Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
“But to the Mindless ones, the wicked and depraved, the envious and covetous, and those who murder do and love impiety, I am far off, yielding my place to the Avenging Daimon.”—C. H., ff., i. 23.
To this Daimon it is that the “way of life” of the man is surrendered at death (§ 24). In this connection we may consider the Story or Vision of “Ēr Son of Armenius,” which Plato tells at the end of the last book (X.) of his Republic (614 B ff.), for the symbolism is very similar to that of our tractate and the subject is more or less the same.
This Ēr is said by Clement of Alexandria to have been Zoroaster, “but no trace of acquaintance with Zoroaster is found elsewhere in Platos writings, and there is no reason for giving him the name of Er the Pamphylian. The philosophy of Heracleitus cannot be shown to be borrowed from Zoroaster, and still less the myths of Plato.” 1
What the source of the story is, scholarship has so far been unable to discover; the vast majority of scholars holding it to be an invention of Plato.
It is the story of a man “killed in battle,” whose body was brought home on the tenth day still fresh and showing no sign of decomposition. On the twelfth day, when laid on the funeral pyre, Er awakes and tells a strange story of his experiences in the invisible world.
This story should be taken in close connection with Plutarchs similar but fuller Vision of Aridæus (Thespesius), upon which I have commented at length in my “Notes on the Eleusinian Mysteries.” 1
I there stated that the experiences of Aridæus were either a literary subterfuge for describing part of the instruction in certain Mysteries, or the Vision, in popular story form, was considered so true a description of what was thought to be the nature of the invisible world and the after-death conditions of the soul, that it required little alteration to make it useful for that purpose.
I would now suggest that the Story of Er is also used by Plato for a somewhat similar purpose. It is further interesting to notice that one of the characters in the Vision of Er is called Ardiæus, while in Plutarch the main personage is called Aridæus. The transposition of a single letter is so slight as to make the names practically identical, and the subject matter is so similar that we are inclined to think that there must be some connection between the Visions. Moreover, Aridæus is said to have been a native of Soli in Cilicia, just as Er is said to have been a Pamphylian; the tradition of such stories would thus seem to have been derived from Asia Minor, and the origin of them may
thus be hidden in the syncretism of that land—where West and East were for ever meeting. It is, however, much safer to assume that, in the Story of Er, Plato is handing on the doctrines of Orphic eschatology; 1 whether or not the story already existed in some form, and was worked up and elaborated by the greatest artist in words of all philosophers, will perhaps never be known. But to the story itself.
614 C.—Er, in a certain daimonian or psychic plane (τόπος τις δαιμόνιος), is made a spectator of a turning-point or change of course in the ascent and descent of souls. He thus seems to have been in a space or state midway between Tartarus and Heaven—presumably the invisible side of the sublunary space.
The world-engine of Fate, or Kārmic World-whorl, is represented by seven spheres (surrounded by an eighth) whose harmonious spinning is adjusted by the three Fates, the Daughters of Necessity.
Jowett (loc. cit.) says that the heaven-sphere is represented under the symbol of a “cylinder or box.” Where the “box” comes in I do not know; the term “cylinder” does not occur in the text, and even the cylinder idea is exceedingly difficult to discover in any precise sense. Indeed, it may be doubted whether the “heaven-sphere” is to be so definitely interpreted; for then our discussion of the meaning of the term “cylinder,” which occurs definitely in our K. K. Fragments, would be greatly simplified.
The matter is hard to understand, and Jowetts
attempts at exposition are hazy and sketchy in the extreme. Either Plato is talking nonsense, or Jowett does not understand the elements of his idea. Stewarts attempt, which makes use of the latest Platonic research, is far more successful, but he also has to abandon many points in despair. 1 How difficult the solution of the problem is may be seen from the text, which gives the symbolism of the vision of the spheres somewhat as follows:
616 B.—“Now when those in the meadow 2 had tarried seven days, on the eighth they were obliged to proceed on their journey upwards, and, on the fourth day after, 3 he [Er] said they came to a region where they saw light extended straight as a column from above throughout the whole extent of heaven and earth, in colour resembling the rainbow, only brighter and purer.
“Another days journey brought them to it, and there they saw the extremities of the boundaries of the heaven extended in the midst of the light; for this light was the final boundary of the heaven—somewhat like the under-girdings of ships—and thus confined its whole revolution.
“From these extremities depended the spindle of Necessity, by means of which all its revolutions are made to revolve. The spindles stalk 4 and its hook are made of adamant, 5 and the whorl of a mixture of adamant and other kinds [of elements].
“And the nature of the whorl is as follows. In shape it was like that of the one down here; but in itself we must understand from his description that it was somewhat as though in one great hollow whorl clean scooped out there lay another similar but smaller one fitted into it, as though they were jars 1 fitting into one another. And so he said there was a third and a fourth, and [also] four others. For in all there are eight whorls set in one another—looking like circles from above as to their rims, 2 [but from below] finished off into the continuous belly 3 of one whorl round the shaft, which is driven right through the eighth whorl.
“The first and outermost whorl had the circle of its rim first in width; that of the sixth was second; that of the fourth, third; that of the eighth, fourth; that of the seventh, fifth; that of the fifth, sixth; that of the third, seventh; that of the second, eighth.
617.—“And the circle of the largest was variegated; that of the seventh brightest; that of the eighth had its colour from the seventh shining on it; those of the second and of the fifth had [colours] somewhat like one another, but yellower than the preceding; the third had the whitest colour; the fourth was reddish; the sixth was second in whiteness. 4
“Now the spindle as a whole circled round at the same rate in its revolution; and within this revolution as a whole the seven circles revolved slowly in a contrary direction to the one as a whole; of these the eighth went the fastest of them; the seventh, sixth, and fifth came second [in speed, and at the same rate] with one another; the fourth, in a reversed orbit, as it appeared to them, was third in speed; the third was fourth and the second fifth.
“The spindle revolved on the knees of Necessity; and on its circles above, on each of them, was a Siren whom they carried round with them, singing a single sound or tone; and from all eight of them a single harmony was produced.
“And there were three others seated at equal distances round about, each upon a throne,—the Daughters of Necessity, the Fates, clothed in white robes, with garlands on their heads, Lachesis and Clotho and Atropos; and they sang to the tune of the Sirens harmony,—Lachesis sang things that have been, Clotho things that are, and Atropos things that shall be.
“And Clotho from time to time with her right hand gave an extra turn to the outer spin of the spindle; Atropos, with her left, in like fashion to the inner ones; while Lachesis in turn touched the one with one hand and the other with the other.
“Now when they [Er and the souls] arrived, they had to go immediately to Lachesis. Accordingly a prophet [a proclaimer] first of all arranged them in their proper order, and taking from the lap of Lachesis both lots 1 and samples of lives, he ascended a kind of raised place and said:
“The word (logos) of the Virgin Lachesis, Daughter of Necessity! Ye souls, ye things of a day, lo the
beginning of another period of mortal birth that brings you death. It is not your daimon who will have you assigned to him by lot, but ye who will choose your daimon. He who obtains the first turn let him first choose a life to which he will of necessity have to hold. As for Virtue, Necessity has no control over her, but every one will possess her more or less just as he honours or dishonours her. The responsibility is the choosers; God is blameless.
“Thus speaking he threw the lots to all of them, and each picked up the one that fell beside him, except Er, who was not permitted to do so. So every one who picked up a lot knew what turn he had got.
618.—“After this he set on the ground before them the samples of the lives, in far greater number than those present. They were of every kind; not only lives of every kind of animal, but also lives of every kind of man. There were lives of autocratic power [lit., tyrannies] among them, some continuing to the end, some breaking off half-way and ending in poverty, exile, and beggary. There were also lives of famous men, some famed for their beauty of form and strength, and victory in the games, others for their birth and the virtues of their forebears; others the reverse of famous, and for similar reasons. So also with regard to the lives of women.
“As to the rank of the soul, it was no longer in the power [of the chooser], for the decree of Necessity is that its choosing of another life conditions its change of soul-rank. As for other things, riches and poverty were mingled with each other, and these sometimes with disease and sometimes with health, and sometimes a mean between these.”
Thereupon Plato breaks into a noble disquisition on what is the best choice, and how a man should take
with him into the world an adamantine faith in truth and right; and then continues:
619 B.—“And this is precisely what the messenger from that invisible world reported that the prophet said:
“Even for him who comes last in turn, if he but choose with his mind, and live consistently, there is in store a life desirable and far from evil. So let neither him who has the best choice be careless, nor him who comes last despair.
“And when he had thus spoken, the one who had the first choice, Er said, immediately went and chose the largest life of autocratic power, but through folly and greediness he did not choose with sufficient attention to all points, and failed to notice the fate wrapped up with it, of dishes of his own children 1 and other ills. But when he had examined it at leisure, he began to beat his breast, and bemoan his choice, not abiding by what the prophet had previously told him; for he did not lay the blame of these evils on himself, but on ill-luck and daimones, and everything rather than himself. And he was one of those who came from heaven, who in his former life had lived in a well-ordered state, and been virtuous from custom and not from a love of wisdom. 2
“In brief, it was by no means the minority of those who involved themselves in such unfortunate choices who came from heaven, seeing that such souls were unexercised in the hardships of life. Many of those who came from earth, as they had suffered hardships themselves, and had seen others suffering them, did not make their choice off-hand.
“Consequently many of the souls, independently of the fortune of their turn, changed good for evil, and evil for good. For if a man should always, whenever he comes into life on earth, live a sound philosophic life, and the lot of his choice should not fall out to him among the last, the chances are, according to this news from the other world, that he will not only spend his life happily here, but also that the path which he will tread from here to there, and thence back again, will not be below the earth 1 and difficult, but easy and of a celestial nature.
620.—“Yes, the vision he had, Er said, was well worth the seeing, showing how each class of souls chose their lives. 2 The vision was both a pitiful and laughable as well as a wonderful thing to see. For the most part they chose according to the experience of their former life. For Er said that he saw the soul that had once been that of Orpheus becoming the life of a swan for choice, 3 through its hatred of womankind, because owing to the death of Orpheus at the hands of women, it did not wish to come into existence by conception in a woman. He further saw the soul of Thamyras 4 choose the life of a nightingale. On the contrary, he saw also a swan change to the choice of a human life, and other musical animals in like fashion.
“The soul that obtained the twentieth lot chose
the life of a lion; it was the soul of Ajax, son of Telamon, to avoid being a man, because it still remembered the [unjust] decision about the arms. The next soul was Agamemnons; and it too, out of hatred to the human race on account of its sufferings, changed into the life of an eagle. 1 The soul of Atalanta obtained its lot in the middle, and letting her eye fall on the great honours paid an athlete, was unable to pass it by, and took it. The soul of Epeius, 2 son of Panopeus, he saw pass into the nature of a woman skilful in the arts. And far away among the last he saw the soul of the buffoon Thersites putting on an ape.
“By a stroke of luck also he saw the soul of Odysseus, which had obtained the last lot of all, come to make its choice. From memory of its former labours it had given itself a rest from love of renown, and for a long time went about to find the life of a man in private life with nothing to do with public affairs, and with great difficulty found one lying in a corner and thus passed over by all the rest; on seeing it, it declared that it would have done the same even if it had had first turn, and been glad to do it.
“And Er said that of the rest of the brutes also in like fashion some of them passed into men, and some into one another, the unrighteous ones changing into wild ones, and the righteous into tame; in fact, there were intermixings of every kind.
“When, then, all the souls had chosen their lives according to the number of their turn, they went in order to Lachesis; and she sent along with them the daimon each had chosen, as watcher over his life and bringer to pass of the things he had chosen. And
the daimon first of all brought the soul to Clotho, set it beneath her hand and the whirling of the spindle, thus ratifying the fate each soul had chosen in its turn. And after he had attached it to her, he brought it to the spinning of Atropos, thus making its destinies 1 irreversible.
621.—“Thence [Er] went, without turning, [down] beneath the Throne 2 of Necessity, and when he had passed down through it, and the others had also done so, they all passed on to the Plain of Forgetfulness (Lethē) in a frightful and stifling heat; for it was bare of trees and vegetation of every kind.
“As it was now evening they camped by the River Heedlessness whose water no vessel can hold. 3 They were all, however, compelled to drink a certain quantity of its water; those who are not safeguarded by prudence drink more than their quantity, while he who keeps on drinking it forgets everything.
“When they had fallen asleep and midnight had come, there was thunder and earthquake, and thence suddenly they were carried up into birth [genesis] some one way some another, like shooting stars.
“Er, however, was prevented from drinking the water; but in what manner and by what means he got back to his body he could not say, only, suddenly waking in the morning, he found himself lying on the pyre.”
The question that one naturally asks oneself is: Did Plato conclude his great treatise on the Ideal State with a popular legend in jest, or had he some deeper purpose? I cannot but think that he was jesting seriously. Is it too wild a supposition that he is hinting at things which he could not disclose because of his oath? Those who knew would understand; those who did not would think he was jesting simply, and so the mysteries would not be disclosed.
In any case we have, I think, got a hint of the part played by the Daimon in our treatise. Whether or not Hermes “copied” the idea from Plato, or both derived it from the same tradition, must be left to the fancy and taste of individual scholars. The Daimon is the watcher over the “way of life” (ἦθος); he is not necessarily a Kakodaimon, but so to speak the Kārmic Agent of the soul, appointed to carry out the “choice” of that soul, both good and ill, according to the Law of Necessity. 1 The choice is mans; Nature adjusts the balance.
The Vision is of a typical nature, and the types are mythologized in the persons of well-known characters in Grecian story. The “way of life” the souls choose becomes the garment of “habit” they are to wear, their form of personality, or kārmic limitation. Apparently some souls, instead of choosing a reincarnation in a human body, prefer to live the “lives” of certain animal natures. Are we then to believe that Plato seriously endorsed the popular ideas of metempsychosis? Or is it possible that he is referring to some state of existence of souls, which was symbolized by certain animal types
in the Mysteries; as was certainly the case with the “lion” and “eagle,” though the “swan” and “nightingale” and “ape” are, as far as I am aware, never mentioned in this connection? Can it be that Plato here gives play to his imagination, basing his speculations on some general idea he may have learned in Egypt?
We know from the so-called “Diagram of the Ophites,” which is still traceable in a fragmentary form in the polemic of Origen against Celsus, that the “seven spheres” of the lower psychic nature were characterised by the names of animals: lion, bull, serpent, eagle, bear, dog, ass. We also know how the whole subject of animal correspondences preoccupied the attention of the Egyptian priesthood. But not only can we now make no reasonable scheme out of the fragmentary indications that have come down to us, but we also feel pretty well certain that if Plutarchs account of the beliefs of the later Egyptians on the subject is approximately reliable, the priests themselves of those days had no longer any consistent scheme.
We may, therefore, conclude either that the whole matter was a vain superstition entirely devoid of any basis in reality; or that there was a psychic science of animal natures and their relationship to man which was once the possession of the priesthood of the ancient civilisation of Egypt, but that it was lost, owing to the departure from amongst men of those who had the power to understand it, and subsequently only fragments of misunderstood tradition remained among the lesser folk on earth. This at anyrate is the theory of our Trismegistic treatises.
437:1 Jowett, Dialogues, iii. clxvi.
438:1 The Theosophical Review (April, May, June, 1898), xxii. 145 ff., 232 ff., 312 ff.
439:1 And this I find to be the opinion of the last commentator on the subject; see Stewart (J. A.), The Myths of Plato (London, 1905), pp. 152 ff.
440:1 So also Dreyer (J. L. E.), History of the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler (Cambridge, 1906), pp. 56 ff.
440:2 The daimonian region.
440:3 That is the eleventh day; Er, it will be remembered, was “unconscious” for twelve days.
440:4 Or shaft.
440:5 That which cannot be destroyed or changed.
441:1 The shape would thus approximate to an oblate spheroid.
441:2 To carry out the metaphor of the jars.
441:3 Lit., “back.”
441:4 The names of the spheres may be deduced from Tim. 38, and are as follows: 1. Fixed Stars (all-coloured); 2. Saturn (yellow); 3. Jupiter (whitish); 4. Mars (reddish); 5. Mercury (yellowish); 6. Venus (white); 7. Sun (light-colour); 8. Moon (light-colour reflected). How the above statements as to “width of rim” and colours are to be made to work in with the scheme of rates of motions and numbers given in Tim. 36, I have not as yet been able to discover from any commentator. And seeing that Er is said to have seen this mystery from a region that transcended even the daimonian region, it is perhaps out of place to insist on a purely physical interpretation of the data.
442:1 Or number-turns.
444:1 A literary embellishment from the Tragic Muse of Greece, and the mythical recitals of Thyestian banquets.
444:2 ἔθει ἄνευ φιλοσοφίας.
445:1 The Tartarean spheres of the invisible world, popularly believed to be below the earth; that is, philosophically, more material than earth-life.
445:2 The vision (θέα) was therefore typical.
445:3 The birds are typical of souls living in the air—that is, in aery bodies and not in physical ones; or types of intelligence.
445:4 Or Thamyris, an ancient Thracian bard; it is said that in his conceit he imagined he could surpass the Muses in song, in consequence of which he was deprived of his sight and the power of singing.
446:1 Notice the “lion” and “eagle” are selected as types—they being typical sun-animals, as we have already seen.
446:2 The fabled engineer of the Trojan Horse.
447:1 τὰ ἐπικλωσθέντα—a play on Κλωθώ.
447:2 This is probably a symbol of the heaven-plane.
447:3 οὖ τὸ ὕδωρ ἀγγείον οὐδὲν στέγειν. So this is usually translated; but as the souls drink of it, the appropriateness of the rendering is not very apparent. On the other hand, στέγειν is used of things that are water-tight—e.g. houses and ships; hence “whose water no vessel can keep out.” The “vessel” might thus stand for the ship of the soul; and if so, we are in contact with an Egyptian idea. The River is in the Desert—the reverse of the Nile and Egypt, of Osiris and Isis, their Typhonean counterparts.
448:1 For the more intimate teaching on this point, see C. H., x. (xi.) 16 ff.