By Hans Ten Dam
Reincarnation or rather metempsychosis ideas were already known in classical Greece. Orphic and Pythagorean sources have been known. Originally, those ideas probably would have come from Egypt or India or both, and some have suggested that these ideas came from the Celts in Gaul or from the Thracians. Recently, I came across an excellent study by Robert Long. His doctoral thesis, A Study of the Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Greece from Pythagoras to Plato was published by Princeton University Press in 1948. This very scholarly work seems to set the record straight.
The source of Greek reincarnation ideas was certainly Pythagoras, not his teacher Pherecydes, not the Orphic religion, not Egypt, not the Celts, not the Thracians, and most probably not India.
The idea that metempsychosis came from the Egyptians rests on the tales of Herodotus. Herodotus saw the Egyptians as the source of about everything. Absolutely nothing of his story is confirmed by any Egyptian source, though we have a multitude of texts about death and afterlife.
Some have declared that the Thracians of the fifth century B. C. believed in metempsychosis. Because of its supposed presence in both Thrace and Gaul, others assumed a ” Scythian” source for metempsychosis, the doctrine spreading from an area north of the Black Sea to Western Europe, to Greece and to India. This case depends on a few text passages on Thrace. Unfortunately, these passages do not refer to metempsychosis. The earliest evidence for metempsychosis in Thrace and Gaul is from the first century B.C. and so it is more likely that the Thracians and Celts acquired the doctrine from the Greeks than the other way round.
All evidence points to Pythagoras as the source of metempsychosis in the Greek world as a doctrine with moral implications. Centuries later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Greeks were convinced that the Orient was the source of all-important philosophical and scientific speculations. This resulted in a flood of tales connecting early Greek philosophers with the priests, prophets and wise‑men of Egypt, Babylon, Persia and India. The more the Orient became known, the longer and varied the stories about travels became.
In India, the first clear mention of metempsychosis occurs in the Brhadaraniyaka Upanishad, Book VI. There the doctrine already resembles the present-day doctrine in India: as a man acts, so will he be born. The Upanishads can be traced to just before 600 B. C. If the Greek belief in metempsychosis was derived from India, it must be from the Upanisads. But metempsychosis in the Upanishads and in early Greek religion differ considerably. There is no trace of a doctrine of recollection in India until after the time of Empedocles, although it was probably part of the teaching of Pythagoras in Greece. The doctrine of abstinence, e.g. vegetarianism, associated with Pythagorean metempsychosis appears in India, but considerably later than Pythagoras. In other words, two of the most important doctrines associated with metempsychosis appear first in Greece, then in India. If any transmission is to be assumed, it must have been from Greece to India rather than the reverse.
Metempsychosis does not pervade the Greek world like the Olympic pantheon does. The first four important known exponents of metempsychosis in the Greek world are Pythagoras, Pindar, Empedocles and Plato. All are connected in one way or another with Sicily or Magna Graecia; apparently the doctrine of metempsychosis radiated from Pythagoras through the Italic part of the Greek world and from there to the mainland of Greece.
Pindar writes that in the afterlife, some souls continue in the realm of Persephone for eight years atoning for their sins. Then they return to the region of sunlight and assume several of the more desirable forms of human existence. After they die the second time, they become heroes for evermore.
Empedocles sees people as fallen “demons” (we would rather say: angels); reincarnation is a form of retribution, not a mechanical and necessary process. Empedocles’ great contribution is this doctrine of the soul’s divine nature. He never refers to the soul as psyche, but always as daimon. Originally all souls were divine. Whenever any daimon stains itself with sin, particularly with murder or perfidy, it has to wander 30000 seasons away from the company of the blessed and has to assume all sorts of mortal forms, buffeted and tossed about among the four elements. All living things in this world are demons returning to immortality. Empedocles divides all life into four categories: plant, animal, man and god. Within each of the three lower categories there is a gradation of members: the laurel is the highest plant; the lion, the highest animal; and soothsayers, singers, physicians and princes are the highest men. The soul, after its ejection from among the blessed, passes into a plant; then through several more plants, living an unspecified time in each; next, through several animals; and later through several sorts of human beings till at last it joins the company of the immortals once more. The transformation from one form to another, at least within humans, seems to take place in the nether world in an unlovely place.
We have no indication in the known fragments of Empedocles whether every soul will attain divinity or only the righteous will, but the latter is more probable. The general trend in the development of Greek philosophy is toward practical morality. Pindar’s doctrine of metempsychosis is more insistent upon ethics than Pythagoras appears to have been. Each of the four earliest exponents of metempsychosis presents the doctrine so as to be more conducive to practical morality than his predecessors. Pythagorean metempsychosis seems to have been revised in the interests of morality by some religious group in Sicily. Just so, Plato’s chief interest in the doctrine seems to have been its moral aspect. This gradual purification and restatement of the doctrine of metempsychosis follow the general tendency of Greek philosophy and religion towards practical ethics.
Plato discusses metempsychosis in the Meno, the Cratylus, the Phaedo, the Republic, the Phaedrus and the Timaeus. Metempsychosis is not stated in the Meno as a demonstrable fact, but as a likely opinion. Socrates says that he is accepting metempsychosis on faith from certain holy men and women (most probably Pythagoreans).
In the Phaedo, Socrates does not insist upon the absolute accuracy of his account of the judgment, but considers it likely. The soul is obliged to appear before its judges naked except for the marks left by its earthly life. The Phaedo and the other dialogues are essentially consistent, although details vary. In the Phaedo, Plato emphasizes the necessity of righteousness and the inevitable punishment for sin; he never insists upon the details of metempsychosis, but is assured that something like it must be true.
The process of metempsychosis described in detail in the Republic fits with the description of transmigrations in the Phaedrus. Most souls reincarnate ten times, once in about one thousand years. Only the souls of the guileless philosopher or the philosophizing lover of youth (!) are freed from the cycle of births after only three similar lifetimes.
In Timaeus, Plato says that the first incarnation is the same for all. If we master our passions and live righteously for a suitable period, we will return to our stars for a happy life; but if we are unrighteous, we will be born as women and may continue to degenerate through the various animals until they learn to curb their passions. (Yes ladies, you read this right!)
Metempsychosis has been considered a part of the Orphic religion, and its rise and spread in the Greek world have been attributed to the Orphics. But “Orphism” has been used as a catchall for a large group of beliefs, some of which are never connected by ancient writers with the name of Orpheus. Most references to Orphic groups and practices are from the Hellenistic and Roman time. In the 19th century and early 20th century a whole Orphic religion has been reconHonoring Pythagoras: Reincarnation ideas in classical Greece, Hans TenDam
structed, but hardly substantiated by the earlier texts.
Among others, Empedocles has been seen as influenced by Orphism. Empedocles advocated vegetarianism. But the two earliest Greeks whom tradition connects with vegetarianism, Epimenides and Abaris, have Pythagorean connections, but are nowhere said to be Orphics. No early evidence connects the Orphics with vegetarianism, so it is more likely that Empedocles acquired this from the Pythagoreans.
It is Pythagoras who introduced metempsychosis to the Greek world and it spread from Pythagorean centers. In the Pythagorean view, metempsychosis is an ethical development and memories of past lifetimes are possible. Apart from all the metaphysical speculations that have accrued to this, we can still live with this core, I presume.
An example of the forth approach is the oldest known form of regression therapy: dianetics of L. Ron Hubbard (1950). All episodes of lessened consciousness, physical or emotional pain lead to engrams, as he calls them. Identifying and repeated reliving of those engrams leads to discharge. His ideas resemble those of Columbus: obstinate misconceptions, but epoch-making results. Like many pioneers, his significance is more in opening new territory than in developing a handy conceptual framework. His methods are rigid, probably effective, but inefficient. Intense opposition against his approach has led to a self-contained empire of cleared people, maintaining itself with the ample proceeds of the time-consuming clearing of others. Out of dianetics came scientology, operating under duress. Scientology is a bastion, formed by a religious denomination, by copyrights on each sentence, and a tenacity resembling Jehovah’s Witnesses. Scientologists don’t canvass at your doorstep, but harass you by mail. Let’s describe briefly the therapy of Ron Hubbard without the jargon, and without fully justifying his methodology.
The remigrant or patient holds in his hands two tin cans or other electrodes connected to an E-meter, measuring skin resistance. The therapist, called auditor, keeps track of the meter. The auditor counts back in time, till he hits a traumatic episode, indicated by the E-meter showing lower skin resistance. He dates this period precisely and establishes its duration precisely. By questioning, he clarifies the initial situation. He asks the remigrant what he sees. From an often insignificant detail he develops the situation in full. Then he asks the remigrant to go over the whole episode in his mind. The E-meter shows to what extent this is done effectively. Then he asks to tell the experience. Usually, emotions have lessened somewhat in the telling, but did not discharge completely. He has the agony traversed many times till the remigrant remains completely calm. The auditor then asks if there is another situation linked to this one, which has to be traversed. If the E-meter shows a reaction (similar to the use of finger signals), he searches for those other episodes and processes them likewise.
Often the remigrant blocks. He prefers to avoid an experience, doesn’t see anything, impressions remain vague or he glosses over things. So the engram is not released. Questions that open the engram are: ‘what can you sense? What precisely do you see? What can you confront? What can you be responsible for?’
Many engrams are anchored in postulates: the conclusions and decisions we used to deal with the situation. Examples are: “It isn’t really happening.” Or: “I will nevermore show how I feel.” Remigrants can recount an episode in four or five versions before they recount what really happened, what they really did. Even then, processing may be incomplete because the embedded postulates still have to be resolved.
Hubbard’s procedures are strict. The auditor has the remigrant recount a traumatic episode till the E-meter shows no reflections anymore. Hubbard gives several examples of the tenacity of scientologists, including one case of forty hours working at one situation (Hubbard 1958).
Later approaches that connect past-life therapy to behavioral therapy, are in one respect even more primitive: discharge is sought by mere repetition, while scientology stresses confronting the situation and taking responsibility, be it in a mechanical way.
Stanislav Grof is an example of the fifth, cathartic approach. Typical for Grof’s approach is strongly somatic induction (forced breathing) and strongly somatic processing. Other therapists stress mental processing: understanding and reinterpreting. Often a therapy has positive effects, but takes long or leads to inconclusive results, because mental processing was neglected, or the reverse: because somatic processing was neglected. Occasionally, mental processing and somatic processing have both been done while the emotions have been neglected. Lasting catharsis presupposes that work has been done and results have been booked on four levels: mental, sensory, emotional and physical. Well-known examples of this fifth school are Morris Netherton, Roger Woolger and Hans TenDam.
According to Ron Hubbard (1958) 82% of people clearly improve psychologically and physically after past-life therapy. General belief or disbelief in reincarnation has no influence on its success. The only condition is that apparent experiences from other times are accepted as meaningful subjective material, without continuously wondering about their objective truth. Several studies show that past-life regressions diminished psychotism scores, and enhanced the reality perception scores of patients. Also extraversion increases, another indication that reality orientation improves.
Rabia Clark writes that therapists report most often success with relationship problems and phobias, and the least success with obesity, addictions and depression. Brian Weiss found (1993) the success rate increasing from 50% to 70% by careful intake and by carefully connecting past-life experiences to (childhood) experiences in this lifetime.
Success certainly is not only a question of the right methods. Past-life therapy, like most psychotherapy, is more than applying skills; it also depends on the person of the therapist. A good therapist is weathered and mild, all friendliness and scars.
Early works. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics (1950), a thick and controversial book of somebody who became even more controversial since. For the practicing professional, study of this work is a must, despite the prolixity and obstinacy that seem to be inherent in pioneering works. Hubbard’s later book about past-life regressions (1958) is the opposite of prolix, but unfortunately badly organized and presented.
One of the first books about the relationship between past lives and therapy, from Inácio Ferreira (1955) is interesting to read, but at the same time disappointing, Mediums identify the causes of eleven psychiatric cases in past lives. The cases seem valid and the restimulations in the present life are interesting and credible. What is being done with that? Absolutely nothing. This is no precursor of past-life therapy. Karl Muller (1970) later gives many examples of spiritist past-life therapy, mainly about karmic obsessors.
Another early book is that of Denys Kelsey and Joan Grant (1967), but they do not give examples from sessions. Kelsey’s new book, posthumously published, does (Kelsey 2007).
Works in English. Past-life therapy really starts in 1978 with the now classical works of Edith Fiore and Morris Netherton. Another good read is the book by Glenn Williston & Judith Johnstone (1983). Florence Wagner McClain (1986) wrote a practical and informative brochure, an almost ideal introduction to regression therapy for potential clients. The only objection is that she suggests that anybody can experiment with regressions and that guidance is just knowing what questions to ask. Joel Whitton (1986) is interesting and illuminating, especially about the intermission period, but uses classical hypnotic induction and classical psychiatry and hardly offers specific methodology.
Past-Life Therapy in Action by Dick Sutphen and Lauren Taylor (1987) is the best presentation of Sutphen’s way of working.
Roger Woolger wrote one of the best books on past-life therapy (1987). He makes it crystal clear that regression is only the beginning of therapy.
The first, already mentioned, book by Brian Weiss (1988) was the report of a psychiatrist that stumbled into past lives. His second book (1993) is already much more interesting. His colleague Robert Jarmon is a psychiatrist who likewise discovered past lives by accident. Though the regression techniques and insights in the whole process remain somewhat superficial, we have her a true, professional therapist at work. Also interesting is that he intersperses regression cases with other cases from his practice as a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, like near-death experiences and psychic experiences of non-psychic people. Good stories, well told (Jarmon 1997). A third American psychiatrist, who stumbled into past lives and wrote about her findings, is Shakuntala Modi. She gives interesting statistics of her therapy practice (1997).
Garrett Oppenheim gives good examples of therapies (1990). Winafred Lucas wrote and edited two volumes in which she has ten therapists explain their way of working (1993). A must for the practicing therapist!
Rabia Lynn Clark wrote her doctoral thesis on past-life therapy (1995). She inventorizes how past-life therapists work, what they work on, how long and with what results. Hans TenDam wrote Deep Healing (1996) and Andy Tomlinson recently described his therapy work and its consequences (2006).
Works in German. The first German past-life therapist who published, was Thorvald Dethlefsen (1976). Werner Koch is an other therapist, apparently experienced, but posturing as if he invented past-life therapy (1992). Far better are the books by the Swede Jan-Erik Sigdell (1993, 2006) who worked many years from Switzerland and now in Slovenia. Good reads are the books by Ulrich Kramer (2006). Marianne Carolus explains past-life therapy in anthroposophical terms (2006).
This text is an abbreviation and an update of chapter 16 in Hans TenDam’s Exploring Reincarn ation (2003).