Metempsychosis (Ancient Greek μετεμψύχωσις / metempsúkhôsis, soul transmigration, from μετά and ψυχή/psukhḗ) is the transition, the transfer of a soul in another body, that it will animate. The metempsychosism is the belief that one soul can animate successively more human or animal bodies, and plants: the transmigration of souls can take place not only in humans (reincarnation) but also in the non- humans, animals or plants (or also minerals, as in Judaism).
The word appears in Diodorus Siculus; the Greeks said: “palingenesis” (from παλινγενεσία/palingenesía, παλίν/palín, “again,” and γένεσις/genesis “birth”), that is to say “new birth”, “new genesis”; also, for Pythagoras, “what has been reborn” (palin ginetaï).
Metensomatose is the passage from one body to another, and not a soul that goes from one body to another. Buddhism believes in metensomatose rather because it is a religion in which the soul does not exist, and where the self is just an illusion of individual identity which “extinguished” in emptiness; that said, psychic elements transmigrate, as one might see in some characters (physical or mental) came to the children of parents in the Lamaist phenomenon of Tulku , called improperly “reincarnations” of a llama. The Buddhist scriptures actually use a significantly different concept from that of reincarnation: punarbhava, which translates to “re-birth”. The word comes from the Greek metensomatosis, meaning “body transmigration”.
Many religions have made a fundamental dogma of metempsychosis.
Hinduism advocates metempsychosis, the law of karma. It believes in the transmigration of souls: the individual soul (atman) should blend in cosmic Soul, in the immanent and absolute Brahman, to be released from the cycle of rebirth (samsara). The Bhagavad Gita (II, 22) thus exhibits the transmigration of souls: ”As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” According to swami Dayananda Saraswati, “in punishment of physical sins, a man reborn in the form of a plant; for the sins of the word, he will take the form of a bird or a quadruped; and for the sins of thought, he will live in the lowest human conditions.” (Satyârtha-Prakasha – The Light of Truth, 1865).
Orphism believes it in metempsychosis? Opinions are divided. Orphism rather exposes the palingenesis.
Metempsychosis was also at the center of the teachings of Pythagoras.
“One day, passing by someone that maltreated his dog, it is said that he [Pythagoras] was moved with compassion, and he addressed these words to the person: ‘Stop and do not hit him, because it is the soul of a man who was my friend, and I recognized him at the sound of his voice'”(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers and doctrines, VIII, 36).
Ennius seems to give one of the previous incarnations of Pythagoras that of a peacock, then spurge.
Pindar speaks about it in the Olympics; 2.56 ff.
Plato defended the concept in several of his dialogues. The three species of metempsychosis considered correspond to the three parts that Plato distinguishes in the soul: when the appetite (epithumia) dominates there is reincarnation in licentious animals, when it is aggression (thumos) into beasts of prey, when it is the reasonable part (logistikon) in gregarious animals (Phaedo, 82, The Republic, IV, 439-441).
Kabbalah admits metempsychosis, it calls gilgoul. “The Kabbalah, in Sefer ha-Bahir (late twelfth century), his oldest text, already takes transmigration for granted … In the thirteenth century, transmigration was considered an esoteric doctrine … The generalization of the concept of transmigration, initially limited to the punishment of particular sins, contributed to the emergence of the belief in transmigration into animals and even in plants and inorganic materials. This view, contested by many Kabbalists, did not become widespread until after 1400. The transmigration into the bodies of animals is mentioned for the first time in the Sefer ha-Temurah, which comes from a close group of Kabbalists of Gerona.” “Isaac Luria, Grand Master Kabbalist of Safed in the sixteenth century, recognized one day ‘as his two main disciples, Hayyim Vital and son’ the soul of an incestuous father in the body of a large black dog … Nachman of Breslov [death in 1811] boasts of being the most recent link in a chain of reincarnations of a soul first appeared in the body of Simon bar Yohai, then through Isaac Luria and up after him until Messie.”
Islamic Druze and Yazidism also include metempsychosis.
Metempsychosis is, however, totally absent of Christianity, with the exception of a few branches considered “heretics” as the Cathars, or based on the thought of the theologian Origen.
The idea of metempsychosis supposes other ideas: the pre-existence of the soul, the immortality of the soul, the duality between body and soul. But metempsychosis does not necessarily require a belief in the reward of souls. One can imagine metempsychoses from the chance of circumstances, sympathy, not a reward or a moral punishment: it is the case for Pythagoras. Moreover, an important idea is that of the relationship of the living, whether human, animal, or plant.
Metempsychosis (or metensomatose) cause certain ethical behavior, including respect for all life, especially animal (vegetarianism). Orphism and Pythagoreanism insisted there but we find these behaviors also very present today in Hinduism or Buddhism.