Edgar Cayce and Reincarnation: Past Life Readings as Religious Symbology


Edgar Cayce and Reincarnation: Past Life Readings as Religious Symbology

J. Gordon Melton

J. Gordon Melton is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books on New Religious Movements (NRM's), and is the editor of several standard reference works including the Encyclopedia of American Religions. Dr. Melton heads the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, and is frequently approached by the media for his perspective on alternative religious movements. He earned his Ph.D. in religion from Northwestern University, and is a United Methodist minister. This article originally appeared in Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture (vol. 3 no. 1-2, 1994), and is based on a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion at Virginia Beach, Virginia on Nov. 9-11, 1990.

When Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) died, he left behind a unique resource, complete transcripts of over 1600 readings he had given in the last decades of his life to the hundreds of people who came to him for help and advice. Subsequently, under the leadership of his son Hugh Lynn Cayce, the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) and the Edgar Cayce Foundation mobilized thousands of people to explore and study the transcripts which were cross-indexed and proved the inspiration for numerous books which have attempted systematically to present the information and teachings scattered in bits and pieces haphazardly through the readings. Thus by compiling the many life readings on Atlantis, ARE writers developed a coherent picture of what Cayce taught about that lost continent.

In more recent years, the publication and spread of the Cayce literature became a major factor in the emergence of what is loosely termed the New Age Movement. For example, one can trace the speculation on crystal power which has emerged as such a prominent teaching among New Age groups directly to the compilation into a booklet of Cayce's rather meager and scattered references to crystals in the readings.

Among the major themes in the readings are several other key New Age concerns including alternative health (possibly the most explored material in the Cayce readings), astrology (the least explored in relation to the significant amount of attention Cayce devoted to it), and reincarnation. Reincarnation, as developed in the hundreds of past-life readings given by Cayce, could be seen as the single most prominent concern of the Cayce materials. For over thirty years, Cayce went into trance and offered people information on "previous lives lived in planet earth" while interpreting their significance for present existence. These life readings, along with readings which specifically asked for elaboration on the material given in the life readings, presented a cosmic metaphysics which many have accepted and used for guidance in their lives. (1) The importance of the reincarnation theme in the Cayce readings has taken on added dimensions in this present generation with over 20 percent of the American public now professing a belief in reincarnation.

The emergence of reincarnation and Cayce's past life readings

The idea of reincarnation and the possibility of exploring past lives did not just suddenly emerge in the Cayce readings. Cayce demonstrated his psychic talents on many occasions and had gained some reputation nationally. That fame brought Arthur Lammers to his door. Lammers, a wealthy printer from Dayton, Ohio, walked into Cayce's Selma, Alabama studio in 1921. He is described by Cayce biographers as a man interested in and a deep student of metaphysics, the occult, esoteric astrology, and Eastern religion. Tibet, Theosophy, and the Great White Brotherhood were his intellectual playground. Initially, Lammers questioned Cayce about these matters only to handle the skepticism of the Bible-believing Christian that Cayce then was.

In November 1923, Lammers paid for Cayce to come from Selma to Dayton, Ohio, along with his wife Gertrude. Lammers supplied a stenographer while Cayce gave two readings a day for a week. It was at the end of the third of these readings that the famous quote concerning Lammers appeared: "Third appearance on this plane--He was a monk." In between readings there were extensive conversations on Lammers' favorite subjects. The final reading consisted of three life readings (the first of many that Cayce would later give)--for Lammers, Cayce and a third participant. As a result of the readings and conversations with Lammers, Cayce became quite familiar with the Theosophical cosmology which began to fit conveniently into his other psychic work. Beginning during the week in Dayton, the role of past lives assumed an ever-increasing prominence in Cayce's psychic work and his readings, often under the questioning of those present when he went into trance, enlarged upon themes first mentioned in the past life readings.

Researching the Cayce material

While encouraging this vast amount of writing concerning the Cayce readings, the ARE has offered little encouragement to what might be termed scholarly treatments of Cayce and his readings. The material remains virgin territory to the intellectual historian ready to discover the many elements of metaphysical/occult thought which Cayce, largely unknowingly, synthesized into the teachings now lodged within the readings. We are completely lacking data of a social scientific nature. Sociologists have neither collected data on the current membership of the ARE or attempted to use the tools of the social sciences in examining the highly quantifiable material Cayce left behind. The motivation to examine critically the Cayce readings is provided both by the extraordinary claims made by the ARE leadership for Cayce's abilities, as well as the continuing popularity of Cayce's teachings.

Also, while much of the Cayce material is purely metaphysical speculation and hence primarily a matter of faith, the readings do make a number of claims concerning many points of prehistory and medical advice which are subject to at least some level of independent verification. Reincarnation is an area in which the metaphysical assertions and the more mundane verifiable claims overlap. Thus individuals may adhere to the basically Theosophical worldview of the readings on purely philosophical grounds (primarily a solution to the problem of evil in the concept of karma). However, many ARE members were initially attracted to the readings and now support their acceptance of the metaphysical perspective because of the claims of the confirmed accuracy of the more mundane material in the readings concerning historical events or medical advice, only a miniscule part of which have ever been subjected to critical scholarly scrutiny.

One major discouragement to scholarly research is the very bulk of the Cayce records, which consist of the verbatim transcripts from several decades of readings. To make sense of the records a substantial number would have to be read and analyzed.

The ARE has, to be sure, conducted some important research as attempts to gain some external validation of the teachings. Researchers have asked how the Cayce material conforms to independently verifiable data from other areas of knowledge. Such attempts follow closely the pattern set in The Search For Bridey Murphy as attempts were made to track down the truth of Bridey Murphy's previous existence and gather any information about her life in Ireland. (2) Parallel research with the Cayce material has centered upon information gleaned from the life readings, especially claims about Atlantis and the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. One researcher, following the Bridey Murphy pattern, tracked the evidence of a possible return of nineteenth-century feminist / prohibitionist Frances Willard. (3)

Attempts to verify the Cayce material in this manner have always followed a fairly consistent pattern. Much general data has a high correlation, while specific data is neither falsifiable nor verifiable due to lack of records. (Such proved true in Bridey Murphy's case also.) (4) Such a lack of specifics is most evident in the Atlantis material. No single relic of Atlantis exists, though it remains a speculative possibility. There is no record of one Ra Ta, a priest of Egypt and a major recurring character in the Cayce life readings, yet there is also no list of Egyptian priests to check it against. The evidence is consistently inconclusive.

Research has also sought to highlight discovered patterns of internal consistency within the Cayce readings. Does it present an internal wholeness in its philosophy and content, which in spite of its speculative nature is a reasonable and satisfying approach to life? The philosophy and worldview found in the readings and articulated through ARE literature has proved satisfactory to many but, for those who lack a previous interest in Theosophical or Eastern worldviews, is of no particular interest. After all, numerous other psychics have "channeled" a consistent workable speculative cosmology and ethic. The metaphysical speculations become interesting primarily because of the independently-verifiable material on such topics as healing, Atlantis, and past lives.

A variety of ways could be suggested to test the Cayce material. However, in spite of its name, with a few rare exceptions the Association for Research and Enlightenment has demonstrated little interest in, and on occasion even discouraged, "research" in the commonly-understood sense of that term. Rather it has behaved in ways more consistent with what we generally think of as a "religious" organization. It has devoted its energies to evangelical (spreading the teachings of Edgar Cayce), organizational (recruiting individuals into study groups), and educational activities (through seminars emphasizing the spiritual, metaphysical and practical life-situation implications of the teachings). It has even encouraged several major apologetic volumes to handle the problem of those incidents in which Cayce 's psychic abilities undeniably failed him. (5)

Understanding Cayce essentially as a religious teacher (and mythmaker), and the Association for Research and Enlightenment as a religious body, suggests a way to move beyond a mere exposition of Cayce's teachings, and at the same time resolve some of the problems in the readings which arise as soon as they are taken literally as presenting either historical or scientific information. Thus laying aside for the moment the immediate question of the factual nature of Cayce's assertions concerning, for example, ancient history or modern medicine, this paper focuses upon the elements of the readings which have emerged as religious symbols and attempts to suggest to manner in which these symbols function.

The great majority of Cayce's readings were for individuals and included (besides an astrological reading) the delineation of (usually) four past lives, each of which was having some karmic effect in the present. As one begins to read a sample of the life readings it is soon evident that the number of different settings of the past lives presented in Cayce is relatively small. That is, in giving readings to his clients, Cayce chose from a limited number of points in time and places in the world--what I have termed a time-culture slot. Further reading reveals not only a repetition of particular time-culture slots, but of actual content, so that after a cursory reading of several past-life accounts one could begin to predict the content. When a person is told that s/he once lived in, for example, ancient Rome, the reader would know immediately what effect that life will have on the person presently. The time-culture slots function as basic symbols to carry the message of the readings.

The high level of repetition in the life readings makes them ideal subjects for a quantitative approach, and quantifying elements of the readings proved immensely useful in uncovering the underlying patterns within the readings and thus revealing some of the symbology employed by Cayce. The quantifying effort began with a count of the total number of past incarnations discussed in the Cayce transcripts and then a selection of a smaller sample for closer scrutiny.

Patterns--the basic data

The ARE's efforts to cross-index the Cayce readings greatly assisted in the process of dealing with the material in a quantitative way. Figure 1 is a table of incarnations. (6) It shows the locations of all the incarnations noted in the life readings. (Column B shows the number of incarnations in the life readings numbered 1400 to 1599, which were used as a representative sample.)

Figure 1



New Testament
Old Testament


All Others
Total Total

1300 +
1200 +

600 +
500 +
500 +
400 +

400 +
300 +
250 +
250 +
6517 Sample






The figures were taken from the index card file at the ARE Library. Those numbers below 150 are exact counts. Those above 150 are approximations made by measuring the thickness of the index cards. They are not exact but close enough for this study.

By time-culture slot is meant the particular place and moment in time and history that an incarnation takes place. Cayce's readings show an extremely limited number of time-culture slots. For example the largest number of incarnations are listed for Egypt, but they do not cover Egypt's whole history. They are limited to the Egypt during the time Ra Ta was the main priest. The second entry shows a slight variation in the time-culture slot in that these incarnations vary over America's pre-colonial history, but always represent the incarnated person as a settler. The remaining time-culture slots are presented in descending order: Persia during the time of Uhjldt, etc.

There was one difficulty in quantifying the material, in that some countries are mentioned only in connection with another country. Thus, Peru and the Yucatan are significant as locations for incarnation only as places to which Atlanteans migrated when their home was destroyed. Some Grecian incarnations relate to Uhjldt's rule in Persia. Thus, a mere fifteen time-culture slots account for approximately 90 percent of all the incarnations which Cayce recounted. Also of note, Cayce asserted that the most recent incarnation mentioned of each sitter was, in almost all cases in which it was mentioned, in America.

The basic symbols of the life readings are the time-culture slots which provide the settings for the particular incarnation and message that incarnation was said to contain. As shall be seen, the variety of messages given in relation to a time-culture slot is also equally limited.

The sample

The task of covering the life readings of over 1600 individuals would be a monumental one, both statistically and in terms of the time consumed in study. The possibility of giving statistical consideration to the whole of the material is open only to someone who is capable of a lengthy stay at Virginia Beach, which has not been possible for this author.

In lieu of a general survey, a more modest project was conceived. A representative sample consisting of all life readings between # 1400 and # 1599 was selected to be quantified. Singled out for special consideration were the Atlantean and Egyptian incarnations.

Results of this survey indicate that the sample followed the overall pattern of the readings' incarnations. It was from these incarnations that some of the patterns in Figure 1 emerged. First, American incarnations were discovered to be divided three ways: those identified as settlers in some part of colonial America, those who took part in the Revolutionary War, and others who include a number involved in either the Gold Rush of 1849 or the New England witchcraft trials. Secondly, the Old Testament references are primarily from two eras, the time in which Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the Wall of Jerusalem and the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

Noticeably absent from the life readings are references to incarnations outside of the mainstream of Western cultural history (less than 100 out of 6,516) including neglect of Africa south of the Sahara, China, Russia and Latin America.

Since the vocation followed during the past incarnations was a noticeable, consistent bit of information in the life readings, it was singled out as an item of interest. Because the largest number came from the Ra Ta period of Egypt, and because of the paucity of published material on this era, it was used as an illustration.

The general picture of Egypt presented in the readings is of a time of a civil war in which the pharoah's brother revolted but was defeated. Egypt was the recipient of immigrants from Atlantis. Much of the real power was in the hands of Ra Ta the high priest (Edgar Cayce in a former life) who ran the Temple Beautiful and the Temple of Sacrifice. Ra Ta attempted to "organize religious practices and bring the people to the idea of the one creative principle through the symbology of the sun and the continuance of individual life." (8) Of the people who supposedly survived from this era to seek a Cayce reading, they roughly fall into three categories as pictured below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Ra Ta Incarnations

Total in sample

King's household


(Granaries) Number




(3) Percentage

33 %
(10 %)

38 %
(6 %)

23 %
(6 %)
(5 %)

The sample indicates that over three-fourths of these incarnations were either of the king's household, ruling officials and royalty, or temple workers. Of the remaining 23 percent two occupations, hospital work and being in charge of granaries took up half. In the relatively small sample three people are designated as the ruler over the granaries. (9) The designated vocation also served as a symbol and people with the same vocations were given essentially the same information. For example, people who were told that they were priests in their Egyptian incarnation would also be told that they had educational abilities and would find present happiness in an activity that included instructing others.

Beyond the general vocational patterns, a more important pattern of repetition occurs when two individuals are given the same exact reading. This happened more than once. Just in the representative sample three different men were told that they were the ruler of the granaries in Ra Ta's Egypt. (No count is available as to how many other times this happened.) Significantly, in several occasions two people were specifically identified as a particular person. The subject of reading # 1432 was identified as the woman taken in adultery in the famous biblical story. # 295 was also identified as this personage. Two different people were identified as the central figure in the biblical story of the rich young ruler (# 2677 and # 1416). These patterns indicate the symbolic nature of the material in the life readings.

Further illustration of vocational material came from the most publicized segment of incarnations, those concerned with Atlantis. To give added information, all references in chapter three of the popular book Edgar Cayce on Atlantis were added to the sample. A picture of Atlantis according to Cayce can be found in this book. These incarnations are listed in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Total number of Atlantean incarnations--500+

Total in samples

Prince(ss) and ruler

Priest or temple official



Unknown Chapter 3






6 # 1400-1599






2 Total






8 Percentage


23 %

24 %

24 %

17 %

12 %

In Atlantis as in Egypt, there is a large number of rulers and priests, though the significantly large number of technicians and engineers manifest a difference from Egypt. Little or no recognition in the literature published by previous writers on Cayce is given to the vast percentage of references to royalty in the Atlantean readings. In like measure, the writers on Cayce and Atlantis seem to have missed the connection between the vocation and the repetition of what is said to different people who received the readings. (10)

Patterns of deviation

Even though 90 percent of the incarnations fit into fifteen time-culture slots, a total of 537 (out of 6516) do not fit. In the sample 23 of these deviating incarnations appear (out of 316). The question was asked, is there some reason for the variation? Unfortunately for the researcher there is a cloak of anonymity thrown around those people whose readings are on file. (This anonymity, though frustrating, is a necessity for the protection of those who sought a reading.) Because of the anonymous nature of the material, the search for patterns ended almost before it began. However, from the little bit of biographical data given (date and place of birth), one correlation appeared so often that it could not be ignored. Where there was a deviation in the time-culture slot pattern, it was often related to the place of birth of the individual (which may account for the large number of American incarnations). In the representative sample # 1476 has a Polish incarnation, and was born in Poland in this life. The other Polish incarnation was for # 1869, who in this life was born in Warsaw. Many of the Norwegian (and "Scandinavian") incarnations are of Norwegian birth (or in one case of Norwegian ancestry). Numbers 1431, 1437, and 1450 are such cases. The Norwegian incarnations are in most cases also related to either Eric the Red or Lief Erickson--the only Norwegians of which most Americans have even heard.

While a biography of each person who got a life reading would be a researcher's delight, at least one pattern of deviation relative to the present life of the sitter was revealed. Deviating incarnations are tied to the present birthplace of the individual. The deviating incarnations revealed the symbolic nature of the first life Cayce tended to note in giving a life reading. It occurred in the land in which the client was born in this life.

Glamorization of the past

As a by-product of reading over a hundred of the past-life readings in order to quantify them, one further reflection emerged from the study. It is quite common in the psychic community for psychics to receive mediumistic revelations from the famous. These revelations have most often come through mediums supposedly channeling from famous personages. This author has known numerous mediums who regularly channeled from the likes of Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, and Gandhi. There is a noticeable attempt to enhance the medium by an association with the famous. Since Cayce was not a traditional medium and hence did not contact spirit entities, this process is absent.

However, there is present in Cayce material a similar occurrence in the enhancement of the subjects for whom life readings were given by either identifying them or associating them with famous personages in past incarnations. This process began with the very first life reading in which Lammers was identified with Hector (of the Trojan War). A more recent instance was a young woman who was identified with Frances Willard and about whom a book was written. There are, of course, several hundred readings which identified people as being among the very elite few mentioned in the Bible.

One might expect a famous person or two to appear in the over 6000 incarnations, but the process becomes suspect when there are so many. The number of the famous is further highlighted by the percentage of royalty and other elites (priests, generals, etc.) in the readings--as high as 50 percent in some time-culture slots.

Conclusion: Toward a new way to understand the Cayce material

Reincarnation scenarios offer a rather dramatic setting in which to place an otherwise mundane psychic reading. Cayce's adoption of reincarnation and past lives as the religious symbols through which advice and counsel was offered to his clients also provides some insight into the development of his talents. Once Lammers' ideas were lodged within that part of Cayce which came to the fore when he was in trance, they were allowed to expand and grow. Elaboration on the material was continually encouraged by the entranced Cayce being questioned on specific issues by those who were present for his reading sessions.

The understanding of the reincarnation material as symbolic, not literal, does much to explain the repetition in the Cayce readings. When Cayce clairvoyantly picked up certain data about present conditions of the sitter (either psychically or from readily-available information), such data would be translated symbolically into a certain time-culture slot. A foreign birth was translated into a previous incarnation in that land. The symbolic understanding also explains why the fifteen time-culture slots concentrated on ones relatively well-known to the average American in the early twentieth century. Cayce was using those eras about which he had been taught by his public school education, church school, and the Theosophist Lammers. Thus American pioneers, the Crusaders, the fall of Troy, Old Testament times, Jesus' era, mystic Egypt and occult Atlantis all appear. Even the Essene material is directly derivative of two occult best-sellers--The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling; and The Mystical Life of Jesus, by Rosicrucian author H. Spencer Lewis. (12)

The reincarnation material functions as a convenient tool to self-awareness, a fact being exploited by a number of present-day counselors. (13) By highlighting facts about a sitter through a reincarnation symbol one can, to many people, reveal self-truth in a way that is acceptable to the conscious ego. The insight about the sitter's state is accepted as true, and because the self is picking up a strain from a past life, the self is responsible for the situation and bears the responsibility for overcoming it. At the same time, since the cause of the situation is from a past life it comes as an intruder into this individual existence. The conscious self (the personality?) is not responsible, and thus can resign itself to paying a karmic debt.

This modest study does suggest several needed areas of further research. A full quantified survey of the life readings touching on the several other elements besides vocation would, of course, provide valuable information as well as confirmation of the symbolic nature of the readings. Secondly, a search for like patterns in the astrological and medical readings should also prove fruitful. The medical readings especially need to be subjected to some critical review as they have become the source for a broad program of medical advice to ARE members and friends.

Finally, a study of the sources of the material which elaborate on certain time-culture slots could prove most enlightening. A study initiated contemporaneously with the work being reported upon in this paper has found that the material on the Essenes in the Cayce readings also has mundane sources, namely some popular turn-of-the-century psychic books. The furtherance of studies of the extensive Cayce records will have as a long-term payoff not only an understanding of this one important psychic figure, but will also make a major contribution to our understanding of the process by which a public psychic operates.


1. Cayce, unlike many of his professional psychic contemporaries, did not go into trance in order to contact spirits. Rather, in trance, he was able to read what was termed the akashic records (an idea derived from Hindu thought), believed to be a cosmic record bank of data on all past events. Information on Cayce, life readings, and the cosmology can be found in the several general works on Cayce, the best of which are Thomas Sugrue's There is a River (New York: Dell Books, 1967) and Hugh Lynn Cayce's Venture Inward (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). Both are in easily-obtainable paperback editions.

2. The Search for Bridey Murphy, by Morey Bernstein (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956).

3. The Return of Frances Willard, by Jeffrey Furst (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971).

4. Cf. the symposium on the Bridey Murphy case in Tomorrow vol. 4 no. 4 (Summer 1956), pp. 4-49.

5. See Edgar Evans Cayce and Hugh Lynn Cayce, The Outer Limits of Edgar Cayce's Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) and Lytle Robinson, Is It True What They Say About Edgar Cayce? (New York: Berkley Books, 1979).

6. By "incarnation" is meant a reference to one particular past life about which a person is told. In the average Cayce reading four previous incarnations or past lives are recounted.

7. The major item on Egypt is a booklet by Mark Lehner, The Egyptian Heritage (Virginia Beach, VA: ARE Press, 1974, 1981). Cayce's life as Ra Ta is covered in W.H. Church, Many Happy Returns: The Lives of Edgar Cayce (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

8. Life reading # 294-153.

9. Life reading # 1442-1; # 1574-1; # 1587-1.

10. Though large numbers of the Atlantean royalty's readings are quoted in Edgar Evans Cayce's Edgar Cayce on Atlantis (New York: Paperback Library, 1968), almost no reference to their subjects' princely states is made (a fact which accounts for the large number of eclipses in the text). Also, the Atlantean random sample (from # 1400-1500) indicates a much higher percentage of royalty and religious functionaries than the quotes from chapter three of Edgar Evans Cayce's book. This additional fact would tend to call into question the reliability of Edgar Cayce on Atlantis as a source for understanding the actual content of the Edgar Cayce material.

11. The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling (Los Angeles: Leo W. Dowling, 1911). This volume has been frequently reprinted.

12. The Mystical Life of Jesus, by H. Spencer Lewis (San Jose, CA: AMORC: 1929).

13. Cf. Morris Netherton and Nancy Shiffrin, Past Lives Therapy (New York: Avon Books, 1978); Edith Fiore, You Have Been Here Before (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978), and Denys Kelsey and Joan Grant, Many Life Times (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1967).

14. This study should not be interpreted as an attack on a belief in reincarnation in general, merely as a suggestion that basing a belief in reincarnation on the Cayce material is basing a significant part of one's worldview on weak ground. This study says nothing about a belief in reincarnation based on other research--hypnotism (which has its own problems), the remembered past-life research of Ian Stevenson, and the testimony of spirit entities through mediums. Each of these methodologies must rise or fall on its own.

Copyright Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture 3 (1-2): 1994.



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