>According to Ronald Hutton, reincarnation is the kind of thing that the “western” mind is disinclined to think up on its own, and this to the extent that anyone in the western world today who knows about, much less believes in, reincarnation, (according to Hutton) can only have come to this state due to the relatively recent (in historical terms) introduction to the West of ideas from Eastern religions and philosophy, and this primarily as a result of the British colonization of India.
A fundamental problem with Hutton’s thesis, as discussed in Part One of this ongoing series, is that explicit references to reincarnation as an idea associated with classical Greco-Roman Paganism (that is, with the very foundations of western culture), and with Pythagoreanism in particular (that is, with the very foundations of western philosophy), are found in the writings of influential 17th century English intellectuals such as François Bernier (1625-1688) and Thomas Tryon (1634-1703).
Another fatal flaw in the theory of the purely eastern origins of reincarnation, as discussed in Part Two, is that Christians (and “western” Christians in particular) have known about reincarnation from the beginning, as the writings of Tertullian (c.160-c.220 AD), aka “The First Theologian of the West“, clearly show. Nor was reincarnation simply forgotten about after the “triumph” of Christianity over the Pagan religions that had embraced and propagated the idea, as the 11th century trial of John Italos (also discussed in Part Two), and the Renaissance debate over Platonism and Pythagoreanism (discussed in Part Three) both clearly demonstrate. Additionally, we also know (see Part Four) that at least from the 12th century onwards, metempsychosis had an important place in the mystical traditions of European Jewry.
But wait, there’s more. Much more.
Reincarnation is also prominently featured in Vergil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, two of the most influential works of literature in the history of western culture.
It should be remembered that for nearly a thousand years, even the most well educated western europeans were, with very few exceptions, completely greekless. Homer and Hesiod were essentially lost. Until the 15th century, Plato was known only through a few of his works that had Latin translations (some of which were not produced until the 12th century). And the situation for Aristotle was only somewhat better than that for Plato.
But the ability to read Latin has a continuous, if at times somewhat precarious, history throughout all of western european history. And while I will, for now, focus on Vergil and Ovid, it is worth mentioning that reference to transmigration of souls is not at all uncommon in Latin literature generally. Ennius (c.239-c.169 BC) is often credited as the first known Latin writer to speak of reincarnation (indeed, he spoke of being the reincarnation of Homer!). However, the exposure of the Romans to metempsychosis dates back to the 6th century BC, that is, the earliest days of Pythagoreanism itself, which, after all, began not in “Greece” (as we think of it today), but in “Magna Graecia”, that is, in Italy.
But even if metempsychosis appeared nowhere else in all of Latin literature; and even if Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena, George of Trebizond, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola had never once mentioned transmigration of souls; and even if François Bernier and Thomas Tryon had never lived; and even if all mention of reincarnation were to disappear from the writings of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish mystics and kabbalistic interpreters; still, Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by themselves, would provide definitive and absolute proof that it is impossible to speak, with any justification whatsoever, of reincarnation as an idea that “comes from the East” due only to the influence of “Hindu and Buddhist thought”, and that this “Eastern” idea only “reached Europe … in the 18th century.”
Even a high school student who doesn’t bother to actually read the Aeneid, but relies, instead, on what can be found at a helpful website such as the appropriately named “gradesaver.com” will be able to learn at least this much about Aeneas’ visit to his dead father, Anchises, in The Underworld:
“Finally, Aeneas arrives in the Groves of Blessedness, where he finds Anchises. He tries to throw his arms around his father, but grabs only air. Anchises describes the many wonders of Elysium to Aeneas, and he then focuses on the great future in store for Aeneas and his descendants: ‘my tongue will now reveal/ the fame that is to come
from Dardan sons’. When Aeneas notices souls hovering over a river, Anchises explains that the river is called Lethe, and that after drinking from it souls are stripped of any memory of their former lives, then returned to earth to begin life again in a new body. Anchises points out several souls who would have been significant to Virgil’s audience, including Romulus, the founder of Rome; Ascanius’s descendants; Julius Caesar; and Caesar Augustus himself. Tears spring to Anchises’s eyes when he points out the handsome Marcellus, Augustus’s heir, who died at a young age.”
Similarly, if a high school student were to search the sight gradesaver.com for the terms “Ovid” and “Pythagoras”, he or she would immediately be taken to the Summary of Book XV of the Metamorphoses, where we read that:
“In Crotona lived Pythagoras, an extremely profound thinker who was in exile from Samos. He addressed topics such as the gods, the origin of the earth, the motions of the stars.
“We hear Pythagoras’ discourse and he argues in favor of vegetarianism, suggesting that there is plenty of food without eating meat, and he points out that only the vicious animals are flesh-eaters. He suggests that in past ages, when people did not kill animals, they were happier, and bemoans the slaughter of cattle, who work alongside humans. Pythagoras chastises those who believe that the gods enjoy the slaughter of such peaceful and loyal animals. He turns to the theory of Metempsychosis — his belief that when someone dies the soul is freed to inhabit another body. He insists that thus no one need fear death.
“Pythagoras also declares that nothing in life stays the same: everything is like time, constantly moving from day to night, never ceasing to progress. He points out that human beings pass through stages just like the seasons. Childhood is like springtime, summer like youth, autumn is maturity and winter is old age. The physical body changes too, growing from a seed in the womb to a mature adult, then decaying as the body ages. Continuing on this idea, Pythagoras takes as an example the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. He points out that each can become the others. Air can become water, water can become wind or air. The earth can become fire, and fire can become water. All things on earth and in heaven change and transform, but nothing is ever truly “born” or truly “dies.” Pythagoras points to the changing nature of the natural environment as further proof that change is everywhere.
“Pythagoras then presents the idea that buried corpses give rise to other creatures. He gives examples, suggesting that the bodies of sacrificial cattle give birth to honey-bees and that mud gives rise to frogs. Pythagoras cites as a better example the marvelous phoenix, a bird that lives for five hundred years, then combusts. From its ashes another phoenix is born. The philosopher then translates his belief in omnipresent change into human terms, pointing out that history changes and shifts as well. Some powers decline and some rise. Troy may have fallen, but in the ashes of Troy, Rome was born. He predicts that Rome will rise to become a power greater than any the earth has seen. Pythagoras returns to his plea for vegetarianism, saying that since nature constantly changes and the soul shifts between objects, and because nothing separates the animal world from the human world, when we kill an animal we might as well be slaughtering a human. Thus, to eat an animal is no better than cannibalism.“
For more on Vergil and Ovid:
Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:
- Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
- Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
- Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
- Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
- Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
- Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
- Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis