Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Libra, one of the zodiac constellations, is a pair of weighing scales. Why might there be such a contraption in the sky? What is being weighed?
In Ancient Greece and in Arabic astronomy the constellation Libra was simply an extension of Scorpio: the claws of the scorpion. In Babylonian astronomy, Libra seems to have been both known as the claws of the scorpion, and as MUL Zibanu (the "scales" or "balance").
It is possible that Libra resembles a pair of weighing scales because for a period the sun entered this part of the sky at the time of the autumn equinox, when the days and nights are equal.
This is absolutely the case. Between about 2,400 and 1,100 BCE the sun did rise in Libra on the equinox, the day in autumn when daylight has decreased to such an extent since the summer that day and night are roughly equal. The screen shots below taken from the program Stellarium show the sun rising in Libra when the sun is in the sky for 12 hours a day. The date shown in the bottom left hand corner doesn't correspond to today's equinox dates, what matters is the length of the day. (When the sun rises in a specific part of a constellation it remains within it for the whole day, not just the moment of sunrise so the time of the shot is irrelevant.) You can see below in 2,500 BCE the sun is just about to enter Libra, and in the following screen shot it is about to exit Libra in about 1,100 BCE. Babylon was a major power from about 1,800 to 1,600 BCE. Perhaps the constellation Libra marks this celestial event, but it is much older than the period when Babylon was a great city.
The constellation chart from the temple at Denderah shows Libra quite clearly, though it may only be dated to around the year 50 BCE. José Lull and Juan Antonio Belmonte have written that what we today refer to as the zodiac constellations, and which are quite easily recognisable on the Denderah zodiac, may have been inherited from Greece or Mesopotamia, not from a long Egyptian tradition.
Libra, however, as represented by the Scales is first attested in Egypt, where the autumnal equinoctial point was located in late antiquity. The figure of a child within a disk is located upon these scales. This is represented also within the sign of the horizon akhet in the astronomical ceiling of the later hypostyle hall. (8)
Lull and Belmonte suggest a connection between Libra and Hor-em-akhet, “Horus in the horizon”, deity which represented the dawn and the early morning sun. He was often depicted as a sphinx with the head of a man, a lion or a ram, and could be what the Great Sphinx at Giza represents.
Was this part of the sky, Libra, marked to show not only where the sun rose at the equinox, marking an even balance between night and day, and a transition point in the year, but something else too? Are these the weighing scales that the Archangel Michael and Anubis use to assess the worth of a soul in the afterlife?
The writer Alvin Boyd Kuhn describes life as the period of the soul's trial and testing. This is a concept that unites all religions. Such a trial implies that the soul continues to exist beyond an earthly life, and perhaps, goes on to dwell within another earthly life after that, and so on. What happens to the soul after death, be it a journey to heaven or hell, or a reincarnation, is a question implied by the very presence of weighing scales held by psychopomps such as Anubis or the Archangel Michael, or even the key held by Saint Peter. Upon the death of a person, their soul is said to travel, and this journey is the subject of many fascinating beliefs. The light of the sun, the horizon, mountains: what have they to do with this journey?
Without such a testing she would remain forever ignorant of her own latent capacity, or would never bring it to expression. Here is where she is thrown into the scales of balance, in Libra on the horizon, and here is where she is being weighed. (1)
So what about good, evil, the afterlife, and weighing souls, of judgment day?
The Greek myth of Er, recounted in Plato's Republic, Book X, (recounted in full at the end of this post) describes the journey of souls after death. A man is resuscitated from the dead and tells of his experience through the other world. Together with a group of other souls destined for rebirth, he comes to "a straight shaft of light, like a pillar, stretching from above throughout heaven and earth-and there, at the middle of the light, he sees the extremities of heaven's chains, the light that binds the heavens, holding together all the revolving firmament like the undergirths of a ship of war".
The following description of the shaft of light as 'spindle' is quite surprising, involving the traditional seven 'planets' (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), colour and sound waves. I had to look up what a whorl was, as I had no idea how a spindle actually worked, but it's basically a weight to keep the spin constant.
The shaft and hook of this spindle are made of steel, and the whorl is made partly of steel and also partly of other materials. Now the whorl is in form like the whorl used on earth; and the description of it implied that there is one large hollow whorl which is quite scooped out, and into this is fitted another lesser one, and another, and another, and four others, making eight in all, like vessels which fit into one another; the whorls show their edges on the upper side, and on their lower side all together form one continuous whorl. This is pierced by the spindle, which is driven home through the centre of the eighth.
The first and outermost whorl has the rim broadest, and the seven inner whorls are narrower, in the following proportions—the sixth is next to the first in size, the fourth next to the sixth; then comes the eighth; the seventh is fifth, the fifth is sixth, the third is seventh, last and eighth comes the second. The largest [or fixed stars] is spangled, and the seventh [or sun] is brightest; the eighth [or moon] coloured by the reflected light of the seventh; the second and fifth [Saturn and Mercury] are in colour like one another, and yellower than the preceding; the third [Venus] has the whitest light; the fourth [Mars] is reddish; the sixth [Jupiter] is in whiteness second. Now the whole spindle has the same motion; but, as the whole revolves in one direction, the seven inner circles move slowly in the other, and of these the swiftest is the eighth; next in swiftness are the seventh, sixth, and fifth, which move together; third in swiftness appeared to move according to the law of this reversed motion the fourth; the third appeared fourth and the second fifth. The spindle turns on the knees of Necessity; and on the upper surface of each circle is a siren, who goes round with them, hymning a single tone or note.
Between the extremities of the Spindle of Necessity, all the circles revolve. This is not a single axis but a sort of prototype or generating force for all heavenly cycles. The Spindle of Necessity could govern the axis of the Earth, but also some other axis, perhaps that of the sun's path round the sun, or the axis around which the Milky Way revolves. It could also be the Milky Way itself acting like a band holding everything together, or the ecliptic / zodiac band, the course of the sun through the sky. The journey described by Er is a fascinating account of places and people beyond the world of the living, where the souls of humans and animals choose their future lives. Justice is given to those who have acted wrongly, and this seems to tie in with the mechanical workings of the celestial bodies. Justice, truth and order are intrinsic to the Spindle of Necessity. This idea was very influential in the development of later religious beliefs, and may be very old indeed.
Plotinus was a 3rd century philosopher, probably the most influential thinker in the Christian world after Plato and Aristotle. In fact he was the founder of a school of thought later called neo-platonism, which heavily influenced the formation of Christian theology. Like Plato, Plotinus had a concept of the soul being made up of several parts. He believed that you can't act without being affected by what you do, what you act upon. One part of the soul is constantly affected by existence, all that it goes through. Another part though is not affected at all by the ups and downs of life, and it actually governs the Cosmos. The essence of the soul is one with the Highest Soul. This is how all individual embodied souls eventually return to their true divine state. They return to the Divine Realm. This return is made in three stages: the cultivation of Virtue, which reminds the soul of the divine Beauty; the practice of Dialectic, which tells the soul the true nature of existence; and finally, Contemplation, which is the proper mode of existence of the soul. (Capital letters all Plotinus's)
Against this theoretical background, evil can be said to be something that can affect the lower part of the soul, the part that is embedded in the material world and every day life, but not the higher part. The soul can fall prey to Evil, but Evil is not something that the soul can never get rid of or overcome, and can be remedied by the soul’s experience of Love. A platonist's concept of love is not necessarily what might commonly be understood as love. Plotinus's concept of love involves notions of the soul's higher and lower parts, and how the soul falls into bad ways when it falls in love with images it already contains and mistakes them for realities, so that the soul makes judgements without the influence of its higher part. A fallen soul will be forced to endure a chain of incarnations in various bodies, until it finally remembers its ‘true self,’ and turns its mind back to the contemplation of its higher part, and returns to its natural state.
In the third century, reincarnation was still considered acceptable, and even central to Christian thought.
Plato also believed that souls were made up of the same stuff as the Cosmos, and also believed in reincarnation. For Plato, all souls have wings and can climb upwards, but only the souls of the gods can actually stay up there. The others gradually fall back down to earth again, eventually hitting on a body, and becoming partly mortal. Some human souls can become immortal too, the most godlike ones, the philosophers, and can escape the cycle of rebirth.
Most religions in fact have either reincarnation or an after life as a central part of their beliefs. Either way, it is an almost universal idea that the souls of those who die travel to a spirit world, or to Heaven, or to the Cosmos, and the way that person's life was lived will have a bearing on this journey and the soul's destination. It's worth noting that this belief in a part of the soul living on after the death of the body and travelling to another realm is not dependent on the idea of a god or gods. However, there is usually a gatekeeper, or a guide, or some figure to sort and judge, perhaps weigh these souls. In traditions where the soul is not believed to continue on to a new mortal body, the soul has to dwell permanently in heaven or hell, or somewhere in between, and is not given much of a chance to redeem itself. For Plotinus, evil was simply a lack of goodness, like the holes in a swiss cheese, it certainly didn't define a person or their soul. The soul could gradually over the course of many lifetimes build up more and more good qualities and eventually break free from the cycle of reincarnation. However, this is in sharp contrast with many beliefs whereby the soul only inhabits a body once and is judged completely on its performance during that time. Hell, or the possibility of it, becomes the currency of a controlling deity and ruling class in the earthly world. Christians for a long time were very fond of threatening people of burning in hell for all eternity, a theme that seems to have lost popularity in recent times.
There are many traditions around the world, but one striking thing they have in common is the idea of some souls fairing better than others in the after or next life. So what does this mean for souls travelling to the afterlife after the body's death?
Of course, as everyone knows, the soul of a dead person will go where it deserves to go, depending on how that person has lived their life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there must come a day when the soul of the dead is judged or weighed - and this is where the constellation Libra comes in. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, and Christians for example teach that the souls of the unbaptised cannot go to heaven, be they young children or people from another religion. Catholics believe that evil deeds can be forgiven and even the worst people can go to heaven if they repent, or are forgiven by a priest, possibly in exchange for a donation. In many medieval paintings, the devil may try to catch even a person worthy of heaven. In ancient Egyptian lore, the soul of the dead must follow instructions to the letter so as to get past all the obstacles and get to a good place, as explained in the Book of the Dead. What all these rules and instructions tells us is that the decision of the soul's journey is to a large degree an earthly one: one's deeds, one's creed and allegiance, one's redemption are human, all too human, judged by people who deem themselves worthy judges. So what about this pair of weighing scales in the sky?
Psychostasia is the concept by which a person's life is judged by the weighing of their soul. Though it was a particularly important part of medieval Christian belief, it dates back to a much earlier time. The Ancient Egyptians held a belief that people's hearts would be weighed after death in the underworld, the Duat. In medieval Christian art, most often you see two people in the scales, the good person to the viewer's left, the bad person tipping the scales to the viewer's left. In Egyptian art, the heart is weighed not against another person's soul but against a feather, representing truth, justice and order, Maat. The unlucky heavy hearts would be eaten by the goddess Ammit, a monstrous cross between a lion, a crocodile and a hippopotamus. This was not half as bad as what happened in the Christian world: the unlucky souls would be sent to hell to burn or be eaten by terrible monsters.
The lucky souls that passed the weighing test would reach heaven or, in the case of Egypt, pass through the golden or silver gate in the sky, where the Milky Way crosses the Ecliptic, at the foot of Ophiuchus and in Orion, just above the head. This is very near Perseus in fact, a constellation associated with the Roman god Mithras, who is connected to the Archangel Michael. Ophiuchus can represent the Archangel Michael and also the tree of life, as well as many other major deities, and is situated right next to Libra. Orion is in Egyptian tradition Osiris, god of the dead. These two parts of the sky are connected with the souls' journeys after death.
The souls having attained the resurrected state in shining raiment were called the Khus or the glorified. Jesus asked the Father to glorify him with primeval radiance; Horus pleads in the same way (Ch. 175): "But let the state of the shining ones be given unto me instead of water and air..." The elect "arriveth at the Aged One, on the confines of the Mount of Glory, where the crown awaiteth him". (Ch. 131) (2)
The constellation Libra is almost certainly linked to the set of weighing scales to be found in portrayals of the Archangel Michael and Anubis.
There's also a creator deity called Abathar Muzania, from a religion called mandeism, which thrived in the early centuries of the Christian era and which revered John the Baptist. Abathar Muzania would also weigh the souls of the dead with scales. Curiously, this demiurge with weighing scales wasn't associated with Libra, but with the pole star, Polaris, and in fact, was called the angel of the North Star.
I wonder if there is a link with the star Canopus, the brightest star in the constellation Argo, the ship, in the southern hemisphere. In the book Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Canopus is described as a heavy star, "the heavy-weighing Canopus", "the weight" and this, the authors speculate, may be because it was thought to be at the end of a plumb line, linking the north and south celestial spheres. Is Canopus the whorl from the Spindle of Necessity? Later in the book, there's a reference to Mithra being the rope and Canopus the place in the ship to which the rope is bound, and this rope connects the middle of the ship with a star in Ursa Major, forming an axis. It doesn't say which star in Ursa Major, and Polaris is in fact in Ursa Minor. Mithra or Mehr is the Zoroastrian angelic divinity of light and covenant, of justice and truth, and water. I would suggest that in this rock relief the god Mithra corresponds to the constellation Ophiuchus, as he is standing on a lotus flower (just visible in the image below), which connected him to similar images of Horus and the Buddha. In those poses, these deities are associated with Ophiuchus. Another Ophiuchus divinity is the Archangel Michael, who in European tradition, like Zoroastrian Mithra, is also associated with rocky places, often near water, and sometimes has sun beams or a halo around his head.
At the same location there is a rock relief of a very ornate tree of life, and one of the symbolic meanings of this is the axis of the world, around which our planet spins. So Mithra and the tree of life can be linked to this axis which gives order to your world. The Roman god Mithras, whom many researchers deny is linked at all to the Persian Mithra, can also be linked to the world axis. David Ulansey has shown that the epithet Sol Invictus that often accompanies Mithras (the Roman god) demonstrates that he is more powerful than the sun itself, and that this must be that he is associated with heavenly motion itself, particularly with the earth's axis.
Researcher Andrew McBride has written recently about Canopus in relation to Sirius and Egyptian temples, and has developed a fascinating theory in relation to their layout. He writes:
Canopus came quite close to the Southern Circumpolar Point, about 10deg or so, but that was about 12,400 BCE. At about 4600 BCE, it shows itself above the horizon at the latitude of Giza for the first time in Precession, having moved quite a distance away from the SCP [Southern Circumpolar Point], and will stay above for quite a time yet to come. For the most part, Canopus was a southern Egyptian star that had the same importance as Sirius to the rest of Egypt, and both stars are the brightest in the sky. (3)
In Hamlet's Mill, the authors say that there are many indications that the South Pole - Canopus - was taken for static, exempted from Precession.(4) In a footnote, Canopus is referred to as Sahel, the primordial star, "presented under the form of an egg that contained all the things that were to be born". Did Canopus mark the south pole, or even the south pole of the ecliptic, as the authors suggest? Canopus does seem to be at the end of an axis or plumb line, by which the depths are measured, and this idea seems to be present in Arabic, Greek and Chinese thought. Where Egyptian deities are mentioned is when Osiris is said to be on board the ship - Argo - that ferries the souls of the dead, "and the pilot star of the ship is Canopus itself". There is a suggestion of the ship's "peg" being like the "nose-bone" of the Horus-Eye (numerical value 1/64). (5) The ship Argo must be secure, perhaps anchored by Canopus (situated at the "bottom" of the constellation), and it's mast may be the Earth's axis.
Andrew McBride writes that in about 4,600 BCE Canopus suddenly appeared on the horizon at the latitude of Egypt but that long before that "Canopus came quite close to the Southern Circumpolar Point, about 10deg or so, but that was about 12,400 BCE." Of course at that time Polaris would not have been the pole star at all, and in fat the north celestial pole would have been marked by the harp Lyra, or a point close to it, not far from Hercules and Draco. (This is according to Stellarium, but it is worth reminding readers that going back that far in time must take into account many variables which we cannot always be sure of, including sudden changes.)
If the Egyptians had known about this star before, and associated it with the south celestial pole, perhaps it seemed as if someone had pulled the plug out of the bottom of the southern celestial hemisphere and disrupted the world's axis. Pulling a plug like that would cause an almighty maelstrom.
" It concerns the canoe adventure of two Cherokees at the mouth of Suck Creek. One of them was seized by a fish, and never seen again. The other was taken round and round to the very lowest center of the whirlpool, when another circle caught him and bore him outward. He told afterwards that when he reached the narrowest circle of the maelstroem the water seemed to open below and he could look down as through the roof beam of a house, and there on the bottom of the river he had seen a great company, who looked up and beckoned to him to join them, but as they put up their hands to seize him the swift current caught him and took him out of their reach.
It is almost as if the Cherokees have retained the better memory, when they talk of foreign regions, inhabited by "a great company"—which might equally well be the dead, or giants with their dogs—there, where in "the narrowest circle of the maelstroem the water seemed to open below." It will be interesting to see whether or not this impression is justifiable [n7 See illustrations (p.60) showing Mount Meru in the shape or an hourglass.]." (5)
There is something about the maelstrom being caused by the axis of the mill, or precession, coming undone:
"(a) the whirlpool represents, or is, the connection of the world of the living with the world of the dead; (b) a tree grows close to it, frequently a life-giving or -saving tree; (c) the whirl came into being because a tree was chopped down or uprooted, or a mill's axle unhinged, and the like. This basic scheme works into many variants and features in many parts of the world, and it provides a very real paradox or conundrum: it is as if the particular waters hidden below tree, pillar, or mill's axle waited only for the moment when someone should remove that plug-tree, pillar, or mill's axle-to play tricks. This is no newfangled notion. Alfred Jeremias remarks casually, "The opening of the navel brings the deluge. When David wanted to remove the navel stone in Jerusalem, a flood was going to start [see below, p. 220]. In Hierapolis in Syria the altar of Xisuthros [= Utnapishtim] was shown in the cave where the flood dried up." [n4 HAOG, p. 156, n. 7 ("wo die Flut versiegte").]."(7)
The whirlpool symbolises the barrier between the living and the dead, and the souls of the dead must travel to (and back from) Orion and possibly Ophiuchus. The implications of the Egyptians or Cherokee for that matter having known about Canopus are that they travelled south or inherited knowledge from way back. There are two possibilities worth suggesting here: that the line between the north and south celestial poles, the axis around which our planet rotates, may have shifted and displaced the earth's axis, thus unleashing chaos, floods, and all sorts of changes in the order of things. This is the fundamental theme of Hamlet's Mill.
This suggests a link between celestial mechanics and justice for humans, specifically a link between the earth's rotation axis, and also other axis, as described in Plato's Republic, and represented by the Spindle of Necessity, which governs the order and harmony of the celestial sphere. After all, in Egyptian myth, the hearts of the dead and weighed against a feather which symbolises both order and justice, as well as truth. There seems to be a deep link between these concepts. The myths of the whirlpools and maelstrom show the connection between the chaos in the world of water and the barrier between the living and the dead. In Greek myth, the idea of crossing a river or drinking water to forget your former life before you next incarnation is common, the Lethe, (lethe meaning to forget or oblivion) or in the myth of Er "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." (9)
There may be a link between the line linking north and south celestial poles, or between Polaris and Canopus, either in their past positions or in their positions two to three thousand years ago, which acts as the central part of a mechanical pair of weighing scales, on which the two plates are counter balanced. The weighing of the souls refers to Libra in some traditions, as demonstrated by medieval Christian art, and to not only Polaris, but the entire axis of the earth's rotation, as defined at some point in history by Polaris and Canopus. The order of the universe translates as justice for souls on their journey, a celestial justice bound up with celestial mechanics. Perhaps after a change was brought about in that order, causing floods (either real or metaphorical), divine beings were brought in to do the weighing and supervise proceedings.
Though many religious traditions have allowed their earthly leaders to make pronouncements on where the souls of the dead travel to, the idea of weighing souls after death seems to be bound up with an ancient tradition whereby justice truth, balance and order are all related to the workings of our universe. Though religious groups have sought to use this idea to control the living (a possibly equally ancient practice) the idea that most religions have in common about what happens to the soul after death may have originally be bound up with the turning of the earth on its axis, which brings us night and day - and at the equinoxes, when might and day are evenly balanced, the sun rose in the constellation Libra at around the first recorded time when this part of the sky was associated with weighing scales.
Boyd Kuhn, Alvin, 2011, The Lost Light: An Interpretation of Ancient Scriptures, Zuu Books, p 482
Ibid p 481
De Santillana, Giorgio and Von Dechend, Hertha, 1969, Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth, first published by Gambit, Boston, p 269
Ibid p 417
Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (1900), p. 340, quoted in native-science.net
from http://native-science.net/MilkyWay.Mythology.Keys.htm, author's name unknown
Belmonte, Juan and Lull, José, 2009, "The constellations of Ancient Egypt", https://www.academia.edu/4993870/The_constellations_of_ancient_Egypt
9. Myth of Er, Book X, Republic, Plato
The Myth of Er, recounted in Book X of Plato's Republic:
Well, I said, I will tell you a tale; not one of the tales which Odysseus tells to the hero Alcinous, yet this too is a tale of a hero, Er the son of Armenius, a Pamphylian by birth. He 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. He 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. He 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. 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 sorrowingat 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. The story, Glaucon, would take too long to tell; but the sum was this:—He said that for every wrong which they had done to any one they suffered tenfold; or once in a hundred years—such being reckoned to be the length of man’s life, and the penalty being thus paid ten times in a thousand years. If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cities or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion. I need hardly repeat what he said concerning young children dying almost as soon as they were born. Of piety and impiety to gods and parents, and of murderers1, there were retributions other and greater far which he described. He mentioned that he was present when one of the spirits asked another, ‘Where is Ardiaeus the Great?’ (Now this Ardiaeus lived a thousand years before the time of Er: he had been the tyrant of some city of Pamphylia, and had murdered his aged father and his elder brother, and was said to have committed many other abominable crimes.) The answer of the other spirit was: ‘He comes not hither and will never come. And this,’ said he, ‘was one of the dreadful sights which we ourselves witnessed. We were at the mouth of the cavern, and, having completed all our experiences, were about to reascend, when of a sudden Ardiaeus appeared and several others, most of whom were tyrants; and there were also besides the tyrants private individuals who had been great criminals: they were just, as they fancied, about to return into the upper world, but the mouth, instead of admitting them, gave a roar, whenever any of these incurable sinners or some one who had not been sufficiently punished tried to ascend; and then wild men of fiery aspect, who were standing by and heard the sound, seized and carried them off; and Ardiaeus and others they bound head and foot and hand, and threw them down and flayed them with scourges, and dragged them along the road at the side, carding them on thorns like wool, and declaring to the passers-by what were their crimes, and that they were being taken away to be cast into hell.’ And of all the many terrors which they had endured, he said that there was none like the terror which each of them felt at that moment, lest they should hear the voice; and when there was silence, one by one they ascended with exceeding joy. These, said Er, were the penalties and retributions, and there were blessings as great.
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 colour 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 undergirders of a trireme. From these ends is extended the spindle of Necessity, on which all the revolutions turn. The shaft and hook of this spindle are made of steel, and the whorl is made partly of steel and also partly of other materials. Now the whorl is in form like the whorl used on earth; and the description of it implied that there is one large hollow whorl which is quite scooped out, and into this is fitted another lesser one, and another, and another, and four others, making eight in all, like vessels which fit into one another; the whorls show their edges on the upper side, and on their lower side all together form one continuous whorl. This is pierced by the spindle, which is driven home through the centre of the eighth. The first and outermost whorl has the rim broadest, and the seven inner whorls are narrower, in the following proportions—the sixth is next to the first in size, the fourth next to the sixth; then comes the eighth; the seventh is fifth, the fifth is sixth, the third is seventh, last and eighth comes the second. The largest [or fixed stars] is spangled, and the seventh [or sun] is brightest; the eighth [or moon] coloured by the reflected light of the seventh; the second and fifth [Saturn and Mercury] are in colour like one another, and yellower than the preceding; the third [Venus] has the whitest light; the fourth [Mars] is reddish; the sixth [Jupiter] is in whiteness second. Now the whole spindle has the same motion; but, as the whole revolves in one direction, the seven inner circles move slowly in the other, and of these the swiftest is the eighth; next in swiftness are the seventh, sixth, and fifth, which move together; third in swiftness appeared to move according to the law of this reversed motion the fourth; the third appeared fourth and the second fifth. The spindle turns on the knees of Necessity; and on the upper surface of each circle is a siren, who goes round with them, hymning a single tone or note. The eight together form one harmony; and round about, at equal intervals, there is another band, three in number, each sitting upon her throne: these are the Fates, daughters of Necessity, who are clothed in white robes and have chaplets upon their heads, Lachesis and Clotho and Atropos, who accompany with their voices the harmony of the sirens—Lachesis singing of the past, Clotho of the present, Atropos of the future; Clotho from time to time assisting with a touch of her right hand the revolution of the outer circle of the whorl or spindle, and Atropos with her left hand touching and guiding the inner ones, and Lachesis laying hold of either in turn, first with one hand and then with the other.
When Er and the spirits arrived, their duty was to go at once to Lachesis; but first of all there came a prophet who arranged them in order; then he took from the knees of Lachesis lots and samples of lives, and having mounted a high pulpit, spoke as follows: ‘Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you will 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. Virtue is free, and as a man honours or dishonours her he will have more or less of her; the responsibility is with the chooser—God is justified.’ When the Interpreter had thus spoken he scattered lots indifferently among them all, and each of them took up the lot which fell near him, all but Er himself (he was not allowed), and each as he took his lot perceived the number which he had obtained. Then the Interpreter placed on the ground before them the samples of lives; and there were many more lives than the souls present, and they were of all sorts. There were lives of every animal and of man in every condition. And there were tyrannies among them, some lasting out the tyrant’s life, others which broke off in the middle and came to an end in poverty and exile and beggary; and there were lives of famous men, some who were famous for their form and beauty as well as for their strength and success in games, or, again, for their birth and the qualities of their ancestors; and some who were the reverse of famous for the opposite qualities. And of women likewise; there was not, however, any definite character in them, because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different. But there was every other quality, and they all mingled with one another, and also with elements of wealth and poverty, and disease and health; and there were mean states also. And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. He should consider the bearing of all these things which have been mentioned severally and collectively upon virtue; he should know what the effect of beauty is when combined with poverty or wealth in a particular soul, and what are the good and evil consequences of noble and humble birth, of private and public station, of strength and weakness, of cleverness and dullness, and of all the natural and acquired gifts of the soul, and the operation of them when conjoined; he will then look at the nature of the soul, and from the consideration of all these qualities he will be able to determine which is the better and which is the worse; and so he will choose, giving the name of evil to the life which will make his soul more unjust, and good to the life which will make his soul more just; all else he will disregard. For we have seen and know that this is the best choice both in life and after death. A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon tyrannies and similar villanies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. For this is the way of happiness.
And according to the report of the messenger from the other world this was what the prophet said at the time: ‘Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely and will live diligently, there is appointed a happy and not undesirable existence. Let not him who chooses first be careless, and let not the last despair.’ And when he had spoken, he who had the first choice came forward and in a moment chose the greatest tyranny; his mind having been darkened by folly and sensuality, he had not thought out the whole matter before he chose, and did not at first sight perceive that he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children. But when he had time to reflect, and saw what was in the lot, he began to beat his breast and lament over his choice, forgetting the proclamation of the prophet; for, instead of throwing the blame of his misfortune on himself, he accused chance and the gods, and everything rather than himself. Now he was one of those who came from heaven, and in a former life had dwelt in a well-ordered State, but his virtue was a matter of habit only, and he had no philosophy. And it was true of others who were similarly overtaken, that the greater number of them came from heaven and therefore they had never been schooled by trial, whereas the pilgrims who came from earth having themselves suffered and seen others suffer were not in a hurry to choose. And owing to this inexperience of theirs, and also because the lot was a chance, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. For if a man had always on his arrival in this world dedicated himself from the first to sound philosophy, and had been moderately fortunate in the number of the lot, he might, as the messenger reported, be happy here, and also his journey to another life and return to this, instead of being rough and underground, would be smooth and heavenly. Most curious, he said, was the spectacle—sad and laughable and strange; for the choice of the souls Jowett1892: 620was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life. There he saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a swan out of enmity to the race of women, hating to be born of a woman because they had been his murderers; he beheld also the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale; birds, on the other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men. The soul which obtained the twentieth1 lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him in the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former toils had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the same had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it. And not only did men pass into animals, but I must also mention that there were animals tame and wild who changed into one another and into corresponding human natures—the good into the gentle and the evil into the savage, in all sorts of combinations.
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; 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. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. He 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.
And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness and our soul will not be defiled. Wherefore my counsel is, that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.