Ancient Greece (magna Graecia)
In Greece, the doctrine of Rebirths is met with in the Orphic
tradition, continued by Pythagoras and Plato. Up to the present time,
this tradition has probably found its best interpreter in Mr. G. R.
S. Mead, an eminent theosophist and a scholar of the first rank. We
recommend our readers to study his Orpheus, if they desire a
detailed account of this tradition.
Its origins are lost in antiq
ity, only a few obscure shreds
remaining; Pherecydes, however, when speaking of the immortality
of the soul, refers to the doctrine of Rebirths; it is also presented
very clearly by both Pythagoras and Plato.
According to the Pythagorean teaching, the human soul emanates from
the Soul of the World, thus affirming, at the outset, the divine
nature of the former. It teaches subsequently that this soul assumes
successive bodies until it has fully evolved and completed the "Cycle
Pythagoras, according to Diogenes of Laertius, was the first in
Greece to teach the doctrine of the return of souls to earth. He gave
his disciples various details of his past lives; he appears to have
been the initiate Oethalides, in the times of the Argonauts; then,
almost immediately afterwards, Euphorbus, who was slain by Menelaus at
the siege of Troy; again he was Hermotimus of Clazomenae, who, in the
temple of Juno at Argos, recognised the shield he was carrying
when his body was slain as Euphorbus, and which Menelaus had given as
an offering to the goddess; at a later date he was Pyrrhus, a
fisherman of Delos, and, finally, Pythagoras.
In all likelihood this genealogy is not correct in every detail, it
comes to us from the disciples of the sage of Samos, who were not very
trustworthy in their reports.
Empedocles, one of the early disciples of Pythagoras, said that he
inhabited a female body in his preceding existence. Saint Clement of
Alexandria quotes a few lines of his, in which we find the philosopher
of Agrigentum teaching the general evolution of forms.
"I, too, have been a boy, a maiden, a star, a bird, a mute fish in the
depths of the sea."
Iarchas, the Brahman chieftain, said to the great Apollonius:
"In bygone ages thou wert Ganga, the famous monarch, and, at a later
date, captain of an Egyptian vessel."
The Emperor Julian said that he had been Alexander the Great.
Proclus affirmed that he had been Nichomachus the Pythagorean.
The works of Plato are full of the idea of rebirth, and if the
scattered fragments of the teaching are gathered together and
illumined with the torch of theosophy, a very satisfactory ensemble
will be the result.
Souls are older than bodies, he says in Phaedo; they are ever being
born again from Hades and returning to life on earth; each man has
his daimon, who follows him throughout his existences, and at
death takes him to the lower world for Judgment. Many souls
enter Acheron, and, after a longer or shorter period, return to
earth to be incarnated in new bodies. Unpardonable sins fling the soul
"Know that if you become worse you will go to the worse souls, or if
better to the better, and in every succession of life and death you
will do and suffer what like may fitly suffer at the hands of
According to Plato, the period between two incarnations is about a
thousand years. Man has reminiscences of his past lives that are
more or less distinct; they are manifested rather by an intuitive
impression than by a definite memory, but they form part of the
individual, and at times influence him strongly. "Innate ideas"
are only one aspect of memory, often it is impossible to explain them
by heredity, education, or environment; they are attainments of the
past, the store which the soul takes with it through its incarnations,
which it adds to during each sojourn in heaven.
There can be no doubt that Plato would appear to have taught
metempsychosis, i.e., the possibility of a human soul passing into
the body of an animal:
"Men who have followed after gluttony and wantonness and drunkenness,
and have had no thought of avoiding them, would pass into asses and
animals of that sort. And those who have chosen the portion of
injustice and tyranny and violence will pass into wolves or hawks or
kites, and there is no difficulty in assigning to all of them places
according to their several natures and propensities."
Under the heading of Neoplatonism, we shall show that, beneath these
coarse symbols, Plato concealed truths which it was then necessary to
keep profoundly secret; which, even nowadays, it is not permitted to
reveal to all.