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The Idea of the Soul: the History of Mankind's Most Fundamental Concept, Part I

According to the ancient religions of the Near East, every man possessed a double nature, compounded of physical and psychical elements, each an essential adjunct of his life.

I

>In 1871, Sir Edward Burnett Taylor, often called the “father of modern anthropology,” published a work entitled Primitive Culture. It proved to be epoch-making; for he set forth therein belief in “Spiritual Beings” as a “minimum definition of Religion.” This theory, which he named “animism,” has had a wide currency since as a convenient explanation of primitive forms of human culture.

Tylor naturally derived his term “animism” from the Latin word anima, meaning “spirit” or “soul.” He argued that men, at an early stage of cultural development, would have wondered about what makes a living body different from a dead one. Also that they would have been puzzled about their experience of dreams: that in sleep they seemed to be able to leave their bodies and go on journeys and sometimes see those who were dead. Reflecting on such things, primitive peoples would naturally have concluded that a kind of inner self or soul indwelt the body during life, departing from it temporarily in sleep and permanently at death. This soul would have been conceived as a shadowy intangible replica of the living person, being closely connected with the animating breath and departing with the last breath at death. According to Tylor, from this conception of the soul as the animating principle in the human person, early man was led on to attribute a soul to various forms of natural phenomena that seemed to be alive: hence arose, in due course, the idea of a sun-god, a moon-goddess, or a god of fire.

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