Plato’s Myth of Er
Was this a near-death experience?
At the end of Plato’s Republic (written around 400-300 BC), a warrior named Er, who “died” in battle, observed a towering band of light resembling a rainbow, only brighter and purer. It seemed to be a passageway by which souls journey back and forth to Earth. Most western philosophers and other scholars, who lack insights and information from recent discoveries about near-death experiences (NDEs), tend to interpret Er’s experience as only an allegory, yet it offers striking parallels to modern NDE accounts being reported by thousands of people. Today modern researchers are taking a new look at Er’s account by Plato.
Greek culture is filled with stories of healers, oracles, and miracle-workers – the iatromanteis. We even find records of “air-travellers” who knew how to leave their bodies at will in order to visit celestial worlds and remote earthly locations.
On one mystical flight, the famous ecstatic, Hermotimos, lost his “bodily shelter.” While his soul visited faraway places, jealous enemies burned his inanimate body. As recorded in Plato’s Republic, the warrior Er nearly met the same fate as Hermotimos. In Er’s case, however, his soul reentered the body just in the nick of time before his family lit the funeral pyre.
Once I regained consciousness, I related the story of the soul’s 1,000 year journey between one human life and the next. My near-death episode began in the region where individuals who had just completed their earthly lives experience a life review. I watched as judges overseeing the process sent mature souls to Heaven; whereas souls who lived at cross-purposes with universal law went to a nasty underground prison (Tartarus), there to pay their penalty.
Like the rest, I took my turn to stand before the judges; they surprised me and advised: “Er, you are not here for judgment. You have come as Earth’s messenger and must return to mankind to tell them of the other world.”
Er’s Journey to the Land of Cosmic Contracts
My assigned task began in a great meadow where I mingled with a gathering of souls like a festival crowd. For seven days, I listened closely as souls recounted experiences taking place over the past one thousand years: the shining souls related beautiful visions of Heaven, whereas soul dwellers from the underworld, who were still covered with dust and grime, wept as they related all that they had suffered.
I then observed how this entire company of souls prepared for another human birth. To begin with, I ascended with them through a heavenly gate and travelled to the outer rim of the sky. We eventually reached a luminous column stretching through Heaven and Earth, the axis of the cosmos by which the universe revolves. This cosmic pillar, a towering band of light, resembled a rainbow, only brighter and purer.
Within this scene, both the souls who had spent 1,000 years in the heavens or in Tartarus [Hell], began preparing for their next lifetimes. First, souls leisurely previewed a set of tablets inscribed with life patterns of every living creature and condition. The total number of scripts available exceeded the number of souls in the assembly so that everyone had the opportunity to choose a good life.
Before the souls picked out the cosmic contracts which pleased them most, an overseer threw lot numbers amongst the assembly. The number the soul picked up determined the order in the queue for selecting a new life. Number one had the first choice, and so forth, according to the numbers held, until all had chosen.
The overseer next warned, “You are free to choose and will be held responsible for your choice. Let not the first choose carelessly, nor the last give up hope. Even the last soul to pick a cosmic contract will find a tolerable life lying here, if he chooses with intelligence.”
I noted that some souls selected conditions of their next life more wisely, and others less wisely. Pleasurable lives easily tempted less mature souls. Young souls blindly grabbed cosmic contracts without examining the fine print such as – great wealth followed by bankruptcy, or years of sensual pleasure followed by years of pain.
Dispositions formed in previous lives definitely influenced the soul’s preference. The first soul in line illustrates this principle. He settled upon the life of an absolute dictator. Having made a hasty decision, he noticed that he was fated to eat his children, among other evils. He beat his breast, blaming God, the stars – everyone except himself. In this case, he had been virtuous in a previous life, yet his virtue had been merely “customary” without foundation upon consciously realized principle.
Wiser souls took time to contemplate previous experiences before making a decision. Souls who had suffered in Tartarus, on the average, seemed to plan more wisely than souls coming down from Heaven.
Odysseus, the clever king of Ithaca, serves as another prime illustration. Although Odysseus had emerged victorious in battle after suggesting the stratagem of the Trojan Horse, he encountered obstacles in returning to Greece following the Trojan War. Odysseus wandered with his men from place to place for an entire decade. They had countless adventures: the sorceress Circe turned them into swine; they nearly succumbed to the temptations of the land of the Lotus-Eaters and the insidious song of the Sirens; they barely survived the dangers of the passage between Scylla and Charybdis; and they encountered the fearsome one-eyed giant Polyphemus.
I observed how Odysseus reflected upon the hollowness and uncertainty of fame, the batterings of endless journeys, and treacherous adventures. This time he decided to look for an easier lot with less heartache and tragedy. Sure enough, he picked up the cosmic contract for a quiet man’s life, the one that had been rejected by the other souls. Although Odysseus happened to be the last to make a choice, he said, “I would have done the same even if I had drawn the first lot.”
In another instance, Orpheus recalled how he had been murdered by a woman in his previous life. As a consequence, Orpheus’ hatred of women influenced his decision to be reborn as a swan rather than entering a woman’s womb.
Besides humans choosing to pass into animals in the next life, I even noted that animals changed into one another and into humans.
Shooting Stars from the Banks of Lethe
I witnessed one final step prior to the take off spot for the return journey to Earth. I marched with the assembly of souls through a burning heat and frost across the Plain of Lethe. At last, when we arrived at the River of Forgetfulness, some of us felt compelled to satisfy their thirst. Foolish souls drank more than the rest. The more they drank, the deeper they slept – and the more they forgot of their divine heritage.
Unlike the rest, I chose to forgo the waters of Lethe in order to remember all that I had seen and heard. I remained wide awake at midnight to witness a lightning and quaking of the universe to awaken the souls, propelling them to the waiting wombs of their earthly mothers – leaping upward like shooting stars.
Twelve days had passed since I had “died” on the battleground. Yet before I knew it, I had opened my eyes and found himself on the funeral pyre, not knowing by what means I had gone in and out of my body.
Moral of Er’s NDE
After relating Er’s story to a student, Plato explains:
“Thus, Glaucon, the tale was preserved … and if we listen to it, it may preserve us, and we shall cross the river of Lethe without defiling our souls. And if we believe what I say, convinced that the soul is immortal and strong to endure all good and ill, we shall ever hold to the upward path and practice justice with knowledge … and when, like victorious athletes … we have won the prize for justice both here and in the thousand-year journey we have gone through, we shall fare well.”