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The origin of the concept of reincarnation Essay

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Animism attributes spirits and souls to inanimate and living things. In this belief system, souls are said to enter or exit a certain body when the body is ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ respectively. After departure, the soul then takes the form of a spirit and waits for the next ‘container’ that will host it.

Evidently, animism provides a distinct explanation concerning the origin of the reincarnation concept because it recognises the existence of souls in different life forms. This belief provides an avenue for the re-emergence of the soul in what is understood as reincarnation.

How animism is a source of the reincarnation concept

Reincarnation is a belief in the rebirth of souls into different bodies. This may occur in a geographically different location and at different times. Numerous religions around the world embrace the concept, and they include Buddhism, Sikhism, African traditional religions and Hinduism. Different religious systems have different beliefs about reincarnation.

Nonetheless, all of them hold that reincarnation happens to all humans and some living beings. They also believe that reincarnation marks the developmental process of the soul. In other words, it is a step towards achieving a higher state of existence. Given its prevalence in several religions around the world, it is necessary to understand the source or the origin of this phenomenon.

Edward Tylor is one of the most reputable forces in the study of ancient religions. He particularly dwelt on animism, and his assertions can be quite insightful in explaining the concept of reincarnation. Tylor believed that all religions started with animism (Tylor, 1871). Primitive cultures were especially linked to animism owing to their need to figure out the differences between being alive and being dead.

They also wanted to figure out some of the dreams that they experienced throughout their lives. Animism was a plausible framework for understanding the relationship between spirits and man. In these societies, adherents assumed that the human body possessed a ‘phantom’ and ‘life’. The phantom was distant while life could be perceived easily.

rimitive societies often assumed that the phantom would combine with a soul to form a ghost soul which could enter other beasts, plants, reptiles and birds. When the ghost soul entered another body, it would cease being a ghost and would become a soul.

In other societies, it was assumed that there were spirits in boats, clothes, sticks, rocks and other objects, which non animists would consider lifeless and soulless. Therefore, one can see that the possibility of reincarnation emanates from this idea. In order for souls to reborn, one needs to believe in their existence, and in their ability to move from one form to another.

This was quite central to the animistic belief system, and thus illustrates that such a belief system may have been responsible for the development of the concept of reincarnation. To Tylor, primitive man observed certain similarities between man’s external environment and himself. Therefore, he gave them similar attributes to man, such as the possession of spirits and souls. Animism arose out of a need to understand man’s world and eventually led to the concept of the rebirth of a soul (Tylor, 1871).

Animism possesses certain qualities that make it particularly critical to the study of the origin of reincarnation. Animists hold that all things are conscious or they possess a soul. They also associate souls to breadth or even shadows. They started to believe in these phenomena owing to the issues that arose when they were asleep. During those times, their friends or family would appear to them; some were dead while others were alive.

In essence, these appearances led the primitive man to believe that man must exist in a dual form, outside of his body. Additionally, because the dreams sometimes entailed animals and other objects, then man came to infer that souls also existed in these items. In many animistic cultures, a lot of evidence exists on the belief in possession of souls among animals or plants. This lays the ground for the rebirth of souls into different life forms after the death of a previous life form.

In certain animistic societies, man gave animals similar characteristics to himself. For example, he often claimed that certain animals were cunning or they had magical abilities. In fact, one needed to treat the remains of a hunted animal appropriately lest the dead animal takes revenge upon the hunter.

This belief implies that animals possessed a spirit outside of their own bodies. Since this assumption already existed, then other subsequent societies would accept the notion of transference or rebirth of that soul into another life form; that is, reincarnation (Hinnells, 2010).

It should be noted that these beliefs often mirrored the economic system of the group under consideration. Agricultural people placed particular importance on certain crops by attributing spirits to them. For instance, a corn spirit existed among many animistic groups. Alternatively, others believed that forests possessed spirits.

In subsequent periods of time, these belief systems started to evolve. They started claiming that the spirits existed independently from the trees and would only be temporary shelters for them. In this regard, another vital concept in reincarnation was born; that of independent existence of a soul after its host has ceased to exist.

Even geographical features such as rivers possessed a spirit. Man began to acknowledge this when he saw the s-shaped structure of the water. Prior to evolution of these spirits into a local god, man had considered the possibility that souls could exist in such unconventional forms.

Therefore, the importance of the attachment of spirits to certain life forms cannot be underscored in animistic societies. These groups sometimes held that it was possible for spirits to exist independent of particular life forms, but that assertion is not very relevant to an analysis of reincarnation.

The concept of survival of the departed was quite crucial in animistic societies. Certain groups held that the spirit would enter another world that was filled with abundance and bliss. In this regard, the spirit had to take part in a journey that would eventually culminate in complete fulfilment. These societies would perform elaborate funeral arrangements in order to ensure that the soul of the deceased would complete its journey.

Indeed, such a belief forms a strong framework for the concept of reincarnation. Animistic societies wanted to prevent the occurrence of lost souls, and that implicitly revealed that souls needed to belong to a certain life form. Some societies even accepted the possibility that a deceased’ soul could exist in multiple locations such as land, air, and inside the village. All these sites depended upon one’s status in one’s former life (Matlock, 2008).

A lot of evidence exists in animistic societies to support the notion of survival of the dead. Some societies would bury the dead with a series of objects in order to offer them the same comforts that they enjoyed in their previous life. In fact, some took it to the extreme and buried individuals with their slaves, animals and even their wives.

Since completion of the journey was quite important to these people, then some societies were even willing to pay for travelling expenses for the dead through placement of coins in their graveyards. These activities would all be completed when the soul of the dead passed into another land. These practices in animistic societies provide strong evidence that the origin of reincarnation is found there.

Reasons behind the existence of animism and reincarnation

Animistic societies in ancient times, and even today needed to access a Supreme Being/ God. In other words, they needed to believe that that Supreme Being was real to them. For this to happen, they formed associations between what they could see, i.e. nature, and what they could not see-that is the Supreme Being or divinities. In this regard, divinities came to be associated with nature and the soul became the interface between man and the deities.

Animism found a way of linking man’s soul to that of other beings, and this caused him to be grounded in his world. This connection between nature and man in animism provides the right background for a belief in reincarnation because reincarnation also acknowledges the link between one form of life to another (Schorn, 2009).

In these same animistic societies, man realised that he needed to have a concept of reward and punishment for people in their afterlives. Therefore, the kind of life form that one’s soul would pass into was dependent on one’s deeds on earth. One would enter into a lower life form, such as a cat or any other animal, as some kind of punishment upon them.

Alternatively, some schools of thought believed that this it was a part of someone’s journey to pass from one life form to another. These societies held that the soul needed to develop and the only way that this could be done was through entrance into higher life forms. Most of those animistic societies therefore initiated some of the basic assumptions and opinions in reincarnation.

Ancient traditions usually asserted that individual consciousness could be perpetuated after physical death. This process was characterised by ascension into a different dimension. It would allow the intermingling of that conscious with other entities or life forces. In this realm, that person’s consciousness would select a certain physical existence that would provide it with greater learning opportunities.

In these animistic traditions, it was assumed that different types of individual consciousness always had the opportunity to attain perfection through the sharpening of their character. For such a process to be realised, it was imperative to go through the process in a step by step manner. Since perfection is such a complicated undertaking, then it needed to be spread over numerous physical life forms or lifetimes. Reincarnation in animistic societies was an avenue for neutralising the pressures that came with failure.

The very essence of reincarnation is the belief in an inner consciousness that exists beyond the physical realm. Primitive man realised that there was indeed an ‘inner man’ that had the capacity to exist outside of the physical world. This was made possible through the human soul (Gananath, 1980).

Case study of ancient Egyptian animism and its association with reincarnation

From as far back as the 5000BC, The Badarian people inhabited Upper Egypt, near the river Nile. These individuals practiced cultivation of land and domestication of animals, and were an ideal example of an animistic society. Many of them engaged in practices which supported the belief in reincarnation.

For instance, they buried their cattle and sheep. This may have been done as part of their belief in the existence of souls in animals and other life forms (animism). They may also have done this in the hope of transitioning that dead animal’s soul into another life; a phenomenon that is quite symptomatic of reincarnation.

Their burial ceremonies were indicative of these belief systems as well. Corpses faced one direction; they were always laid to rest with all of their best possessions. For instance, many of them had bracelets, beads, makeup items, combs, ceramics, bowls and plates. They also placed the deceased’ best clothes alongside them in these elaborate processes.

This animistic society wanted to ensure that the dead had everything they required in their future lives. Such a point of view illustrates that reincarnation was a reality. If the departed souls needed material possessions in their subsequent lives, then it was also plausible to assume that most of them could be reborn into another life form (Okaes & Gahlin, 2002).

After the existence of the Badarians, came the Naqada. The latter was a prehistoric Egyptian society that paralleled the Badari and eventually dominated or replaced them. They lived between 4500 and 3100BC. They were also animistic in nature, and may have been responsible for later beliefs in reincarnation.

In this society, the dead were buried alongside their vases, palettes, ornaments, food, amulets and statuettes. At the time, the Naqada had created a series of statuettes, which were believed to provide company to the deceased person in their afterlives.

The Gerzean people took over in the period after the Naqada. Most of them had started irrigating their lands and lived in villages. Since this was an advanced group. Their funeral arrangements also reflected those changes. Members of higher classes had more elaborate funeral arrangements than those from lower classes.

For instance, more goods were placed in the graves of the former category of people than the latter. A number of them were also buried in very elaborate buildings compared to others who did not have as many possessions. These burial ceremonies were all symptomatic of the belief in a rebirth of the soul.

Aside from the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians, their animistic religion also provided a framework for the development of reincarnation in later groups. Almost all villages engaged in nature worship. They believed that a particular village had its own spirit in the form of an object, tree, reptile, bird or another animal. They asserted that the spirit affected their daily lives in many ways. Some spirits were quite useful to them such as cattle spirits.

However, other spirits were quite a menace, such as crocodile spirits. It was imperative for members of the village to give offerings to those spirits in order to appease them. Nonetheless, the concept of offerings only came to become a reality after the people of Egypt rose in prominence. Many of them simply stopped at the existence of spirits in nature. However, they turned those souls into gods after continued periods of economic prosperity.

One may, therefore, conclude that the ancient Egyptians greatly contributed to the concept of reincarnation owing to their animistic inclinations. Before learning to worship those spirits, ancient Egyptians first acknowledged that they existed. Eventually, this contributed to the belief in the afterlife. It was not surprising that reincarnation would emerge from such thought processes.

It should be noted that the ancient Egyptian version of animism was quite unique. The Egyptians associated the soul to a bird because they often drew the soul in the form of a human that had a bird’s head. This view emanated from the bird’s special ability to fly. At the time, this species was one of the few creatures that were capable of flight. Additionally, the soul was reflected through insects such as the beetle. The Egyptians came to associate the beetle with rebirth and this was symptomatic of an initial belief in reincarnation.

Tree worship was also common among the ancient Egyptians and this clearly illustrated adherence to animism. The acacia tree in this community was assumed to possess certain magical powers. The myth of one of their prominent rulers Osiris clearly demonstrates this. It was believed that Osiris’ brother wound him in a tree trunk and threw his body to the sea. He did this in the belief that the trunk would be his tool for rebirth in the after life.

This assertion was greatly symptomatic of this society’s belief in facts that were exclusive to reincarnation. Usage of nature items to make one’s soul last forever reflected a strong sense of animism. Later on, the ancient Egyptians came to transform their belief in spirits into gods, but that came only after acknowledgement of spirits in their lives.

Polytheism emerged from animism as both belief systems held that there were several spirits which operated in the universe. In animism, these spirits occupied the same plane as living human beings while in polytheism, the spirits of the goods were regarded as higher forms (Durkheim, 1995).

The ancient Egyptians also elevated the status of animals. They believed that animals eventually became divine. In modern religions that ascribe to the belief in reincarnation, it is often assumed that the soul can graduate or develop into a superior life form. It is possible to draw similarities between such a belief and the ancient Egyptian belief in the transformation of animals into divinities.

The ancient Egyptians took this idea further by believing in the transformation of spiritual objects (totems) into animals themselves. Such transformation is quite prevalent in religions or belief systems that adhere to the concept of reincarnation. One such instance was the Egyptian totem called Bastet.

The Egyptians initially worshipped the object that mirrored a cat. However, it was transformed into a cat and was later worshiped in its animal state. In other instances, human forms sometimes had cat-like or animal-like features owing to the transformations that these spirits went through. One can thus draw inferences between this practice of animism and later beliefs in reincarnation.

Essentially, the ancient Egyptian religion, and other earlier versions of animism set the pace for subsequent beliefs in reincarnation because these systems all acknowledged the connectedness of things in the universe. This basic prehistoric concept eventually led to the development of numerous religious beliefs in the world.

There are certain distortions that took place but the basic tenets of reincarnation in animistic societies remained. For instance, the snake was initially assumed to be a symbol of wisdom by the ancient Egyptians. It symbolised reincarnation owing to the shedding of skin; this led to the animal’s renewal. However, subsequent societies came to alter these beliefs and assumed that the snake symbolised evil (Spence, 1997).

The ancient Egyptian religion, much like other animistic religions, illustrated that reincarnation of the soul was a distinct possibility for them. Many of them did not specifically label this doctrine as such, but their practices and their actions were quite exclusive to reincarnation.

The Egyptians believed that the human soul was subordinate to man’s free will. Therefore, man had the capacity to become immortal because his soul could carry on into subsequent lives. The soul was dual in nature because it could become compatible with physical as well as non physical realms. It should be noted that ancient Egyptians were aware of the fact that only souls could enter into another life. However, they opted to preserve human bodies as some sort of insurance for the deceased soul’s entry into the other life.

Analysts such as David McKenzie established that two types of religions existed in ancient Egypt. One was animism or nature worship while the other was borrowed from the East, and entailed the worship of gods that resembled humans. Each ideology existed in tandem with the other and each has significant effects on the other.

The concept of reincarnation was particularly significant in the animistic belief system. However, because of influences from the rival belief system, some of the original assumptions on reincarnation were significantly altered. It is not uncommon for many ideologies to undergo change once they come into contact with others. Nonetheless, one can still trace some of the unaltered elements in the new form of religion; this is true for subsequent religious faiths in that geographical area.


Ancient cultures were consumed with the belief in an invisible spiritual realm. These were understood through nature; it was assumed that souls could permeate different physical forms in an effort to attain perfection. Existence of souls in nature was typical of animistic belief systems, thus illustrating that reincarnation originated from this school of thought.

Additionally, a lot of the practices and funeral rites that took place in these traditions illustrated that there was indeed a firm belief in the rebirth of the soul. Subsequent cultures explain reincarnations in different ways, but the major assumption that still exists today is that the spiritual consciousness needs to survive in order to attain a degree of perfection.


Durkheim, E. (1995). The elementary forms of religious life. NY, The Free Press

Gananath, O. (1980). The rebirth eschatology and its transformations. Berkeley, University of California Press

Hinnells, J. (2010). The Routledge companion to the study of religions. NY, Routledge.

Matlock, J. (2008). Amerindian rebirth. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

Okaes, L. & Gahlin, L. (2002). Ancient Egyptians: an illustrated reference. NY, Hermes House.

Schorn, D. (2009). Reincarnation: stepping stone of life. Arizona, Ozark Mountain Publishing.

Spence, L. (1997). Myths and Legends of ancient Egypt. London, Kissinger publishing company.

Tylor, E. (1871). Primitive Culture. London, John Murray

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