Plato, on the left, potentially discussing his belief in reincarnation with Aristotle.

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Reincarnation in the Ancient Western World

Although belief in reincarnation is a predominant element of many Eastern religions, it also was taught in the ancient Western world. Mystery religions, which sometimes transformed into secularized social clubs or fraternities, espoused a wide range of reincarnation ceremonies and beliefs. Some of these early Greco-Roman religions eventually influenced the philosophy of famous thinkers like Plato.

Orphism was a popular mystery religion beginning in the sixth or seventh century B.C. Its followers studied the supposed writings of Orpheus, a legendary musical figure. They believed in a soul that withstood death and could appear incarnate in human or mammalian form. Orphics thought the soul was divine and was imprisoned by the body. By leading a correct life and abstaining from meat, wine and sex, a soul could go to Elysium, a paradise after death; an evil soul would suffer punishments in hell. But neither afterlife was eternal and after a time, the soul would be reborn into a new body. Only after passing through three good Orphic lives could a soul end the cycle of reincarnation.

The Orphic interest in death and the afterlife influenced the Pythagorean brotherhood, another mystery society based in southern Italy. The philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who is associated with the brotherhood, believed the soul could appear incarnate in a human or animal's body. This belief led to his espousal of vegetarianism. The fraternity taught that the soul originated among the stars but fell to earth and joined with the human body. Pythagorean followers combined their religious theorizing with the studies of astronomy, music and, of course, geometry.

The philosopher Plato also believed that the soul was repeatedly reincarnated. Plato suspected that seven planetary spheres and an eighth sphere of fixed stars surrounded the Earth. The divine lay beyond the eighth sphere and set the universe into motion. Souls came from the planets, descended to earth, united with bodies and then tried to free themselves and reascend to the stars.

In the next section, we'll learn about reincarnation in science.