The Pagan doctrine of multiple souls is a stumbling block for many Neopagans who are used to associating their soul with their identity. The ancients tended to associate the idea of soul with mental phenomena that are more or less under the subject’s control. This leaves room for psychic entities that serve the identity as instruments, and through long association we can come to identify with these instruments and consider them to be all or part of ourselves. Thus, the word personality derives from the Latin word for the mask worn by actors in Greek dramas, which was so shaped as to act like a megaphone, amplifying the actor’s voice so spectators in the last row of the theatre could hear what was being said. Similarly, the word for the personality in the Dahomean religion, which posited as many as five or six souls, was derived from a word meaning “voice”. This idea of the instrumental nature of the personality seems to have been widespread in ancient cultures.
The Hindu Upanishads speak of two souls that sit, like birds, on a branch of the same tree. One of them, the jiva or embodied soul for that incarnation, sings and flaps its wings and does the things that birds do. The other, the atman, looks on silently and rarely does anything. This is because the atman is identified with the jiva and, at least for the time being, thinks that it is doing the things it sees done by its companion. It is similar to what happens to us at the movie theatre when we become absorbed in the picture and identify with one of the characters on the screen. We will share its reactions, starting when it is startled, laughing when it laughs, and so on. It is only when the film is over that we awaken, as it were, come to ourselves, realize it has all been only a sort of dream, and get up and leave the theatre.
The two souls encountered in most Pagan cultures may be called the life soul and the dream soul. 1 The life soul, like the Hindu jiva, is the active partner during an embodied life, doing most of the thinking, speaking and feeling; while the dream soul looks on. The dream soul, as may be imagined from its name, is active in dreams 2 and, in the case of shamans, goes on spirit journeys down to the Underworld or up to the Overworld, or to any other worlds in between. When the body dies, the life soul lingers by the grave and was the object of grave offerings in many ancient cultures. It eventually passes into nature near the grave, into a special tree associated with that person throughout embodied life, or into flowers, birds, and so forth. Our custom of placing flowers on a grave was originally directed towards the disembodied life soul, called the siela in Baltic religion and the suld in Mongolian-Siberian religion. The dream soul goes to the Otherworld 3 and there awaits rebirth. But apart from lucid dreams, shamanic journeys and the final journey to the Otherworld at death, there are moments when the dream soul steps back a little from its identification with the life soul; or, to speak in terms of identity, there are moments when we identify less with the personality and feel more authentically ourselves. We have all had these experiences, these intimations of the dream soul, our deeper self.
In Boyhood with Gurdjieff, the first of two memoirs 4 written about the years he spent with the Kafir-taught mystic teacher Georges Gurdjieff, Fritz Peters mentions an evening when he first got drunk in the company of Gurdjieff and some of his pupils. Gurdjieff was in the habit of holding elaborate dinners where many toasts were made and drunk in Armagnac cognac. To persuade a gendarme present to participate, Gurdjieff said
“ ‘…here is such goodwill that anyone can drink without bad effects. Even children can drink here.’ To prove this point, he called me over to him – I was serving at the table that night.
“ When I was standing next to him, he poured a water glass full of Armagnac, and told me in Russian to drink it down at one gulp. I did, although I had never tasted such strong liquor before…The liquor had such an immediate effect on me that, while I did continue to pass various dishes to the assembled guests, I only did so by staggering around the table and shoving the platters at them, feeling giddy and completely unconcerned. I had never experienced such a sense of carefree well-being in my life. I thought it was particularly comical when Gurdjieff, each time I arrived near him, would direct attention to me and my complete sobriety. I remember having a strange feeling of separateness as if I had actually departed from the confines of my own body and was able to watch myself, as if from a distance, tottering gaily around the table with the heavy platters in my hands.
“…Even so, and in spite of my high spirits, the dinner seemed interminable, and I was greatly relieved when I was able to stagger off to my bed at a very late hour. It seemed to me that I had only been asleep for a few minutes when I heard the insistent ring of my buzzer. I was amazed to see that it was daylight, and managed to get into my clothes and answer the inevitable coffee summons. Gurdjieff laughed at me when I appeared in his room, and asked me how I felt. I said that I supposed that I was still drunk and described to him the way I had felt the night before. He nodded sagely, and told me that the liquor had produced a very interesting state in me, and that if I could achieve that kind of self-awareness when sober, it could be a very important accomplishment…’In future, when drunk,’ he said, ‘try to see self this same way as you saw last night. This can be very good exercise for you, can also help not to get drunk.’ “ 5
In 1870-1 the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, writing to his friends Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny, made the statement “I is someone else [je est un autre].” 6 He spoke of the falseness of the ego and the necessity to become a seer. This is to be accomplished by “a systematic derangement of all the senses.” He does not say “I am someone else,” for the entity he is talking about is not he; it is the instrument mentioned above, the life soul. I am no stranger to this derangement, though I would prefer to call it a reconstruction of perception.
In 1972 I was living in Encanto, then a semi-rural community of southeast San Diego. At that time I’d found that three or four hours were about as long as I could attend to background sounds before thinking would start in again. Then one day while walking along Imperial Avenue, it suddenly occurred to me to mentally imitate the sound of a truck that had just driven by. This immediately resulted in heightened attention to sounds and a powerful surge of energy.
At first my mental reproduction of engine noises was not very accurate, but that improved with practice. Sometimes I reproduced sounds mentally a moment or two after they occurred; at other times the echo happened immediately afterwards, and became like an extra resonance to sound. I called the first the ‘delayed echo’ and the second the ‘immediate echo’. The delayed echo heightened attention to sounds, while the immediate echo prolonged such attention.
The echo combined well with other explorations and amplified their effect. On this occasion I tried mentally echoing sounds just heard while keeping my eyeglass frames in view. The result of this doubling up was three full days (not counting sleep) in the penumbra, my word for the field of peripheral sensation.
At one point the feeling of lightness became like a breeze blowing through my body from back to front. Things seemed to take on a bluish tinge, but this was feeling rather than vision; it had to do with how fresh everything felt. The feelings blowing through my body flooded every pore with wordless knowledge.
By the third day, the breeze had risen to a light wind and was blowing through my memories. My personal history, the sense of who I am, was being shuffled like a deck of cards, or rolled like those little pictures in the windows of slot machines.
I call this episode in my life ‘the spirit wind’. By the end of the third day the wind set me down somewhere else in myself; that is, my store of familiar memories was completely revised and my feeling of myself permanently changed from that point on.
Mental talk uses the memory of spoken words, played back on a sort of internal tape recorder, I reasoned. When I mentally replay sounds just heard, I momentarily unplug this tape recorder from my store of familiar memories and plug it instead into immediate memory, into sounds selected randomly by circumstances. The effect, after several hours, was to send my memories on a roll. In the longer run I discovered that the echo was like a feedback signal and provided a sense of inner companionship I usually derived from thinking. I talk to myself because I am usually lonely and want to have a companion, here in my mind where I feel most alone. With practice, the echo replaced mental talk as my inner companion.
The above account is taken from a treatise on sorcery I wrote in 2000. I wish to call attention to the use of the echo as a feedback signal. This is characteristic of the experience of separation between the dream soul and the life soul. While we are identified with the life soul and its mental chatter, it is so constant a companion that we are not aware of it as a companion. We think we are the voice doing the thinking, though actually it is the voice or persona that is saying even this in the mind. The dream soul does not think, it proceeds with complete paradigms of silent intuition. When the echo effect replaces this identification, it does so explicitly, so that we are aware of it as companion and hence we can sense a separation from it. A feedback signal makes us aware of the interval preceding its reception. Whether it comes as the result of deliberate cultivation (as in the narrative above) or from ingestion of alcohol or drugs, or as part of a spontaneous experience of separation, the feedback signal sets a period on every action, every moment, so that we feel as it were both on stage and in the audience watching ourselves. It must have been such an experience that led to the original coining of the word personality from the persona, the actor’s mask.
When I become aware that I am watching a movie, I am free to get up from my seat and walk out to the foyer of the theatre and have a smoke. In similar fashion, when I disengage from the life soul and find myself in my dream soul, my authentic self, I already begin to move away from Middle-earth towards my root soul in the Underworld. This movement is through the river of personal memories, as described above. First I penetrate the backdrop of familiar memories that I carry around with me in my everyday life, which changes from time to time but by which I define my feeling of myself in any given situation. Half-forgotten memories begin to surface, and as they do they bring with them feelings of myself and my life that I had years before. As I swim down the river of memories, my backdrop changes. It is like shuffling a deck of cards. The longer this goes on, the deeper the memories brought to the surface, until finally some come up that have nothing to do with experiences of this incarnation.
According to Swami Atmarupananda of the Vedanta Society, this has happened to monks in deep meditation. One of them got up one day and announced he was quitting the order. He said he was going into the desert to study wildflowers! Apparently he had been a botanist in a previous life. This may also explain why Rimbaud only wrote poetry for three or four years and then abandoned it for a life of adventure, eventually traveling as a coffee merchant in Aden and running guns to King Menelik of Choa. 7 When I returned from my three-day flight on the “spirit wind,” I was a different person, though still myself. I was a “new deal” of myself, and my life took a different direction from that point forward. My dream soul returned and hooked up again with my life soul, but both had changed and the latter had become more childlike; and no wonder, as its backdrop of memories and consequent feeling of itself had completely changed.
These intimations of the dream soul have shown me the mutability of the life soul, and made it easier to accept the Buryat Mongol idea that the suld or surface personality drops off at death and goes into nature as an elemental. This idea is expressed even more drastically in Gnostic doctrine and is illustrated in that very strange and wonderful Gnostic fantasy novel by David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus.
In this novel two friends named Maskull and Nightspore meet a strange man named Krag, who offers to take them on a voyage through space to Tormance, another world circling the double-star Arcturus. Maskull agrees to go even though he is forewarned that only Nightspore will return. There he becomes immediately separated from Nightspore and Krag, and the main story of the novel concerns him and his adventures with the different characters in the symbolic landscapes of a primeval world. It is a complex novel that I won’t attempt to interpret in depth here, but Maskull’s journey across Tormance is a sort of lived dialectic of the soul in its development. But the music isn’t playing for him; at the end of the penultimate chapter, Maskull dies and the final mystery he sought to fathom is revealed to Nightspore by Krag. This made little sense to me until my experience of separation from the life soul. This personality, Ian Elliott, will go on the journey of life, but only I will return. The personality is a mask, a persona: Mask-skull. The dream soul is a seed that sprouts in darkness and grows through the night between lives: Night-spore.
FOWLIE, Wallace, ed., Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, Chicago & London,
University of Chicago Press, 1966.
LINDSAY, David, A Voyage to Arcturus, Holicong, PA, Wildside Press, 2002.
NIKHILANANDA, Swami, translator, The Upanishads; a New Translation, in four
volumes, New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1952.
PETERS, Fritz, Boyhood with Gurdjieff, Baltimore, MD, Penguin Books, 1964.
SARANGEREL, Chosen by the Spirits; Following Your Shamanic Calling, Rochester, Vt,
Destiny Books, 2001.
___________, Riding Windhorses; A Journey into the Heart of Mongolian
Shamanism, Rochester, Vt, Destiny Books, 2000.
TRINKUNAS, Jonas, ed., Of Gods and Holidays; the Baltic Heritage, Tverme (city),
Tverme (publisher), 1999.
YORK, Michael, Pagan Theology; Paganism as a World Religion, New York and
London, New York University Press, 2003.
1 I owe these terms to Michael York’s excellent study, Pagan Theology.
2 The life soul is active in dreams also, weaving the plot of the dream story. The dream soul only escapes identification in dreams when it realizes it is dreaming, in what are called “lucid dreams”.
3 In Baltic cultures, to the Overworld; in Mongolia and Siberia, to the Underworld.
4 The sequel is called Gurdjieff Remembered.
5 Boyhood with Gurdjieff, pp. 126-7.
6 Rimbaud, Complete Works, pp. 304-7.
7 Rimbaud, p. 3.