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Early Conceptions of The Soul

July 21, 2021

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Humans have long known that we somehow exist as a separate entity other than our physical selves. The ethereal concept of the soul is present throughout ancient religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions. Composed of the incorporeal essence of a living human being, the soul is considered to be the divinity of an individual’s highest being, often synonymous with the mind or self.  

Our modern-day conception of the soul stems from thousands of years of various theories about the origin and mortality of the soul and its relationship to the body. There is evidence even among prehistoric people that there was a belief of a separate spirit from the body that resides in it and exists after death. These theories, ideas, and beliefs have paved our present understanding that we have of our existence in this life.

Early Conceptions of The Soul

Many cultures have acknowledged the existence of an immaterial energy of human life that is analogous to the soul. The essence of a soul has been attributed to all living things since the concept of the soul was discovered. While there is a collective belief of the soul’s presence, there have been various perspectives on the simplicity and immortality of the soul throughout ancient history.

Ancient Egyptians and Chinese peoples conceived the idea of a dual soul.

For the ancient Egyptians, an individual’s life on earth was considered only one part of an eternal journey. The personality was created at the moment of one’s birth, but the soul was an immortal entity inhabiting a mortal vessel. When that vessel failed and the person’s body died, the soul went on to another plane of existence. If it was justified by the gods, the soul would live forever in a paradise which was a mirror image of one’s earthly existence. The Egyptian ka (breath) was thought to survive death and remain near the body, while the spiritual ba (soul) was thought to proceed to the region of the dead.

The ancient Chinese theory of the soul has two components as well. The earthly aspect of the soul po comes into existence as human life begins. Po is the spirit of a person’s physical nature that is expressed in bodily strength and movements. After it emerges, the heavenly aspect of the soul hun is created. Hun is the spirit of a person’s vital force that is expressed in consciousness and intelligence, which survives the grave and is the object of ancestor worship. 

The early Hebrews had a different concept of the soul, one that did not separate it from the body but rather connected it through the breath. Biblical references to the soul are related to the concept of Hebrew nefesh (soul) which refers to the breath and establishes no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body.

Ancient Greek concepts of the soul noticeably varied according to the particular era and philosophical school. As their ideas evolved, they influenced how we perceive the soul today. The presence of the Greek word psuchē (soul) in concepts such as psychiatry and psychology suggests that the Greeks viewed the soul in the modern way. However, the absence of any psychological connotations in the earliest extant practices of psuchē shows that the early Greek concepts of the soul were different from later beliefs. Pythagoras believed that the soul was of divine creation and existed before and after death. Plato and Socrates also accepted this idea that the soul was immortal, while Aristotle regarded only part of the soul, the noûs (intellect), to be immortal. Epicurus believed that both the body and soul ended at death.

The early Christian philosophers adopted the Greek concept of the soul’s immortality and believed that the soul was created by God and imbued into the body at conception. In Christian theology St. Augustine regarded the soul as a “rider” on the body, emphasizing the divide between the material and the immaterial, with the soul capturing the true essence of a person. However, although body and soul were separate, it was not possible to conceive a soul without its body.

The soul was thought to be a universal and eternal self in Hinduism, referred to as the atman (breath). Individual souls were believed to be imprisoned in the body at birth and at death the atman was passed into a new existence determined by karma, which is the sum of the consequences of actions in all states of existence, and decide the fate of a person in future existences. On the other hand, Buddhism counters this idea of the atman, maintaining the view that any sense of having an individual eternal soul or believing in a continuous universal self is illusory, and realizing this brings true enlightenment.

The existence of the soul onwards evolved as the world did. Through ancient history there have been various concepts of the relation of the soul to the body, and there have been numerous ideas about when the soul comes into existence and if it dies. Ancient Greek beliefs varied and evolved over time, and they pushed through to Western ideology. The soul is standardly thought to be a distinguishing mark between living things, and encapsulates the essence of who we are. It is thought to have eschatological and psychological attributes. This immaterial aspect or essence of a human being provides individuality and humanity, and is the bridge between us and the divine. It is thought to be the energy of life and the source of our deep connection to the Universe, transcending all spiritual beliefs.

Megan Binder

(B.A. Psychology)


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Small, M. F. (2008, November 28). The Human Soul: An Ancient Idea. LiveScience.

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