Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It may very naturally be supposed that the metamorphoses with which our earth abounds suggested the imagination to the Orientals — who have imagined everything — that the souls of men passed from one body to another. An almost imperceptible point becomes a grub, and that grub becomes a butterfly; an acorn is transformed into an oak; an egg into a bird; water becomes cloud and thunder; wood is changed into fire and ashes; everything, in short, in nature, appears to be metamorphosed. What was thus obviously and distinctly perceptible in grosser bodies was soon conceived to take place with respect to souls, which were considered slight, shadowy, and scarcely material figures. The idea of metempsychosis is perhaps the most ancient dogma of the known world, and prevails still in a great part of India and of China.

It is highly probable, again, that the various metamorphoses which we witness in nature produced those ancient fables which Ovid has collected and embellished in his admirable work. Even the Jews had their metamorphoses. If Niobe was changed into a stone, Edith, the wife of Lot, was changed into a statue of salt. If Eurydice remained in hell for having looked behind her, it was for precisely the same indiscretion that this wife of Lot was deprived of her human nature. The village in which Baucis and Philemon resided in Phrygia is changed into a lake; the same event occurs to Sodom. The daughters of Anius converted water into oil; we have in Scripture a metamorphosis very similar, but more true and more sacred. Cadmus was changed into a serpent; the rod of Aaron becomes a serpent also.

The gods frequently change themselves into men; the Jews never saw angels but in the form of men; angels ate with Abraham. Paul, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, says that an angel of Satan has buffeted him: “Angelus Satanæ me colaphizet.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01