning this, but the general idea is that the soul, by nature, has misunderstood something greatly from its inception. Until this misunderstanding is undone, the soul is caught in a circle of births (κύκλος γενέσεως) involuntarily.

et hoc est quod Plato notavit in Phaedone animam in corpus trahi nova ebrietate trepidantem, volens novum potum materialis alluvionis intellegi quo delibuta et gravata deducitur. arcani huius indicium est et Crater Liberi patris ille sidereus in regione quae inter Cancrum est et Leonem locatus, ebrietatem illic primum descensuris animis evenire silva influente significans, unde et comes ebrietatis oblivio illic animis incipit iam latenter obrepere. (Macrobii Ambrosii Theodosii In somnium Scipionis I 12, 7)

“And this is what Plato remarked about in the Phaedo, that the anxious soul is dragged into the body in a state of intoxication, wishing to understand its recent drink of overflowing matter, by which the soul, besmeared and weighted down, is drawn down. Evidence of this Mystery is the celestial Crater of Father Liber (Dionysus) placed in the region between Cancer and Leo, signifying that there, for the first time, the intoxication comes forth into the souls who are about to descend, flowing in abundance, and whence forgetfulness, the companion of intoxication, now takes hold and secretly steals upon the souls.”

(trans. by the author)

This repeating cycle is described as “sorrowful” for the reasons already articulated. If this is the nature of reincarnation, why would anyone want to believe in such a thing? Actually, it may be better not to believe it, especially if it is some kind of cruel lie; and the solution would be to simply abandon the belief. There are other solutions from ancient Greece concerning life after death. Of course, there were atheists who believed that when we die, that is it, just as modern atheists think. The philosopher Epíkouros (Ἐπίκουρος) held this view, and he felt that it was a very liberating idea, that death was nothing to fear, because, as he saw it, death was oblivion – you will experience.....nothing. And there was considerable evidence of a belief in the so-called Underworld ruled by Hades, with the souls described as “shades.” Perhaps the most famous conception of this is that which was presented in Ὀδύσσεια Ὁμήρου [7], where the dead are shown to be like zombies who can only come to full consciousness by drinking blood. Odysséfs (Ὀδυσσεύς) talks to the soul of Akhilléfs (Ἀχιλλεύς); the great warrior tells him [8] that to be the least of men in life is preferable to ruling all the souls of the dead, for in this conception of the afterlife, the soul remains in this dismal state forever. Apparently, there were many people who held this belief in ancient times. But Orphism rejects these views of life after death, for to be liberated from the circle of births is not to be dead – not at all – so, let us now examine the teaching of Orpheus on the liberation of the soul.

If reincarnation is true, and if it is, as they say, involuntary, why waste time thinking about it? If you cannot do anything about a bad situation, why concern yourself over it? Why? ...because you actually can do something about it, or so the theologians of this religion say. In the beginning of this essay, it was stated that Zefs set forth a new generation of beings as good as was possible, but constrained by natural laws – and this is our generation - but that this generation of beings is caught in the circle of births, by nature. He was fully aware that this would be the case, yet the compromise, if you want to use that term, would result in a great benefit, ultimately, in a great good.

In truth, all sentient beings are incrementally progressing - very, very slowly - towards freedom. This is also a natural law. However, to work through this problem requires millions and millions of years and incarnations. Therefore, Zefs, in his great wisdom, devised a mighty plan. He would conceive a great son, a magnificent God of his own essence, and this God will bestow the Mysteries (Μυστήρια) of how to escape from the circle of births. This great God is Diónysos. The Mysteries are not magical practices, that idea is a huge misunderstanding, but, rather, they are teachings which accelerate progress, whereby the soul unravels the problems preventing its own freedom. These teachings are the birthright of all human beings, as they are a gift of Zefs from the fountain of his infinite compassion; indeed, they are the birthright of all creatures, because we are not the only souls caught in the circle of births, and this greatest of Gods cares for all the souls. He, and all the Gods, desire us to have the very freedom which they themselves possess; therefore, they never violate our freedom; this is a great law of the universe. Therefore, when we truly desire freedom from the circle, of our own free will, they give us an opportunity. The Mysteries will become available to us, and the journey to freedom will continue, but now greatly accelerated, for we will have the help of the Olympian Gods, who participate in his divine providence for all of creation.

What does it mean to escape the circle of births? It means that you are free. A soul that is free from the circle of births is called a God; a God is a soul which is free from the circle of births. Therefore, to free you from the circle of births, the Olympians make you a God. You see, there is a problem and a great misunderstanding: we think that to become a God is to become immensely powerful and be able to perform miracles, but in truth, to become a God is simply to become free of the circle of births. This is called ækthǽôsis (ἐκθέωσις), you “come forth as a God.” All this wandering through births and deaths has ended; you have come to the end of the circle, κύκλου λήξαι. You will never return in a mortal body. You are free.

Now that your soul is free, what is there left to do? The soul is continuously progressing and this includes even the souls of Gods. You have become a new “baby” God and you are growing and progressing. The Mysteries have cradled you with great teachings, which have resulted in your freedom. You have partaken of these teachings. This is called thæouryía (θεουργία), the divine work (θεός "divine" + ἔργον "work") of Zefs. Now that your soul is free, you have identified with this divine work. All the millions of souls suffering in the circle, and all the millions of new souls being born constantly, will benefit from you, for you have been nursed through the Mysteries and are filled with Ǽrôs (Ἔρως), not only for the Gods, but you are filled with love for all creatures, with their beautiful souls vibrating towards freedom. You are shining with radiant compassion, the providence of Zefs, and are ready and willing to help, and you are now in a much better position to exercise that help.

NOTES:

[1] Ἠθικὰ Πλουτάρχου· 68. Περὶ σαρκοφαγίας 2 998c.

[2] Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορικὴ Διοδώρου Σικελιώτου 10.6.

[3] Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon by F. E. Peters, 1967, New York Univ. Press, p. 151.

[4] Φαῖδρος Πλάτωνος 249a, Μένων 81a, etc.

[5] Kern Orphic frag. 132. σχόλιον Πρόκλου επί Τιμαίου Πλάτωνος 18c (I 46, 27 Diehl):

ἥ τε οὖν Ἥρα συμπρόεισι τῶι Διὶ πάντα ἀποτίκτουσα σύν τῶι πατρί· διὸ καὶ ἰσοτελὴς (fr. 163) αὐττῶι | 47 Dlchl προσαγορεύεται· καὶ ἡ Ῥέα τὼι Κρόνωι· πάσης γάρ ἐστι τῆς Κρονίας δυνάμεως κόλπος ἡ θεὸς αὕτη· καὶ ἡ Γῆ τῶι Οὐρανῶι· πάντων γάρ ἡ Γῆ μήτηρ, ὧν ὁ Οὐρανὸς πατήρ.


“Hence Juno (Ἥρα) proceeds together with Jupiter (Ζεύς), generating all things in conjunction with the father. Hence, too, she is said to be equal in rank with Jupiter, as is likewise Rhea with Saturn (Κρόνος). For this Goddess is the bosom of all the Saturnian (Kronian) power. Earth also is equal in dignity with Heaven (Οὐρανός). For Earth is the mother of all things, of which Heaven is the father.”

(trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820.)

Kern Orphic frag. 163. σχόλιον Πρόκλου επί Τιμαίου Πλάτωνος 31a (I 450, 20 Diehl):

ὁ δὲ δημιουγὸς αὐτός, ὁ μέγιστος Ζεύς, συζογεῖ τῆι Ἥραι· διὸ καὶ ἰσοτελὴς αὐτῶι καλεῖται, καὶ ἐκ τῶν αὐτῶν προεληλύθασι πατέρων.


“But the Demiurgus (creator), who is the great Jupiter (Ζεύς), is conjoined with Juno (Ἥρα). Hence also, she is said to be of equal rank with him, and proceeds from the same fathers.”

(trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820)

[6] Πολιτεία Πλάτωνος 10.614–10.621 ὁ Μύθος τοῦ Ἠρός

[7] Ὀδύσσεια Ὁμήρου beginning 11.1.

[8] Ὀδύσσεια Ὁμήρου 487

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Theogony.

We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology.

Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.

How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.

What are the Orphic Fragments? The Orphic Fragments of Otto Kern.

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