The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor

The origin of the human idea of the soul or spirit has always intrigued me. As an atheist I have no belief whatsoever in such an idea, and in fact think it’s ultimately a dangerous (though inevitable) notion. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is our most ancient ‘religious’ concept. Although some past evidence of Neanderthal burial rites (eg the Shanidar cave) have been reassessed and dismissed, there remains a strong body of evidence to show that Neanderthal people made special ritual at the graves of their dead, which means they had a concept of individuality, of self, and of the uniqueness of self. They would have been aware that everyone is a unique person, seemingly alive behind the eyes. An obvious, yet unanswerable question followed: what happens to that self when the person dies?

Timothy Taylor’s The Buried Soul offers many answers to this question, while tracing the history of the main idea from prehistoric to modern times. While strong on archaeological evidence and theory, Taylor to his great credit also imagines the thoughts and emotions of ancient people in these circumstances, for instance the Iceman of the Alps, Ötzi. Though alive only 5,300 years ago Ötzi still lived in a world numinous with supernatural forces, and these would have made his experience of death very different from ours.

The book passes through many cultural vistas: cannibalism in New Guinea, the ritual deaths of slaves in the Near East, embalming, and the European bog bodies. It’s in this latter chapter that one of the book’s main ideas begins to appear, that of death in liminal zones. A liminal zone is an area between two different geographical zones, for instance plains and woods. The peat bogs of Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere are in fact quite dangerous environments, and would have attracted prehistoric speculation and ritual via their status as liminal zones. That ritual includes the phenomenon of ‘multiple death,’ i.e. killing a person in two or three ways when such a process is apparently unnecessary.

Taylor also covers the famous Shanidar burial. Though the flower pollen ‘evidence’ is now discarded, there is no doubt that the individual was disabled, and therefore alive for social, cultural or humane reasons; and that means consciousness at the very least, if not compassion. In fact Taylor skotches any such ‘flower-people’ theories, as he calls them, and evokes a more ‘ruthlessly cohesive’ theory. But either way, the aeons of mere animal existence were hundreds of thousands of years in the past by the time of Shanidar.

This fascinating book covers much that we don’t wish to talk about in modern Western societies. Although I first read it as part of my own reading around the topic of the origin of ideas of the soul or spirit, it proved to be a more wide-ranging book than I expected – and certainly inspirational. This and other books were the subconscious foundation for the Factory Girl trilogy and some earlier works.