Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Guillaume Ducoeur, Claire Muckensturm-Poulle (ed.), La transmigration des âmes en Grèce et en Inde anciennes. Institut des sciences et des techniques de l'Antiquité (ISTA). Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2016. Pp. 127. ISBN 9782848675459. €19.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Pablo de Paz Amerigo, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (pablopaz@ucm.es)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The doctrine of transmigration of souls in Greece has been surrounded by mystery and shrouded in polemics from Antiquity to the present day. Many of the questions that have arisen are still relevant: Was this doctrine a development of Greek religion on its own or was it the result of an influence or a borrowing from other culture? If the latter, which of the cultures in contact with the Greek world could have been the origin of metempsychosis and how could this transfer have happened? Were the Greeks aware of this foreign influence? During the last two centuries scholars have argued about these and other questions. The progressive abandonment of the hypothesis of the shamanic origin, brilliantly rejected by Leonid Zhmud in his work on early Pythagoreanism,1 has drawn attention to other possibilities, as has the theory of contact between Greece and India through the Achaemenid Empire, but the matter is far from settled.

In such a context, any work contrasting Indian and Greek conceptions of transmigration would be of great value. This book is presented as the result of a conference in 2013 that focused on the Greek story of the Egyptian origin of the belief in transmigration and the need to reevaluate the Indian, Egyptian and Greek sources that support the idea of reincarnation of the soul (p. 11). The book collects six works dealing with some problems related to the doctrine of transmigration of souls and its different conceptions in Greece and India: Indo-European background, Platonic adaptation of the doctrine, Buddhist terminology related to reincarnation, Christian reception of Indian doctrines and possible contradictions in the eschatology developed in Philostratus' Life of Apolllonius of Tyana. At first glance, when looking at these contents, one misses a chapter on Orphism and another on ancient Pythagoreanism (although there is one dedicated to late Pythagoreanism), the two Greek movements that have shown more links and proximity to Indian doctrines.2 It also lacks a section on Brahmanic doctrine of reincarnation. However, it does include an article explaining in detail the Egyptian conception of human beings and their destiny in the Afterlife in order to examine Herodotus' statement about the Egyptian origin of Greek ideas of transmigration; and the rejection of this possibility is presented as one of the conclusions of the book. We must question the scientific value of this inclusion, as its conclusion was already clear and considered as a closed question fifty years ago.3

On the problem of the origins of the doctrine, D. Maggi reinforces Witzel's thesis of an Indo-European belief in reincarnation within the same family by showing new parallels between Vedic and Irish literary traditions.4 This chapter compares the Indian story of Urvaśī and Purūravas contained in ṚV 10.95 with the Greek myth of Peleus and Thetis and, especially, with the Irish Tochmarc Étaíne, trying to show that all of them belong to the same inherited narrative source. The Irish text is an example of the belief in transmigration in the Celtic world. The Vedic one, by contrast, does not speak of reincarnation but of a re-birth in the Afterlife, which is characterized by the author as « une version de la re-naissance à la fois déplacée et compliquée » (p. 43). This transformation of the inherited tradition is explained by the action of the Brahmans or their functional predecessors who, in a first moment, would have tried to hide the subject of reincarnation, sustained in popular and military milieux, to reinforce the role of the ritual action. Only later would the Brahmans have understood the power of reincarnation to strengthen their status. This hypothesis, although very possible, requires further justification so as not to appear simply a wild guess. The author does not explain the absence of reincarnation in the Greek story, where we cannot suppose the action of a priestly class. Furthermore, if we assume an intention to hide references to reincarnation in the same family, the inclusion of traits of this belief in some ancient hymns from ṚV cannot be considered a distraction of the priests and also requires further explanation.5

The way that Plato in the Myth of Er combines the doctrine of metempsychosis with some elements taken from Greek tradition and adapted to create his own eschatological view is analyzed by A. Macé. Plato supports his idea of a cosmic justice by generalizing a retributive eschatology for everyone. This generalization implies an enormous flow of souls in constant circulation all over the cosmos. The author explains that Plato adapts Greek traditions to show how all these souls receive their retribution. First, he shows that Plato reorganizes the inherited structure of the cosmos transforming heaven and Hades from inaccessible regions or with no return into places of reward and punishment. He multiplies the access to these places in order to classify the souls, establishing in this way a relationship between topography and moral behavior. Thus, justice is involved in the landscape. Secondly, Plato illustrates his idea of justice with the description of the mechanism of the universe through the analogy of the fuse of the spinner. Macé comments in detail on the system described and relates the use of the analogy to reminiscence, but he does not extend the consequences of the fact that Plato attached the process of transmigration to the mechanism of the cosmos. Finally, the author presents the practices taken by Plato from military and religious contexts to organize triage of souls and examines how the practice of drawing lots is neutralized by making depend the choice of a new life on the knowledge acquired in the previous one.

The fourth chapter, by Jean-Marie Verpoorten, examines Buddhist version of transmigration through the analysis of the vocabulary. It shows the ideas about the human being and the elements that compose it in the Buddhist doctrine. It also explains the transmigratory journey and its various stages (death, transition, conception and rebirth), examining the terminology employed to refer to each one, and it finally comments the extraordinary conception and birth of Buddha. The author is especially careful to point out the differences between Buddhist and Brahmanic beliefs regarding human beings, death and what remains after it. However, he does not mention the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda that replaces in Buddhism the notion of ātman.6

The reception of Indian doctrines in Christian sources is treated by G. Doucoeur, who analyses the reference in a passage of Clement of Alexandria of the Indian belief in παλιγγενεσία. Once he has examined carefully the technical vocabulary employed by the theologian to refer different eschatological doctrines and after investigating the possible sources that he could have used, Doucoeur brilliantly concludes that the term cannot refer to the doctrine of transmigration. Clement used παλιγγενεσία to describe the Indian belief of a re-birth in the heavenly world, as he could have read in the Indika of Megasthenes. The author explains that the majority of Greek authors, following Herodotus, thought that transmigration came from Egypt and that they probably did not know anything of the Indian doctrine of saṃsāra and he also points out that despite all the traditions relating Greek thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates to India, none of these traditions states expressly that they took transmigration from there.

Finally, C. Muckensturm-Poulle deals with the eschatological doctrines involved in Philostratus' Life of Apolllonius of Tyana. Throughout the story, in the dialogues with the Indian sages and in the narrating of his feats as a healer or as a prophet, Apollonius seems to hold the belief in reincarnation. But at the end of the book, in the posthumous oracle, he states that after escaping from the body, the soul mingles with the air. In Muckensturm-Poulle's opinion this implies a lack of coherence in the protagonist's beliefs, which are not the same before and after his death. However, this does not disturb Philostratus, because his intention is not to expose in detail the Pythagorean doctrines but to show that Apollonius is more divine than Christ and to present him as an example of moral behavior. So, he encourages his readers to follow this example and to prepare their souls to be filled with the divine and not to worry about the details of their destiny. This explanation, although it is probably correct as to Philostratus' purpose, seems too superficial and unsatisfactory to solve the apparent contradiction. The author could have explored other possibilities. For example, the soul mixed with the air could be the final stage in the process of reincarnation, the definitive liberation of the soul, only achieved by some special beings, like Apollonius, as happens in other versions of transmigration. It could also be a transitional stage between one incarnation and another. Both possibilities are not incompatible with the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration and are supported by the sources. Thus, the two eschatological beliefs described in the book do not have necessarily to be regarded as contradictory or incoherent.

As I have previously said, the book has some important deficiencies. It is also difficult to discern a connection between the different chapters. The volume looks more like a collection of separate essays than a book compiled from a common perspective. There is no closing section to show the results of the comparison of the different doctrines studied. In addition, the chapters, considered together, do not lead to any conclusion about the influence or the lack of influence of India in Greece, as would be expected from the Introduction, where some parallels between Greek and Indian conceptions are shown. On this subject they could have taken into account the results of the wide and exhaustive study recently published by A. Bernabé, M. Kahle and M. A. Santamaría (eds.), Reencarnación. La transmigración de las almas entre Oriente y Occidente (Madrid 2011), which is quoted in the Introduction, but ignored in the rest of the book. In spite of all this, the book offers some trenchant remarks and contributions that could be of great interest for the specialist in transmigration.

Table of Contents

Claire Muckensturm-Poulle, "Avant-propos". 9-11.
Guillaume Ducoeur, "Introduction". 13-25.
Daniele Maggi, "Perspectives sur la transmigration des âmes dans l'aire indo-européenne: L'histoire indienne d'Urvaśī et Purūravas et ses horizons comparatifs". 27-43.
Françoise Dunand, "Anthropologie égyptienne. Les voyages du ba". 45-61.
Arnaud Macé, "La circulation cosmique des âmes. Platon, le Mythe d'Er". 63-80.
Jean-Marie Verpoorten, "Quelques remarques sur le vocabulaire de la transmigration dans le bouddhisme des origines". 81-92.
Guillaume Ducoeur, "Palingénésie indienne et métensomatose basilidienne chez Clément d'Alexandrie (Stromates 3.7 et 4.12)". 93-105.
Claire Muckensturm-Poulle, "Désincarnation et réincarnation des âmes dans la Vie d'Apollonios de Tyane". 107-122.
Résumés. 123-127.


1.   L. Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, Oxford 2012, pp. 207-220.
2.   Uncontested textual parallels with Indian literature have been discovered in both cases. For Orphism, see J. Mendoza, "Un itinerario al Más Allá: Laminillas órficas de oro y Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa 1.46- 50", in Orfeo y la tradición órfica: un reencuentro, Madrid 2008, pp. 933-961; for Pythagoreanism, see A. Bernabé and J. Mendoza, "Pythagorean Cosmogony and Vedic Cosmogony (RV 10.129). Analogies and Differences", Phronesis 58, 2013, pp. 32-51.
3.   W. Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, Cambridge 1972, p. 126, n. 36.
4.   M. Witzel, "The earliest form of the concept of rebirth in India (Summary)", in T. Yamamoto (ed.), Proceedings of the Thirty-First Internacional Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North-Africa, Tokyo 1984, pp. 145-146.
5.   ṚV 6.16.35; 10.10.01. Cfr. M. Kahle, "Antecedentes en los Vedas de la doctrina de la transmigración de las almas", in A. Bernabé, M. Kahle and M. A. Santamaría (eds.), Reencarnación. La transmigración de las almas entre Oriente y Occidente, Madrid 2011, pp. 32f.
6.   J. Arnau, "El renacer en el budismo indio", in A. Bernabé, M. Kahle and M. A. Santamaría (eds.), Reencarnación. La transmigración de las almas entre Oriente y Occidente, Madrid 2011, pp. 156f.

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