Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen":
SOULS, DREAMS, DEATH, ECSTASY


(E. B. Tylor's Theory of Animism)

To understand the popular conceptions of the human soul or spirit, it is instructive to notice the words which have been found suitable to express it. The ghost or phantasm seen by the dreamer or the visionary is in unsubstantial form, like a shadow or reflection, and thus the familiar term of the shade comes in to express the soul. Thus the Tasmanian word for the shadow is also that for the spirit, the Algonquins describe a man's soul as otahchuk, 'his shadow'; the Quiche language uses natub for 'shadow, soul'; the Arawak ueja means 'shadow, soul, image'; and Abipones made the one word loakal serve for shadow, soul, echo, image.' The Zulus not only use the word tunzi for 'shadow, spirit, ghost,' but they consider that at death the shadow of a man will in some way depart from the corpse, to become an ancestral spirit. The Basutos not only call the spirit remaining after death the seriti or 'shadow,' but they think that if a man walks on the river bank, a crocodile may seize his shadow in the water and draw him in; while in Old Calabar there is found the same identification of the spirit with the ukpon or 'shadow,' for a man to lose which is fatal. There are thus found among the lower races not only the types of those familiar classic terms, the skia and umbra, but also what seems the fundamental thought of the stories of shadowless men still current in the folklore of Europe, and familiar to modern readers in Chamisso's tale of Peter Schlemihl. Thus the dead in Purgatory knew that Dante was alive when they saw that, unlike theirs, his figure cast a shadow on the ground. Other attributes are taken into the notion of soul or spirit, with especial regard to its being the cause of life. Thus the Caribs, connecting the pulses with spiritual beings, and especially considering that in the heart dwells man's chief soul, destined to a future heavenly life, could reasonably use the one word iouanni for 'soul, life, heart.'

The Tongans supposed the soul to exist throughout the whole extension of the body, but particularly in the heart. . . .

The act of breathing, so characteristic of the higher animals during life, and coinciding so closely with life in its departure, has been repeatedly and naturally identified with the life or soul itself. . . . It is thus that West Australians used one word waug for 'breath, spirit, soul'; that in the Netela language of California, piuts means 'life, breath, soul'; that certain Greenlanders reckoned two souls to man, namely his shadow and his breath; that the Malays say the soul of the dying man escapes through his nostrils, and in Java use the same word nawa for 'breath, life, soul.' How the notions of life, heart, breath and phantom unite in the one conception of a soul or spirit, and at the same time how loose and vague such ideas are among barbaric races, is well brought into view in the answers to a religious inquest held in 1528 among the natives of Nicaragua. 'When they die, there comes out of their mouth something that resembles a person and is called julio [Aztec yuli = to live]. This being goes to the place where the man and woman are. It is like a person, but does not die, and the body remains here.'

. . . The conception of the soul as breath may be followed up through Semitic and Aryan etymology, and thus into the main streams of the philosophy of the world. Hebrew shows nephesh, 'breath,' passing into all the meanings of 'life, soul, mind, animal,' while ruach and neshamah make the like transition from 'breath' to 'spirit'; and to these the Arabic nefs and ruh correspond. The same is the history of Sanskrit atman and prana, of Greek psyche and pneuma, of Latin animus, anima, spiritus. So Slavonic duch has developed the meaning of 'breath' into that of soul or spirit; and the dialects of the Gypsies have this word duk with the meaning of 'breath, spirit, ghost,' whether these pariahs brought the word from India as part of their inheritance. of Aryan speech, or whether they adopted it in their migration across Slavonic lands. German geist and English ghost, too, may possibly have the same original sense of breath. And if any should think such expressions due to mere metaphor, they may judge the strength of the implied connection between breath and spirit by cases of most unequivocal significance. Among the Seminoles of Florida, when a woman died in childbirth, the infant was held over her face to receive her parting spirit, and thus acquire strength and knowledge for its future use. These Indians could have well understood why at the death-bed of an ancient Roman, the nearest kinsman leant over to inhale the last breath of the departing (et excipies hanc animam ore pio).

Their state of mind is kept up to this day among Tyrolese peasants, who can still fancy a good man's soul to issue from his mouth at death like a little white cloud.

It will be shown that men, in their composite and confused notions of the soul, have brought into connection a list of manifestations of life and thought even more multifarious than this. But also, seeking to avoid such perplexity of combination, they have sometimes endeavoured to define and classify more closely, especially by the theory that man has a combination of several kinds of spirit, soul, or image, to which different functions belong. Already in the barbaric world such classification has been invented or adopted. Thus the Fijians distinguished between a man's 'dark spirit' or shadow, which goes to Hades, and his 'light spirit' or reflection in water or a mirror, which stays near where he dies. The Malagasy say that the saina or mind vanishes at death, the aina or life becomes mere air, but the matoatoa or ghost hovers round the tomb. In North America, the duality of the soul is a strongly marked Algonquin belief, one soul goes out and sees dreams while the other remains behind; at death one of the two abides with the body, and for this the survivors leave offerings of food, while the other departs to the land of the dead. A division into three souls is also known, and the Dakotas say that man has four souls, one remaining with the corpse, one staying in the village, one going in the air, and one to the land of spirits. The Karens distinguish between the 'la' or 'kelah,' the personal life-phantom, and the 'thah,' the responsible moral soul. . . .

The early animistic theory of vitality, regarding the function of life as caused by the soul, offers to the savage mind an explanation of several bodily and mental conditions, as being effects of a departure of the soul or some of its constituent spirits. This theory holds a wide and strong position in savage biology. The South Australians express it when they say of one insensible or unconscious, that he is wilyamarraba,' i.e., 'without soul.' Among the Algonquin Indians of North America, we hear of sickness being accounted for by the patient's 'shadow' being unsettled or detached from his body, and of the convalescent being reproached for exposing himself before his shadow was safely settled down in him; where we should say that a man was ill and recovered, they would consider that he died, but came again. Another account from among the same race explains the condition of men lying in lethargy or trance; their souls have travelled to the banks of the River of Death, but have been driven back and return to reanimate their bodies. Among the Fijians, 'when any one faints or dies, their spirit, it is said, may sometimes be brought back by calling after it; and occasionally the ludicrous scene is witnessed of a stout man lying at full length, and bawling out lustily for the return of his own soul.' . . . Thus, in various countries, the bringing back of lost souls becomes a regular part of the sorcerer's or priest's profession. The Salish Indians of Oregon regard the spirit as distinct from the vital principle, and capable of quitting the body for a short time without the patient being conscious of its absence; but to avoid fatal consequences it must be restored as soon as possible, and accordingly the medicine man in solemn form replaces it down through the patient's head. . . . The Karens of Burma will run about pretending to catch a sick man's wandering soul, or as they say with the Greeks and Slavs, his 'butterfly' leip-pya), and at last drop it down upon his head. The Karen doctrine of the 'la' is indeed a perfect and well-marked vitalistic system. This la, soul, ghost, or genius, may be separated from the body it belongs to and it is a matter of the deepest interest to the Karen to keep his la with him, by calling it, making offerings of food to it, and so forth. It is especially when the body is asleep, that the soul goes out and wanders; if it is detained beyond a certain time, disease ensues, and if permanently, then its owner dies. 'When the 'wee' or spirit-doctor is employed to call back the departed shade or life of a Karen, if he cannot recover it from the region of the dead, he will sometimes take the shade of a living man and transfer it to the dead, while its proper owner, whose soul has ventured out in a dream, sickens and dies. Or when a Karen becomes sick, languid and pining from his la having left him, his friends will perform a ceremony with a garment of the invalid's and a fowl which is cooked and offered with rice, invoking the spirit with formal prayers to come back to the patient. . . .

This same doctrine forms one side of the theory of dreams prevalent among the lower races-. Certain of the Greenlanders, Cranz remarks, consider that the soul quits the body in the night and goes out hunting, dancing, and visiting; their dreams, which are frequent and lively, having brought them to this opinion. Among the Indians of North America, we hear of the dreamer's soul leaving his body and wandering in quest of things attractive to it. These things the waking- man must endeavour to obtain, lest his soul be troubled, and quit the body altogether. The New Zealanders considered the dreaming soul to leave the body and return, even travelling to the region of the dead to hold converse with its friends. The Tagals of Luzon object to waking a sleeper, on account of the absence of his soul. The Karens, whose, theory of the wandering soul has just been noticed, explain dreams to be what this la sees and experiences in its journeys when it has left the body asleep. They even account with much acuteness for the fact that we are apt to dream of people and places which we knew before,, the leip-pya, they say, can only visit the regions where the body it belongs to has been already. . . .
The North American Indians allowed themselves the alternative of supposing a dream to be either a visit from the soul of the person or object dreamt of, or a sight seen by the rational soul, gone out for an excursion while the sensitive soul remains in the body. So the Zulu may be visited in a dream by the shade of an ancestor, the itongo, who comes to warn him of danger, or he may himself be taken by the itongo in a dream to visit his distant people, and see that they are in trouble; as for the man who is passing into the morbid conditions of the professional seer, phantoms are continually coming to talk to him in his sleep, till he becomes, as the expressive native phrase is, 'a house of dreams.' In the lower range of culture, it is perhaps most frequently taken for granted that a man's apparition in a dream is a visit from his disembodied spirit, where the dreamer, to use an expressive Ojibwa idiom, 'sees when asleep.' Such a thought comes out clearly in the Fijian opinion that a living man's spirit may leave the body, to trouble other people in their sleep or in a recent account of an old Indian woman of British Columbia sending for the medicine man to drive away the dead people who came to her every night. A modern observer's description of the state of mind of the Negroes of West Africa in this respect is extremely characteristic and instructive. 'All their dreams are construed into visits from the spirits of their deceased friends. The cautions, hints, and warnings which come to them through this source are received with the most serious and deferential attention, and are always acted upon in their waking hours. The habit of relating their dreams, which is universal, greatly promotes the habit of dreaming itself, and hence their sleeping hours are characterized by almost as much intercourse with the dead as their waking are with the living. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons of their excessive superstitiousness. Their imaginations become so lively that
they can scarcely distinguish between their dreams and their waking thoughts, between the real and the ideal, and they consequently utter falsehood with intending, and profess to see things which never existed.'

To the Greek of old, the dream-soul was what to the modern savage it still is. Sleep, loosing cares of mind, fell on Achilles as he lay by the
sounding sea, and there stood over him the soul of Patroklos, like to
him altogether in stature, and the beauteous eyes, and the voice, and the garments that wrapped his skin; he spake, and Achilles stretched out to grasp him with loving hands, but caught him not, and like a smoke the soul sped twittering below the earth. Along the ages that separate us from Homeric times, the apparition in dreams of men living or dead has been a subject of philosophic speculation and of superstitious fear. Both the phantom of the living and the ghost of the dead figure in Cicero's typical tale. Two Arcadians came to Megara together, one lodged at a friend's house, the other at an inn. In the night this latter appeared to his fellow-traveller, imploring his help, for the innkeeper was plotting his death; the sleeper sprang up in alarm, but thinking the vision of no consequence went to sleep again. Then a second time his companion appeared to him, to entreat that though he had failed to help, he would at least avenge, for the innkeeper had killed him and hidden his body in a dung-cart, wherefore he charged his fellow-traveller to be early next morning at the city gate before the cart passed out. Struck with this second dream, the traveller went as bidden, and there found the cart; the body of the murdered man was in it, and the innkeeper was brought to justice. . . .
The evidence of visions corresponds with the evidence of dreams in their bearing on primitive theories of the soul, and the two classes Of phenomena substantiate and supplement one another. . . . Human ghosts are among the principal of these phantasmal figures. There is no doubt that honest visionaries describe ghosts as they really appear to their perception, while even the impostors who pretend to see them conform to the description thus established; thus, in West Africa, a man's kla or soul, becoming at his death a sisa or ghost, can remain in the house with the corpse, but is only visible to the wrong-man, the spirit-doctor. Sometimes the phantom has the characteristic quality of not being visible to all of an assembled company. Thus the natives of the Antilles believed that the dead appeared on the roads when one went alone, but not when many went together; thus among the Finns the ghosts of the dead were to be seen by the shamans, but not by men generally unless in dreams. Such is perhaps the meaning of the description of Samuel's ghost, visible to the witch of Endor, but not to Saul, for he has to ask her what it is she sees. . . .

That the apparitional human soul bears the likeness of its fleshly body, is the principle implicitly accepted by all who believe it really and objectively present in dreams and visions. My own view is that nothing but dreams and visions could have ever put into men's minds such an idea as that of souls being ethereal images of bodies. It is thus habitually taken for granted in animistic philosophy, savage or civilized, that souls set free from the earthly body are recognized by a likeness to it which they still retain, whether as ghostly wanderers on earth or inhabitants of the world beyond the grave. . . . This world-wide thought, coming into view here in a multitude of cases from all grades of culture, needs no collection of ordinary instances to illustrate it. But a quaint and special group of beliefs will serve to display the thoroughness with which the soul is thus conceived as an image of the body. As a consistent corollary to such an opinion, it is argued that the mutilation of the body will have a corresponding effect upon the soul, and very low savage races have philosophy enough to work out this idea. Thus it was recorded of the Indians of Brazil by one of the early European visitors, that they 'believe that the dead arrive in the other world wounded or hacked to pieces, in fact just as they left this.' Thus, too, the Australian who has slain his enemy will cut off the right thumb of the corpse, so that although the spirit will become a hostile ghost, it cannot throw with its mutilated hand the shadowy spear, and may be safely left to wander, malignant but harmless. . . .
In studying the nature of the soul as conceived among the lower races, and in tracing such conceptions onward among the higher, circumstantial details are available. It is as widely recognized among mankind that souls or ghosts have voices, as they have visible forms, and indeed the evidence for both of is of the same nature. Men who perceive evidently that souls do talk when they present themselves in dream or vision, naturally take for granted at once the objective reality of the ghostly voice, and of the ghostly form from which it proceeds. This is involved in the series of narratives of spiritual communications with living men, from savagery onward to civilization, while the more modern doctrine ' of the subjectivity of such phenomena recognizes the phenomena themselves, but offers a different explanation of them. One special conception, however, requires particular notice. This defines the spirit-voice as being a low murmur, chirp, or whistle, as it were the ghost of a voice. The Algonquin Indians of North America could hear the shadow-souls of the dead chirp like crickets. The divine spirits of the New Zealand dead, coming to converse with the living, utter their words in whistling tones, and such utterances by a squeaking noise are mentioned elsewhere in Polynesia. The Zulu diviner's familiar spirits are ancestral manes, who talk in a low whistling tone short of a full whistle, whence they have their name if 'imilozi' or whistlers. These ideas correspond with classic

descriptions of the ghostly voice, as a 'twitter' or 'thin murmur.' The conception of dreams and visions as caused by present objective figures, and the identification of such phantom souls with the shadow and the breath has led to the treatment of souls as substantial material beings. Thus it is a usual proceeding to make openings through solid materials to allow souls to pass. The Iroquois in old times used to leave an opening in the grave for the lingering soul to visit its body, and some of them still bore holes in the coffin for the same purpose. . . . The Chinese make a hole in the roof to let out the soul at death. And lastly, the custom of opening a window or door for the departing soul when it quits the body is to this day a very familiar superstition in France, Germany and England. Again, the souls of the dead are thought susceptible of being beaten, hurt and driven like any other living creatures. Thus. the Queensland aborigines would beat the air in an annual mock fight, held to scare away the souls that death had let loose among the living since last year. Thus North American Indians, when they had tortured an enemy to death, ran about crying and beating with sticks to scare the ghost away. . . .

Explicit statements as to the substance of soul are to be found both among low and high races, in an instructive series of definitions. The Tongans imagined the human soul to be the finer or more aeriform part of the body, which leaves it suddenly at the moment of death; something comparable to the perfume and essence of a flower as related to the more solid vegetable fibre. The Greenland seers described the soul as they habitually perceived it in their visions; it is pale and soft, they said, and he who tries to seize it feels nothing, for it has no flesh nor bone sinew. The Caribs did not think the soul so immaterial as to be invisible, but said it was subtle and thin like a purified body. Turning to higher races, we may take the Siamese as an example of a people who conceive of souls as consisting of subtle matter escaping sight and touch, or as united to a swiftly moving aerial body. In the classic world, it is recorded as an opinion of Epicurus that 'they who say the soul is incorporeal talk folly, for it could neither do nor suffer anything were it such.' Among the Fathers, Irenaeus describes souls as incorporeal in comparison with mortal bodies, and Tertullian relates a vision or revelation of a certain Montanist prophetess, of the soul seen by her corporeally, thin and lucid, aerial in colour and human in form. . . .

Among rude races, the original conception of the human soul seems to have been that of etherality, or vaporous materiality, which has held so large a place in human thought ever since. In fact, the later metaphysical notion of immateriality could scarcely have conveyed any meaning to a savage. It is moreover to be noticed that, as to the whole nature and action of apparitional souls, the lower philosophy escapes various difficulties which down to modern times have perplexed metaphysicians and theologians of the civilized world. Considering the thin ethereal body of the soul to be itself sufficient and suitable for visability, movement, and speech, the primitive animist required no additional hypotheses to account for these manifestations. . . .

Departing from the body at the time of death, the soul or spirit is considered set free to linger near the tomb, to wander on earth or flit in the air, or to travel to the proper region of spirits-the world beyond the grave. . . . Men do not stop short at the persuasion that death releases the soul to a free and active existence, but they quite logically proceed to assist nature, by slaying men in order to liberate their souls for ghostly uses. Thus there arises one of the most widespread, distinct, and intelligible rites of animistic religion-that of funeral human sacrifice for the service of the dead. When a man of rank dies and his soul departs to its own place, wherever and whatever that place may be, it is a rational inference of early philosophy that the souls of attendants, slaves, and wives, put to death at his funeral, will make the same journey and continue their service in the next life, and the argument is frequently stretched further, to include the souls of new victims sacrificed in order that they may enter upon the same ghostly servitude. It will appear from the ethnography of this rite that it is not strongly marked in the very lowest levels of culture, but that, arising in the lower barbaric stage, it develops itself in the higher, and thenceforth continues or dwindles in survival.


Sir Edward Bumett Tylor, Religion in Primitive Culture (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1958), pp. 14-42 (originally published as Primitive Culture)

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