Feature Articles – Plato and the near death experience
We consider studies in near-death experiences to be a relatively modern phenomenon, after doctors began to take notice of how their patients reported anomalous experiences. But people have been at the brink of death, and returned, for as long as we have existed as a species, so finding older accounts, should not be that surprising.
by Philip Coppens
The Greek philosopher Plato is, at least, in alternative circles, probably best known for his description of Atlantis. But it is less known that Book X of his “Republic” contains the story of a near-death experience (NDE), commonly known as “The Myth of Er”. It is the earliest – 4th century BC – recording of such an experience. It would inspire many, including John Milton, in their efforts to describe otherworldly voyages. Cicero would rework it into the Dream of Scipio.
The Greek soldier Er and is described as “Son of Armenius”. Clement of Alexandria identified him as Zoroaster, though there is no evidence to back up this claim. Modern scholars, meanwhile, largely maintain that the entire episode is an invention of Plato, but this is unlikely, for the simple reason that Er’s vision is so identical to modern near-death experiences, that it has to be based on someone’s experience, rather than an invention. Scholars are all too quick to conclude Plato invents, rather than reports, and this is true both for Atlantis and Er!
Er was slain in battle, “and ten days afterwards, when the bodies of the dead were taken up already in a state of corruption, his body was found unaffected by decay, and carried away home to be buried. And on the twelfth day, as he was lying on the funeral pile, he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world.” This was therefore the account of someone who had been on the threshold of life and death for almost two weeks. Plato Death is as old as life. Whereas in our modern age, medicine has been able to return far more people from the brink of death than ever before, there have been always been people that came back. In some instances, people deliberately brought themselves to the brink of dead, to seek out contact with the Otherworld and the Greeks – and so many other civilizations – had an entire body of techniques to bring people to and back from the Otherworld. The result of this were the initiation cults that existed throughout the Ancient World.
But apart from willful exploration of the Otherworld, there were also accidental crossovers, which we today would describe as the near-death experience. Plato catalogued an NDE more than two millennia before science, chiefly led by Dr. Raymond Moody who coined the term NDE in 1975, began to document the same experiences. To quote Plato: “He [Er] said that when his soul left the body he went on a journey with a great company, and that they came to a mysterious place at which there were two openings in the earth; they were near together, and over against them were two other openings in the heaven above. In the intermediate space there were judges seated, who commanded the just, after they had given judgment on them and had bound their sentences in front of them, to ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand; and in like manner the unjust were bidden by them to descend by the lower way on the left hand; these also bore the symbols of their deeds, but fastened on their backs.” The opening scene is therefore one of two roads, and a judgment, which is not typical of the standard NDE as described in recent years, though at the same time, such scenery has been reported by some.
Er “drew near, and they told him that he was to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men, and they bade him hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place.” As in so many near-death experiencers, the deceased is told that it is not yet his time, but that instead, he has a mission to fulfill, and Er is told that his specific mission is to bring the veracity of an existence after death to his fellow humans. “Then he beheld and saw on one side the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth when sentence had been given on them; and at the two other openings other souls, some ascending out of the earth dusty and worn with travel, some descending out of heaven clean and bright. And arriving ever and anon they seemed to have come from a long journey, and they went forth with gladness into the meadow, where they encamped as at a festival; and those who knew one another embraced and conversed, the souls which came from earth curiously enquiring about the things above, and the souls which came from heaven about the things beneath. And they told one another of what had happened by the way, those from below weeping and sorrowing at the remembrance of the things which they had endured and seen in their journey beneath the earth (now the journey lasted a thousand years), while those from above were describing heavenly delights and visions of inconceivable beauty.” Er describes a type of meeting place of souls, where the souls of the newly deceased meet up with the ancestors whom he seems to have known and which are his “family”. Meeting with deceased relatives is one of the most common ingredients of the modern NDE, and so we see once again that there is very little new under the sun.
“Now when the spirits which were in the meadow had tarried seven days, on the eighth they were obliged to proceed on their journey, and, on the fourth day after, he said that they came to a place where they could see from above a line of light, straight as a column, extending right through the whole heaven and through the earth, in color resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer; another day’s journey brought them to the place, and there, in the midst of the light, they saw the ends of the chains of heaven let down from above: for this light is the belt of heaven, and holds together the circle of the universe, like the under-girders of a trireme. “ What we have here is a column of light, on par, it seems, with the tunnel through which the deceased travels towards an otherworldly light. Where he is brought to, is a place where apparently the next body for the next incarnation is going to be chosen. The souls were addressed as “Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny.” Though it is clear that Er is not about to choose, as he will be returned, it is also clear that he is allowed to witness this. He learns that “the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life” and that they now go through a series of confirmation that their next life is indeed the correct one. This, once again, is on par with modern NDE research.
The next step on the path of reincarnation is a meeting with the Three Fates, all three daughters of Nyx (the Night) and Erebus: “All the souls had now chosen their lives, and they went in the order of their choice to Lachesis, who sent with them the genius whom they had severally chosen, to be the guardian of their lives and the fulfiller of the choice: this genius led the souls first to Clotho, and drew them within the revolution of the spindle impelled by her hand, thus ratifying the destiny of each; and then, when they were fastened to this, carried them to Atropos, who spun the threads and made them irreversible, whence without turning round they passed beneath the throne of Necessity.” The Fates were often linked with weavers, as they spun the plots and twists of one’s life.
There was one final step for the soul to do, which was to forget: “ and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things.” Plato recorded that Er himself was hindered from drinking the water, but ”in what manner or by what means he returned to the body he could not say; only, in the morning, awaking suddenly, he found himself lying on the pyre.” The drinking of the Waters of Forgetfullness (the River Lethe) was one of the key ingredients in reincarnating; the Quest for the Grail was precisely for the Cup of Remembering, in which it was said that during one’s lifetime, each person was invited, by the Herald of the Grail, to drink from the cup, whereby one would remember one’s previous incarnations and become “conscious in the body”. This was the Grail Quest, not just in medieval times, but for many thousands of years before Chrétien de Troyes wrote about the Grail.
The story of Er shows that our ancestors were fully aware of the near-death experience. The Greeks were great recorders and to find a story of an NDE that is largely identical to modern accounts adds a sense of longevity to this field. What the story of Er shows, however, most clearly is that our ancestors’ belief in life after death was based on experimental findings – by the likes of Er but also no doubt by many thousands who had preceded him – and who testified that there was something after death. It was not a matter of belief, but a matter of record – witnesses had gone and reported that there was life after death. And this makes our ancestor’s belief in life after death part of a far more scientific mindset than most academics put it in, which is largely that it was “merely” a belief. It was not. It was an extrapolation of direct experiences our ancestors had and recorded, in such stories as that of Er, and no doubt in many other, oral traditions, that preceded it. This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 95 (September – October 2012).