The transmigration of an evil soul:
Of X-Files and Empedocles
“Many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”
— Edgar Allen Poe.
By Ron Fritze from Athens, Alabama
Posted October 9, 2008
I have to confess to a guilty pleasure. I am an X-Files fan.
The fact is, I was an X-Files watcher starting 24 September 1993 with the broadcast of the third episode of the first season, which puts me in the dubious position of having been ahead of the curve of popular culture. As an unapologetic fan of television, I can claim without hubris that I am among the band of watchers who liked the X-Files before it became wildly popular.
Getting There by Way of Briscoe County.
My path to the X-Files followed an indirect path. Having seen advertisements for the X-Files on the Fox Channel, I reacted this way: That show sounds sort of dumb. In the beginning, the X-Files was scheduled on Friday nights at 8 o’clock. Appearing in the time slot immediately before the X-Files was another new show, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., starring Bruce Campbell, one of my favorites. That is not to say that Mr. Campbell has not starred in some dog movies, but I consider his role in Army of Darkness to be brilliant, and the film itself to be great — a campy, fantastic, farcical romp through the horror flick genre. So I was interested in seeing Bruce Campbell as this Briscoe County character.
The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. was a sort of fantasy-comedy western — and, to my sadness, a show that did not survive past its first pallid season. Bad writing and poor casting doomed it. The stories were uneven and some of the supporting characters were just plain uninteresting, even a bit obnoxious. By the third Friday, somewhat disenchanted with my first choice, I decided to stay a while longer and give this X-Files show a try. It didn’t take long to realize it was actually quite good. I continued watching, and in the weeks that followed, a lot of other people followed suit. The rest, as they say, is history with the X-Files rising to fame, and then becoming familiar, and finally, gradually, sinking into decline.
Monsters and Demons Everywhere.
The truly addicted will know that the series lasted for nine years. Although alien abduction and infiltration formed the great story arc of the series, many episodes were self-contained tales dealing with some or another supernatural, occult, or unnatural phenomenon. Monsters, demons, and satanic forces were sometimes featured. David Duchovny’s character, Fox Mulder,
was a veritable walking encyclopedia of occult and paranormal knowledge, some of it real and some of it made up by the writers, but presented as real.
Individual episodes were given titles, although television viewers would not have known it at the time of first showing because the titles were not screened. In the constant revisionism that characterizes our culture, the titles now appear on VHS tapes and the DVDs of the show, and on reruns of cable channels. Does it surprise you that I own all nine seasons of the X-Files? Some months back, given the sorry state of current television fare, I gradually worked my way through them all.
One episode that caught my eye was titled “Empedocles.” It aired for the first time on 22 April 2001. I knew that Empedocles was some pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, but I couldn’t discern at first glance why one of the Ancients was being tied by name to an X-File. I set out to find the answer.
From the Carnage Emerges a Fiery Figure.
“Empedocles” begins with an everyman named Jeb Dukes getting let go from his job in New Orleans, a loss that catches him by total surprise. As he leaves the office building at night, a car speeds by with the police in hot pursuit. Very quickly things get hot. The car
runs a red light and collides with another vehicle in a terrible crash that sets both autos on fire. Emerging from one of the burning cars, the car that was speeding away from the cops, is a fiery figure, who stumbles toward the dumbstruck Jeb Dukes.
Mysteriously, the burning man walking ominously toward him is visible only to Jeb. When the fiery figure reaches him, it enters his body and disappears from view. A little while later, a blank-faced Jeb returns to his place of work, and there shoots to death his boss and a co-worker. The FBI is called to investigate with Agents Reyes (Annabeth Gish), Doggett (Robert Patrick), and Mulder assigned to the case.
Hoping to reach the home of his sister Katha, Jeb Dukes flees across the country. All the while the evil spirit inside of him continues to kill. Eventually the FBI tracks Dukes down at his sister’s home, and in a gun battle, he is mortally wounded by Doggett. The unfortunate host dies at the hospital emergency room, but not the spirit inside him, who emerges again in its fiery form to take control of his sister’s body. The possessed Katha immediately attempts to kill Agent Reyes, but Doggett subdues her. The new host is sedated and strapped down to a hospital bed. End of episode.
Along the way, characters make various comments to illuminate the action, resurrecting the age-old quest for cause. Why evil? Katha Dukes expresses to Agent Reyes the belief that people are
born good, but as time goes by, they are corrupted by their environment. Chatting with Doggett, Mulder espouses his theory that evil is sort of a contagious disease, which can be passed from person to person — and that the strong can resist the transmission. Traumatic events, however, can weaken one’s resistance to evil, allowing it to enter. And at the end of the tale, when Jeb Dukes dies, someone offers the comment that the killing is over. Reyes replies that it is never over. So much for original sin.
Now we arrive at the question: What does the tale of Jeb Dukes have to do with Empedocles? Various fan sites on the Internet make reference to Empedocles as a Greek philosopher who first propounded the theory of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Some fans have suggested that the four elements are characteristics of Mulder, Scully, Doggett, and Reyes — a weak and unsupported explanation at best.
I looked up some preliminary references to Empedocles, and they mentioned his belief that he was some sort of god, a divine and powerful being who had come to earth to perform profound miracles — healing the sick, bringing the dead back to life. At this stage of my inquiry, I supposed I had seen the episode, but seven years had erased any obvious memory of it. I couldn’t recall the story or the premise. I wondered if a central character displayed delusions of being a god or had actually acquired god-like powers. If you recall, the first Star Trek episode actually featured something along those lines. But as you can see from my synopsis of the “Empedocles” episode, the plot had nothing to do with that sort of theme. So, why title the episode “Empedocles?”
Sifting through the Secrets of History.
To answer that question, I needed to look a bit closer at the historical figure named Empedocles. What do we know about him?
Answer: Not an awful lot, and much of what we are told by historical record is uncertain and contradictory. Empedocles lived from about 492-c432 B.C., having been born in the Greek city of Acragas (Agrigentum) in ancient Sicily. Empedocles, like Plato later, studied with the mysterious Pythagoreans in southern Italy, and again like Plato, he was rejected by the Pythagoreans for revealing their secret doctrines.
Much of our knowledge about Empedocles comes from Diogenes Laertius, who probably lived about 200-250 A.D. and wrote a book, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius composed his biographical essays by mining various other Classical works, many no longer extant, for biographical references to the various philosophers. The problem is that his information is often contradictory — and Diogenes Laertius did not bother to critique his sources in terms of their reliability. He listed Empedocles as the son of Meton, of Exaenetus, and of Archinomus — and stops at that point, but the implication is that he could have listed more. Remember, Diogenes Laertius lived seven hundred years after Empedocles.
The Disappearing Immortal God.
Most aspects of Empedocles’s life have at least two different versions. Although he is said to have opposed tyranny and bad government, he also claimed in one of his poems that, “I, an immortal God, no longer mortal, now live among you.” Accounts of his death are especially conflicted. According to one account, he was returning home from the Olympic Games when his enemies in Agrigentum blocked his homeward path, forcing him to remain on the Peloponnesian peninsula of mainland Greece, where he died in exile. Another story tells how Empedocles gave a banquet that lasted so late into the night that eventually all of his guests fell asleep. When they woke, Empedocles was nowhere to be found. One guest claimed to have heard a loud voice calling to Empedocles, after which a bright light came down from heaven — and poof! Empedocles was gone. The guest drew the conclusion that Empedocles had become a god.
Fox Mulder, of course, would have concluded that Empedocles was abducted by aliens. After all, our inquiry concerns an X-Files episode!
A third story tells how Empedocles cured a woman after physicians had given up hope for her survival. To celebrate,
Empedocles conducted a sacrifice. Afterward, the healer climbed Mount Etna, an active volcano, then jumped into the flaming crater and disappeared. The plan, we suppose, was to disappear into the fiery furnace and thus create the belief that he was a god. One of his brass sandals was found near the crater, we are told. What happened to the man and his reputation remain a mystery.
A fourth story tells of Empedocles purifying the pestilential river that flowed through the city of Selinus by diverting two clean rivers into it and flushing out the filth. The thankful Selinians began to worship him as a god, which prompted him to leap into the fires of Mount Etna to prove they were right.
Then there is a fifth version is which the exiled Empedocles was traveling to Messene in a chariot. During his journey an accident resulted in Empedocles breaking his thigh. Being seventy-seven years old, he couldn’t overcome the broken thigh, and soon sickened and died. But other accounts give his age at death as sixty, or one hundred and nine. Finally, there is a sixth tale that the old man Empedocles fell into the sea and died, presumably from drowning.
Love, Strife, and Transmigration.
Empedocles is associated with various philosophic and scientific ideas. Besides the theory of four elements, he argued against the idea of Parmenides that the world was static. Empedocles instead suggested that Love and Strife caused the elements to either pull together as doth love, or move apart as doth strife. As a result, he suggested, the world goes through cycles in which one of the other, Love or Strife, dominates the social order. He also theorized that sensory perception occurs when effluences or sense-objects enter the pores of sense organs.
Most importantly for our inquiry, Empedocles taught that reincarnation attends the transmigration of souls. This belief would have been a heritage of his education with the Pythagoreans, since the great Pythagoras originated the idea of reincarnation among the Greeks. Transmigration of the soul is the belief that when a person dies, their soul moves into another body. The fiery entity of soul, the theory contends, moves from the body of the dead person it previously inhabited into the body of a vulnerable living person. In the “Empedocles” episode, the fiery entity moves from a dead killer to the recently fired Jeb, and then from the dying Jeb to his grieving sister Katha.
Fox Mulder employs his disease metaphor to explain evil, but Empedocles would have seen the fiery entity as an evil spirit, or soul, transmigrating from one body to another, and then to another, and yet another through the ages. If that were true, then there must be a fair number of fiery entities afloat in the land, given the fact that there is a lot more evil in the world than could be credited to the one fiery entity that that forced Jeb Dukes to do horrible acts.
My speculation is that the screen writers for the X-Files picked the title of “Empedocles” as a reference to his theory about the transmigration of souls, and in this case, a particularly evil soul. Who knows, maybe Chris Carter will stumble across our inquiry and be in touch to explain things. Maybe then we really will know if the truth is out there.
Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then in this
The intelligence that moves, devotion is;
— John Donne, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”
Click on the black panther to read Ron Fritze's previous essay,
"On The Road Scholar’s Road Again: Horseshoe Bend, Valley, and a Reunion."