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Metempsychosis (μετεμψύχωσις) is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to the transmigration or re-birth of the soul after death. The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes of Syros;[1] but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. The importance of metempsychosis in Western tradition is largely due to its adoption by Plato. In his view, the number of souls is fixed (not created at birth), and they transmigrate from one body to another.[2] The idea persisted in antiquity down to the latest classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists.

In the common interpretation, the phenomenon of metempsychosis includes the possibility of a human soul being reborn as an animal, or even a plant. This idea in the East is frequently known under the term of "transmigration".

In early Theosophical writings the term was used as a synonym of reincarnation. However, modern Theosophy opposes the idea that a human soul can be reborn in an animal or plant. This teaching is interpreted as being an allegory of the fact that if the personality indulges in animal tendencies, the Ego will be reincarnated in a new personality with "animal-like" characteristics. It also points out to the idea that, by attracting "atoms" in tune with the animal passions, after death they can be absorbed by animals, which produces undesirable karmic effects on the reincarnating Ego.

Theosophical view

In Greece the term metempsychosis was traditionally understood as the "transmigration of the human Soul into an animal form". H. P. Blavatsky wrote about this in a more or less systematic way first in her book Isis Unveiled. Here, she stated that this idea is a misinterpretation of the esoteric tenet. She defined the term as follows:

The progress of the soul from one stage of existence to another. Symbolized and vulgarly believed to be rebirths in animal bodies. A term generally misunderstood by every class of European and American society, including many scientists.[3]
The purifying process of transmigrations—the metempsychoses—however grossly anthropomorphized at a later period, must only be regarded as a supplementary doctrine, disfigured by theological sophistry with the object of getting a firmer hold upon believers through a popular superstition. Neither Gautama Buddha nor Pythagoras intended to teach this purely-metaphysical allegory literally.[4]

Later in the book, Mme. Blavatsky gives a hint as to what this "purely-metaphysical allegory" may mean:

Must this be taken literally; is it intended as a description of the actual transformations and existence of one and the same individual immortal, divine spirit, which by turns has animated every kind of sentient being? Ought we not rather to understand, with Buddhist metaphysicians, that though the individual human spirits are numberless, collectively they are one . . . for each human spirit is a scintilla of the one all-pervading light? That this divine spirit animates the flower, the particle of granite on the mountain side, the lion, the man?[5]

She suggests that, esoterically, the doctrine of metempsychosis did not really mean that the human soul can be reborn in animals or vegetables. It was a reference to the idea that life (or, more specifically, the later concept of "life-wave") evolves through the different kingdoms:

If the Pythagorean metempsychosis should be thoroughly explained and compared with the modern theory of evolution, it would be found to supply every “missing link” in the chain of the latter.[6]

In later writings Mme. Blavatsky gave more details as to why the "purely exoteric doctrine of transmigrations into animals" is "absurd, in philosophy".[7] She explained it as follows:

Nature, propelled by Karma, never recedes, but strives ever forward in her work on the physical plane; that she may lodge a human soul in the body of a man, morally ten times lower than any animal, but she will not reverse the order of her kingdoms; and while leading the irrational monad of a beast of a higher order into the human form at the first hour of a Manvantara, she will not guide that Ego, once it has become a man, even of the lowest kind, back into the animal species. . .[8]

As she went on publishing more detailed information about evolution and life after death she added another interpretation to the allegorical teaching of transmigration in animals, said to be taught by spiritual teachers in India and Greece:

None of them addressed himself to the profane, but only to their own followers and disciples, who knew too much of the symbological element used even during public instruction to fail to understand the meaning of their respective Masters. Thus they were aware that the words metempsychosis and transmigration meant simply reincarnation from one human body to another, when this teaching concerned a human being; and that every allusion of this or another sage, like Pythagoras, to having been in a previous birth a beast, or of transmigrating after death into an animal, was allegorical and related to the spiritual states of the human soul.[9]

According to her, saying that the soul was going to be reincarnated in a particular animal was a metaphorical reference "to the physiological vice in store for the Soul when re-incarnated—a vice that will lead that personality into a thousand and one scrapes and mis-adventures".[10] Here, different animals symbolized specific tendencies such as anger, lust, sloth, etc.

Thus, in later writings she suggested the term "metempsychosis" should be applied to animals alone, probably referring to the successive overshadowing of the non-human Monad of different animal forms.[11]

Transmigration of atoms

Mme. Blavatsky explored another meaning of this teaching. She wrote about "the Hindu doctrine of Metempsychosis":

It has a basis of truth; and, in fact, it is an axiomatic truth—but only in reference to human atoms and emanations, and that not only after a man’s death, but during the whole period of his life.[12]

This has to do with the teaching about the constant interchange of "atoms" between beings and objects, including not only the ones known by science, but also the occult "life-atoms":

[T]he magnetic fluid projected by a living human body is life itself. “Indeed it is life atoms” that a man in a blind passion throws off, unconsciously, and though he does it quite as effectively as a mesmeriser who transfers them from himself to any object consciously and under the guidance of his will. Let any man give way to any intense feeling, such as anger, grief, etc., under or near a tree, or in direct contact with a stone; and many thousands of years after that any tolerable Psychometer will see the man and sense his feelings from one single fragment of that tree or stone that he had touched. Hold any object in your hand, and it will become impregnated with your life atoms, indrawn and outdrawn, changed and transferred in us at every instant of our lives. Animal heat is but so many life atoms in molecular motion. It requires no adept knowledge, but simply the natural gift of a good clairvoyant subject to see them passing to and fro, from man to objects and vice versa like a bluish lambent flame.[13]

Thus, Mme. Blavatsky writes:

The esoteric meaning of the Laws of Manu . . . that “A Brahman-killer enters the body of a dog, bear, ass, camel, goat, sheep, bird, &c.,” bears no reference to the human Ego, but only to the atoms of his body, of his lower triad and his fluidic emanations. . . [B]y “Brahman,” man’s seventh principle, his immortal monad and the essence of the personal Ego were allegorically meant. He who kills or extinguishes in himself the light of Parabrahm, i.e., severs his personal Ego from the Atman and thus kills the future Devachanee, becomes a “Brahman-killer.” Instead of facilitating through a virtuous life and spiritual aspirations the mutual union of the Buddhi and the Manas, he condemns by his own evil acts every atom of his lower principles to become attracted and drawn in virtue of the magnetic affinity, thus created by his passions, into the forming bodies of lower animals or brutes. This is the real meaning of the doctrine of Metempsychosis. It is not that such amalgamation of human particles with animal or even vegetable atoms can carry in it any idea of personal punishment per se, for of course it does not. But it is a cause created, the effects of which may manifest themselves throughout the next rebirths—unless the personality is annihilated. Otherwise from cause to effect, every effect becoming in its turn a cause, they will run along the cycle of re-births, the once given impulse expending itself only at the threshold of Pralaya.[14]

Metempsychosis in Greek thought

Transmigration in Hinduism

Online resources



  1. Schibli, S., Hermann, Pherekydes of Syros, p. 104, Oxford Univ. Press 2001
  2. Benjamin Jowett Edition: 3, The Republic of Plato X, (London: Paternoster Square, [1894?]), 280-309.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), xxxvi-xxxvii.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 289.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 291.
  6. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 9.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 137.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 137-138.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 205.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 111.
  11. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 214.
  12. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. V (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 114.
  13. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. V (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1997), 115-116.
  14. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. V (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 114-115.