Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.04

Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife.   New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 0-415-14148-6.  $25.95.  

Reviewed by Peter Aronoff, Marymount School, New York, NY (

B[remmer] presents here a brief tour through the history of the concepts of the immortal soul and the afterlife, and, as the title of the work suggests, B is especially interested in the change, adaptation, and development of these concepts over time. B originally presented this material as the 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures at the University of Bristol, and the book retains a lively and highly readable tone. The book does not pursue any one central thesis; as B says himself in the preface, he has chosen to consider a number of selected topics from a larger area of interest (the soul and the afterlife). The topics he considers are the immortal soul; shamanism and its alleged relation to ancient Greece; resurrection; the specifically Christian idea of an afterlife; necromancy and spiritualism; and near-death experiences. The last two chapters, on necromancy and near-death experiences, are comparative, but in the rest of the book, B's method is more straightforwardly historical. He surveys (in more or less detail) the development of each concept over time and in some cases across cultures or religious backgrounds.

The book does not pretend to be, nor should it be judged as, a continuous synthetic history with a driving thesis, but there is unity to be found. First, there is a narrative arc lurking behind the scenes. In a preliminary chapter, B describes the lack of interest in the soul and afterlife among early Greeks and Israelites. He then charts the increase in the soul's importance and powers in the context of Pythagoreans and Orphics and the corresponding development and elaboration of ideas about the afterlife and resurrection among Greeks and Christians. In the two final chapters B shows how modern spiritualism and near-death experiences ironically suggest a return to a position where the soul and afterlife are again not so important. We may talk more about the soul and afterlife, but our real interest is more the here and now--much like that of Homeric and Old Testament figures. In addition to this implicit narrative, the book is also unified by B's two favored methods of explaining the changes he tracks. First, he often turns to social or political factors (e.g. development of interest in a personal survival after death goes hand in hand with the loss of power and status among early Greek aristocrats). Second, B frequently uses the idea of competition as a driving force behind cultural changes (e.g. the notion of Purgatory developed in response to the threat of Catharist heretics).

Chapter 1: "Inventing the Afterlife." B briefly reviews the early background for the Greek and Christian beliefs that he will discuss in more detail later. B argues that archaic Greeks severely limit the importance and the role of the psyche. The soul, which is associated with breath, is what keeps a body alive. At death, the soul leaves the body and goes to Hades, where it joins the mass of other souls of the deceased. Just as the soul of the living is not especially important, the afterlife is also not a subject of great fascination for these early Greeks. Life is far superior to death, but ultimately death is natural and not too greatly feared. Over time, the Greeks develop their view of the soul in two complementary ways. First, the soul of the living becomes more and more important as the center of emotion, thought, and personality. Secondly, writers and thinkers offer more and more elaborate visions of what happens to the soul of the dead. Thus, more numerous and more developed views of the afterlife begin to emerge. In the same chapter, B argues for a similar set of views among early Israelites. For these early Jews, the soul is not much discussed. The afterlife is not a source of attention, and linguistically one can easily use 'in the ground' instead of 'in Sheol' (i.e. the Israelite Hades). Later Jews develop their ideas in tandem with the Greeks as they inherit many ideas from the Greeks around them. From there these more elaborate ideas of the soul and afterlife are passed from Greek-influenced Jews to Christians to the modern and contemporary world.

Chapter 2: "Orphism, Pythagoras, and the Rise of the Immortal Soul." B picks the two earliest examples of the Greek upsurge in interest in the soul, both during and after life. He argues for a Pythagoras who is not quite the recluse many might expect. In fact, B's Pythagoras was so politically involved that he was unlikely to have been a complete vegetarian since this would have cut him off from the larger political community. Pythagoras' main importance is that he was likely to have been the first Greek to make use of the idea of reincarnation. Although Pythagoras is thus a key figure, B spends more time on the Orphics, since as he points out there is much more new evidence to be considered for them. The Orphics stand out from contemporary Greeks in many ways. They were a very early religion of books in contrast to their still largely oral culture, and their religion involved a kind of purification for pay. (There is a very interesting comparison to be made here between Orphics and Sophists--both dangerous itinerants peddling their wisdom/salvation in books.) The costs and the isolation of their vegetarian life, not to mention the gold in those famous gold leaves, suggest that Orphics would be wealthy and secure, but not politically connected. B also offers an excellent description of the main beliefs of the Orphics (whom he strongly connects with Bacchic mysteries). Zeus is the primary god (almost to the point of henotheism), and the Orphic theogony culminates in a very un-Greek manner with the birth of mankind. The Titans slay the child of Zeus and Persephone (herself the child of Zeus by his mother), and Zeus slays them in turn. From their ashes arise men. We humans are thus blessed with a divine origin and tainted with inherited blood-guilt. The rituals of the Orphics serve to cleanse us and to guarantee a vastly improved afterlife. Our soul is the locus of the purification and the vehicle of our continued life (and reincarnation). Thus, it only makes sense that the soul grows vastly in importance for both Orphics and Pythagoreans.

Chapter 3: "Travelling Souls? Greek Shamanism Reconsidered." Here B takes up his central concerns via an indirect route. His main goal is to consider a number of archaic Greek mystics and miraclemen, in addition to Pythagoras, who might have played significant roles in the increased interest in the soul and its continued life after death.1 Since these figures have frequently been considered under the heading of 'shamanism' among the Greeks, B starts from this point. B notes that he has already denied the connection of Siberian shamans, their beliefs or practices, with early Greeks in previously published work.2 But since his denial has been rejected or ignored, he returns to the issue here in some detail. After first sketching how shamans and their practices were introduced to early Europeans, he takes up the two key early figures in Classics who introduced and extended the connections between shamans and Greece--Karl Meuli and E.R. Dodds. B's argument is simple, and to my mind, devastating: Meuli has no evidence for his postulated connection between Scythian burial customs (as reported in Herodotus) and shaman ritual other than superficial similarities and vague conjecture. Dodds adds no new arguments for the connection. If anything, Dodds only weakens the case since he extends the shadow of 'Greek shamanism' to cover an even broader (and increasingly less likely) cast of characters than Meuli. Hence, in the absence of any real evidence that would connect Siberian shamans and ancient Greeks, all such interpretations or their descendents rest on nothing but empty air. At the end of the chapter, B returns to his assorted cast of archaic Greeks and argues (briefly and perhaps not satisfactorily) that they are best seen as purifiers and seers who do not propose any significant new ideas about the soul. Thus, Pythagoras remains without serious rival.

Chapter 4: "The Resurrection from Zoroaster to Late Antiquity." Passing from soul to body, B now considers the origin and development of the concept of resurrection. B begins by considering possible Jewish antecedents for the notion of resurrection. This only makes sense, since it is an obvious place for Christians to have picked up the idea, however much they may have expanded its importance. He rejects the claim of any particular sect, whether Pharisees, Essenes, or the splinter-group (my term) of Essenes at Quamran. B views resurrection as a development that comes later than the split between Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadduces. In addition, he explains the expansion of interest in resurrection by reference to the violence and martyrdoms during the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids. In this respect, B explicitly links the development of concern for resurrection among Jews and among early Christians. In the face of persecution and under the threat of death, the idea of bodily resurrection for martyrs unsurprisingly becomes more conspicuous for both groups (although at different times and in distinct contexts). Looking back even further, B argues that rather than early Jews inheriting resurrection from Zoroastrianism, later Zoroastrians adopt the notion from Christianity. In a similar vein he argues for the likelihood that a number of pagan cults in late antiquity develop their interest in resurrection from the Christians as well. In all these cases, B suggests that these religious currents exchanged and developed ideas in a fairly clear competition with one another.

Chapter 5: "The Development of the Early Christian Afterlife." B chooses two topics for this chapter--the afterlife as it was described and imagined by very early Christians, and the addition of Purgatory to Heaven and Hell to round out the now-familiar trio. In order to discuss the first, B focuses on the visions of Perpetua as recorded in her Passion. He shows that early Christians generally imagined an immediate transfer to Heaven, although some debate concerning this developed over time. He also stresses the typically Christian and un-pagan emphasis in Perpetua's vision on the loving community of dead in Heaven and their close and intimate relation with God. On the other hand, B shows that the Christian image of the afterlife was strongly influenced by the Graeco-Roman idea of a locus amoenus. Thus, our idea of Heaven is not entirely free of pagan influence. Although Hell is mentioned in some early Christian writings, B denies that any image of Hell is present in Perpetua's visions and that, more generally, the early Christians were much more concerned with Heaven than with Hell (which they inherited from the Jewish Gehenna). As for Purgatory, after denying a number of potential rivals, he finds the emergence of the concept in the mid-11th century. B again makes use of the notion of religious competition in order to explain conceptual changes--between Christians and Gnostics over Heaven and Christians against the Cathars in the case of Purgatory.

Chapter 6: "Ancient Necromancy and Modern Spiritualism" & Chapter 7: "Near-Death Experiences: Ancient, medieval and modern." These last two chapters stand out a bit from the rest of the book. Each compares ancient with later (medieval or contemporary) examples of a spiritual phenomenon in order to better understand both. Also, in each case less scholarly work has been done on the concepts in question, so B's chapters are more in the nature of a gathering of evidence and initial observations than detailed studies.

In Chapter 6, B reviews ancient evidence concerning necromancy from Homer to later Greece, Rome, and Hellenistic Egypt. He then compares these with modern examples of spiritualists, largely in America and England. He shows deftly how the private ritual of ancient times in a fixed place with specific priests and functions has effectively become public theater in modern times. B also notes how much the connection of questioner and deceased as well as the nature of the questions asked has changed. In ancient times, the questioner and the deceased are often intimately connected, and the questions are generally of a personal and urgent nature. Although this can be the way things work for modern spiritualists, there is a much broader range of possibilities. Questioners will often want to speak with famous people (unsurprisingly), and the questions can cover a great range of topics.

In Chapter 7, B again begins by reviewing ancient evidence for possible near-death experiences. The most famous example is Plato's myth of Er. In this case, and in the others, B concludes that the stories are not genuine accounts of near-death experiences, but rather didactic myths, often with a moralizing purpose. The detailed discussion of the afterlife serves to make an essential point: be good, you get this; be bad, you get that. (There is also a wonderful story (with parallels!) of a person dying only to hear a voice say, 'No I wanted X the tailor, not X the blacksmith. Return him and get the other one.') By contrast the modern versions are non-judgemental, highly-personal, and not very concerned with the details of the afterlife. At the end of the book, B thus makes the surprising assertion that in a paradoxical fashion, modern near-death experiences actually suggest decline in interest in the afterlife.

The book has many virtues, but there are some significant problems as well. As I said earlier, B is an excellent storyteller, with an eye for amusing and interesting details. He has clearly mastered a number of very large bibliographies, and he provides copious references to primary and secondary sources. The topics that he chooses to discuss on his tour of the soul and afterlife are central and well-worth attention. All of that said, the book suffers from its original format as lectures. Because of those limitations, B spends the majority of his time in each chapter laying out facts and details. As a result B provides much less analysis than I would have liked of the various beliefs and concepts that he discusses. In most chapters, he seems to rush a bit at the ending, giving only a cursory and general sketch of why beliefs may have changed and how they are significant. In addition, the amount of bibliography provided can be overwhelming. (I knew I was in trouble when I realized that B was up to footnote 77 on page 9--and this in the quick moving introduction!) Nevertheless the book is a pleasant read, and it provides a fascinating sketch of endlessly interesting subject matter. Students and scholars of ancient religion, philosophy, and early Christianity will certainly want to read it, and more general readers will no doubt enjoy it greatly as well.


1.   The figures he reviews are Orpheus, Aristeas and Abaris, Hermotimos of Klazomenai, Epimenides the Cretan, Pythagoras and Empedocles, and Phormio and Leonymus.
2.   Jan Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (Princeton, 1983).

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010