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The belief is thought to have been an necessity among primitive peoples. Certainly long before ancient Egypt peoples believed in transmigration of the soul. If they were not sophisticated enough to understand the concept of a soul, then they may have simply called it life. An individual or object which moved had life, and the one which did not, did not have life. This is analogous to the belief of animism.
Gradually the concept of a soul developed with a further realization that the soul departed the body at death and entered the body at birth. Soon it was thought the soul leaving a dead body would seek another body to enter, or enter an animal of a lower life form. It was also thought the soul left the body during sleep. This soul was pictured as vapors that entered and left through the nostrils and mouth.
Later grew the notion the soul transmigrated to an infant of one of dead person's kin. This helped to explain family resemblances.
The terms reincarnation and transformation of the soul, especially when applied to humans, are about synonymous. However reincarnation is not accurately synonymous with either metamorphosis or resurrection. Metamorphosis is roughly the changing of one life form into another life form. Resurrection, in the Christian sense, means the rising again of the body after death.
About the first definition of soul transmigration came from Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, who taught that the soul was immortal and merely resides in the body; therefore, it survived bodily death. His further teachings held the soul goes through a series of rebirths. Between death and rebirth the soul rests and is purified in the Underworld. After the soul has completed this series of rebirths is becomes so purified that it can leave the transmigration or reincarnation cycle.
Plato, another Greek philosopher, shared similar views as Pythagoras in that the soul of man was eternal, pre-existence, and wholly spiritual. In Plato's view of the transmigration of the soul from body to body, however, there is a difference. Plato claimed the soul tends to become impure during these bodily inhabitations although a minimal former life knowledge remains. However, if through its transmigrations the soul continues doing good and eliminates the bodily impurities it will eventually return to its pre-existence state. But, if the soul continually deteriorates through its bodily inhabitations it will end up in Tartarus, a place of eternal damnation. This appears to be an origination of both the concept of karma and the Christian concept of hell.
It was around the first century AD that both the Greek and Roman writers were surprised by the fact that the Druids, a priestly caste of the Celts (see Druidism), believed in reincarnation. The Greek writer Diordus Siculus (c. 60 BC - 30 AD) noted that the Druids believed "the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body." The Greek philosopher Strabo (c. 63 BC - 21 AD) observed the Druids believed that "men's souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire and water may prevail."
Even Julius Caesar wrote of the Celts "They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree stimulated to valor, the fear of death being disregarded." Elsewhere Caesar complained the Druids were a troublesome people. They were difficult to destroy.
There is little evidence of reincarnation among the early Hebrew people but it later became a part of the Kabbalistic teaching. The teaching occurred among the early Christians, especially the Gnostics, Manichaeans, and the Carthari, but was later repudiated by orthodox Christian theologians. When asked by college students why Christianity does not teach reincarnation Patricia Crowther, a witch, answered, "...The early Christians taught it (reincarnation), and this can be proved by the words of Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa: 'It is absolutely necessary that the soul shall be healed and purified, and if it doesn't take place in one life on earth, it must be accomplished in future earthly lives.'"
Later, in AD 533, reincarnation was declared a heresy by the Council of Constantinople.
The reason reincarnation was repudiated was because of the eschatological teachings of death and judgment which were established as orthodox Christian doctrine. In simplicity this doctrine states man has just one life in which to merit his eternal reward or damnation. Such a doctrine also strengthened the Church. However, many Christians still believe in reincarnation because they think it was taught by Christ.
In an interview the author Jess Stern asked a lady who had previously seen the late American mystic Edgar Cayce "Why do you now find it so important to believe in reincarnation -- wouldn't just being a good Christian, believing in the message of God through Christ be sufficient to get you into Heaven?"
She answered plainly, "Don't you know that Christianity embraced reincarnation for three hundred years, until the Roman influence expunged it after the Enmperor Constantine recognized the Church? What do you think the early Christians were thinking when they asked Christ whether he was Elijah, who had come before? They were think reincarnation, that's what."
She continued, "If you thought of reincarnation as rebirth, I think you could understand it better. Just as the earth has a constant rebirth, so does the spirit. Don't you remember Christ saying, 'Unless man is reborn, he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven?'"
Stern told her he thought the was a reference to baptism. She replied, "Christ was not interested in show, but substance, that was at the heart of everything he said or did."
Most occultists and witches would certainly agree with their Christian friend. Reincarnation is rebirth. Just as the earth is renewed so is the spirit or soul which knows no death. To many reincarnation is taught by nature herself. Some would say by the Mother Goddess. In the spring the trees give birth to new leaves, flowers bloom, new foliage springs up. In summer and fall the crops are harvested. In winter the earth rests, everything is dormant. This is the earth's life-cycle which many believe symbolizes the spirit's.
The Christian lady speaking with Stern referred to reincarnation as a learning experience. Each reincarnation not only purifies the soul more, but this purification comes through opportunities to learn more in life if the soul is willing. Here is a division of thought concerning reincarnation. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism teach each reincarnation may be different, that is, man may return as a lower life form such as a plant, tree, or animal.
Certain sects of Gnosticism held this belief too. The rationale of such a belief is that the soul has to experience all aspects of life. Western thought of reincarnation is that man just reincarnates to higher spiritual levels of life, but never returns as a lower life form. In Western philosophy it is also held if man does not reach a higher spiritual level he must repeat the cycle until he does.
Most occultists and witches believe reincarnation is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As to the exact cyclical process there are divergent views. Some hold a view similar to the Buddhists the individual personality disintegrates at death with its characteristics forming in a pool with other traits which come together in new reincarnations. Others believe reincarnations only occur within a tribe, race, or family. This is Odinism. Another view is that there is a resting period between reincarnations where the soul rests in a state of bliss in the astral plane called Summerland before it passes into the next reincarnation.
Many occultists have attempted to retrace their past lives or reincarnations by dream analysis, meditation, or occasionally hypnotic regression. The witch Sybil Leek thought she had been Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Aleister Crowley believed he traced his reincarnations from Pope Alexander VI, renowned for his love of physical pleasures; to Edward Kelly, the assistant of the Elizabethan occultist and magician John Dee; to Cagliostro; to Eliphas Levi who died on the same day as Crowley was born. Continuing back further Crowley believed he had been Ankh-fn-Khonsu, an Egyptian priest of the XXVIth dynasty.
Here is an informative page on Reincarnation in Japanese-Buddhism.
See also Is Immortality possible?
Cranston, Sylvia, Carey Williams. Reincarnation: A
New Horizon in Science, Religion, and Society. New ork. Julian
Crowther, Arnold and Patricia. The Secrets of Ancient Witchcraft with the Witches Tarot. New York. Carol Publishing Group. 1992 .
Funk &Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1979.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen.The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts On File.1989.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New Ysork. Vintage Books. 1979.
Shepard, Leslie A., ed. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 3rd ed. Detroit. Gale Research, Inc. 1991.
Stern, Jess. Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet. New York. Doubleday. 1967