Anatomies of the Soul and Spirit

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"Saint Michael Weighting Souls" detail of the Beaune Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, oil on oak, painted circa 1445–1450

Not all belief systems view the soul as only consisting of an immortal, intangible spirit essence. Many religious and cultural traditions separate the soul into both physical and spiritual elements. Some even posit that there are multiple souls, functioning in concert, for each living being.

Beliefs about the creation of the soul and its attachment to the body vary from one culture to another, as do beliefs in the afterlife of the soul. Likewise, beliefs about the location of the soul within the body or surrounding it, are also seen in many religious and cultural variations. For example, some people believe that the soul is fused to the body during fetal development or at the moment of birth or taking the first breath, while other maintain that the soul can be cut off from the body, leaving a "soulless" body and a "lost soul" to unhappily wander their separate ways on the Earth.

Many traditions share the common view that the soul separates from the body at the time of death. In these traditions, while the body decays or is purposely destroyed, the soul goes on to exist in an afterlife of some kind, and the question of whether is incorporeal existence is pleasant or unpleasant may be decided during a post-mortem moment of judgement, sometimes called the weighing of the soul. However there are also schools of thought — going back thousands of years in many parts of the world — which maintain that the human soul does not exist at all after the death of the body.


The Immortal Soul

The body and the soul are often conceptualized as twin beings who, joined together, travel through life as one; artist unknown
"The Soul Leaving the Body" by Richard Blair, 1808
The Ka, one of nine souls of ancient Egyptian religion, represented as a pair or arms and hands; this statue depicts the Ka of King Hor, ruler of the Thirteenth Dynasty, circa 750 BCE
"Judgement of a Soul" by the Spanish artist Mateo Cerezo (1637 -1666); the soul appears as a kneeling, seminude young man who turns his eyes in supplication to Jesus Christ and The Virgin Mary in Heaven; he is flanked on the left by Saint Dominic of Guzmán, who holds the rosary he received from the The Virgin, alluding to the young man's devotion to Mary, and on the right by Saint Francis of Assisi, who holds a loaf of bread to symbolize the young man's charitable acts or the merits of fasting, which he practiced during his life
"Soul Carried to Heaven," by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

In western antiquity, the idea of the immortal soul first appeared in Persian, and later Greek, thought. The immortal soul included the physical body; without the body, the soul was dead, even though the spirit was everlasting. In ancient Greek belief, such spirits were consigned to Hades, a dark and dreary place with next to no activity. Those favored by the gods received physical immortality (either instead of or after physical death) and admittance to any of a number of happy places, from Olympus to the ocean. This conception persisted well into the Christian era, which led Greek philosophers to complain about the apparent inconsistency of Christian beliefs about the immortal soul.

Zoroastrians believe that on the fourth day after death, the human soul leaves the body, which is then an empty shell. Souls would go to either heaven or hell.

In Christianity, there arose other legitimate channels beyond Scripture for development of doctrine and teaching; by these means, the immortal soul belief began to enter Christianity during the second century C.E. The traditional Christian resurrection belief is a physical resurrection. The heavenly bliss of the righteous immortal soul is an intermediate period between physical death and physical resurrection to take part in the "new heavens and new earth." Many adherents are not aware of this today, but it is still official teaching.

It was not until the intertestamental period that Judaism began to accept the immortality of the soul, possibly influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Since the Jewish Bible or Tanakh has very little to say about the afterlife, this left room for a wide array of beliefs, ranging from nonexistence after death to something like reincarnation. As the Pharisee historian Josephus put it: "They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies," while "the souls of the wicked will suffer eternal punishment."

The Multiple or Segmented Soul

For the ancient Egyptians, the soul consisted of nine parts. They are the Khat or Physical Body; the Ba or Personality, which takes the form of a bird with a human head and can travel between the mundane and spiritual realms; the Ren or True Name, which was kept secret to preserve the soul, but if know could be used to kill its owner and all of his or her souls forever; the Ka or Vital Essence, depicted as a pair of arms and hands, which is breathed into each infant at the time of birth and keeps the body alive; the Shuyet or Shadow, that is, the literal shadow that is attached to the body under conditions of sunlight, and which was thought to leave the body at death; the Jb or Heart, conceived as the the center of human thought and will, and intention, which was weighed in judgement after death to see whether the person's intentions had been good; the Akh or Immortal Self, formed after death by the spiritual melding of the Ba and the Ka to create an enlightened immortal being; the Sahu or Spiritual Body, an aspect of the newly formed Akh which somewhat resembled European concepts of the ghost in that it could haunt or take revenge on those who had wronged the person in life and could also appear in dreams to friends and foes alike to communicate prophecies and warnings; and the Sekhem or Life Energy, another aspect the Akh which dwelled in power in the Afterlife.

Some religious traditions segment the soul into two parts. In the Jewish tradition, the soul is seen as comprised of Sentience (Nephesh) and Spirit (Ruah). For instance Job 12:7–10 is translated as “In His hand is the life (Nephesh) of every living thing and the spirit (Ruah) of every human being.” Islam likewise describes the mortal Nafs or Ego and the immortal Ruh or Spirit.

Other traditional cultures — ancient Estonia, for instance — posit that we have more souls than two to manage the body. This is why these cultures think of illness in terms of "soul loss." It also explains much of the power of magic. The efficacy of personal concerns is due to the presence of bits of the organ-soul. The evil eye manifests when the eye-soul escapes through a resentful or jealous glance.

The Mutable Soul or "No-Self"

Non-Buddhists often ask "how can Buddhists believe in reincarnation and also that people have no souls?" "No soul" is a literalist translation of the Sanskrit word annatta; what Buddhists mean by "no soul" is "no unchangeable, fixed self."

In fact, Buddha criticized the materialistic annihilationist view that denied rebirth and karma. Annihilism is inappropriate and dangerous, stated Buddha, because it encourages moral irresponsibility and hedonism.

Anatta does not mean there is no afterlife, no rebirth or no fruition of karma. The soul, which may very well be spiritual and immortal, is a constantly changing personality rather than one that is fixed forever. This is what is reincarnated; neither exactly the same as nor entirely different from the previous life of that soul.

The Mortal Soul

There are a few religions that view the soul as the totality of a living being: body, life force, sentience, and personality all together — the literal meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh. As Jehovah's Witnesses, a Protestant Christian denomination, phrase it, "You do not have a soul; you are a soul." This view is by no means confined to hard-headed scholars of the modern West; in India, it can be traced back at least 2600 years, to indigenous materialist schools of thought.

Strict mortalism makes Bible verses which speak of the soul craving meat, or its deliverance from death or from oppression, much easier to understand. (Deuteronomy 12:20; Psalms 56:13; Jeremiah 20:13) It does require more tortuous explanations for verses such as this; "The smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night" — Revelation 14:11.

From the earliest times, some Christians argued for mortalism on the basis of Leviticus 17:11; "the life of the flesh is in the blood," and blood can be shed and the life ended. The life of an animal, contained in the blood, can even be sacrificed to God as a replacement for one's own life. Other Christians, since the second century, if not before, were reluctant to go so far, and postulated that the soul has an afterlife -- that is, it is existent after death -- but it remains unconscious until the resurrection. This has the effect of resolving the apparent contradiction of the Bible verses mentioned above. Among modern theologians, the perception that the Bible teaches an immortal soul is no longer the majority view.


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