The Origins of Heaven and Hell
Plato's Myth of Er
Posted June 10, 2012
[Article revised on 3 December 2020.]
Plato’s Myth of Er, contained in the Republic, greatly influence subsequent theological and philosophical thinking, up to our very idea of heaven and hell. Er was slain in battle, but came back to life on his funeral pyre to speak to the living of what he had seen while he was dead.
In those twelve days, Er’s soul went on a journey to a meadow with four openings, two into the heavens above and two into the earth below. Judges sat in this meadow and ordered the good souls up through one of the openings into the heavens, and the bad ones down through one of the openings into the earth. Meanwhile, clean and bright souls floated down to the meadow from the second opening into the heavens, while dusty and worn out souls rose up to the meadow from the second opening into the earth. Each returning soul had been on a thousand-year journey. Whereas the descending souls spoke merrily of that which they had enjoyed in the heavens, the ascending souls wept at that which they had endured in the underworld. The souls of tyrants and murderers were condemned to eternity in the underworld, and prevented from rising into the meadow.
The souls spent seven days in the meadow, and then travelled for five more days to the Spindle of Necessity, a shaft of intensely bright light that extends into the heavens and holds together the universe. At this axle of the world, the souls came forth one by one to choose their next life from a scattering of human and animal lives. Not having known the terrors of the underworld, the first soul hastily chose the life of a dictator, only to discover that he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children. Although he had been virtuous in his previous life, his virtue had arisen from habit rather than philosophy, and so his judgement was poor. On the other hand, the souls that had known the terrors of the underworld often chose a better, more virtuous station, but on no other grounds than harsh experience. Last to come forth, the soul of the wily Odysseus, the man of many twists and turns, Zeus’ equal in his mind’s resource, sought out the life of a private man with no cares, which he found easily because overlooked by everyone else.
After having chosen their next life, the souls travelled through the Plain of Oblivion and set camp by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul was required to drink from the river and have its memory erased, but the souls that had not been saved by wisdom drank more than was strictly necessary. In the night, as they slept, the souls shot up like stars to be reborn into their chosen lives. As they did, Er opened his eyes to find himself lying on his funeral pyre.