Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

In this new series of blogs I plan to mention various aspects of the history of out-of-body experiences (OBEs). In addition to cases I will summarize articles and books, as well as theories. It is my hope to contribute to rescue this material from oblivion.

Nineteenth Century Artistic Conception of Pliny the Elder

Nineteenth Century Artistic Conception of Pliny the Elder

The first account presented here comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. This work, published around 77 AD, was a work devoted to various areas of knowledge and practices, including, but not limited to, agriculture, botany, geography, painting, and zoology. Rather than a case this is an account of what happened to a person said to have frequent OBEs.

In Pliny’s words: “With reference to the soul of man, we find, among other instances, that the soul of Hermotinus of Clazomenae was in the habit of leaving his body, and wandering into distant countries, whence it brought back numerous accounts of various things, which could not have been obtained by any one but a person who was present. The body, in the meantime, was left apparently lifeless . . . . At last, however, his enemies, the Cantharidae, as they were called, burned the body, so that the soul, on its return, was deprived of its sheath, as it were” (The Natural History of Pliny [J. Bostock & H.T. Riley, translators, Vol. 2]. London: George Bell & Sons, 1890, p. 210).

A much longer account, and one taking place in apparent near-death circumstances, was that mentioned by Plutarch in an essay (Schilleto, A.R., Editor and translator. Plutarch’s Morals: Ethical Essays. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888).

Plutarch

Plutarch

“Thespesius of Soli, . . . who lived in this city with us for some time, had been very profligate during the early part of his life, and had quickly run through his property, and for some time owing to his straits had given himself up to bad practices . . . . He fell headlong down from a great height, and though he had received no wound [p. 357] nor even a blow, the fall did for him, but three days after (just as he was about to be buried) he recovered. He soon picked up his strength again, and went home, and so changed his manner of life that people would hardly credit it . . . . [Thespesius said] that, when his soul left the body, the change he first underwent was as if he were a pilot thrown violently into the sea out of a ship. Then raising himself up a little, he thought he recovered the power of breathing again altogether, and looked round him in every direction, as if one eye of the soul was open. But he saw none of the things he had ever seen before, but stars enormous in size and at immense distance from one another, sending forth a wonderful and intense brightness of colour, so that the soul was borne along and moved about everywhere quickly and easily, like a ship in fair weather. But omitting most of the sights he saw, he said that the souls of the dead mounted into the air, which yielded to them and formed fiery bubbles, and then, when each bubble quietly broke, they assumed human forms, light in weight but with different kinds of motion, for some leapt about with wonderful agility and darted straight upwards, while others like spindles flitted round all together in a circle, some in an upward direction, some in a downward, with mixed and confused motion, hardly stopping at all, or only after a very long time. As to most of these he was ignorant who they were, but he saw two or three that he knew, and tried to approach them and talk with them, but they would not listen to him, and did not seem to be in their right minds, but out of their senses and distraught, avoiding every sight and touch, and at first turned round and round alone, but afterwards meeting many other souls whirling round and in the same condition as themselves, they moved about promiscuously with no particular object in view, and uttered [p. 358] inarticulate sounds, like yells, mixed with wailing and terror. Other souls in the upper part of the air seemed joyful, and frequently approached one another in a friendly way, and avoided those troubled souls, and seemed to mark their displeasure by keeping themselves to themselves, and their joy and delight by extension and expansion. At last he said he saw the soul of a relation, that he thought he knew but was not quite sure, as he died when he was a boy, which came up to him and said to him, “Welcome, Thespesius.” And he wondering, and saying that his name was not Thespesius but Aridseus, the soul replied, “That was your old name, but henceforth it will be Thespesius. For assuredly you are not dead, but by the will of the gods are come here with your intellect, for the rest of your soul you have left in the body like an anchor; and as a proof of what I say both now and hereafter notice that the souls of the dead have no shadow and do not move their eyelids.”

“Thespesius, on hearing these words, pulled himself somewhat more together again, and began to use his reason, and looking more closely he noticed that an indistinct and shadow-like line was suspended over him, while the others shone all round and were transparent, but were not all alike; for some were like the full-moon at its brightest, throwing out one smooth even and continuous colour, others had spots or light marks here and there, while others were quite variegated and strange to the sight, with black spots like snakes, while others again had dim scratches . . . . .” [p. 360]

“After he had said this, Thespesius’ kinsman [who had shown him many things] hurried him at great speed through immense space, as it seemed to him, though he travelled as easily and straight as if he were carried on the wings of the sun’s rays. At last he got to an extensive and bottomless abyss, where his strength left him, as he found was the case with the other souls there: for keeping together and making swoops, like birds, they flitted all round the abyss, but did not venture to pass over it. To internal view it resembled the caverns of Bacchus, being beautiful throughout . . . with trees and green foliage and flowers of all kinds, and it breathed a soft and gentle air, laden with scents marvellously pleasant, and producing the effect that wine does on those who are topers; for the souls were elevated by its fragrance, and gay and blithe with one another: and the whole spot was full of mirth and laughter, and such songs as emanate from gaiety and enjoyment. And Thespesius’ kinsman told him that this was the way Dionysus went up to heaven by, and by which he afterwards took up Semele, and it was called the place of Oblivion. But he would not let Thespesius stay there, much as he wished, but forcibly dragged him away . . . .” [p. 361].

“Next Thespesius travelled as far in another direction, and seemed to see a great crater into which several rivers emptied themselves, one whiter than the foam of the sea or snow, another like the purple of the rainbow, and others of various hues whose brightness was apparent at some distance, but when he got nearer the air became thinner and the colours grew dim, and the crater lost all its gay colours but white. And he saw three genii sitting together in a triangular position, mixing the rivers together in certain proportions . . . .” [p. 362]

“After this Thespesius and his guide turned to see those that were undergoing punishment. And at first they saw only distressing and pitiable sights, but after that, Thespesius, little expecting it, found himself among his friends and acquaintances and kinsfolk who were being punished, and undergoing dreadful sufferings and hideous and bitter tortures, and who wept and wailed to him. And at last he descried his father coming up out of a certain gulf covered with marks and scars, stretching out his hands, and not allowed to keep silence, but compelled by those that presided over his torture to confess that he had been an accursed wretch and poisoned some strangers that had gold, and during his lifetime had escaped the detection of everybody; but had been found out here, and his guilt brought home to him, for which he had already suffered much, and was being dragged on to suffer more. So great was his consternation and fear that he did not dare to intercede or beg for his father’s release, but wishing to turn and flee he could no longer see his gentle and kind guide, but he was thrust forward by some persons horrible to look at, as if some dire necessity compelled him to go through with the business, and saw that the shades of those that had been notorious criminals and punished in their life-time were not so severely tortured here or like the others, but had an incomplete . . . though toilsome punishment for their irrational passions. . . .” [p. 363]

“So much did Thespesius behold, but as he intended to return a horrible dread came upon him. For a woman, marvellous in appearance and size, took hold of him and said to him, “Come here that you may the better remember everything you have seen.” And she was about to strike him with a red-hot iron pin, such as the encaustic painters use, . . . when another woman prevented her ; and he was suddenly sucked up, as through . . . a pipe, by a strong and violent wind, and lit upon his own body, and woke up and found that he was close to his tomb” [p. 365].

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