Monday, January 21, 2013

Was Hades Permanent?

I have been reading James D. Tabor's new book "Paul and Jesus" (2012), and have blogged about its relevance to Christian theology and the modern culture wars at my Wash Park Prophet blog. 

But, one notable observation in the book has relevance to the Indo-European origins of the Greeks and also of the Hindus, so this data point finds its way here.

The Context Of Tabor's Observations

Tabor, a career intellectual historian of Christian origins, and he addresses this in the context of how Saint Paul, whose letters and journey are central to the Christian New Testament, viewed and talked about the afterlife, a task that required him to reconcile a Jewish conception with the prevailing Hellenic conception.  His main object in doing so is to understand what the resurrection of Christ meant to early Christians and early members of the Jesus movement within Judaism that would ultimately wither while Christianity ultimately became the dominant religion of Europe.

Greek views, in particular, were relevant, because Paul's evangelism was centered in the Greek speaking Aegean basin and in then Greek speaking Southern Anatolia and Syria, although he is reputed to have traveled as far west as Spain and as far South  as Mount Sinai.  Politically, the entire region was under Roman control at the time.

In doing so, Tabor makes some very interesting observations about pre-Christian Greek understandings of the afterlife in the time period leading up to the Christian era.  His description is based in part, of course, on some of the older accounts of classical Greek philosophers like Plato, since contemporary Greek sources on this metaphysical question are limited.

Plato's Context

Plato's writing post-date by about a two thousand to fifteen hundred years (depending upon where in the Aegean basin you are talking about) the transition from non-Indo-European pre-Greek languages to Indo-European ancient Greek.  [Note that for the purposes of this post, it doesn't matter if that transition was demic or cultural, since I am tracing a cultural and metaphysical worldview legacy that could easily have accompanied the language shift without regard to the extent that it was demic in character, which is fortunate, because that issue isn't a definitively settled one.]

Plato was about as far removed from the earliest Indo-European Greek language speakers as we are from the early Christian church prior to the fall of Rome.  Thus, it is fair to assume that the foundational worldview conceptions of the early ancient Greek speakers may have persisted to Plato's time, just as early Christian worldviews remain familiar in the 21st century.

Tabor on Greek Afterlife Beliefs via Plato, et al. as Hindu-Like

Tabor argues that in the Greek conception there was an immortal soul which temporarily resided in an impermanent earthly body, and that at death, the immortal soul (but not the earthly body) returned to a Chthonic Hades. 

So far, a basically familiar understanding.

Far more notably, however, Tabor argues that the Greeks did not see the soul's trip to Hades as a one way journey.  In his account, the prevailing Greek view was that immortal souls in Hades would often return to a new body on Earth to develop further, in a worldview very similar to that of the Vedic Hindus, another major branch of Indo-Europeans.

Reincarnation, of course, has remained a part of the South Asian religious worldview and was adopted not just by Hinduism, but by Buddhism, which unlike Hinduism expanded far beyond South Asia to become a dominant element of Eastern religious thinking.

In Tabor's account, the notion of death as at least a one way journey, with exceptions for extremely rare near death experience revivals and for a possible Resurrection in a new spiritual body in the end times, has its source in modern Western religious metaphysical thinking in Christianity under formulas worked out in the first instance by Saint Paul. 

Tabor doesn't expressly make the connection between Greek reincarnation belief and Hindu religious views, as they would be detours from the points his is trying to prove.  But, the similarities are patent and obvious to anyone reading his prose on the subject.

The notion that the trip to Hades is a one way trip, in modern readings of Greco-Roman mythology, then, is merely an unconscious and anachronistic imposition of thoroughly assimilated Christian metaphysical understandings on these myths that would not have been shared by the people for whom they were a living set of religious beliefs.

Given that this is the first time I have ever heard of reincarnation as a central afterlife belief of the ancient Greeks, and Tabor's somewhat controversial status in his field, I am not entirely convinced by his isolated account that this is an accurate description of Hellenic beliefs.  It is not, for example, reflected in this account at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It is also not clear in this scholarly account drawing on the writings of Homer and Virgil.  But, Tabor is sufficiently credible that the idea with deep implications, discussed below, deserves more careful examination.  According to this account:
The notion that the human soul enters another body upon death, though unfamiliar in popular Greek religion, was widespread in Greek philosophy. The doctrine of transmigration is first associated with the Pythagoreans and Orphics and was later taught by Plato (Phaedo, Republic) and Pindar (Olympian). For the former groups, the soul retained its identity throughout its reincarnations; Plato indicated that souls do not remember their previous experiences. Although Herodotus claims that the Greeks learned this idea from Egypt, most scholars do not believe it came either from Egypt or from India, but developed independently.
Of course, scholars may not have considered the notion that the Greeks derived this idea not from India but from Proto-Indo-Europeans ancestral to the Greeks and the people of India alike, and it could be that Greek philosophy, rather than Greek religion, was the more conservative medium.  Greek abandonment of reincarnation ideas in more popular culture could have arisen from the borrowing of ideas by this sea faring peoples from the Levatine Semitic neighbors.

Favoring an Indo-European culture that included reincarnation belief is this scholarly source suggesting that the Norse had similar reincarnation beliefs to the Greeks.

Implications For The Proto-Indo-European Culture

It is widely assumed that the polytheistic religious views of Indo-Europeans generally have some proto-Indo-European roots, albeit incorporating local substrates and adapting to local conditions.

But, until hearing Tabor's account, the reincarnation concepts that figure so prominently in Hinduism had seemed like a local innovation or substrate influence, rather than part of the Indo-European cultural package.  Tabor's observations, if accurate, suggest that this is not the case, and the reincarnation of the soul is an element of the Indo-European cultural package that was conserved in India, but was lost in other parts of West Eurasia as a result of Semitic religious influences.

This, in turn, adds serious substance to our cultural understanding to the Proto-Indo-Europeans who bridge the cultural gap between the Western Indo-European cultures like the Greeks, and the Eastern ones, like the Vedic culture that gave rise to Hinduism and Sanskrit.

1 comment:

Maju said...

For what I have read, it does seem that the Greek mysteric schools, like the famous one of Eleusis (who practiced once in life a personal death-and-resurrection trance helped by the LSA, easily extracted from the argot fungus, similar in some aspects to the Bwiti religion of Central Africa, I'd say), seem to imply a faith in some sort of resurrection. It is linked to the legend of Persephone and that of Dyonisos, this one often compared with Hindu Shiva, the pre-IE male aspect of the single Divinity if we follow some Shaivite sects like Shakta, in turn comparable to the Basque conception of the dual male-female cthonic Divinity.

So I'd say that the belief is pre-IE. Whether it implies belief in resurrection the Christian way (this concept is clearly non-Jewish but more like Egyptian or loosely Hellenistic) or the Hindu way, I can't say.