Soul & Body in the Ancient World


New York University: College of Arts and Sciences

-- Texts & Ideas: The Body in the Ancient Mediterranean --

Spring 2020  /  Professor Claire Bubb  /  Midterm Paper

The term 'soul' belongs to a particular Western paradigm and it should not be generalized when defining other cultures' philosophical conceptions. If someone talks about 'soul', there is often an implied anthropological dualism, body-soul, which should not be imposed as the premise from which other people - from another time and place - develop their thoughts. Thus, it would be mistaken to talk about such dichotomy as ruling over the Egyptian mind, for their anthropological beliefs were developed before the predominance, or even the birth, of the Greek idea of body-soul. In fact, the tomb inscriptions and the few papyri that are still preserved demonstrate that the Egyptians understood the person as a compound of seven parts, which can hinder every possible comparison between their paradigm and the Greek's. However, it is possible to contrast the different features present in some of those seven parts of the Egyptian definition that resemble this Greek - Western - image of the 'soul'. Thus, this paper will discuss the Egyptian, Homeric and Platonic approaches to the relationship between body and soul with a special emphasis on the problems of the subordination of one part to the other and the afterlife.

First, regarding the Egyptian view on the issue, they considered the ka as the life force, the entity that gives 'livingness' to the person. This characteristic makes it comparable to the later concept of 'soul', which in both Homer and Plato is considered as source of life. It is curious how the Egyptians thought of the ka as needing to be nourished, which does not seem coherent with its life-giving nature. However, this apparent incoherency in its spiritual essence shows well their fusion of the physical and the spiritual world into one single real life, which is also evident in the importance of the heart and its double role. The heart was both physical and emotional or cognitive, and thus it had two distinct names: haty and ib respectively. Due to their awareness of its physical relevance - proven in their explanation of a vessel system in the Ebers papyrus - they concluded that the heart also had a spiritual role, as this inscription from the mid-16th century BC. shows: "O my are my force, which is in my body, the molder who gave life to my limbs" [1]. It is more than just a biological importance. Ηere the author is talking about a "force" within the body, a separate and at the same time united reality. Therefore, both the ka and the heart cover the life-giving feature of the soul, in agreement with Homer's and Plato's understanding of the functions of the soul. Although we observe the importance of the ka and the heart, and some parts may even be more recognized in the surviving literature, the Egyptians did not consider any of these as dominating the body. The body is fundamental in their paradigm of the self, to the extent that it is the physical location where the rest of the parts find their unity. In fact, they understood death as a new beginning, a next step in life: an afterlife. And in order to have this life, the person needs the body. Hence, we have evidence of burials with spare organs and parts of the body, since it is the most perishable part and will need some replacements.

This view of the afterlife agrees with the Platonic one in its belief on a resurrection. However, the Egyptians thought that the person would be reincarnated just once - for their afterlife takes place in a different realm - and in the same body, as this inscription shows: "I shall possess my flesh forever and ever, I shall not decay, I shall not crumble away, I shall not wither away, I shall not become corruption" [2]. Plato, on the other hand, understood it as a cycle of transmigration of souls - metempsychosis - to which "the souls not of the good but of the wicked" are condemned (Plato, Phaedo 81d). He pictured reincarnation as something bad and undesirable, while the Egyptians thought of it as an award: life. For the philosopher, people - souls - "are imprisoned in a body" (Plato, Phaedo 81e), while for the Egyptians the body is the element that frees the person from annihilation, from nothingness.

Trying to define Homer's views on the relationship body-soul is a challenge. In the Egyptian case it is obviously in the lack of evidence where the study is hindered, but now the problem arises from the nature of the text. Homer wrote poems, not treatises on anatomy or philosophy. Its poetical language is open to interpretation, hard to analyze, and not optimal for such an issue. However, at the same time, these texts present a unique opportunity to understand the minds of the common Greek audience who read his works. The poet describes the death of the many heroes with a fixed formula, which, with little variations, ends up showing the same idea: "flying free of his limbs his soul went winging down to the House of Death" (Homer, Iliad, Book XXII, v. 427). As this and many other verses with the same expression show, Homer understands death as the departing of the soul from the body, which logically implies the function of the soul as source of life. Although both the Egyptians and Homer agreed upon this function of the soul, evidence is not found of the Egyptian approach to death particularly as the soul leaving the body. However, similarly to the Egyptian paradigm with their view of the heart, the Homeric view also presents to some extent a physical approach to the role of the soul. It is the breath that symbolizes the soul, and the lack thereof supposes death. This is proved in the very word for 'soul' in Greek that Homer uses - ψύχη -, which also means 'life', and even 'breath'.

In addition, Homer does not defend any kind of subordination of the body to the soul either. Not only does he present a clear dichotomy between the physical body - 'soma' - and the spiritual soul - 'psyche', but also an interdependence. A dead body, lacking the soul, is obviously lifeless, and the soul once separated becomes a mindless shadow, an appearance of what it was once real. In the Iliad - and also in book XI of his Odyssey, when the hero journeys to the Underworld - Homer depicts the soul of the dead as incomplete, and the person as having lost his personality. The author communicates this through the voice of Achilles when the ghost of Patroclus appears to him: "there is something left, a ghost, a phantom - true, but not real breath of life" (Homer, Iliad, Book XXIII, vv. 122-123). Body and soul need one another, and not because the soul goes to the Underworld and continues 'living' - if such thing can be said - does it mean that Homer considers it as more important. He greatly appreciates the body and gives it far more importance than Plato. Such is his care for it that one of the most central themes of the poem - and its climax - deals with corpses, i.e. bodies without a soul: Hector's and Patroclus'. However, there is no evidence to support the idea of a resurrection - a return to the flesh - in the Homeric texts, but only the idea of an afterlife in the Underworld.

In Plato's case, his approach is different. He goes beyond the Egyptian and Homeric views and gives a metaphysical explanation for the soul in relation to the body. In his dialogue Phaedo, the philosopher develops what we now refer to as his theory of forms. He uses it to define the person as a dualistic union of soul and body, being the soul the essence of the person and his animating life-force. Although they all agree on this topic, Plato, unlike the Egyptians and Homer, develops an argument and tries to present coherently the statements he is making. Nevertheless, he is also the only one with a negative approach towards the body and a clear predominance of the soul. As mentioned above, Plato understands the body as a temporal prison which binds the soul to the physical world and doesn't allow it to go to the World of Forms, to which it belongs. Furthermore, while for the Egyptians the ability to reincarnate in an afterlife was a glorious and desirable goal, Plato considers it as a punishment for those who "failed to live well" (Plato, Timaeus 42c).

In his Phaedo, Plato states that the mission of the philosopher is to "[release] his soul, as far as possible, from its communion with the body" (Plato, Phaedo 65a). He thinks physical sensation can be deceptive and that philosophers should disdain physical pleasure. Plato views the body as an obstacle, while Homer presents it as conditio sine qua non for achieving arete. The poet considers the body to be the center of human excellence and the seat of his honor. Hence, he describes Achilles' treatment of Hector' corpse as ignominious and disgraceful in the last three books of the Iliad. On the contrary, Plato defends a clear subordination of the body to the soul. The soul should rule over the body and never be "bewitched by it, by its passions and pleasures" (Plato, Phaedo 81b).

In conclusion, Plato, Homer and the Egyptians agree on the existence of a spiritual element in the person, its life-giving nature, and the existence of an afterlife - although there are different views on the features of this last topic. Plato differs in his metaphysical approach towards the soul-body composition and his pejorative attitude towards the body. Homer describes a strong interdependence between soul and body, and the absence of individuality after their separation. And finally, the Egyptians fundamentally are distinct with their division of the person into seven parts, and they show an outstanding care of the body because of its relevance for the resurrection.


[1] Heart Scarab of King Sebekemzaf II, c. 1580-1550 BC. Translation by Dunand and Lichtenberg (2006), 95

[2] Inscription on the linen wrappings of the mummy of Thothmes III, c.1425 BC (18th Dynasty) (Translation from Budge (1960), 70).