Monday, May 10, 2010


Throughout history, in all parts of the world, people have held a concept that in Judeo-Christian tradition is referred to as the soul and some other cultures refer to as the Double. The ancients had other names: to the Egyptians it was Ba; the Greeks called it Daimon and soul; the Romans referred to it as Genius for men and Iuno for women; and the Scandinavians called it Fylgja. It is the immortal portion of a person, for some time encased in a physical body, that transcends time and space and connects to the entire kosmos. (“Kosmos” is a Greek word meaning the whole of all existence, the physical, mental, and spiritual realms, as opposed to “cosmos,” which refers to only the physical aspect of existence.)

Most Indian people had a well-developed concept of the soul before Christian contact, but it was quite different from the Euro-American idea. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that a person’s soul is created at birth by God and is unique for all time. It lives out one lifetime and that is all.

In the Christian model, if a person has led a righteous life, at death his or her soul would go to heaven, a place above the sky, to be in the presence of God and the angels. If the person committed minor, or venial, sins the soul went to purgatory for a time to expiate their sins and then went to heaven. If the person led a wicked life and committed an unforgivable, or mortal, sin the soul went to hell, a place of perpetual fire beneath the earth, a realm of evil and suffering, where it would burn forever and never see the face of God.

Indian people believed the human soul to be preexistent, meaning that it existed before birth, and that souls come from the gods or the Great Spirit. Coming from the gods makes the soul supernatural, but the Indian soul is also sensual, connected to the body through the senses as well as the intellect, and local as opposed to a distant, abstract entity as in the Christian model.

In the Indian model, a soul could be reborn to live again in a newborn person. Some believed that a soul could reincarnate in more than one person at the same time, particularly a person of high social standing. They also believed that all living creatures possess a soul and that even inanimate objects have a soul, but that only humans are fully self-aware.

There are numerous accounts from shamans of fetal consciousness and soul activity during the embryonic period, such as precognition, prophetic vision, and clairvoyance. There is an account included in this book from a Winnebago medicine man recalling memories of time in his mother’s womb (see “T. C.’s Account of His Two Reincarnations,” pp. XX–XX).

According to Ake Hultkrantz, who wrote a seminal work on American Indian soul beliefs, many Indian groups thought that a person has within them two souls. While soul concepts vary widely among the various groups, the belief in a dual-soul was widespread in all regions of North America. The exception was the Pueblo people of the Southwest, who were influenced by the Mexican high culture’s concept of a unitary-soul. The dual-soul concept was also found through out pre-Christian Europe.

One of the souls in this duality is the free-soul, seen as the immaterial double of a person. The free-soul is fully emancipated, with a spiritual existence of its own. During deep sleep, trance, or in times of sickness or delirium, this free-soul is able to leave the body and travel to other realms. For the ordinary person, free-soul travel is random wandering, but a shaman can direct his free-soul travel and is even able to go to the land of the dead and return.

The free-soul stays with the person throughout his or her lifetime and at death the leaves the body either through the mouth or fontanel and begins its journey to the realm of the dead. The deceased retains his consciousness, or ego, in the realm of the dead but loses all carnal desire. In most groups, it is usually the free-soul that is reborn.

The second part of this duality is the body-soul, or life-soul, sometimes called the breath-soul. This soul animates the body and facilitates movement and consciousness. Among several groups, the life-soul is thought to reside in the chest, and many connect it with the heart. Quite possibly, the many rock drawings of animals and men found in the Southwest are the earliest representations of Native soul beliefs, for they show a lifeline running from the mouth to the heart. For many people, the heart was the seat of the soul, and the breath coming through the mouth in the form of words expressed a person’s soul.

At death, the life-soul can wander for a time in the land of the living as a malevolent ghost, but eventually the disincarnate life-soul dissipates and merges with the wind, the clouds, and sometimes the Great Spirit, or it just disappears and is gone forever. Some believe the soul goes to live in the Milky Way. While a person is alive, if the life-soul leaves the body and cannot return, the person dies.

The Indian soul is preexistent, but where does it reside before being incarnated on earth? The location varies widely among different groups. For the Pueblo people and most agrarian tribes, the unborn dwell in the land of the dead in the underworld, but in a different place from the dead. The Salish of Shoalwater Bay believed the souls of children came from the rising sun. The Chinook believed this as well. The Montagnais believed children come from the clouds; the Eastern Shawnee thought children live on little stars in the Milky Way. The Mandan believed babies are incarnated stars. The Oglala believed that Skan, the sky god, gave man his free-soul and life-soul. For the Fox Indians it was the Great Spirit that gave people their life-soul and the culture hero (an entity of mythological time who changes the world through intervention or discovery) their free-soul.

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1 comment:

  1. Huh. Who knew, right? Sounds kinda like a story from the Twilight series about the wolf pack's tribe. The Quileutes ancestors could disconnect their spirits from their bodies and roam free. I found Native American legends really interesting.