The concept of a supermaterial phase of mortal personality was born of the unconscious and purely accidental association of the occurrences of everyday life plus the ghost dream. The simultaneous dreaming about a departed chief by several members of his tribe seemed to constitute convincing evidence that the old chief had really returned in some form. It was all very real to the savage who would awaken from such dreams reeking with sweat, trembling, and screaming.
The dream origin of the belief in a future existence explains the tendency always to imagine unseen things in the terms of things seen. And presently this new dream-ghost-future-life concept began effectively to antidote the death fear associated with the biologic instinct of self-preservation.
Early man was also much concerned about his breath, especially in cold climates, where it appeared as a cloud when exhaled. The breath of life was regarded as the one phenomenon which differentiated the living and the dead. He knew the breath could leave the body, and his dreams of doing all sorts of queer things while asleep convinced him that there was something immaterial about a human being. The most primitive idea of the human soul, the ghost, was derived from the breath-dream idea-system.
Eventually the savage conceived of himself as a double—body and breath. The breath minus the body equaled a spirit, a ghost. While having a very definite human origin, ghosts, or spirits, were regarded as superhuman. And this belief in the existence of disembodied spirits seemed to explain the occurrence of the unusual, the extraordinary, the infrequent, and the inexplicable.
The primitive doctrine of survival after death was not necessarily a belief in immortality. Beings who could not count over twenty could hardly conceive of infinity and eternity; they rather thought of recurring incarnations.
The orange race was especially given to belief in transmigration and reincarnation. This idea of reincarnation originated in the observance of hereditary and trait resemblance of offspring to ancestors. The custom of naming children after grandparents and other ancestors was due to belief in reincarnation. Some later-day races believed that man died from three to seven times. This belief (residual from the teachings of Adam about the mansion worlds), and many other remnants of revealed religion, can be found among the otherwise absurd doctrines of twentieth-century barbarians.
Early man entertained no ideas of hell or future punishment. The savage looked upon the future life as just like this one, minus all ill luck. Later on, a separate destiny for good ghosts and bad ghosts—heaven and hell—was conceived. But since many primitive races believed that man entered the next life just as he left this one, they did not relish the idea of becoming old and decrepit. The aged much preferred to be killed before becoming too infirm.
Almost every group had a different idea regarding the destiny of the ghost soul. The Greeks believed that weak men must have weak souls; so they invented Hades as a fit place for the reception of such anemic souls; these unrobust specimens were also supposed to have shorter shadows. The early Andites thought their ghosts returned to the ancestral homelands. The Chinese and Egyptians once believed that soul and body remained together. Among the Egyptians this led to careful tomb construction and efforts at body preservation. Even modern peoples seek to arrest the decay of the dead. The Hebrews conceived that a phantom replica of the individual went down to Sheol; it could not return to the land of the living. They did make that important advance in the doctrine of the evolution of the soul.