An Otherworldly Journey with a Greek Flair: Plato’s Myth of Er from The Republic, Book 10
In the interests of highlighting some of the ancient influences on The Shepherd graphic novel series, let’s turn our attention to Plato’s the Myth of Er from The Republic, Book 10.
Plato’s Republic dates from about 375 BCE and is a Socratic dialogue, a work of philosophy and political theory that deals with justice, the city state, and their relation to the just man. The work consists of ten books and our focus, the Myth of Er appears at the very end of the work in Book 10.614-621.
The story focuses on the experience of of the soul in the afterlife, as seen through the eyes of Er, son of Armenius, who is a Pamphylian (i.e., modern western Turkey). Er is a soldier and has fought and fallen in a great battle. Ten days have passed and his body, surprisingly not showing signs of normal decay, is gathered and brought home for his funeral. Two further days pass (for a total of twelve days!) and Er suddenly awakens as he is laid on the funeral pyre!
At this point, Er begins to relate what he saw on the other side.
On dying, Er joined a great company of people (presumably others who had fallen in combat) and journeys to a place where there are “two openings side by side in the earth” and two openings that lead upward to the heavens. Judges sit positioned between these openings so that the passages downward are on the judges left and the passages to the heavens are on their right. Er is expressly told by the judges that he is to be a messenger sent to humanity to inform them of what the afterlife is like. They urge him to pay attention to everything he hears and sees. As one might suspect, the unjust are sent downward and the righteous are directed upward.
As noted, there are TWO openings going down and TWO going up. While those judged use one of these passages, there are also those who are returning from the lower place and the heavenly place. It seems that, for most, rewards and punishments are temporary in duration. In fact, Er is informed that evil deeds are punished tenfold and good rewarded likewise. In both respects, it appears that this period of rewards or punishments lasts 1,000 years.
Of course, as with most things, there are exceptions and Er tells of tyrants and those private citizens who are not released after the requisite time. Interestingly, the passage to the Netherworld itself would not allow the villains to pass but cries out a warning, causing “savage men of fiery aspect” to come and drag them away, throwing them into the pit of Tartarus.
For most souls, they are rewarded or punished, and then they return from the Heavens or Netherworld and gather in a meadow in a reunion of sorts for seven days. While there, they share stories of their experiences—whether harrowing or positive. After this time of rest, the band of rewarded/punished souls moves on, leaving on the eighth day and traveling for four days until they find a pillar of light like a rainbow. After one more day of travel, they reach this light source and see the Spindle of Necessity. This “spindle” supports a great whorl that contains eight orbits, each with their own color and their own Siren that sings a single note as the orbit or sphere rotates. When all eight spheres rotate, these eight Sirens, each singing a single note, form a single, harmonic sound. If you have ever heard of the idea of “seven heavens,” this concept is part of that thought world which envisions a series of heavenly spheres that a soul can or must journey through. (Trust me; we could talk about this concept all day.)
In any event, at this place of the Spindle and the spheres, the great band of souls encounter “the Fates, daughters of Necessity, clad in white vestments with filleted heads, Lachesis, and Clotho, and Atropos, who sang in unison with the music of the Sirens, Lachesis singing the things that were, Clotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be.”
Each soul is brought before Lachesis where it is instructed. After this instruction, the souls are given the opportunity to select their next life (i.e., choose into what kind of life into which they will be reincarnated). This passage is worth quoting in full:
“So saying, the prophet [Lachesis] flung the lots out among them all, and each took up the lot that fell by his side, except himself [Er]; him they did not permit. And whoever took up a lot saw plainly what number he had drawn. [618a] And after this again the prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them, some uninterrupted till the end and others destroyed midway and issuing in penuries and exiles and beggaries; and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength otherwise [618b] and prowess and the high birth and the virtues of their ancestors, and others of ill repute in the same things, and similarly of women. But there was no determination of the quality of soul, because the choice of a different life inevitably determined a different character. But all other things were commingled with one another and with wealth and poverty and sickness and health and the intermediate conditions.”
So imagine that these lives are like character cards from a board game, laid out before the souls on the floor. If the soul chooses rashly, based on one element that appears on the character card, then that soul could find itself in real trouble in its new life. Er describes the choosing of lives that he witnessed. Again, this passage is so stunning, it deserves to be presented in full:
“…the prophet [Lachesis] spoke thus: ‘Even for him who comes forward last, if he make his choice wisely and live strenuously, there is reserved an acceptable life, no evil one. Let not the foremost in the choice be heedless nor the last be discouraged.’ When the prophet had thus spoken he said that the drawer of the first lot at once sprang to seize the greatest tyranny, and that in his folly and greed he chose it [619c] without sufficient examination, and failed to observe that it involved the fate of eating his own children, and other horrors, and that when he inspected it at leisure he beat his breast and bewailed his choice, not abiding by the forewarning of the prophet. For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself. He was one of those who had come down from heaven, a man who had lived in a well-ordered polity in his former existence, [619d] participating in virtue by habit and not by philosophy; and one may perhaps say that a majority of those who were thus caught were of the company that had come from heaven, inasmuch as they were unexercised in suffering. But the most of those who came up from the earth, since they had themselves suffered and seen the sufferings of others, did not make their choice precipitately. For which reason also there was an interchange of good and evil for most of the souls, as well as because of the chances of the lot. Yet if at each return to the life of this world [619e] a man loved wisdom sanely, and the lot of his choice did not fall out among the last, we may venture to affirm, from what was reported thence, that not only will he be happy here but that the path of his journey thither and the return to this world will not be underground and rough but smooth and through the heavens. For he said that it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives. [620a] He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives.
The next passage outlines various figures from Greek legend and illustrates how each soul made choices based on their past experiences in life—often in an overreaction against their former life! A perfect example of this that will, no doubt, represent the others well is the decision of the famous Odysseus (the hard-traveling hero of Homer’s Odyssey)
“And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make its choice, and, from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others, [620d] and upon seeing it said that it would have done the same had it drawn the first lot, and chose it gladly.”
Once the souls made their choices—and it seems that things were set up on a “you touch, you take” basis—the souls were brought to Clotho and then Atropos, who then sewed the life to the soul creating a “destiny irreversible.”
Once this was done for all the souls, they journey to the Plain of Oblivion where they eventually camped by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul is required to drink of the water. They did and subsequently lost all memory of their time in the afterlife. Shortly after, the souls slipped into a slumber, and one by one, they were taken up to their respective births.
Meanwhile, Er was prevented from drinking. The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the funeral pyre.
An older translation of the Myth of Er is available here: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.11.x.html (remember it is at the END of Book 10 so scroll down).