The Soul Cluster: Reconsideration of a Millennia Old Concept
By Ede Frecska, Levente Móró and Hank Wesselman

“While I am not so foolish as to make rash assertions about these things [i.e. the substantial nature and possible immortality of the soul], still I do claim to have proofs that the forms of the soul are more than one, that they are located in three different places…”(Galen of Pergamon [129-199 AD], 1978/1984)

Eternal return…

Every era is unique, but our age is unprecedented in that for the first time in recorded human history, the myths and spiritual teachings of almost every living tradition have become accessible to all as a common cultural treasure. One hundred years ago, the Rigveda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns and one of the oldest religious texts (cca.1700-1100 BC) in continual use in any Indo-European language was accessible to the curious mind, but information about the Hawaiian mystical Kahuna tradition, or about the worldview of the Inuit circumpolar peoples was entirely lacking. As always, many pieces of the overall human cultural spectrum are still missing, but the teachings derived from a wide variety of cultures about the Great Mystery of human existence can now be studied from different perspectives, and the cross-cultural similarities are stunning.

Ethnographic data collection over the last one hundred years has generated a fertile field for those interested in studying cross-cultural commonalities. Frecska and Luna (2006) have discussed why the ideas of soul, spirit, or rebirth echo across the ages, and why these concepts repeatedly reappear in entirely different cultures. The belief in the existence of soul(s), spirit guides, spiritual forces, and other worldly realms appears to be universal in the human species. Edward Osborne Wilson (1998) has noted that sociology has identified the belief in a soul to be one of the universal human cultural elements, and he has suggested that science needs to investigate what predisposes people to believe in a soul. With our coauthors, we have made efforts to overcome the typical rational interpretations that deem such ideas to be superstition, originating in delusion or the fear of death. We accept that these recurrent, prevailing themes (‘elementary ideas’ – as they were called by Adolf Bastian, one of the founders of ethnography) are not just products of wishful thinking, but rather represent more than irrational coping mechanisms against the anxiety of ego-dissolution at death.

The focal point of the current paper is the observation that the concept of soul is noticeably complex in aboriginal cultures, and its plural – especially tripartite – nature is the rule rather than the exception. Curiously, this perception is getting clearer and more pronounced when one considers our shamanic origins. Herewith, we refer to Wilhelm Wundt (1920) who gave much attention to the point that the animistic perception of the soul is pluralistic. There are advanced traditions where the number of principles defining the human essence is reduced to a number smaller than three (e.g., the duality of ling-hun in Chinese traditional medicine), but a thorough look reveals that such dualism (or monism) is a deflation of an earlier trinity (Harrell, 1979). Taoism, which has shamanic origins (Stutley, 2003), teaches that there are three souls, one of which remains with the corpse after death (like the Ka of the ancient Egyptians), while another resides always in the spirit world, and the third that transmigrates between the physical back to the spiritual realms.

Swedish Sanskritist Ernst Arbman (1926/1927) analyzed the Vedic beliefs in India and found that the concept of the soul (atman) was preceded by a duality. In his analysis, Arbman separated the soul inhabiting the body and endowing it with life and action from the free soul, an unencumbered soul-aspectembodying the individual’s nonphysical mode of existence not only after death but also in dreams, trances, and other altered states of consciousness (ASCs). According to his classification, the free soul doesn’t have any physical or psychological attributes; it simply represents the immortal spiritual essence of the individual.

In this regard, Arbman addressed the issue of duality, but implicitly wrote about tripartition since he combined two soul parts for which different cultures have separate names for (see Table 1). In addition to the free soul, the physical soul or body-soul is often divided into several components. Usually it falls into two categories one of which is the ‘life-soul’, the vital force, frequently identified with the breath, while the other is the ‘ego-soul’, the source of thoughtful action and decision-making. In the Vedic tripartite soul concept, the free soul incorporated the psychological attributes of the body-soul, a development that occurred among a number of other cultures.

One of Arbman’s most gifted pupils Åke Hultkrantz (1953) followed his master’s lead while studying North American Indians and took the same stance, speaking about dualism while describing a trinity. Bremmer (1983), has addressed how multiplicity can be obscured by the focus of interest and the concepts of the soul held by the field investigators themselves. In this regard, Arbman and Hultkrantz were clearly more interested in the free soul and in its evolution over time and accordingly paid less attention to the ‘life-soul’ and ‘ego-soul’ as independent entities. Their predecessors and contemporaries were also more interested in the myths of afterlife than in tribal psychology.

The Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul

The conception of the soul in Ancient Egypt was complex. The Egyptians conceived of a person’s individuality as being made up of several independent beings, each of which was a distinct personality seen as a whole having a separate existence both during life and after death. Their belief system that appears to have been based in direct shamanic experience, included a number of souls or soul aspects and auxiliary entities that together constituted the individual. According to Egyptian funerary texts, man is composed of a mortal body, the Kha, and at least three soul principles: the Ka, Ba, and Akh.

Ka represented the spiritual essence, which made the difference between a living and a dead person. It was received at the instant of birth by breath, and death occurred when Ka left the body. The ancient Egyptians contributed life-giving energy to the Ka. This characteristic makes Ka similar to the concept of ‘life-soul’ or ‘spirit’ in other religions and the ‘energy body’ in contemporary Western thought.

– Ba referred to all those qualities that make up a person, including everything non-physical that makes an individual unique similar to the Western view of personality. In this regard, Ba is the closest to the contemporary notion of ‘ego-soul’ or ‘mental soul’. Ka and Ba were held to be very much attached to the physical body: they had physical needs, like food and water, confirming their resemblance to Arbman’s two body-souls.

– The most important player who has the leading role in the Afterlife was the immortal soul called the Akh. Following the death of Kha, the Ba and Ka had to be reunited to reanimate the Akh. The Egyptian funerary customs were intended to aid the deceased in becoming an Akh, to prevent rebirth and “dying a second time in the Afterlife”. In the Egyptian religion, this second death was possible and permanent. Akh was associated with thought, but not as an action of the mind; rather, it was a form of pure consciousness, analogous to the higher self or immortal spiritual oversoul in Western thought. It was believed to be able to wander away (Ka and Ba could also do that), to haunt the deceased body if the tomb was not in order, and it could do either harm (sickness, nightmares, and bad feelings) or extend good (protection) toward persons still alive. Within the frame of the ancient Egyptian belief system Akh corresponds the best to the ‘free soul’ or higher self of a human being.

In addition to the Ka, Ba and Akh, there were further principles, which make the comparison more difficult: the Ib (metaphysical heart center of compassion), Sheut (shadow aspect of the person), Ren (name soul aspect of the person), Sahu (energetic spiritual body for the Akh), and Sekhem (spiritual-energetic immortal character dwelling in the Afterlife in association with Akh).

Accordingly, it can be observed that the ancient Egyptian soul concept is an example of the inflation of the number of soul aspects: In comparison to other traditions (Table 1), a segregation and transformation of soul components is presumable. The idea of an independent and pure immaterial existence was so foreign to Egyptian thought that it assigned spiritual body (Sahu) and energetic force (Sekhem) to the potentially eternal soul form (Akh), and delegated the other soul forms (Ka and Ba) for its help. that incorporated the other souls (Ka and Ba) after the death of the physical body. It also seems that ancient Egyptians introduced a complementary, ethereal version of the ‘life-soul’ (vital force) by granting Sekhem (spiritual force) to the deceased person’s Akh. After all, in Egyptian cosmology nothing existed in isolation, and duality was a norm.

The soul in Archaic Greece

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview is monistic with all three of these Abrahamic religions allowing for only one soul per human body. The Trinity applies only to God, but not to man. However, centuries before there were many discussions of the pluralistic concept of the human soul. In the early Greco-Roman period, the mind-body problem was complex: On the one hand, there was the psyche (Greek), or anima or genius (both Latin), an unencumbered soul that survives death. The Greek concept of the psyche is confusing to Western investigators. While on the one hand, it can closely correspond with Arbman’s free soul, some regard the psyche as passive while the body is alive. Its presence is the precondition for the continuation of life, yes, but – following the Greek tradition – Western scholars hold that it has no connections with the physical or psychological characteristics of the individual. In other words, it doesn’t carry over one’s personal identity or memories after death but instead enters the Underworld as a shadow of the living person.

On the other hand, there was the Greek concept of the thymos, or animus or fumus (both Latin), which is the seat of personal identity and personal memories, but which dies with the physical body. It is this soul part that is the seat of emotions. Unlike psyche, thymos was believed to be active only when the body is awake. Thirdly, noos was a soul form representing the intellect, and generating the willful actions of the person. There also was a soul component called menos, which can be described as a momentary impulse of combined mental and physical agencies directed toward a specific act. It was said to be able to manifest itself in a berserk-like fury. After the Archaic Age (800–500 BCE), there was a gradual incorporation of thymos and the noos into the psyche, which made the latter the center of the self—the organ of both thought and emotion. Accordingly, Plato goes as far as to include all intellectual functions (originally belonging to the noos) into the psyche.

The resemblance of the Archaic Greek soul belief to that of most indigenous peoples (to be discussed) strongly suggests that it belongs to a type of tribal society consciousness in which the individual is not yet in the center of focus (Bremmer, 1983). It may also reflect the effect of a tradition based less on philosophical speculation but rather more on the direct experience of which shamans and tribal healers were masters. Hultkrantz (1953) cites Edward Tylor, the 19th century scholar of comparative religion who observed that the belief in a personal supernatural aspect or soul formed the original foundation for religious awareness: “The material shows that the greatest importance should be ascribed to such experiences and observations for the development of the ideas of the soul.” Apparently, this direct-intuitive approach, “the second foundation of knowledge” (Strassman, Wojtowicz-Praga, Luna, & Frecska, 2007) is the source that was suppressed with the unfolding of Western civilization, dominated by Judeo-Christian overlay.

The soul concept of Classical Greece

Lack of direct experience can partly explain – at least – that in our own time, the concept of the soul is one of the most ambiguous, confusing, and poorly defined of our human ideas. As the antipode of the material essence, it exists as an entity substantially different from the body. Within this concept, the soul is the principle of life, action and thought and in this framework, body and mind can depart from it and go on in separate paths (like in Hindu mythology)… or they cannot be separated but can be opposed to each other (as in the three Abrahamic religions). In other approaches, the soul designates the totality of the self, refers to every level of the individual, and represents both the essence and the wholeness of human nature.

In this essay we are going to refer to it in the latter meaning.

Discovering the “true” nature of the self has always been part of the Great Mystery, for unless one understands who and what we are, one cannot experience the mantle of authentic initiation. In Western philosophy, the Fifth Century BC Ionian philosopher, mathematician and mystic Pythagoras was the first to express his ideas about this during the classical period, proposing that every human being has three principia: a physical aspect (body or soma), an intellectual-emotional aspect (mind or psyche), and an immortal spirit. Pythagoras’ three principia have influenced numerous thinkers and philosophers across time – among them Plato, Aristotle, Galen of Pergamon, and the Renaissance physician Paracelsus. One must also keep in mind the Freudian “Id – Ego – Superego”, or the Jungian “conscious – subconscious – collective unconscious” personality models, both of which converge on this ancient perception.

Yet the tripartite division of human nature was probably recognized far earlier than Pythagoras since we can find its categorical depictions in the many millennia old shamanic traditions of the indigenous peoples. In fact it is conceivable that the Greek philosopher himself was drawing on the shamanic traditions of tribal cultures. Christopher Janaway (1995) wrote: “The body of legend which grew around Pythagoras attributes to him superhuman abilities and feats. Some think these legends developed because it is more likely that Pythagoras was a Greek shaman.” Indeed, Aristotle described Pythagoras as a wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure. According to Aristotle and others’ accounts, some ancients believed that he had the ability to travel through space and time, and to communicate with animals and plants, all features that link him with the shamanic tradition (Huffman, 2009). Herodotus and modern scholars (Dodds, 1951, pp. 135–178) admit that Greek civilization was greatly influenced by the shamanistic culture of the Black Sea Scythians in the 7th century BCE. Kingsley (1999, 2003) presents evidence through the fragmentary writings attributed to the 6th Century mystic and shaman Parmenides of Velia, a small town in southern Italy, that the shamanistic tradition (iatromantis) actually formed the foundation for Western thought and philosophy, one that Plato did not fully understand. Seen in this perspective, Pythagoras and his fellow ‘Pythagoreans’ were most definitely practitioners and teachers in the shamanic foundation.

The ‘soul cluster’ in indigenous cultures

Among aboriginal groups, the term ‘soul’ cannot be used as it is in the Western tradition, because indigenous peoples widely hold the belief in multiple souls (or aspects) of a human being. The Native American Lakota Sioux distinguish the woniya (physical self), nagi (cognitive self), and nagila (spiritual self). Similarly, the Inuit Eskimos separate three souls: an anerneq soul, which we receive with the first breath at the moment of birth, an ateq soul, which we get with our names after birth, and a tarneq, our immortal soul. The Caribbean Voodoo religion also differentiates three forms of soul: grosbon ange, ti bon ange, and z’étoile (Wesselman, 2008.)

The Puyuma people – indigenous in Taiwan – believe that each person has three souls, one of which resides in the head, and the other two reside on each shoulder. Chinese aborigines belonging to the Hmong tribes (it is of interest to know that the Hmong people were settled in China before the Chinese) follow their ancient shamanic tradition, and believe that each living body has many souls (not in full agreement on the numbers though). For a newborn infant, one soul enters his or her body when he or she is conceived in the mother’s womb. Another soul enters when the baby has just emerged from the mother’s body and taken its first breath. A third one will have to be called on the third morning after birth. The first soul is the one that normally stays with the body. The second soul is free, it wanders; this free soul causes a person to dream while asleep. The third soul is the protective soul that tries to protect its owner from harm.

According to the view of the Kwawu people in Ghana, three soul categories animate each human being (Bartle, 1983). At the time of conception, blood and flesh come from the mother. The person’s body comes from his mother, belongs to his mother’s matrilineage, and ultimately returns to the Great Mother: Earth. It is occupied by the bodily soul form saman. A person receives semen from the father at conception. By this medium a child gets fertility and cleanliness. Cleanliness means morality in a spiritual sense, while fertility is closely linked to personality by them. The soul component associated to it is called sunsum. In contrast to blood and semen that a child obtains at conception, the breath of life is received from the Great Spirit at time of birth. The soul part entering the body this way is called כkra. Death means that כkrais taken back by the Great Spirit.

Surprisingly similar to this African soul concept is that of the Mongolian shamanic tradition that also considers that people have three souls. According to the Darkhad shamans, one soul comes from the maternal side (the soul that governs flesh and blood), a second is a bone soul from the paternal side, and the third soul comes from the Spirit World. The third one, the immortal soul transmigrates from the Spirit World to a fetus in the womb. After death, it stays for a short while in the body, then later, seeing the light, it moves back to the Spirit World and, eventually, transmigrates back into another baby.

In other parts of Mongolia, the soul form ami is held to be the soul that enlivens the body. It is related to the ability to breathe—in other words to the breath. After death it returns to the Upper World in the form of a bird (like the Ba of the Egyptians). During an illness the ami soul may temporarily be displaced, but it does not leave permanently until death. Ami may reincarnate among the relatives of the dead person. The suld is the most individualized of the human souls. It lives in a physical body only once; after death it remains around the body for a while, and then it takes residence in the Middle World. The suns soul, like the suld, also contributes to the formation of personality, but it carries the collected experiences of past lives. The suns reincarnates and stays in the Other World between incarnations, but may return as a ghost to visit friends or relatives. Among the two reincarnating souls, the suns usually bears the strongest past-life memories. The suns soul may also temporarily leave the living body and sometimes wander as far as the Lower World, which may require a shaman to negotiate for its return. This Mongolian tripartite soul concept clearly reflects the three-tier shamanic cosmology.

Throughout Siberia it is widely held that all humans possess at least three souls; some groups such as the Samoyedes believe there are more: four in women, and five in men. Not every author agrees on the concept of multiple souls. Shirokogoroff is skeptical of this notion: “I believe that in some instances of very multiple souls… we have the ethnographer’s complex, his creation and not that which exist in [the indigenous population’s] mind” (Shirokogoroff 1935/1982, p. 54). Some sort of deculturalization process adds to the confusion: Western influences and missionary assimilations have greatly adumbrated the soul concept of numberless tribes. Even so, the examples above suggest that humanity’s archaic culture – the hunter-gatherer culture – perceived the reality of the soul trinity over thousands of years, and the commonality, even perhaps universality of the tripartite soul concept is plausible. Like in the case of the shamanic cosmology: the three-tier view is the most common worldwide, despite numerous deviations (for example, the twelve-level worldview of the South American Yagua tribe).

Discussing the traditional Estonian religion Ivar Paulson (1958) refers to the body-soul by the name eluhinged, (or eluvaim) and claims (relying on Arbman) that the body-soul isn’t unitary. Its mental complement is the ego-soul (ise, vari, teisik, nimi), which can take over the functions of the free-soul (irdhing) – the king of souls, as a breath-soul, and as such it can leave the body as a soul-animal or in a dream. He also emphasizes a connection between the free-soul and the body-soul (Paulson, 1958, pp. 208, 234, 253-263), a relationship which also assumes importance in the distant Hawaiian Kahuna tradition (see below).

The Shuar (Jívaro) headhunter tribe living in the Upper Amazon regions of Ecuador also believe in the trinity of the soul. In their culture, everyone bears a ‘true soul’, the nekás wakanl, which arises at the moment of birth. This soul resides in the blood of an individual, and therefore blood loss equates partial soul loss to a Shuar. The ‘true soul’ leaves the body when one dies, and starts an immortal existence reliving the entire life of the individual that it belonged to. After reliving this life, it may become a forest demon, or after several transformations it evolves into mist and in this form unifies with the cloud of every deceased persons’ ‘true soul’. The war-cultivating Shuars are pragmatically minded and preoccupied with their everyday warfare. Therefore, the ‘true soul’ interests them the least among the three, since – they suppose – it has minimal effect on their actual affairs.

The second soul is the arutam wakanl, which brings vision (arutam), and provides protection to the person. This ‘protecting soul’ is so important that no one can reach adulthood without it, and it has to be gained before puberty. To acquire this soul, a young Shuar boy must go out into the forest for an about five-day long vision quest. It is the vision (arutam) that brings power and intelligence; it shields against malevolence and witchcraft. Over the course of a lifetime, a warrior acquires several ‘protecting souls’, or helping spirits that give him extra protection.

The third one is the ‘avenging soul’, the muisak wakanl, which takes the stage when an arutam bearer is murdered. The function of muisak wakanl is revenge. When an individual with arutam wakanl is killed, his ‘avenging soul’ leaves through the mouth and proceeds to try to kill the murderer. Because the Shuars are frequently engaged in killing raids, it is important for them to come up with a mechanism to stop the ‘avenging souls’ from coming after them. This is the reason why the shrunken heads (tsantsa) are made. Shrinking the head prevents the muisak leaving the body, and covering it with charcoal blinds this ‘avenging soul’. Moreover, the preparation moves the power of muisak to the killer’s family (for example awarding them with more food). However, the muisak means potential danger for the tribe even when it is incarcerated into the tsantsa, so after a while they excommunicate it to its village of origin, or sell the head to someone passing by (e.g., a tourist). In the belief system of the Shuars, the three-soul concept serves a double function: the conservation of tribal warfare, and the protection of the individual’s well-being (Winkelman & Baker, 2008, p. 184).

According to the view of Hawaiian aboriginals (Kahuna mysticism), everybody has a lower soul – the ‘unihipili, connected to the body and feelings – a medial soul – ‘uhane, related to mentality, and thinking – and a superior, immortal ‘aumakua (Wesselman & Kuykendall, 2004, p. 12, Wesselman, 2008, 2011). Ancient Greek thinkers would definitely ponder upon the tripartite definition of the Kahuna tradition, as in classical Greek thought, the psyche subsumed the emotional and the cognitive functions into one, while the Polynesians perceive these to be functions of two quite different souls.

The composite picture derived from the concepts of the soul in numerous cultures outlines meaningful commonalities and offsets insignificant differences. The results suggest that the singularity defined as ‘self’ by Westerners, is actually a cluster, a personal ‘soul cluster’ (Table 1). All aspects of the soul cluster are combined to create a functional self, and all of them are part of the same totality, originating from the same source, yet they exist in very different states of quality. In considering the Hawaiian Kahuna teachings, we find a psychodynamically intriguing interplay between the three soul components, a sort of souldynamic (taken after the term ‘psychodynamic psychotherapy’) which has been utilized in treatment concepts and enjoys an extensive multicultural acceptance spanning across space and time. It has been my experience (Frecska) that my psychiatric patients can relate to this tripartite soul division more easily than to the terminology and psychodynamic approach of classical psychoanalysis.

The indigenous peoples understand that the harmony between the components of the self (i.e., the soul forms) is essential for physical and mental health. If the relationship between them is well-balanced, and the unity of the three soul components is maintained, then health persists. In other instances where there is disharmony within and between them, healing intervention is necessary.

In the following, we plan to cast light upon the benefits of this perception that are not quite present in Western teachings and practice. Conversely, the traditions of the indigenous cultures can provide this to us if we are open to them. Concretely, as it is expressed in the Kahuna protocol, every soul form can act both independently – in different roles according to their special attributes as well as in special intra- and transpersonal dynamics. Long-term or even complete and final healing may be based on the practical use of this recognition.

Soul Aspects




Ancient Egypt




Archaic Greece


noos, menos


Mongolian shamanism




Lakota Sioux




Inuit Eskimo




Shuar (Jívaro)




Kwawu tradition




Kahuna teaching




Caribbean Voodoo

gros bon ange

ti bon ange


Estonian religion

eluhinged, eluvaim

ise, vari, teisik





Holy Spirit

Ernst Arbman




Hank Wesselman

body soul

mental soul


Table 1: The various presentations of the tripartite ‘soul cluster’.

The full manuscript of ‘The Soul Cluster: Reconsideration of a Millennia Old Concept’ was submitted to World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution and the rest can be read by following this link.