The Search for the Soul

What is the soul, where does it come from and where does it go when we die? Such questions have continued to fascinate since the early modern period. The answers that were produced were never decisive, but were often surprisingly creative, as Richard Sugg demonstrates.

Some time before 1623 a dying man of 60, questioned on his deathbed about his Christian faith, described the soul as ‘a great bone in his body’, which, ‘after he was dead … if he had done well’ would be ‘put into a pleasant green meadow’. This kind of belief was probably more common than educated Christians of the time suspected, yet they, too, speculated as to the nature of the soul and its relationship with the human body. 

What was the soul? How did it get into the body of a foetus? How did it leave the body of a dying person? And where was it located in the human body, in the time, long or short, between gestation and death? The poet John Donne and the explorer Walter Ralegh speculated at length as to whether the soul of a newborn baby had come in a direct line from Adam or if it had been separately infused by God around 40 days after conception. The chief candidates for the ‘location of the soul’ were the heart or the brain. Most people also agreed that the body and soul were joined by a fine, hot vapour of blood known as the ‘vital spirits’. These rose through the body, from the liver to the heart, and were processed into their most rarefied state by a complex of veins and arteries at the base of the brain, known as the rete mirable, or ‘wonderful net’. In locating the soul, most accepted that it was closely bound up with the breath and the blood, implicitly admitting that the earthly soul could be a quantity as well as an entity.

For some time, the pioneering anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (d.1564), adhered to theological orthodoxy about the rete, the specially human ‘organ of the soul’. Ironically, however, this structure existed most conspicuously in the apes and sheep dissected by the Roman physician Galen; and finally Vesalius, in his monumental anatomy textbook, On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543), would exclaim impatiently that ‘the soporal arteries quite fail to produce such a “plexus reticularis” as that which Galen recounts!’ But Vesalius retained a strong interest in the vital spirits. By 1621 Robert Burton seemed to take seriously the rumour that, to discern them better, ‘Vesalius the Anatomist was wont to cut up men alive’.

Doctor Faustus

The playwright Christopher Marlowe derived terror and drama from having Doctor Faustus’ blood congeal as he sought to sign his contract to Mephistopheles with it. If the soul was in the blood, then Faustus was using his soul to sign it away. His soul (or God) was also attempting to thwart this unhallowed transfer. Similarly, if the soul and spirits were in your breath, what horrifying ambiguities were conjured when Faustus, kissing a demonic apparition disguised as Helen of Troy, cried: ‘Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies! / Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.’ 

While Doctor Faustus continued its long theatrical run in the early 17th century, Donne demonstrated a broadly scientific interest in both soul and spirits. He insisted, for example, that the spirits in an amputee’s severed limb would be sucked from it into the surviving body and, in 1612, he speculated on the curious traces of rational life sometimes seen in a felon’s decapitated head, with its twinkling eyes and rolling tongue. How could this be, if the soul was now fled? In a letter to a close friend, Donne went so far as to lament that almost nothing was known for certain about the immortal soul.

Some held that the departing soul left through the dying person’s eyes, or was breathed out when they ‘gave up the ghost’, as Christ had on the cross. Yet even here matters could be strikingly exact. After the infant son of the Puritan minister and diarist Ralph Josselin died on February 21st, 1648, his father wrote that the ten-day-old boy ‘breathed out the soul with nine gasps and died’. This question of how the soul left the body gave rise to some extraordinary thought experiments. In his Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster had the heroine’s enraged brother, Ferdinand, exclaim of the Duchess and her lover:

I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopped,
That their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven.

This dramatic fantasy was explored with a coolly clinical relish in 1644 by the religious radical Richard Overton. If ‘this immortal spirit have an aerial body’, then what would become of it, Overton wondered, ‘if a living man were closed up in a vessel, which were so solid everywhere, that the air could not possibly evacuate, and there the man die’? Surely, Overton concludes: ‘He so martyred hath an ill-
favoured paradise for his soul.’

Like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the poet John Milton, Overton was a Mortalist, an unorthodox Christian who believed that the soul either died or slept in the interval between death and resurrection, to be revived at the Last Judgement. Donne himself seems to have flirted with Mortalism, as did the physician and writer Thomas Browne. Although some anatomists still asserted the existence of the ‘wonderful net’ into the 1690s, in around 1642 Browne lamented that:

There is no organ or instrument for the rational soul; for, in the brain, which we term the seat of reason, there is not any thing of moment more than I can discover in … a beast … Thus we are men, and we know not how. 

If all this was complicated and delicate enough, we should remind ourselves that the typical subject of such questions was imagined to be a rational adult male. Throughout this period, educated Christian men were continually debating the problem of how the soul, ‘the seat of reason’, could be proved to exist in a child, for example, or a senile person, or the mentally handicapped. Meanwhile, a number of men, including clergy, had gone so far as to wonder if women had souls at all. This kind of misogyny took as its inspiration Genesis and the allegedly weak rationality of early modern women. It was also based on the idea of the soul as an ‘innate heat’, with women’s bodies thought generally to be colder than those of men. Did this mean that women had a soul, though one inferior to that of their warmer male peers? Something along these lines seems to be implied when the poet Samuel Butler, in 1663, refers to women as ‘half-souled’.

Departing souls

Among educated Christians, the anatomical quest for signs of the immortal soul seems to have been largely abandoned around 1700. Yet, for the majority of unlettered people, the soul remained very much a thing – and one subject to the hazards of the material world when it left the body at death. The historian Piero Camporesi cites a 16th-century papal edict, that sought to discourage Italian peasants from making holes in their roofs to ensure that a dying person’s soul could safely leave the house. Well into the 20th century, variants of this practice were found across Europe. Vessels of liquid were sealed, lest the soul fall into them and drown. Mirrors were covered, in case the soul mistook them for open windows, flew into them and became trapped for eternity in some looking-glass limbo. Windows or doors were opened so that the soul could exit through these departure gates to its final destination. As recently as 1900 a Welsh farmer recalled how, at the death of his mother, a neighbour had broken a window in the room when she could not open it. In peasant cottages in 19th-century Ireland, ‘it was customary to run the handle of a shovel … through the thatch over the bed and make a hole … to let out the departing soul’.

These relatively simple precautions often grew more complex when vampires or ghosts were feared to be in the vicinity, for, even once the soul had left the body, it might attempt to return. In some countries you would take a corpse out to its funeral through a certain exit and then brick this up to thwart the soul’s attempted re-entry.
Varying in size, some of these sealed openings were actual ‘corpse-doors’, as large and as time-consuming as that drawn by H.F. Feilberg from a Danish specimen of the late 19th century. After a prolonged vampire panic in Silesian Pentsch in the late 16th century, locals broke open part of a church wall to remove the dead man from within the building. Among British nurses, meanwhile, a similar habit persisted for much of the 20th century. Pam Wells, a retired nurse, recalls that, during her training in the 1970s, a standard procedure with those dying in hospital was called ‘the last rites’. This involved leaving the deceased alone for at least an hour after death, ‘so that the spirit could leave the body’.

The science of the soul

Dead souls: illustration of  the corpse door in Darum, Denmark, illustration by  H.F. Feilberg. Ⓒ Courtesy of Richard Sugg.
There were two scientific experiments that remained untried until the 20th century. Could you weigh the soul? And could you photograph it? It is widely believed that the soul weighs precisely 21 grammes, this being the alleged weight that a human body loses at death. The origin of this belief is both complicated and startlingly unethical. Between April 1901 and May 1902 a New England medical doctor, Duncan MacDougall, attempted to weigh the soul. At a charitable home for dying consumptives in Dorchester, Massachusetts he placed patients on a beam scale when they were considered to be close to death. MacDougall deliberately chose consumptives, as their typical exhaustion made them likely to die quietly, without disrupting his scales. 

Having allowed for weight loss via faeces, urine or sweat, MacDougall, after weighing a total of six patients, felt that he had enough evidence to at least suspect a significant amount of weight loss at death. But he also stated that more experiments needed to be made, not least because he discounted the value of two of his patients: in the first case, because nurses interfered with his experiment on ethical grounds; in the second, because the subject was so selfish as to die before the scales were properly set up. MacDougall was inclined to think that the weight loss (which, tellingly, did not occur in the dogs on which he also experimented) was ‘the soul substance’. Later scientists wasted few words in stressing how crude the scales were and how many subtle chemical channels there are through which a corpse can naturally lose weight. The final blow for the 21-gramme soul, though, is even more decisive. It was just the average weight, derived from four experiments, combined and then divided.

If these really were departing souls, they in fact had different weights. MacDougall’s attitude was merely a more ruthlessly scientific version of that shown by the educated peers of Donne or Milton and the peasant mourners of later centuries. The soul was something and, therefore, it must have both mass and weight.

Perhaps, then, it could be photographed. Attempts to do so were often motivated by the hope of financial gain. In November 1949, the American copper prospector James Kidd disappeared (with a fine sense of irony) in the Superstition mountains of Arizona. Though no body was ever found, he was eventually declared dead. In 1964 his will was read, stating that the considerable fortune accrued by Kidd, who had no heirs, should go to ‘research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death … I think in time there can be a photograph of [the] soul leaving the human at death’. With around $200,000 on offer, many people thought that the time for this photograph was long overdue.

Out of body experiences

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the soul proved camera-shy. Some time before March 11th, 1967, with hearings underway in Arizona’s superior court, ‘the Psychical Research Foundation reported that it had infra-red photo-
graphs of the soul made with the aid of a medium in Mexico’. These, however, proved to be as fraudulent as those who claimed to be Kidd’s heirs. By September, the stoical Judge Robert Myers was still working his way through the 35th of 133 possible claims. On November 7th, 1967, he finally appointed the Neurological Sciences Foundation of Phoenix as trustee. But, following an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, the initial decision was overturned and the $200,000 was granted to the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), which conducted research on the ‘Hypothesis of Post-Mortem Survival’ until funds ran out in May 1975. Although no photographs were ever produced, the ASPR did do some very interesting work on Out of Body Experiences.

Having said that, my favourite version of the departing soul is far more homely and unashamedly low-tech. In the Ukraine, as elsewhere in vampire country, it was believed that the soul lingered on earth for up to a year after death. At this point its final departure was marked when the priest read a special memorial prayer and in return received a few loaves of bread. These loaves, we are told, ‘must be piping hot’. Why? Well, ‘because the soul of the deceased rises to heaven on the steam’. Bread of heaven, anybody?

Richard Sugg’s Fairies: A Dangerous History will be published by Reaktion in spring 2018.

The Search for the Soul

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