Back to top

Images Of After-Death Life


Differentiated Afterlives

  • 21 .Plato Republic 330d-331a. The 5th century BCE painting of Odysseus in the underworld by Polygnotus, (...)
  • 22 .Plato, Republic 330d-331a. Kephalos is a good representative of the common tendency not to believe (...)
  • 23. Of course, most people tend to assume that nothing they have done is really all that bad. As Garlan (...)
  • 24 .Hypereides 6.43. But if in Hades there is still some consciousness and care from some divinity, as (...)
  1. 12. While this basic idea of a differentiated afterlife seems both traditional and widespread, the precise way in which the differentiations were made varies in the evidence, from the idea of a judgement of the dead, to differentiated places to which they go, and the kinds of rewards and punishments they receive. The idea of judgement and punishment in the afterlife is common enough for Plato to depict the old man Kephalos as starting to think that perhaps he might have something to worry about after death. Kephalos refers to myths he has heard - not special ‘Orphic’ doctrines but familiar traditional tales - that assign punishment in the afterlife for injustices committed in life.21 While he had not taken them seriously while younger, he says that the approach of death causes people to examine their lives to see if they will have any penalties to pay.22 Those who discover crimes they have not paid for get anxious, while those who can’t think of any wrongs they have done are buoyed up by hope.23 Indeed, those who have won the favor of the gods during their lives can expect that the gods will care specially for them after death as well.24


  • 25. Plato Laws 959b4. It is well said that the bodies of the dead are just images of those who have die (...)
  • 26. Pindar, Olympian II.56-67. But if one has it and knows what is to come, that the helpless souls (...)
  • 27. Aeschylus Eumenides 273-274. Great Hades is the auditor for mortals there under the ground. (...)
  • 28. Aiakos is a more difficult question ; see Dover 1993, pp. 54-55, and my discussion in Edmonds 2004, (...)

13.Kephalos describes the process that every person might go through of self-judgement as death approaches, but Plato elsewhere makes use of judges who decide the fate of the deceased to illustrate the process of self-examination that is crucial to living the philosophic life. The idea of judges, be it the gods in a vague and unspecific sense or particular entities who carried out a detailed process of examination, seems to derive from the common mythic tradition, although Plato’s bricolage with the bits of tradition produce far more complex and detailed scenarios than anything else extant. Plato himself refers in the Laws to the idea that the soul must give an account of its life to the gods as an ancestral belief, and the Platonic Seventh Letter urges belief in the ancient and holy accounts that tell of judges that provide punishment for wrongdoing committed in life.25 Perhaps the earliest extant reference to the process of judgement comes in Pindar’s Second Olympian, where an unspecified judge assigns recompense for the deeds of life, a blissful existence without toil for the good, unbearable toil for the bad.26 While sources such as Aeschylus specify the judges as underworld divinities – Hades or a Zeus below the earth – Plato is the first attestation for particular semi-divine figures as judges, Minos, Rhadamanthys, Aiakos, and even Triptolemos.27 Plato’s assignment of Minos as the judge of newly dead souls at Gorgias 524a is a clever bit of creative misprision of Od.11.568-71, while the choice of Rhadamanthys may likewise adapt the reference in Od. 4.564.28

  • 29. I discuss this in greater detail in my article, “Whipscars on the naked soul” (Edmonds 2012), from (...)

14.In the Gorgias, Plato crafts Socrates’ description of the process of afterlife judgement to reflect the process of elenctic examination that is so thematized in this dialogue, where Socrates explicitly discusses his elenctic methods in contrast with those of his rhetorical interlocutors.29 The myth provides an illustration of this contrast, and the vivid picture of the soul stripped naked and revealing all its deformities and scars to the expert eye of the judge is an image of the Socratic elenchos. Three elements in particular correspond to the description of the Socratic elenchos. The lack of witnesses corresponds to the elenctic examination of a single person’s ideas, without the recourse to the opinions of others or to long oratorical speeches. The examination of the naked soul by the judge corresponds to the analysis of the person’s ideas and the pointing out of the inconsistencies. The suffering in the afterlife corresponds to the shame of the elenchos, the effect of the defeat in this philosophic contest which provokes the one who has undergone the elenchos to change his life. Although Plato illustrates the process of elenchos in many of his dialogues by depicting the interlocutors engaged in elenchos, the myth in the Gorgias separates out these different aspects of the elenchos from one another, giving the reader a better understanding of the different effects of the Socratic elenchos.

  1. 15. To link the elenchos with the scars on the soul in the myth, Plato uses a medical metaphor. The tyrant’s soul bears the marks of disease, the festering wounds of injustices committed and never corrected, while the philosopher’s soul is in good health. Although the tyrant may appear to flourish, the expert examination of the judge reveals his true state and prescribes the appropriate treatment. This afterlife punishment (kolasis) may be painful, but only such correction (kolasis) can heal the wounded soul. The elenchos too is a painful treatment, and Socrates’ interlocutors squirm like little children when they are forced to take their medicine. Socrates warns Callicles that if he does not accept the treatment of the elenchos, he will go through life out of harmony with himself, without the proper balance and order that constitutes health, not just for the individual but for the cosmos. If he does not take the medicine his elenctic examination has prescribed, the errors of his life will fester and scar. The final myth in the Gorgias, therefore, is not, as it has often been understood, an appeal to retribution in the next life that supplies the deficiencies of justice in this life, but an illustration of the effects of living an unexamined life. When the souls of his interlocutors are exposed to the judgement of the Socratic elenchos, the festering wounds caused by their ways of life are laid bare.
  • 30 Cp., Plato Republic 614cd ; 615ab ; and 619bd. Montiglio 2011, pp. 48-52 analyzes Plato’s treatment (...)
  • 31 Plato, Republic 600b.

16.Plato also uses traditional myths of a judgement of the soul to highlight the critical role of self-examination in the myth of Er at the end of the Republic, where the peculiar double process of determining one’s lot after death reflects the distinction, made throughout the dialogue, between the extrinsic recompense for justice and its intrinsic worth. The first judgement, which sends the deceased to a thousand years of bliss or torment, is compensatory for the life lived, precisely the kind of extrinsic reward or punishment for justice that Socrates and his interlocutors dismissed at the start of the discussion as an insufficient defense of the true value of philosophic justice. After the thousand years, however, the souls return to the place of judgement for the selection of the next life. Here, despite the lottery that determines the order of choosing, the new fate of the soul depends entirely on its ability to examine itself and make the appropriate judgement. Newly come from a thousand years of bliss, the soul with the first choice, having lived a basically good life in a good city, never developed the ability to correct itself and so chooses tragically wrong, taking the life of a tyrant with unlimited power. By contrast, the soul of Odysseus, having learned from his long sufferings how to curb his impulses, makes a good choice of a just and philosophic life.30 Here only the inherently just soul, philosophically trained to examine and govern its impulses and appetites, can make the right kind of choice when a really important crisis comes.31 Again, by transposing the judgement of an external judge into a personal choice, the myth provides an illustration of the choices the soul faces in life and how to make them, rather than a promise of some external consequence that rewards or punishes in compensation for the troubles of life. Plato uses the traditional mythic elements to illustrate the processes of philosophic self-examination and judgement discussed in the dialogues, both the Gorgias and the Republic.

Geography of the Afterlife

  • 32. While Tartarus seems to become the standard name for the underworld place of punishment, in Homer a (...)
  • 33. Homer refers rather to the Elysian Field as the destination where Menelaus will receive his reward, (...)
  • 34. The gold tablets (A2 and A3) from Thurii refer to the seats of the blessed (ἕδρας εὐαγέων), whereas (...)
  1. 17. Plato also manipulates another element of the differentiated afterlife that appears in various places in the mythic tradition, the division of the deceased among various places for the afterlife. Although in the Odyssey’s vision that levels all distinctions of the afterlife except those created by epic song, the punished dead suffer in the same region as the rest of the shades Odysseus sees, in other texts Tartarus appears as the place of punishment.32 Pindar promises that those who have thrice lived a good life will go to the Isles of the Blessed, and these islands are the destination of the blessed dead in a number of sources, starting with Hesiod.33 Such geographical distinctions appear elsewhere in the evidence, from the marginal gold tablets to the Athenian drinking song that puts Harmodios in the Isles of the Blessed.34 In his dialogues, Plato creates vivid images of the otherworldly crossroads to dramatize the split between the good and the evil and their lots after death. Depending on Plato’s purposes in the dialogue, the crossroads may lead to Tartaros and the Isles of the Blessed (Gorgias), up to the realm of the gods and down to the places of punishment (Republic), or simply in a bewildering variety of directions that compel the soul to follow the guidance of its appointed daimon (Phaedo).
  • 35 Plato Phaedo 80d. Ἡ δὲ ψυχὴ ἄρα, τὸ ἀιδές, τὸ εἰς τοιοῦτον τόπον ἕτερον οἰχόμενον γενναῖον (...)
  • 36 Phaedo 78b4-84b8.

18.Although in the Gorgias and the Republic, the emphasis is more on the process of determining which path the soul will take, in the Phaedo Plato uses this traditional idea to create a vision of a hierarchically arranged cosmos in which the superior regions provide an afterlife analogous to the life of the philosophic, while the inferior regions mirror the turmoil and confusion of the unphilosophic life. Plato identifies the realms beyond the mortal life, traditionally called Hades (εἰς Ἅιδου) with the realities perceptible not by the senses (τὸ ἀιδές) but by thought (εἰδέναι).35 The pun on Hades and the unseen goes back to Homer (and no doubt further), but Plato extends the word play to include knowing to provide a way to talk about the intellectual perceptions of the philosophic soul in contrast to the sensible impressions of the soul too closely chained to the body. Through this word play and the argument from Affinities, Plato identifies the soul, which traditionally pertains to the unseen world of the afterlife, as essentially connected with knowing in mortal life.36

Reward and Punishment Hereafter

  • 37 Phaedo 109b-111b.

19.The afterlife in the Blessed Isles in the aether in the Phaedo myth is an existence pure of any of the mildews, rusts, or sicknesses that afflict mortal life ; the stones are pure gems and precious metals, the plants and animals are somehow purer, and the gods actually dwell in their groves and temples, enabling direct access to (and conversation with) the divine.37 Such a blessed existence not only picks up on descriptions in the mythic tradition of the paradise for the worthy, but it also reflects the description at the beginning of the dialogue of the process of intellectual perception of reality, purified of all the distractions of sensual perceptions.

  • 38 Phaedo 65e-66a. Ἆρ’ οὖν ἐκεῖνος ἂν τοῦτο ποιήσειεν καθαρώτατα ὅστις ὅτι μάλιστα αὐτῇ τῇ διανοίᾳ (...)

That man would do this [achieve pure knowledge] most purely whoever should go to each object with his intellect alone as far as possible, neither applying sight in his thinking, nor dragging in any other sense to accompany his reasoning ; rather, making use of his intellect alone by itself and unsullied, he would undertake the hunt for each of the things that are, each alone by itself and unsullied.38

  • 39 Those who have purified themselves even further may go beyond embodiment in the aetherial world (...)

20.The soul using its intellect alone to understand life appears as the soul in the blessed pure realms of the afterlife, pure enough to dwell in the purer atmosphere of the superior realms and to be in direct contact with the divine realities.39 Ritual purity was traditionally a precondition for approaching the gods, both going into sacred spaces through normal purifications and, by the more extra-ordinary measures of rituals often called teletai, of establishing closer relations with the gods to win their favor and protection. Plato transforms these ideas, which were part of the normal Greek religious tradition (even if the more extreme forms were at times marked with the name of Orpheus), into an illustration of the life of philosophic soul, making philosophical inquiry into the highest form of purification.

  • 40 Phaedo 112ad ; cp. 90c5.
  1. 21. The soul’s afterlife in the inferior regions of the cosmos likewise illustrates the mortal life of the unphilosophic, bewildered by the multiplicity of sense impressions or tormented by the desires and fears of the appetites. Rather than seeing the gods face to face, the unpurified lie wretchedly in the mud, unable to perceive anything clearly in the murky depths that surround them. Some who were guided by their passions to acts of murder or even parricide are further tormented by the flames of Pyriphlegethon or the ice of Cocytus, while the worst whirl endlessly in the vortex of Tartarus. The ceaseless turbulence of Tartarus mirrors the lives of those who, mistrusting all reasoning, rely on the impressions of their senses, since these misologists are forever tossed up and down in the contradictory currents of sense impressions as if in the channel of the Euripus.40 Plato manipulates these images from the mythic tradition of afterlife to provide a vivid illustration of the different options for the soul in life ; either, by trusting to reason and philosophic self-examination, one can go through life in direct contact with true reality, or, by relying on the bewildering and contradictory impressions of the senses, one can suffer through the confusing turmoil of mortal life.
  • 41 Gorgias 493a1-b3. For I once heard some one of the wise say that we are now dead, and the body (...)
  • 42 Irwin translates πιθανόν as ‘persuadable’ and πειστικὸν as ‘impressionable’, but, as Dodds points o (...)
  • 43 Gorgias 493a6-b3. παράγων τῷ ὀνόματι διὰ τὸ πιθανόν τε καὶ πειστικὸν ὠνόμασε πίθον, τοὺς δὲ ἀνοήτου (...)
  • 44 Socrates opens his attack on both the personal and political position of Callicles with his observa (...)
  1. 22. The Phaedo is not the only dialogue in which Plato manipulates traditional ideas of afterlife punishments to make a philosophic point. In the Gorgias, Plato uses the familiar myth of the water-carriers to illustrate the sort of perpetual suffering that Callicles inflicts upon himself by refusing to change his way of life, to show how Callicles’ choice of life, far from being a life of action without restraint, is actually a life of suffering, both on a personal and political level. While, on the literal level, the story conveys the familiar traditional idea that those who are not initiated ‘carry water to this leaky jar with another leaky thing, a sieve’, Socrates builds an interpretation into the tale.41 According to the clever man from whom he heard the tale, the uninitiate (amuetoi) are the unintelligent (anoetoi), and the jar (pithos) is the persuadable (pithanon) and impressionable (peistikon) soul, which is leaky like the sieve.42 ‘In the mindless ones that part of the soul where desires are, the unrestrained and not water-tight part, he likened to a leaky jar, because it is so insatiate.43 Socrates goes on to develop this idea of the soul as a jar which the intemperate man spends his whole life trying to fill in vain, deriving pleasure from the process of filling but pain from the endless emptying. On this level, the image obviously applies to Callicles’ ideal of suffering no restraints on one’s appetite, but Plato also uses the image to describe the life of the orator trying to gratify the ever-changing and unsatisfiable appetites of the persuadable masses, a task as vain and tormenting as the labors of the water carriers.44 Once again, Plato uses a familiar myth about the soul in the afterlife to make an unfamiliar, even radical, point about the nature of the soul in life – a soul mindless (anoetos) enough to attend to the persuasion of the appetites suffers in its endless and futile labor just like the mythic water-carriers.


  • 45 Gorgias 492e10-11. τίς δ’ οἶδεν, εἰ τὸ ζῆν μέν ἐστι κατθανεῖν, τὸ κατθανεῖν δὲ ζῆν; cp. Euripides’ (...)

23 .In the Gorgias, Socrates signals the application of the myth of afterlife to life in this world by his quotation of the famous Euripides’ tag : ‘Who knows if being alive is really being dead, and being dead being alive ?’45 In his various myths of the afterlife, Plato uses the familiar pattern of the afterlife as a mirror that reflects or refracts the differentiated statuses of people in this life, but he manipulates the traditional mythic elements of judgement, superior and inferior regions, and even the rewards and punishments found therein to illustrate his ideas about the nature and activities of the human soul in life. Each myth is tailored to the dialogue in which it is set, and the inconsistencies in the way Plato depicts the soul in the afterlife stem from the varying uses to which he puts the myths.

Orphic Ideas of the Soul

24.In addition to transposing for his own purposes the idea that the existence of the soul in the afterlife mirrors the present life, Plato also makes use of certain ideas about the relation of the soul to the body. While the lively afterlife of the soul is a popular notion that is not exclusively associated with Orphica or even the erudite speculations of the philosophers, certain ways of characterizing the soul’s relation with the body do appear to be marked as unusual, extra-ordinary, or limited to a few esoteric thinkers - in a word, Orphic. In this evidence, the body can be the tomb of the soul, its prison, or its guardpost, while the soul appears as a living or even divine entity, passing time within the body and passing into and out of the body or even from body to body. Plato plays with some of these ideas in his dialogues, twisting the memorable images to his own devices, using them, as he uses the more familiar ideas of a lively afterlife, to reinforce his own arguments about the superiority of the intellect over the senses, the importance of leading a life of reasoned judgement and self-control, and the responsibility of the philosopher within society.

25.Most of the discussions of Orphic ideas of the relation of soul to body start with the passage in Plato’s Cratylus, in which Socrates provides a number of etymologies for the word σῶμα, each of which depicts the relation in a different way in this sophistic etymological game.

  • 46 Plato Cratylus 400bc = OF430i. Πολλαχῇ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦτό γε· ἂν μὲν καὶ σμικρόν τις παρακλίνῃ, (...)

I think this admits of many explanations, if a little, even very little, change is made ; for some say it is the tomb (σῆμα) of the soul, their notion being that the soul is buried in the present life ; and again, because by its means the soul gives any signs (σημαίνει) which it gives, it is for this reason also properly called “sign” (σῆμα). But I think it most likely that those connected with Orpheus (οἱ ἀμφὶ Ὀρφέα) gave this name, with the idea that the soul is undergoing punishment for something ; they think it has the body as an enclosure to keep it safe (σῴζηται), like a prison, and this is, as the name itself denotes, the safe (σῶμα) for the soul, until the penalty is paid, and not even a letter needs to be changed.46

  • 47 Bernabé 1995 provides an excellent analysis of the debates, with important attention to the role of (...)
  • 48 Linforth 1941, p. 148 ; cp. Bernabé 1995, pp. 217-8.
  • 49 e.g., σῶμα δέ οἱ περιφεγγές, ἀπείριτον, ἀστυφέλικτον (OF 243.22 = Proclus in Tim. 29a I.324.14).
  • 50 I develop the exegetical context of the Derveni author and its importance further in Edmonds 2013, (...)

26. The passage includes several different images of the relation of the body to the soul : a tomb, a marker, a prison, a protective covering. Controversy has raged over the origins of each of these ideas and which of them come from the same source, because this is one of the very few early pieces of evidence in which an idea of the soul is explicitly attributed to people connected in some way to Orpheus (οἱ ἀμφὶ Ὀρφέα).47 Plato’s circumlocution shows that those who made use of the poems of Orpheus did not label themselves as and were not thought of as “Orphics”, but it also shows that the defining feature of such people, for Plato’s purposes here, was indeed their connection with Orphic texts.48 The idea that Socrates attributes to them is specifically the idea that the soul is in the body for punishment, like a prison, but it is unclear how many of the etymologies in the passage may have come from an Orphic text. The adversative μέντοι does suggest that the τινες who give the σῶμα-σῆμα etymology may be different people from οἱ ἀμφὶ Ὀρφέα, but it is entirely possible that, in a text such as the Derveni papyrus, the author (who is certainly someone who might be described as ἀμφὶ Ὀρφέα) might have provided the whole series of etymologies in the exegesis of a verse of Orpheus. The verse of Orpheus itself might or might not have anything to do with the imprisonment of the soul in the body ; indeed, it is entirely plausible to imagine someone like the Derveni author providing an explanation of the body as a tomb, a sign, and a prison, in a verse that referred to some other kind of body entirely.49 Of course, the idea of the body as the tomb (σῆμα) of the soul has different ramifications than the idea of the body as the indicator (σῆμα) or even as the prison (δεσμωτηρίον) or safeguard (ἵνα σῴζηται), but, in the context of an exegetical exercise, those ramifications would not be pursued. The consequences of each interpretation are less important, in this context, than the fact that the exegete can devise them, that the exegete can demonstrate his acumen to his audience to bolster his own religious authority. Such a display is persuasive not because it expounds dogma in which the audience fervently believes but rather because it shows the exegete as a wise person whose expertise can be relied upon.50 This process is, of course, precisely what Socrates is mocking with his display in the Cratylus, so efforts to uncover serious dogmas and their origins here are doubly problematic, since even if Plato is simply borrowing Socrates’ etymologies from another text, there is little reason to suppose that the ramifications of any or all of them were seriously explored in such a (hypothetical) source.