Rohde’s Psyche: The Cult of Souls

Erwin Rhode’s work, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, stands above any other work in its genre. He covers the ancient Greek religion in such vivid detail and clarity.

Although his work is over one hundred years old, it has withstood the test of time. It is not a widely known work outside of scholastic circles, but it deserves more public praise.

Enclosed is Chapter 9 from Erwin Rohde’s Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, (Books for Libraries Press 1972 edition, reprinted from the English translation of 1920. W.B. Hillis translator.)

Many commentators inevitably refer to Rohde when it comes to religion and ecstasy. A number of Greek dictionaries and commentaries refer to him as a primary source for defining the tongues of Corinth, although he himself does not plainly make this correlation.

This book is highly recommended for any student of ancient Greek literature.

The actual Copy




The Greeks received from the Thracians and assimilated
to their own purposes the worship of Dionysos, just as, in all
probability, they received the personality and worship of
Ares and the Muses. Of this assimilation me cannot give any
further particulars ; it took place in a period lying before the
beginnings of historical tradition. In this period a multiplicity
of separate tendencies and conceptions, freely mingled
with features borrowed from foreign creeds, were welded.
together to form the religion of Greece.

Homer is already acquainted with the fanatical worship of
Dionysos ; the god is called by the name under which Greek
worshippers made themselves familiar with the stranger.
But in Homer, Dionysos appears only once or twice for a
moment in the background. He is not the bountiful giver of
wine ; he does not belong to the Round Table of the great
gods assembled on Olympos. Nowhere in the story told in
either of the Homeric poems does he influence the life and
destiny of human beings. There is no need to seek far for the
reason of Dionysos’ subordinate position in the Iliad and the
Odyssey. Homer’s silence makes it quite plain that at that
time the Thracian god had not yet emerged from a position
of insignificance or merely local importance in the life and
faith of Greece. Nor is this hard to understand : the cult of
Dionysus only gradually won recognition in Greece. Many
legends tell of the battles that had to be fought by the new
worship and of the opposition that met the invader. We hear
how the Dionysiac frenzy and the ekstasis of the Dionysiac
dance-festival took possession of the whole female population
of many districts of Central Greece and the Peloponnese.
Sometimes a few women would venture to join the wandering
choruses of wild Bacchants who danced upon the mountain
tops ; here and there the king of the land would oppose the
progress of this tumultuous worship. Such stories are told of
the daughters of Minyas in Orchomenos, of Proitos in Tiryns,
of King Pentheus at Thebes, and Perseus at Argos ; their
opposition to the Dionysiac form of worship, occurring in


reality at no precise date, assumed at deceptive distinctness in
the artificial systems of the mythologists and developed
the character of historical events. In reality what we are told
of these individuals–how the opponents of Dionysos them-
selves fell into even wilder frenzy and in Bacchic delirium slew
and tore in pieces their own children instead of the victim-
animal, or (as in the case of Pentheus) became themselves the
victim slain and torn in pieces by the raging women–all this
belongs to the class of aetiological myth. They are legends in
which special features of worship (for example, the existing
or dimly remembered sacrifice of human beings at the feasts
of Dionysus) are provided with a mythical prototype in the
supposed historical past of mythology. and thus receive their
justification. Still, there remains a substratum of historical
fact underlying such stories. They all presuppose that the
cult of Dionysus arrived from abroad and entered into Greece
as something foreign. This presupposition notoriously
corresponds to the actual facts of the case, and we are bound
to assume that the account which they intermediately proceed to
give of the violent opposition which this cult, and only this
cult, met with in many parts of Greece, is not pure fiction.
We are obliged to recognize that such stories preserved a trace
of’ real historical memory expressed in the one form which
was invariably assumed by the earliest Greek tradition, namely
mythology, in which all the accidents and varieties of earthly
experience were condensed into types of universal applicability.

It was then not without opposition. it appears, that the
worship of Dionysos, descending from the north into Boeotia,
spread from thence to the Peloponnese and at an early period
invaded even some of the islands as well. In truth, even if
we had no evidence at all on the point, we should have
expected the Greeks to feel a profound repugnance to this
disorderly and tumultuous Thracian worship ; a deep-seated
instinct must in their case have resisted such extravagance
of emotional excitement and refused to lose itself in the limitless
abyss of mere feeling. This unchecked roaming over the
mountain sides in nocturnal revelry might be suitable enough
for Thracian women-folk, but respectable Greek citizens
could not give themselves up to such things without a struggle
–without, indeed, a break with all inherited propriety and
decorum. It seems to have been the women who were the
first to give into the invading worship, carried away in a real
frenzy of inspired enthusiasm, and the new cult may really
have owed its first success chiefly to them. What we are told
of the irresistible progress and widespread success of the


Bacchic dance-worship and its exaltation reminds us of the
phenomena which have attended similar religious epidemics
such as have in more recent times occasionally burst out
and overflowed whole countries. We may in particular recall
to mind the accounts which we have of the violent and wide-
spread dance-madness which, soon after the severe mental
and physical shock suffered by Europe in the Black Death of
the fourteenth century, broke out on the Rhine and for centuries
could not be entirely stamped out. Those who were attacked
by the fever were driven by an irresistible impulse to dance
The bystanders, in convulsions of sympathetic and imitative
fury joined in the whirling dance themselves. Thus the
malady was spread by contagion, and soon whole companies
of men, women, and girls, wandered dancing through the
country. In spite of the insufficiency of the surviving records,
the religious diameter of this dance-enthusiasm is unmistakably
apparent. The Church regarded it as a “ heresy”.
The dancers called upon the name of St. John or of “ certain
demons ”; hallucinations and visions of a-religions nature
accompanied their ecstasies. Can it have been another such
popular religious malady which attacked Greece-perhaps
in the train of the disturbance of spiritual equilibrium caused
by the destructive migrations which take their name from the
Dorians? The circumstances of the time must have
predisposed men’s minds in that direction and made them
ready to accept the Thracian Dionysos and his enthusiastic
dance-worship. In any case this invasion did not, like its
medieval counterpart, break down by coming into conflict
with a well-established religion and an exclusive ecclesiastical
organization of a very different temper from its own. In the
deceptive twilight of myth we can only dimly discern the
arrival and progress of the Dionysiac religion in Greece. But
so much at least is evident : the Bacchic cult, though it had
to overcome many obstacles, at last established itself in
Greece and triumphantly overran both mainland and islands,
until in the course of time it obtained a profound and far-
reaching importance in Greek life of which Homer could
scarcely give a hint.


It was no longer simply the old Thracian Dionysus who now
took his place beside the other great gods of the Greek Olympus
as one of themselves. He had become Hellenized and humanized
in the meantime. Cities and states celebrated him in
yearly festivals as the giver of the vine’s inspiring fruit, as


the daimonic patron of vegetation, and the whole of Nature’s rich and flourishing growth. He was worshipped as the incarnation of all natural life an vigour in the fullest and widest sense ; as the typical exponent of the most eager enjoyment of life. Even Art, the highest expression of the courage and pride of life, drew much of its inspiration ant is aspiration towards the infinite from the worship of Dionysos ; and the drama, that supreme achievement of Greek poetry, arose out of the choruses of the Dionysiac festival.

Now the art of the actor consists in entering into a strange personality, and in speaking and acting out of a character not his own. At bottom it retains a profound and ultimate connexion with its most primitive source–that strange power of transfusing the self into another being which the really inspired participator in the Dionysiac revels achieved in his ekstasis The essential features of the god as he first arrived Greece from foreign lands, in spite of much alteration and transformation of the primitive type, were thus not entirely lost. There remained also, in addition to the cheerful festivity of the daylight worship of Dionysos, as it was celebrated more particularly in Athens, certain vestiges fo the old ecstatic worship which drove men and women over the mountains in nocturnal revelry. In many places there were still celebrated the trieteric festivals in which recurrent intervals the “ Epiphany ” of Dionysos, his appearance in the world of men and ascent from the underworld, was solemized by night. The primitive character of Dionysos the Lord of Spirits and the Souls of the dead–a very different figure indeed from the tender and delicate Wine-God of later times–was still obscurely present in many features of the Dionysiac festivals, in those of Delphi especially, but even to some extent at Athens too. The ecstasy and the violence, even the dark savagery of the ancient cult did not quite die out in the midst of all the refinements of Greek civilization ; recognizable traces of such things were preserved in the Nuktelia and Agrionia and in the various trieteric festivals that were offered to the god in many different localities. In Greece the awful god received the blood of human victims. Nor did the outward signs of delirious frenzy, such as the eating of raw flesh, the killing and tearing in pieces of snakes, entirely disappear. So little, indeed, did the Bacchic frenzy that could exalt and lift the worshipper to communion with the god and his train, disappear before the gentler attractions of the gracious wine-god and his festival, that the raving and “ possession ” which characterized the cult of Dionysos were


now actually regarded by foreign peoples as the essentially
Hellenic form of the worship of the god.

Thus, a sympathetic understanding of the orgiastic cult
and its tremendous capabilities lived on. The “ Bacchants ”
of Euripides still preserves for us a breath of its magic, a trace
of the enthusiasm and exaltation that overwhelmed the senses
and enthralled the will and consciousness of those who gave
themselves up to the powerful Dionysiac influence. Like an
irresistible current that overwhelms a swimmer or like the
mysterious helplessness that frustrates the dreamer, the magic
power emanating from the neighbourhood of the god took
complete possession of the worshipper and drove him whither
it willed. Everything in the world was transformed for him ;
he himself was altered. Every character in the play falls under
the spell as soon as he enters into the magic circle. Even the
modern reader who turns over the pages of Euripides’ poem
feels something of that strange power to subdue the soul
wielded by the Dionysiac mysteries and experiences in his
own person a faint reflection of these extraordinary states of

Probably as a result of this profound Dionysiac fever
which had once raged through Greece like an epidemic and
was liable to periodic returns in the nocturnal festivals of the
god, there remained in the constitution of the Greek people
a certain morbid weakness, a susceptibility to suddenly appearing
and as suddenly disappearing crises in which the normal
powers of perceiving and feeling were temporarily overthrown.
A few stray accounts have come down to us in which we read
how such brief attacks of passing insanity ran through whole
cities like an infectious disease. The Korybantic form of the
malady, which was religious in character and took its name
from the daimonic companions of the Phrygian Mountain
Mothcr, was a phenomenon quite well-known to doctors and
psychologists. Those affected by such fevers saw strange
figures that corresponded to no objective reality, and heard
the sound of invisible flutes, until at last they were excited
to the highest pitch of frenzy and were seized with a violent
desire to dance. The initiation festivals of the Phrygian
deities were specially directed to the discharge and so eventually
to the cure and “ purgation ” of such emotional states ; the
means employed being principally dance and music -more
especially the music composed for the flute by the old Phrygian
masters ; music that could fill the soul with inspiration in
suitably disposed natures. By such methods the ecstatic
element was not simply suppressed or expelled, it was taken


up as a special disciplinary process by the physician-priesthood
who recognized in it a vital movement and added it to the
regular worship of the god.

In a similar fashion Greece in its most enlightened period
accepted and practised the “ enthusiastic ” cult of Dionysos.
Even the tumultuous night-festivals of’ the Thracian god-
festivals closely related to those of Phrygia from which they
had borrowed and to which they had given so many features-
were made to serve the “ purgation ” of’ the ecstatically
exalted soul. The worshipper in such festivals “initiated
his soul into the company of the god in holy purifications, while
he raged over the mountains in Bacchic frenzy”. The
purification consisted in this case, too, of violent excitement
in which the soul was stimulated to the highest pitch of
religious ecstasy. Dionysos as “ Bakcheus ” awoke the holy
madness which he himself again, alter it had reached its
highest point of intensity, stilled and tranquillized as Lysios
and Meilichios. The old Thracian cult of ecstasy has here
been modified in a fashion that belonged only to Greek soil
and to Greek modes of thought. Legend, allegorizing the
facts, threw back this final development of the Dionysiac
norship into the remotest antiquity. Even Hesiodic poems
related how the daughters of King Proitos of Tiryns wandered
in the holy frenzy of Dionysus over the mountain of Peloponnesesos,
until at last they and all the multitude of women who
had joined them were healed and “ purified ” by Melampous
the seer of Pylos famed in legend. The cure was effected
through the intensification of the Dionysizic frenzy “with
loud crying and inspired dancing,” and, further, by the use
of certain special purificatory devices. Melampous did not
put an end to the Dionysia cult and its “ enthusiasm ”;
he rather regulated and developed it. For this reason Herodotos
can even call him the “ Founder ” of the Dionysiac
cult in Greece. Legend, however, always recognized in this
“ founder ” of the Dionysiac festival an adherent of the
specifically Apolline form of religion. “ Apollo had favoured
him especially,” and bestowed upon him the Seership which
became ancestral in his family. Legend used him as a type
in which the reconciliation between the Apolline and the
Dionysiac was figuratively expressed. The reconciliation is
an historical fact, but it did not happen in the primitive past
of legend.

It is a fact, however, that Apollo did at last, doubtless after
prolonged resistance, enter into the closest alliance with this
remarkable divine brother of his, the Hellenized Dionysos


The covenant must have been made at Delphi. There at
least on the heights of Parnasos. in the Korykian Cave, the
trieteric festival of Dionysos was held every second year in the
close neighbourhood of Apollo the Lord of Delphi. Nay, more,
in Apollo’s own temple the “ grave ” of Dionysos was shown,
and at this grave, while the Thyiades of the god rushed over
the mountain heights, the priests of Apollo celebrated a
secret festival of their own. The festal year of Delphi was
divided, though unequally it is true. between Apollo and
Dionysus. To such an extent had Dionysus taken root at
Delphi, so closely were the two gods related, that while
the front pediment of the temple showed the form of Apollo,
the back pediment represented Dionysos-and the Dionysus
of the nocturnal ecstatic revels. Apollo, too. shared in the
trieteric festival of Dionysus, while Dionysos in later times
at the penteteric festival of the Pythia. received, as well as
Apollo, his share of sacrifice and the contests of cyclic choruses.
The two divinities have many of their titles and attributes
in common ; in the end the distinction between them seems
to disappear entirely.

Antiquity never forgot that at Delphi, the radiating centre
of his cult, Apollo was an intruder. Among the older deities
whom he supplanted there, the name of Dionysos also
occurred ; but the Delphic priesthood thought it wise to
tolerate the Thracian god and his ecstatic cult that at first
seemed so opposed to that of their own deity. Dionysos
may have been too vigorous a spirit to allow his worship
to lie suppressed like that of the Earth divinity who sent the
prophetic dreams. Apollo is the “ Lord of Delphi ”; but
the priesthood of the Delphic Apollo, following in this the
tendency to religious syncretism which is so recognizable
in them, took the worship of Dionysus under their protection.
The Delphic Oracle in fact introduced Dionysus into localities
where he had hitherto been a stranger, and nowhere so
successfully or with such momentous consequences as at
Athens. It was this promoting of the Dionysiac form of
religion by the great corporation which had the leadership
in Greece in all matters of religion that did more than
anything else to secure for the god and his worship that
found wide-reaching influence on Greek religion that
Homer, who knows little even of the Delphic Oracle, completely

But it was a gentler and more civilized Dionysos whom
Delphi popularized and even helped to re-shape ; the extravagance
of the ecstatic abandonment was pruned and moderated


to suit the more sober temper of ordinary city-life, and the
brighter, daylight festivals of urban and countryside worship.
Hardly a trace of the old Thracian worship of ecstasy and
exaltation is discoverable in the Dionysiac worship of Athens.
In other places, and especially in the districts ruled over by
the Delphic Apollo himself, Dionysiac worship preserved
more of its primitive nocturnal wildness. Even Athens, in
obedience to an oracular command, sent a religious embassy
of elected women to the Delphic Trieteria. It is plain enough
however, that in all this there was nothing but a dim counterpart
of the former tumultuous mountain-worship of the god,
and its profound soul-stirring ceremonies : the worship of
Athens and Delphi had reduced all that to a vague ritual

§ 3

But in spite of all attempts to moderate and civilize it
outwardly, the cult of Dionysus retained as its most enduring
feature a tendency to the ecstatic and the extravagant that was
continually breaking out in threatening or alluring guise.
So strong indeed was the ecstatic element in Dionysiac worship,
that when the Apolline and Dionysiac forms of religion became
united, as at Delphi, it was the Apolline worship–once so
hostile to anything in the nature of ecstasy–that had to
accept this entirely novel feature.

The “ prophecy of inspiration ”, deriving its knowledge
of the unseen from an elevation of the human soul to the divine,
was not always a. part of Greek religion. Homer, of course,
knows of the prophetic art,/em> in which specially instructed seers
explained such signs of the gods’ will as occurred accidentally
or were purposely sought out by men, and by this means
claimed to discover the will of heaven both at the moment
and for the future. This is, in fact, the sort of prophecy that
Apollo bestowed upon his seers. But the prophecy of
which there was no “ art ” and which “ no man could be
taught ” (for it came in a moment by “ inspiration ”)–
of this Homer shows no trace. In addition to professional
and independently working prophets the Odyssey, and even
the Iliad, too, are aware of the enclosed oracular institutions
belonging to the temple of Zeus at Dodona and that of Apollo
at Pytho. Both these used the names of the gods with
whose service they were concerned to increase the effect and
the credit of their utterances. In the Odyssey (but not the
Iliad) there is at reference to the influence wielded by the oracle
of Apollo in the more important circumstances of a people’s


life. But whether at that time it was an inspired prophetess
who gave replies at Delphi we cannot he sure from the poet’s
words. There must have been oracles of Sortilege at that
place from an early period under the protection of the god
and it is these we should naturally expect a poet to mean who
nowhere shows any knowledge of the striking phenomena
of ecstatic mantike.

In any case this new mantike of inspired prophets, which
subsequently enjoyed such enormous development and gave
the Delphic oracle such peculiar power, was a late-coming
innovation in the Apolline cult. Over the chasm in the rock
at Pytho, out of which arose a strange and potent vapour
from the depths of the earth, there had once existed an oracle
of Gaia at which perhaps inquirers had received their instruction
through the means of premonitory dreams by night.
The earth-goddess was displaced by Apollo here as at many
other oracular sites. The accuracy of this tradition is
confirmed by the Delphic temple legend which speaks of the
overthrow of the oracular earth-spirit Python by Apollo.
The change may have been gradually wrought about ; in
any case, where once the earth-divinity had spoken directly
in dreams to the souls of’ men, there Apollo now prophesied–
no longer indirectly through the intervening medium of signs
and omens, but directly answering those who, in open-eyed
wakefulness, inquired of him, and speaking to them out of
the mouth of his ecstatically inspired prophetess.

This Delphic prophecy of inspiration is as far removed from
the old Apolline art of interpreting omens as it is closely
allied to the mantike which we found attached from the earliest
times to the Thracian cult of Dionysos. It appears that in
Greece Dionysios but rarely obtained an official priesthood
that could have organized or maintained a permanent oracular
institute attached to a particular place or temple. In the
one Dionysiac oracle in Greece, however, of winch we have
certain knowledge a priest gave prophecies in a state of
“ enthusiasm ” and “ possession ” by the god. Enthusiasm
and ecstasy are invariably the means of the Dionysiac prophecy
just as they were the means of all Dionysiac religious
experience. When we find Apollo in Delphi itself-the place
where he most closely allied himself with Dionysos-deserting
his old omen-interpretation and turning to the prophecy of
ekstasis, we cannot have much doubt as to whence Apollo
got this new thing.

With the mantic ekstasis

, Apollo received a Dionysiac
element into his own religion. Henceforward, he, the cold,


aloof, sober deity of former times, can be addressed by titles
that imply Bacchic excitement and self-abandonment. He is
now the “ enthusiastic ”, the Bacchic god : Aeschylus strikingly
calls him “ ivy-crowned Apollo, the Bacchic-frenzied prophet ”.
It is now Apollo, who more than any other god, calls
forth in men’s souls the madness that makes them clairvoyant
and enables them to know hidden things. At not a
few places there are founded oracular sites at which priests
or priestesses in frenzied ecstasy utter what Apollo puts into
their mouths. But the Pythian oracle remained the pattern
of them all. There, prophecy was uttered by the Pythia,
the youthful priestess who sat upon the tripod over the earth-
chasm and was inspired by the intoxicating vapour that arose
from it, until she was filled with the god, and with his spirit.
The god, so ran the belief, entered into the earthly body; or
else the soul of the priestess, “ released ” from her body,
received the heavenly revelation with spiritual sense. What
she then “ with frenzied mouth ” proclaimed, that the god
spoke out of her ; when she said “ I Apollo was speaking
of himself and of what concerned him.” It is the god who
lives, thinks, and speaks in her so long as the madness lasts.


A profound and compelling tendency of the human mind
must have been the source of the great religious movement
that could succeed in establishing, with the ecstatic prophecy of
the Delphic priestess, a seed of mysticism in the very heart
of Greek religion. The introduction of ekstasis into the
ordered stability of the Delphic mode of religion was only a
symptom of that religious movement and not its cause.
But now, confirmed hy the god himself, and by the experience
which the mantic practice seemed to make so evident, the
new belief, so long familiar to Dionysiac religion and worship,
must have at last invaded the older and original type of Greek
religion, and taken hold of it in spite of that religion’s natural
antipathy to anything of the kind. And this belief was that
a highly exalt state of feeling could raise man above the
normal level of his limited, everyday consciousness, and
could elevate him to heights of vision and knowledge
unlimited ; that, further, to the human soul it was not denied,
in very truth and not in vain fancy, to live for a moment
the life of divinity. This belief is the fountain-head of all
mysticism, and tradition still records a few traces of the way
in which it grew and spread at that time.


It is true that the formal and official worship of the gods in
Greece (where their cults were not obviously affected by foreign
influence) remained as fast-bound as ever within the confines
of order and lucidity. We hear very little of the entrance of
ecstatic exaltation into the constitution of the older cults.
The irresistible religious impulse to such things found an
outlet through other channels. Men and women began to
appear who on their own initiative began to act as intermediaries
between the gods and the needs of individual men.
They were natures, we must suppose, of unusual susceptibility
to “ enthusiastic ” exaltation ; having a strange capacity for
projecting themselves into the infinite. Nothing in the
organization of Greek religion prevented such men and
women, if they could not obtain authority from any religious
community of the state itself, from acquiring a real influence
in religious matters simply from their own experience of
divine favour, their own inward communion with divine

In the darkness and ferment of this period of growth, from
the eighth to the sixth centuries, we can vaguely discern many
such shadowy figures ; they look uncommonly like those
strange products of the earliest infancy of Christianity when
prophets, asectics, and exorcists wandered from land to land,
called to their work by nothing but the immediate grace of
god (span class=”greek”>χάρισμα), and not attached to any permanent religious
community. It is true that what we hear of Sibyls and
Bakides–men and women who wandered from land to land
prophesying the future, independently of and uncommissioned
by any particular oracular institute–is mostly legend ; but
these are the sort of legends that preserve real historical
tradition condensed into single types and pictures. The
nomenclature itself tells us much ; Sibyls and Bakides are not
individual names, but titles belonging to various types of
ecstatic prophet, and we are entitled to suppose that the
types so named once existed. The appearance in many places
of Greek Asia Minor and the old mainland of Greece of such
divinely inspired prophets is among the distinguishing marks
of a clearly defined period in Greek history ; the age of
promise that came immediately before the philosophic period
of Greece. The later age, entirely given up as it was to the
pursuit of philosophic enlightenment, made so little claim to
the inheritance in their own time of the divine favour that
had once enabled the Sibyls and Bakides to see their visions
and utter their wisdom, that there actually began to appear
in large numbers prophets at second-hand, who were satisfied


with preserving the traditional wisdom of the inspired
prophets of the past, and with the judicious interpretation
of their treasures. The age of enthusiastic prophets was
evidently a thing of the past. The very literature of Sibylline
and Bakid oracles, which began to appear just at that time
and showed itself capable of an almost indefinite extension,
was itself largely responsible for the veil of myth and legend
which completely enveloped the original bearers of the
prophetic title. Earlier and earlier became the historic
events of the past which they had foretold ; further and
further into the mythical past, before the time of the events
prophesied, receded the imaginary period of the great prophets.
In spite of which the scientific chronologists of antiquity,
who were far from being imposed upon by the delusive anticipations
of prophetic poems, found reason for fixing the date
of particular Sibyls–which means for our purpose the whole
prophetic age of Greece–in the fully historical period of the
eighth and seventh centuries.

We may recognize, in what we hear of these prophets, the
shadowy representatives of a once real and living past ; they
are reminiscences of a striking and therefore never quite
forgotten phase of Greek religious life. The Bakids and Sibyls
were independent agents–though not entirely without connexion
with the regular worship of the gods, they were
not attached to any particular temple–who wandered from
land to land according to the needs of those who sought their
counsel. In this respect, at least, they resembled the Homeric
amen-interpreters, and continued their work ; but they
differed from them profoundly in the mode of their prophesying.
They were “ seized by the god ” and in ecstatic
clairvoyance saw and proclaimed unseen things. It was
no academic skill that they possessed, enabling them to
interpret the meaning of signs and omens that anyone could
see–they saw what was visible only to God and to the
soul of man filled with God. In hoarse tones and wild words
the Sibyl gave utterance to what the divine impelling power
within her and not her own arbitrary fancy suggested ;
possessed by the god, she spoke in a divine distraction. An
echo of such daimonic session, and of the horrible reality
and terror that it had for the possessed, can still be heard in
the cries and convulsions which Aeschylus in the Agamemnon
gives to his Kassandra–a true picture of the primitive
Sibyl, and a type that the poets of that prophetic
generation had reflected backwards into the earlier past of



The activity of the seer was not confined to foreseeing and
foretelling the future. We hear of a “ Bakis ” who “ purified ”
and delivered the women of Sparta from an attack of
madness that had spread like an epidemic among them.
The prophetic age of Greece must have seen the origin of what
later became part of the regular duties of the “ seer ” ; the
cure of diseases, especially those of the mind ; the averting
of evil of every kind by various strange means, and particularly
the supply of help and counsel by “ purifications ” of a
religious nature. The gift or art of prophecy, the purification
of “ the unclean ”, the healing of disease, all seem to be
derived from one source. Nor can we be long in doubt as to
what the single source of this threefold capacity must have
been. The world of invisible spirits surrounding man, which
ordinary folk know only by its effects, is familiar and accessible
to the ecstatic prophet. the Mantis, the spirit-seer. As exorcist
he undertakes to heal disease ; the Kathartic process is
also essentially and originally an exorcism of the baleful
influences of the spirit-world.

The wide popularity and elaboration given to the notion–
hardly hinted at as yet in Homer–of the universally
present menace of “ pollution ” which is only to be averted
or got rid of by means of a religious process of purification–
this is one of the chief distinguishing features of the over-
anxious piety that marked the post-Homeric age when men
could no longer be content with the means of salvation
handed down to them by their fathers. If we confined our
attention to the fact that now we find purification required
for such actions as murder and the spilling of blood which
seem to imply at moral stain to the doer of’ them, we might be
tempted to see in the development of Kathartic practices a
fresh step in the history of Greek ethics, and to suppose
that the new practices arose out of a refinement and deepening
of the “ conscience ” which now desired to be free from the
taint of “ sin ” by the help of religion. But such an interpretation
of Katharsis (favourite as it is) is disposed of by a consideration
of the real essence and meaning of the thing. In
later times the methods of Katharsis were nearly always in
competition and conflict (rarely in friendly alliance) with “ conscience ”,
with the independently developed ethical thought
that based itself upon the unchanging requirements of a moral
law transcending all personal will and feeling, and even the
will of daimonic powers. In its origin and essence Katharsis


had nothing whatever to do with morality or with what we
should call the voice of conscience, On the contrary, it
usurped the place which in a more advanced and morally
developed people would have belonged to a true morality
based on an inner feeling for what is right. Nor did it fail
to hinder the free and unfettered development of such a
morality. Kathartic practices required and implied no feeling
of offence, of personal guilt, of personal responsibility. All
that we know of these practices serves to bring this out and
set the matter in a clearer light.

Ceremonies of “ purification ” accompany every step of
a man’s life from the cradle to the grave. The woman with
child is “ unclean ” and so is anyone who touches her ; the
new-born child is unclean ; marriage is fenced about with
a series of purificatory rites ; the dead, and everything that
approaches them, are unclean. Now, in these instances of
the common and almost daily occurrence of purification
ceremonies, there can be no moral stain involved that requires
to be washed off, not even a symbolical one. Equally little
can there be any when ritual purifications are employed
after a bad dream, the occurrence of a prodigy, recovery
from illness, or when a person has touched an offering made to
deities of the lower world or the graves of the dead ; or when
it is found necessary to purify house and hearth, and even
fire and water for sacred or profane purposes. The purification
of those who have shed blood stands on exactly the same
footing. It was necessary even for those who had killed a
man with just cause, or had committed homicide unknowingly
or unwillingly; the moral aspect of such cases, the guilt
or innocence of the doer is ignored or unperceived. Even in
the case of premeditated murder, the remorse of the criminal
or his “ will to amend ” is quite superfluous to the efficacy
of purification.

It could not be otherwise. The “ stain ” which is wiped
out by these mysterious and religious means is not within
the heart of man. It clings to a man as something hostile,
and from without, and that can he spread from him to others
like an infectious disease. Hence, the purification is effected
by religious processes directed to the external removal of the
evil thing ; it may be washed off (as by water from a running
:spring or from the sea), it may be violently effaced and obliterated
(as by fire or even smoke alone), it may be absorbed (by
wool, fleece of animals, eggs), etc.

It must be something hostile and dangerous to men that is
thus removed ; since this something can only he attacked by


religious means, it must belong to the daimonic world to
which alone Religion and its means of salvation have reference.
There exists a population of spirits whose neighbourhood or
contact with men renders then “ unclean ”, for it gives them
over to the power of the unholy. Anyone who touches their
places of abode, or the offerings made to them, falls under
their spell ; they may send him sickness, insanity, evils of
every kind. The priest with his purifications is an “ exorcist ”
who sets free those who have fallen victims to the surrounding
powers of darkness. He certainly fulfils this function when
he dispenses diseases. i.e. the spirits who send the diseases,
by his ministrations ; when he employs in his purificatory
ritual hymns and incantatory formulæ which regularly imply
an invisibly listening being to whom they are addressed ;
when he uses the clang of bronze instruments whose well-
known property it is to drive away ghosts. Where human
blood has been shed and requires “ purification ” the Kathartic
priest accomplishes this “ by driving out murder with
murder ” i.e. he lets the blood of a sacrificed animal fall
over the hands of the polluted person. Here, the purification
is plainly in the nature of a substitution-sacrifice (the animal
being offered instead of the murderer). In this way the
anger of the dead is washed-away–for this anger is itself the
pollution that is to be removed. The famous scapegoats
were nothing but sacrifices offered to appease the anger of the
Unseen, and thereby release a whole city from “ pollution ”.
At the Thargelia or on extraordinary occasions of need in
Ionic cities, and even in Athens, unfortunate men were in
ancient times slain or stoned to death or burnt “ for the
purification of the city ” Even the materials of purification
that in private life served to free the individual and his
house from the claims of invisible powers, were thought of as
offerings to these powers ; this is proved clearly enough by the
custom of removing such materials, when they had served
their purpose as “ purifications ”, to the cross-roads, and of
making them over to the unearthly spirits who have their
being there. The materials of purification so treated are in
fact identical with offerings to the dead or even with “ Hekate’s
banquets ” In this case we can see most clearly what the
forces are which Kathartic processes essentially aim at
averting. In them no attempt was made to satisfy a heartfelt
consciousness of sin or a moral sense that has become delicate ;
they were much rather the result of a superstitious fear of
uncanny forces surrounding men and stretching out after
them with a thousand threatening hands in the darkness.


It was the monstrous phantasies of their own imagination
that made men call upon the priests of purification and
expiation for much-needed aid and protection.


It is simply the invasion of human life by the sinister
creatures of the daimonic world that the clairvoyant mantis
is supposed to avert with his “ purifications ”. Among
these sinister influences Hekate and her crew are particularly
noticeable. This is without doubt an ancient product of
religious phantasy–though it is not mentioned by Homer
–which did not till a late period emerge from the obscurity
of local observance and obtain general popularity ; even then
it only here and there ceased to be a private and domestic
cult and reached the dignity of public city-worship. The
cult of Hekate fled the light of day, as did the wild farrago of
weird and sinister phantoms that surrounded her. She is
cthonic, a goddess of the lower world, where she is at home ;
but, more easily than other lower-world creatures, she finds
her way to the living world of men. Wherever a soul is
entering into partnership with a body–at birth or in child
bed-she is at hand ; where a soul is separating from a
body, in burials of the dead, she is there. Amidst the dwelling-
places of the departed, the monuments of the dead and
the gloomy ritual of their worship, she is in her element.
She is the queen of the souls who are still fast bound to the
upper world. It shows her deep-seated connexion with
the primeval worship of’ the dead at the household hearth,
when we hear of Hekate as dwelling “ in the depth of the
hearth ”, and being honoured together with the underworld
Hermes, her masculine counterpart, among the domestic gods
who “ were left to us by our forefathers ”.

This domestic cult may be a legacy from times when in
familiar intercourse with the lower world men did not yet
fear “ pollution ” therefrom. To later ages Hekate was
the principal source and originator of all that was ghostly
and uncanny. Men came upon her suddenly and to their
hurt by night, or in the dreamy solitudes of midday’s blinding
heat ; they see her in monstrous shapes that, like the figures
in a dream, are continually changing. The names of many
female deities of the underworld of whom the common
people had much to say–Gorgyra (Gorgo), Mormo. Lamia,
Gello or Empousa, the ghost of midday–denote in reality
so many different personifications and variations of Hekate.


She appeared most frequently by night, under the half-light
of the moon, at the cross-roads. She is not alone but is
accompanied by her “ crew ”, the hand-maidens who follow
in her train. These are the souls of those who have not had
their share of burial and the holy rites that accompany it ;
who have been violently done to death, or who have died
“ before their time ”. Such souls find no rest after death ;
they travel on the wind now, in the company of Hekate and
her daimonic pack of hounds. It is not without reason that
we are reminded of the legends of “ wild hunters ” and the
“ furious host ”, so familiar in modern times in many countries.
Similar beliefs produced similar results in each case ; perhaps
there is even some historical connexion between them,
These night-wandering spirits and souls of the dead bring
pollution and disaster upon all who meet them or fall into
their hands ; they send evil dreams, nightmares, nocturnal
apparitions, madness and epilepsy. It is for them, the
unquiet souls of the dead and Hekate their queen, that men
set out the “ banquets of Hekate ” at the cross-roads.
To them men consign with averted facts the remains of the
purificatory sacrifices that they may not come too close
to human dwelling places. Puppies, too, were sacrificed to
Hekate for “ purifications ”, i.e. “ apotropaic ” sacrifices.

Gruesome inventions of all kinds were easily attached to
this province of supernaturalism ; it is one of the sources
which, with help from other Greek conceptions and many
foreign creations of fancy, let loose a stream of anxious
and gloomy surreptitiousness that spread through the whole
of later antiquity and even reached through the Middle Ages
to our own day.

Protection and riddance from such things were sought at
the hands of seers and “ Kathartic priests ” who, in addition
to ceremonies of purification and exorcism had other ways of
giving help–prescriptions and recipes of many strange sorts
which were originally clear and natural enough to the fantastic
logic of superstition and were still credited and handed down
as magic and inexplicable formula after their real meaning
had been entirely forgotten. Others, again, were driven by a
fearful curiosity to attempt to bring the world of surrounding
spirits–of whose doings such strange stories were told in
legend–even closer to themselves. By magic arts and
incantations, they compelled the wandering ghosts and even
Hekate herself to appear before them : the magic power
forces them to do the will of the spirit-raiser or to harm his
enemies. It was these creatures of the spirit-world that


magicians and exorcists claimed to banish or compel. Popular
belief was on their side in this, but it is hardly possible that
they never resorted to deceit and imposture in making good
their claims.


The mantic and Kathartic practices, together with what
arose out of them, are known to us almost exclusively as they
were in the time of their decay. Even in the brief sketch
just attempted of this notable by-way of Greek religion,
many details have had to be taken from the accounts left
to us by later ages that had quite outgrown the whole idea
of mantic and Kathartic procedure. Compared on the one
hand with science, seriously engaged in studying the real and
inward sources of being and becoming throughout the world.
together with the limitations of man’s estate, and on the
other hand with the practical and cautious medical study
of the physical conditions of human life in health and sickness,
the mantic and Kathartic practices and all the myriad
superstitious arising from them seemed like a legacy from a
forgotten and discredited past. But such things persisted
in many circles of old-fashioned and primitive-minded people,
though by the emancipated and cultured they~were despised
as the silly and dangerous quackery of mendicant priests and

But this product of the religious instinct cannot always
have appeared in such a light ; it certainly was not so regarded
when it first came into prominence. A movement that was
zealously taken up by the Delphic oracle, which influenced
many Greek states in the organization of their religious
cults, must have had a period when its right to exist was
incontestable. It must have answered to the needs of a time
when the dawning sense of the profound unity and inter-connexion
of all being and becoming in the world still contented
itself with a religious explanation of what seemed mysterious,
and when a few chosen natures were seriously credited with
the power to communicate with the all-embracing spirit-world.
Every age has its own ideal of Wisdom ; and there
came a time when the ideal of the Wise Man, who by his own
innate powers has achieved a commanding spiritual position
and insight, became embodied in the persons of certain great
men who seemed to fulfil the highest conceptions of wisdom
and power that were attributed to the ecstatic seer and priest
of purification. The half-mythical stories in which later
ages preserved the memory of the times lying just before the


age of the philosophic exploration of nature tell us of certain
great masters of a mysterious and occult Wisdom. It is true
that they are credited with powers over nature of a magical
kind rather than with a purely intellectual insight into the
laws of nature; but even in the scanty accounts of them
which have come down to us there are clear indications that
their work already included the tirst attempts at a mode of
study based on theory. We cannot call them philosophers–
not even the forerunners of Greek philosophy. More often
their point of view was one which the real philosophic impulse
towards self-determination and the freedom of the soul
consciously and decisively rejected, and continued to reject,
though not indeed without occasional wavering and back-
sliding. These men must be counted among the magicians
and exorcists who so often appear in the earliest dawn of the
spiritual history of civilized nations, and, as primitive and
marvellous types of the spirit of inquiry, precede the philosophers.
They all belong to the class of ecstatic seers and
Kathartic priests.

Legend related how, out of the country of the Hyperboreans.
that distant Wonderland where Apollo hid himself in winter.
there came to Greece one Abaris, sent by the god himself. He
was a saint and needed no earthly food. Carrying in his hand
the golden arrow, the proof of his Apolline origin and mission,
he passed through many lands dispelling sickness and pestilence
by sacrifices of a magic kind, giving warning of earthquakes
and other disasters. Even in later times prophecies
and “ purifications ”, going under his name, were still to be
read. –This man, and also another like him, called Aristeas,
were already mentioned by Pindar. Aristeas, a man
of high rank in his native city of Prokonnesos, had the magic
gift of prolonged ekstasis. When his soul left his body behind,
being seized by Phoibos, it (as his second self made visible)
was seen in distant places. As Apollo’s attendant he also
appeared together with the god in Metapontum. A bronze
statue in the market-place of that city remained to testify
to his presence there, and to the astonishment awakened
by his inspired utterances. But among all these examples
of the type, Hermotimos of Klazomenai is the most striking.
His soul could desert his body “ for many years ”, and on its
return from its ecstatic voyages, brought with it much mantic
lore and knowledge of the future. At last, enemies set fire
to the tenantless body of Hermotimos when his soul was
away. and the latter returned no more.

The greatest master of all these magically gifted men was,


according to tradition, Epimenides. His home was in Crete.
an ancient centre of Kathartic wisdom, where Epimenides
was instructed in this lore as an adherent of the cult of
the underworld Zeus. Through a mist of legend and fable
we hear of his prolonged stay in the mysterious cave of Zeus
on Mt. Ida, his intercourse with the spirits of the darkness,
his severe fasting, the long ecstasy of his soul, and his
final return from solitude to the light of day, much experienced
and far-travelled in “ enthusiastic wisdom ”. Next he
journeyed through many lands bringing his health-giving
arts with him, prophesying the future as an ecstatic seer,
interpreting the hidden meaning of past occurrences, and as
Kathartic priest expelling the daimonic evils that arose from
specially foul misdeeds of the past. The Kathartic activity of
Epimenides in Delos and other Greek cities was famous.
It was in particular never forgotten how in Athens at the end
of the seventh century he brought to a satisfactory close the
expiation of the godless murder of the followers of Kylon.
With potent ceremonies of which his wisdom alone knew the
secret, with sacrifice of animals and men, he appeased the
anger of the offended spirits of the depth who in their rage
were “ polluting ” and harming the city…

It was not without reason that later tradition, undeterred
by questions of chronological possibility, brought all the names
just mentioned into connexion with Pythagoras or his adherents,
and was even accustomed to refer to Pherekydes of
Syros, the latest of the band, as the teacher of Pythagoras.
The practice, if not the philosophy, of the Pythagorean sect
grew up among the ideas and what may be called the teaching
of these men. and belongs to the epoch which honoured them as
Wise Men. We still possess a few scraps of evidence to show
that the conceptions guiding their life and work tended to
reach some sort of unification in the minds of these visionaries
who were yet something more than the mere practicians of a
magical species of religion. We cannot, indeed, tell how far
the fanciful pictures of the origin of the world of men which
Epimenides and Pherekydes drew were connected with
the business and professional activity of these men ; but
when it is related of Hermotimos that he, like his countryman
Anaxagoras, attempted a distinction between pure “ mind ”
and matter, we can see very clearly how this theory might
arise out of his special “ experiences ”. The ecstasies of the
soul of which Hermotimos himself and this whole generation
had such ample experience seemed to point to the separability
of the soul from the body–and, indeed, to the superiority of


the sou1’s essence in its separate state over that of the body–
as to a fact of the most firmly established authenticity. In
contrast with the soul the body could hardly help appearing
as an encumbrance, an obstacle to be got rid of. The conception
of an ever-threatening pollution and “ uncleanness ”
which was nourished by the teaching and activities of those
innumerable purification-priests of whom Epimenides is
known to us as the supreme master, had gradually so penetrated
the whole of the official religion itself with purification-
ceremonies that it might very well have seemed as though.
in the midst of this renovation and development of a type of’
religious thought that had been more than half forgotten in
the Homeric period, Greek religion was fast approaching
the condition of Brahmanism or Zoroastrianism and becoming
essentially a religion of purification. Those who had become
familiar with the contrast between body and soul, especially
if they lived in the atmosphere of Kathartic ideas and their
practical exercise, were almost bound to proceed to the idea
that even the “soul ” required to be purified from the polluting
embarrassment of the body. That such ideas were almost a
commonplace is shown by many stories and turns of
phrase which represent the destruction of the body by fire
as a “ purification ” of the man himself. Wherever these
ideas–the precise opposite and contrary of the Homeric
conception of the relation between body and soul-image–
had penetrated more deeply they must have led to the idea
that even in the lifetime of the body the purification of
the soul should be prepared by the denial and inhibition of
the body and its impulses. The first step was thus taken
towards a purely negative system of morality, not attempting
the inner reformation of the will, but aiming simply at averting
from the soul of man a polluting evil threatening it from without
–in fact to a morality of religious asceticism such as later
became such an important and decisive spiritual movement in
Greece. In spite of all the inadequacy of our information about
these Wise Men of the early pre-philosophic period, we can still
dimly make out the fact that their natural bent lay in this
ascetic direction (the abstention from food practised by Abaris
and Epimenides are distinct cases of it). How far exactly,
they went in this direction is indeed more than we can say.

Thus, the ascetic ideal was not absent even from Greece. It
remained, however–in spite of the influence it had in some
quarters–always a foreign thing in Greece, having its obscure
home among sects of spiritualistic enthusiasts, and regarded
in contrast with the normal and ruling view of life as a paradox,


almost a heresy. The official religion itself is not entirely
without the seeds of an ascetic system of morality but the
ascetic ideal, fully developed and distinguished from the
simple and normal religious attitude, was in Greece
found only among minorities who cut themselves off in closed
and exclusive conventicles of a theological or philosophical
temper. The “ Wise Men ”, as idealized in the legends of
Albaris, Epimenides, etc., were as individuals not far removed
from the ideal of asceticism. Nor was it long before the
attempt was made to use these ideals as the basis on which
to found a society.


The formatting of quote marks and spacing remains the same as the original. The copious footnotes supplied by Rohde have been omitted. If one wants to read the full copy along with the footnotes, the following options are available:

The contents were scanned using OCR software and the results are about 98% accurate, but there are some problems such as periods supposed to be a comma or quote marks not appearing in the right place or mixed with inch marks. If you find such an error, please contact me and forward the error so it can be corrected.

For more information:

  • For a printed version click here.

  • For an online digital version (payment required) click here.

  • Or you can go to your local university library, or use inter-library loan through a public library.



Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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One thought on “Rohde’s Psyche: The Cult of Souls

  1. [email protected] says:

    Great thanks! Looked for this book for a long time, but couldnt get payment version and do not know German yet to read it in original. You gave me an opportunity to read at least some chapters.

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