In his book, Lecouteux explores the medieval concept of the soul - a concept demonstrably rooted in the pre-Christian beliefs of European peoples, which persisted for a long time after Christianization. He focuses primarily on Germano-Scandinavian material from the Middle Ages to support his work, but other scholars have published books and articles confirming the pan-European belief in the "Double" and the multitude of otherworldly beings and beliefs related to it. These include Hungarian historian Eva Pocs, whose works have explored the soul and the Double beliefs that formed part of witchcraft narratives in southeast and central Europe, as well as Carlo Ginzburg in his studies of the Italian benandanti, and most especially, in his seminal work Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. What all of these works and others like them refer to, either directly or indirectly, is a pervasive, deep-seated concept of “multiple souls” and the role this complex has played in shaping our ancestors’ beliefs about dreams, death, the afterlife, the spirit world, witchcraft, sorcery and shamanistic visionary folk traditions.
This is a vast subject of great importance to me, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in a single blog post, so it will be broken up into several parts. First, we must examine the philosophy of animism and how this influences, or has been influenced by, the concept of soul.
Animism, Vital Essence and The Discovery of the Detachable Soul
Indigenous pre-Christian European religions were animistic. Animism is the belief that we live in an ‘animated world’ - everything from stone, tree, river and star is believed to be sentient and possessing of a soul or spirit, a consciousness of its own. The landscape itself is ‘ensouled’. In animist philosophy, we are but a small part of a universe populated by human and non-human persons alike, and there is little to nothing which separates the material living world from the Otherworld, the realm of spirits and the dead.
Traditional religions maintain that the sacred is everywhere, immanent in everything. The sacred in this sense refers to an ‘unseen’ but palpable vital force, the essence of creation which exists not only within living creatures but also as part of objects, places and experiences as well. The concept of soul ensures a continuity of this sacred vital essence between ‘living’ and ‘dead’.
In 1919, George William Gilmore published a short book titled Animism, or Thought Currents of Primitive Peoples. You can read it here. Although some of his conclusions are outdated, Gilmore presents many of the basics of animist philosophy in a manner that is still relevant to our purposes. He explains that the belief in a soul developed as a logical, rational result of the observations and experiences of ‘primitive peoples’: he states that “it began (1) with the phenomena of sleep - (a) the evident difference between that state and waking life, combined with (b) the occurrence of dreams which often so closely mimic or deal with the active and conscious existence of the individual; and (2) in the difference between the living and the dead”. In sleep, early man noted a distinct lack of activity in the sleeping person, who nevertheless experienced a great deal in dreams. The logical conclusion could be made that dreams are the activities of an absent soul that is capable of leaving the body during sleep/unconscious states. Further, one would observe an even more profound change in the body of a person after death, where motion ceases completely and it appears as though something ‘unseen’ has departed the body with its last breath. And for our early ancestors, what more proof could there be for the continued existence of the ‘detachable soul’ than encountering the deceased person in dreams after they have died? Gilmore concludes his chapter on the discovery of the soul saying “one can not go far astray if he maintain that it was the discovery of the soul which was the most momentous in the history of the human race; to it must be traced all man’s uplift in the millenniums of his existence”.
In Part II, we will further discuss the nature of this ‘detachable soul’.
References and Further Reading:
Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.
Animism. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 29, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism.
Gilmore, G.W. (1919). Animism: or thought currents of primitive peoples. Retrieved from http://sacred-texts.com/sha/anim/anim00.htm.
Ginzburg, C. (2004). Ecstasies: deciphering the witches’ sabbath. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: respecting the living world. London: Hurst & Co.
Lecouteux, C. (2003). Witches, werewolves and fairies: shapeshifters and astral doubles in the Middle Ages. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Pócs, E. (1999). Between the living and the dead: a perspective on witches and seers in the early modern age. Budapest: Central European University Press.