Metempsychosis (Greek: μετεμψύχωσις) is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. It is a doctrine popular among a number of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Druzism[1] wherein an individual incarnates from one body to another, either human, animal, or plant.[2] Generally the term is only used within the context of Greek Philosophy, but has also been used by modern philosophers such as Schopenhauer[3] and Kurt Gödel[4]; otherwise, the term "transmigration" is more appropriate. The word also plays a prominent role in James Joyce's Ulysses, and is associated also with Nietzsche.[5] Another term sometimes used synonymously is Palingenesia.


Europe before the pre-Socratic philosophers

It is unclear how the doctrine of metempsychosis arose in Greece. It is easiest to assume that earlier ideas which had never been extinguished were utilized for religious and philosophic purposes. The Orphic religion, which held it, first appeared in Thrace upon the semi-barbarous north-eastern frontier. Orpheus, its legendary founder, is said to have taught that soul and body are united by a compact unequally binding on either; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it in fetters as a prisoner. Death dissolves this compact, but only to re-imprison the liberated soul after a short time: for the wheel of birth revolves inexorably. Thus the soul continues its journey, alternating between a separate unrestrained existence and fresh reincarnation, round the wide circle of necessity, as the companion of many bodies of men and animals." To these unfortunate prisoners Orpheus proclaims the message of liberation, that they stand in need of the grace of redeeming gods and of Dionysus in particular, and calls them to turn to God by ascetic piety of life and self-purification: the purer their lives the higher will be their next reincarnation, until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live for ever as God from whom it comes. Such was the teaching of Orphism which appeared in Greece about the 6th century BC, organized itself into private and public mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced a copious literature.[6][7][8]

Although Julius Caesar recorded that the druids of Gaul, Britain and Ireland had metempsychosis as one of their core doctrines, there is no indication that it was significantly related to that concept among the Greeks.

In Greek philosophy

The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes of Syros[9]; but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. Pythagoras probably neither invented the doctrine nor imported it from Egypt, but made his reputation by bringing Orphic doctrine from North-Eastern Hellas to Magna Graecia and by instituting societies for its diffusion.

The real weight and importance of metempsychosis in Western tradition is due to its adoption by Plato[citation needed]. Had he not embodied it in some of his greatest works it would be merely a matter of curious investigation for the Western anthropologist and student of folk-lore. In the eschatological myth which closes the Republic he tells the story how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world. After death, he said, he went with others to the place of Judgment and saw the souls returning from heaven, and proceeded with them to a place where they chose new lives, human and animal. He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan, Thamyras becoming a nightingale, musical birds choosing to be men, the soul of Atalanta choosing the honours of an athlete. Men were seen passing into animals and wild and tame animals changing into each other. After their choice the souls drank of Lethe and then shot away like stars to their birth. There are myths and theories to the same effect in other dialogues, the Phaedrus, Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus and Laws.[citation needed] In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; birth therefore is never the creation of a soul, but only a transmigration from one body to another.[10] Plato's acceptance of the doctrine is characteristic of his sympathy with popular beliefs and desire to incorporate them in a purified form into his system.[citation needed] Aristotle, a far less emotional and sympathetic mind, has a doctrine of immortality totally inconsistent with it.[citation needed]

The extent of Plato's belief in metempsychosis has been debated by some scholars in modern times. Marsilio Ficino (Platonic Theology 17.3-4), for one, argued that Plato's references to metempsychosis were intended allegorically.

In later Greek literature the doctrine appears from time to time; it is mentioned in a fragment of Menander (the Inspired Woman) and satirized by Lucian (Gallus 18 seq.). In Roman literature it is found as early as Ennius,[11] who in his Calabrian home must have been familiar with the Greek teachings which had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia. In a lost passage of his Annals, a Roman history in verse, Ennius told how he had seen Homer in a dream, who had assured him that the same soul which had animated both the poets had once belonged to a peacock. Persius in one of his satires (vi. 9) laughs at Ennius for this: it is referred to also by Lucretius (i. 124) and by Horace (Epist. II. i. 52). Virgil works the idea into his account of the Underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid (vv. 724 sqq.). It persists in antiquity down to the latest classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists.

In literature after the Classical Era

The use of the word "metempsychosis" in later Western literature is not necessarily tied to the Greek concept.

"Metempsychosis" is the title of a longer work by the metaphysical poet John Donne, written in 1601.[12] The poem, also known as the Infinitati Sacrum,[13] consists of two parts, the "Epistle" and "The Progress of the Soule". In the first line of the latter part, Donne writes that he "sing[s] of the progresse of a deathlesse soule".[13]

Metempsychosis is mentioned and is a key plot device in Edgar Allan Poe's 1832 short story, "Metzengerstein".[14] Poe returns to metempsychosis again in "Morella" (1835)[15] and "The Oval Portrait" (1842).[16]

Metempsychosis is referred to and recurs as a theme in James Joyce's modernist novel, Ulysses (1922).[17] In Joycean fashion, the word famously appears, mispronounced by Molly Bloom, as "met him pike hoses."[18]

The name of the character Madame Psychosis in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest is a reference to the term.

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. ^ Heart of Hinduism: Reincarnation and Samsara
  3. ^ Schopenhauer, A: "Parerga und Paralipomena" (Eduard Grisebach edition), On Religion, Section 177
  4. ^ Gödel Exhibition: Gödel's Century
  5. ^ Nietzsche and the Doctrine of Metempsychosis, in J. Urpeth & J. Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine, Manchester: Clinamen, 2000
  6. ^ Linforth, Ivan M. (1941) The Arts of Orpheus Arno Press, New York, OCLC 514515
  7. ^ Long, Herbert S. (1948) A Study of the doctrine of metempsychosis in Greece, from Pythagoras to Plato (Long's 1942 PhD dissertation) Princeton, New Jersey, OCLC 1472399
  8. ^ Long, Herbert S. (16 February 1948) "Plato's Doctrine of Metempsychosis and Its Source" The Classical Weekly 41(10): pp. 149—155
  9. ^ Schibli, S., Hermann, Pherekydes of Syros, p. 104, Oxford Univ. Press 2001
  10. ^ "That is the conclusion, I said; and if a true conclusion, then the souls must always be the same, for if none be destroyed they will not diminish in number." Republic X, 611. The Republic of Plato By Plato, Benjamin Jowett Edition: 3 Published by Clarendon press, 1888.
  11. ^ Poesch, Jessie (1962) "Ennius and Basinio of Parma" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 25(1/2): pp. 116—118, page 117, FN15
  12. ^ Collins, Siobhán (2005) "Bodily Formations and Reading Strategies in John Donne's Metempsychosis" Critical Studies 26: pp. 191—208, page 191
  13. ^ a b full text of Metempsychosis or Infinitati Sacrum from Luminarium Editions
  14. ^ Bonaparte, Marie (1949) The life and works of Edgar Allan Poe: a psycho-analytic interpretation Imago, London, page 273, OCLC 1398764
  15. ^ Roderick, Phillip L. (2006) The Fall of the House of Poe: And Other Essays iUniverse, New York, page 22, ISBN 0-595-39567-8
  16. ^ Quinn, Patrick F. (1971) The French face of Edgar Poe (2nd edition) Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, page 272, ISBN 0-8093-0500-3
  17. ^ List of occurrences of Metempsychosis in Ulysses
  18. ^ Cf. Joyce, Ulysses, §8 Lestrygonians

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Metempsychosis — • The doctrine of the transmigration of souls, teaches that the same soul inhabits in succession the bodies of different beings, both men and animals Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Metempsychosis     Metempsychosis …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • metempsychosis — (n.) 1580s, passing of the soul at death into another body, from L.L. metempsychosis, from Gk. metempsychosis, from meta change (see META (Cf. meta )) + empsykhoun to put a soul into, from en in + psyche soul (see PSYCHE (Cf …   Etymology dictionary

  • metempsychosis — [mi tem΄sī kō′sis; met΄əm sīkō′sis] n. pl. metempsychoses [mi tem΄si kō′sēz΄, met΄əm sī kō′sēz΄] [LL < Gr metempsychōsis < metempsychoun < meta, over (see META ) + empsychoun, to put a soul into < en,IN1 + psychē, soul, life (see… …   English World dictionary

  • Metempsychosis — Me*temp sy*cho sis, n. [NL., fr. Gr. ?; ? beyond, over + ? to animate; ? in + ? soul. See {Psychology}.] The passage of the soul, as an immortal essence, at the death of the animal body it had inhabited, into another living body, whether of a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Metempsychōsis — (gr.), bei der Annahme einer Seelenwanderung der Übergang der Seele in einen andern Menschenkörper; dagegen Metensomatōsis, der Übergang in einen andern Naturkörper, s. Seelenwanderung. Daher Metempsychositen, die an die Seelenwanderung glauben …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Metempsychosis — Metempsychosis, – se, griech., Seelenwanderung; Metensomatosis, der Uebergang der Seele in einen andern Naturkörper …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • metempsychosis — noun Etymology: Late Latin, from Greek metempsychōsis, from metempsychousthai to undergo metempsychosis, from meta + empsychos animate, from en + psychē soul more at psych Date: 1591 the passing of the soul at death into another body either human …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • metempsychosis — Palingenesis Pal in*gen e*sis, Palingenesy Pal in*gen e*sy, n. [Gr. ?; pa lin again + ? birth: cf. F. paling[ e]n[ e]sie. See {Genesis}.] [1913 Webster] 1. A new birth; a re creation; a regeneration; a continued existence in different manner or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • metempsychosis — noun /mɛtɛmpsʌɪˈkəʊsɪs/ Transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. The Fates that are so careful to shut the doors of each successive life behind us had, in this case, been neglectful, and Charlie was looking, though… …   Wiktionary

  • metempsychosis — metempsychic /met euhm suy kik/, metempsychosic, metempsychosical, adj. /meuh tem seuh koh sis, temp , met euhm suy /, n., pl. metempsychoses / seez/. the transmigration of the soul, esp. the passage of the soul after death from a human or animal …   Universalium

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