The Lost Secret of Death

Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife

In this essay, specially written for, Peter Novak, our Author of the Month for October 2003, explores the mystery of the Binary Soul Doctrine a globally-distributed religious teaching of vast antiquity and unknown origins. Novak’s new book The Lost Secret of Death, is available through our bookshop from and Novak has agreed to join us on The Mysteries Message Board during October for on-line discussions of his work and ideas.

I have spent the last fifteen years tracking an archaic belief-system with apparent connections to afterlife research, psychology, and ancient history — the Binary Soul Doctrine — which probably is as close as the human race has ever come to having a single world religion. Simultaneously present in numerous cultures at the dawn of recorded history, the Binary Soul Doctrine (BSD) apparently predates all currently known civilizations. Thousands of years ago, people all across the globe believed virtually the same thing about what happened after death – that human beings possess not one, but two souls, which were in danger of dividing apart from one another when a person died. The BSD is such a universal common denominator that it points to the pre-historic existence of a world-embracing culture; if there was such a thing as an Atlantean civilization, the BSD was its faith.

This peculiar afterlife tradition not only seems to have saturated the entire Old World at a very early date, appearing in the earliest writings of Egypt, Greece, Israel, Persia, India, and China, it somehow managed to jump the oceans as well, leaving yet more of its footprints in the cultural traditions of Australia, Hawaii, Alaska, the Dakotas, MesoAmerica, and even Haiti. Greece called these two souls the psuche and the thumos, Egypt called them the ba and ka, Israel called them the ruah and nefesh, Christianity called them the soul and spirit, Persia called them the urvan and daena, Islam called them the ruh and nafs, India called them the atman and jiva, China called them the hun and po, Haiti called them the gros bon ange and ti bon ange, Hawaii called them the uhane and unihipili, and the Dakota Indians called them the nagi and niya. After leaving the physical body, one of these souls was often expected to reincarnate, while the other was believed to become trapped in a dreamlike netherworld. Some of these cultures believed that the afterdeath division of these two souls could be prevented or reversed, while others saw the division as being inevitable and permanent.

The most extraordinary thing about this ancient belief, however, is not simply that it was so widespread, but that this lost model of the afterlife seems to be consistent with the latest findings in a number of areas of modern scientific research. For one thing, these cultures’ descriptions of the two souls are strikingly similar to modern science’s ‘right brain/left brain’ descriptions of the conscious and unconscious halves of the human psyche, distinguishing between one part of the self that is objective, independent, masculine, logical, verbal, dominant, active, and possessing independent free will, and another part that is subjective, dependent, feminine, fertile, emotional, nonverbal, recessive, passive, responsive, and in possession and control of the memory. Even more interestingly, the ancient Binary Soul Doctrine also seems to anticipate, even predict, many of the conditions being described in modern reports of near-death experiences, past-life regressions, after-death communications, ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists, and other afterlife phenomena. These unexpected correlations carry profound and disturbing implications.

Common Visions of a Binary World

Many of the cultures that subscribed to the Binary Soul Doctrine revolved around a dualistic perspective similar to China’s Yin and Yang philosophy. The Egyptian mentality, for instance, was dominated by the idea of united opposites; all reality, they thought, even including the human soul, was comprised of equal-but-opposite components that were dancing together in a delicate yet tense balance. Even their language reflected this underlying assumption; not only was everything always either male or female, but their language often used a special grammatical structure called ‘the dual voice’. They called Egypt “The Two Lands”, their universe was called “The Dual Realities” or “The Two Truths”, they called their netherworld “The Great Double House”, their gods dwelt in “The Lake of Double Fire”, and their afterdeath judgment took place in “The Hall of Double Truth”. This ‘dual voice’ did not simply refer to two things, or even two halves of one thing; it referred to an integrated binary unit, two which are one, simultaneously separate and united, each part distinct on its own, yet incomplete without its equal-but-opposite, complimentary partner. They called their two souls the ba and the ka, and virtually all of their funerary practices were dedicated to a single purpose : insuring that the ba and ka reunited with one another on the other side of death’s door.

China’s Taoist philosophy paralleled Egypt’s in many respects; as early as the ‘Warring States’ period (475-221 BC), Taoists were teaching that all reality was comprised of and created by two equal-but-opposite interplaying primordial forces – Yin and Yang. But instead of leaving this concept in the abstract, they brought it down to a very personal level, maintaining that every person was an amalgamation of Yin ( p’o) and Yang (hun) souls. And as in Egypt, these binary souls were also thought to split at death unless countermeasures were taken. Like Egypt and China, the ancient Incas also subscribed to a dualistic philosophy; their religion, culture, and philosophy all revolved around the central idea of trying to balance, harmonize, and reconcile the equal-but-opposite forces of reality. The supreme Incan diety was Viracocha, an androgynous being whose symbol was a two-headed serpent. The binary structure of reality so dominated their thoughts that they even divided their villages and territories into two halves, calling one half hanan (“high, superior, right, masculine”) and the other half hurin (‘low, inferior, left, feminine”). At death, one soul was thought to return to its place of origin in heaven, while the other soul remained with the corpse. The soul that remained behind was thought to have many needs, and it was thought necessary (just as it had been in Egypt), for the physical body to be preserved for those needs to be fulfilled.

The Inca’s neighbors to the north, the ancient Toltec civilization of Mexico, also subscribed to a version of the Binary Soul Doctrine. Believing that the whole world was comprised of two equal-but-opposite forces, they called it Omeyocan, the place of duality. They also believed that each living human was comprised of two mental halves, which they called the tonal and the nagual, and thought that the purpose of human existence was to integrate these two sides together.

JudeoChristianity and the Binary Soul Doctrine

While the traditions of neither Judaism nor traditional Christianity include a belief in a dualistic universe with equal-but-opposite elements, they do believe in binary souls that divide apart at death. The Old Testament credited people with both a ruah (translated ‘spirit’) and a nefesh (translated ‘soul’), and modern Judaism still maintains that these two elements separate from one another at death. And, while conventional Christian theology does not currently hold such a belief, the New Testament does warn that sin can cause a person’s soul and spirit to divide from each other (Hebrews 4:12), and a number of now-obscure offshoots of early Christianity, such as Mandaism and Manichaeism, did believe in dividing binary souls. The nous, according to Manichaeism, was the half of the self that was immortal and invulnerable, while the psuche was the personal part of the self, which was extremely vulnerable and in immanent danger of being destroyed during the death transition. It was thought that a special emotional catharsis during life would unite the psuche with the nous, thereby saving it from destruction at death. The Mandaean religion, a small but still-living relative of early Christianity, believes even today that the living possess both soul and spirit, and that these two elements of the self split apart after death.

Other Tribal Versions of the Binary Soul Doctrine

In addition to being present in mankind’s greatest religions, the belief in a dividing binary-soul was also held in many other cultures. The two souls of Inner Asia’s Tunguz tribe is a typical example, in which the beye soul is free and independent after death, returning to heaven to wait until it reincarnates again, while the hanan, or shadow soul, becomes eternally imprisoned in a dark netherworld. The Khanty and Mansi of Siberia also believe in a binary soul system. One soul, the ‘lili’, is associated with the breath, the head, and the handling of raw intellectual data, while the ‘is’, or shadow soul, is related to a person’s emotions, and is particularly active during sleep. Like the Egyptian ba, the symbol for the breath soul is a bird, while the shadow soul is usually depicted as having the form of a human, just as did the Egyptian ka. The lili soul is thought to be reincarnated in one’s own kin after death, while the is soul would either depart for a realm of the dead, or remain behind on earth as a shadowy ghost. This binary conception of the self is apparently just part of a wider dualistic philosophy, since the social organization of the Khanty and Mansi is also based on a dual moiety system – half the society is designated mos, the other half, por. And the Saami, a subpolar people whose descendants now live in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, also subscribed to a Binary Soul Doctrine prior to their introduction to Christianity. Besides the Corporeal Soul, which could not leave the body without causing the person’s death, everyone also had a Free Soul, which could manifest outside the body and was thought of as the person’s double. It was thought possible for malicious beings to capture a person’s free soul, which would cause sickness and death. If caught in time, however, the tribe’s shaman could undertake a spiritual journey into the realm of the dead to negotiate for the release of the afflicted persons’ Free Soul.

Many Australian aboriginal tribes still believe that people possess two souls which divide apart at death. The true self, which pre-exists the person’s birth, comes from a timeless, primordial, heavenly realm called alcheringa, or “The Dreaming”, and returns there after death. The other soul, meanwhile, separates from that self after death, remaining behind on earth to take up residence in another human body. Mirroring this belief in double souls, the practice of double funerals are very common in Australia, just as they once were all throughout the ancient Middle East.

The belief in a binary soul is also a common feature of African religion. Their two souls often consist of one part which lives forever, and a ‘shadow’ which only lives for an uncertain length of time after death, hovering around the mortal remains. The ancient culture known as Kush, located in what is now the Sudan, also believed in the ba and ka souls of Egypt, and also preserved the bodies of their leaders in pyramidal tombs, believing this necessary to insure the survival of the ka. Africa’s present-day Mossi tribe also believe that human beings have one masculine and one feminine soul, and that death divides these two apart. Similarly, Africa’s Samo tribe call their two souls the ri and the mere; the ri soul contains the person’s thought and life force, reincarnating after death, while the mere soul, thought of as a perfect double of the person, becomes permanently trapped in a netherworld when it experiences a second death sometime after leaving the body. And Africa’s Ba-Huana tribe also credits human beings with two souls – bun and doshi. The bun is the soul or self, and survives death unharmed, while the doshi is a shadowy second self, or ‘double’, that tends to linger around on earth after death, haunting its enemies and persecuting its own relations if a proper burial is not made.

The Binary Soul Doctrine also used to be very widespread in the Americas; tribes from South America to Alaska believed in a Corporeal Soul which gave life, consciousness, and the faculty of movement, and a Free Soul that would find itself trapped in some realm of the dead after death. The Corporal Soul provided the life force, and could not exit the body without resulting in the death of the individual. The Free Soul, on the other hand, often left the body during life, such as during dreams, trances, and mystical experiences. The Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and Greenland believed in two souls; the inua held the life force and reincarnated into a new body after death, while the tarnneg, or double of the person, became a permanent occupant of the realm of the dead North America’s Dakota Tribe called their two surviving souls the nagi and the niya. The nagi soul held the power of movement and independent free will, and after death, it could either join the world of the spirits, or be forced to wander aimlessly. The niya soul, thought to contain one’s conscience and memory, helped the person to relate to and interact with others. After death, the niya was thought to testify against the other soul in a great Judgment after death (much like Persia’s daena and Egypt’s ka). And deep in the rainforests of the northwest Amazon, the Maku tribe still subscribes to the Binary Soul Doctrine. They believe that the whole world is composed of two equal-but-opposite fundamental forces – the hot force and the cold force – which, like the Chinese Yin and Yang, must always be kept balanced, or else health and prosperity will suffer. These hot and cool forces are also the basic components of human beings; we all possess one hot soul, or baktup, the Maku declare, and one cold soul, or bowugn. When we die, these two divide apart; the baktup soul becomes something akin to a ghost, hanging around and frightening people, while the bowugn soul shrivels up into a little ball and flies away to heaven.

Pyramids, Mummies, and the Binary Soul Doctrine

The world-wide presence of the BSD strongly suggests that a world-dominating culture probably did exist at some point in mankind’s deep past, a culture which, much like the legendary Atlantis, was able to spread its religious ideas and practices fully around the world. In that many BSD cultures (including those in Egypt, China, and MesoAmerica) also built pyramids and mummified their dead, it seems reasonable to suspect that this ancient Atlantean-like religion included all three.

Some have argued that the main feature of Atlantis, the symbol of its culture, as it were, was the pyramid. And just as the Binary Soul Doctrine once covered the globe, so too did the practice of pyramid-building. Besides the familiar pyramid complexes in Egypt, many other locations around the world also house these ancient monuments. In the Americas, pyramids still stand in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, and Illinois, and unconfirmed reports place still others in Brazil, Wisconsin, and off the coast of Cuba. Dozens more pyramids exist, in various states of disrepair, in the Sudan, Greece, the Canary Islands, China, Japan, Korea, and Cambodia. Long ago, even more pyramids stood : the famous ziggurats of the Mesopotamians were monumental stepped pyramids, similar in appearance to those of Mesoamerica. And if legend is to be believed, India also had a number of pyramids, until they were destrroyed by Muslim invaders. Still other legends hold that pyramids once stood in Australia, Tahiti, and Western Samoa as well.

These pyramids, as geographically far apart as they were, were all associated with similar religious ideas. Virtually all pyramid cultures saw these monuments as having some sort of religious meaning, and a great many of these cultures also practiced mummification. People mummified their dead in Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, Central Asia, and MesoAmerica. In fact, just like ancient Egypt, the Inca culture of South America had an entire industry that revolved around death and mummy-making, and there are even some remarkable parallels between the specific mummification techniques of the two lands. Both Egypt and the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas viewed their pyramids the same way – as ‘immortality machines’. Not only did both peoples build gargantuan pyramids, mummify their dead, and subscribe to the BSD, they both also believed that their funerary ceremonies transformed the souls of the dead into immortal gods, beings who would live in the heavens forever. And, just as Egypt’s most important funerary ritual was called “the opening of the mouth”, the most important funerary ritual of ancient Mexico was called p’achi, which also means “to open the mouth”. And just as ancient Egypt believed that the hearts of the damned were swallowed in the underworld by a horrible monster named “The Eater of the Dead”, one of the levels of ancient Mexico’s underworld was called Teocoyolcualloya : “place where beasts devour hearts”. And just as ancient Egypt believed in a group of nine supreme beings called the “Ennead”, so too ancient Mexico also believed in a system of nine all-powerful gods.

The Egyptians of Africa, the Incas and their predecessors in Peru, and the Toltecs of Mexico all subscribed to the Binary Soul Doctrine, practiced mummification, and built huge pyramids they used as “immortality machines”. Taken together, these uncanny parallels strongly suggest that these civilizations’ religions were closely related, probably springing from the same parent culture; not only did the custom of building impossibly huge pyramidal religious monuments somehow spread to cultures on opposite sides of the planet, but identical theological beliefs and funerary practices apparently made the trip as well.

I have explored these connections in further detail on my website, and in my two books, The Division of Consciousness (Hampton Roads Publsihing, 1997), and The Lost Secret of Death (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003).

Peter Novak

The Lost Secret of Death

Our Divided Souls and the Afterlife