Plato is the first writer to use the Greek term μῦθος (muthos) in the sense that we today use the term "myth," i.e. to denote a fictional tale used to illustrate a particular scenario or situation. Plato's work is peppered with what have come to be known as his myths, which he uses alongside the more traditional λόγος (lógos - rational extrapolation, usually in the form of the Socratic elenchus) as a means to convey his argument. Plato's use of myths within the context of philosophical writing is a major innovation, and is one of the features which marks out Plato's work from that of his contemporaries: though for example the Middle Platonist Plutarch makes use of myths in a similar manner, the myths remain one of the hallmarks of Plato's œuvre. The tale of Atlantis represents by far the most celebrated of these.
Glenn Most has developed a list of eight main features which appear in Platonic myths and are summarised by Catalin Partenie as follows: -
Though "Most acknowledges that these eight features are not completely uncontroversial, and that there are occasional exceptions," Partenie states that, "applied flexibly, they allow us to establish a corpus of at least fourteen Platonic myths in the Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic X, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias and Laws IV."
Anthologies focussing on Plato's myths have been published by the Edwardian Cambridge Platonist J.A. Stewart, and more recently by Partenie. For the most part, both scholars cover Plato's more substantial myths, with the most significant difference between the two being Partenie's omission of the Pythagorean-influenced cosmogony from the Timaeus. The myths identified by Most and included in Stewart and Partenie are as follows: -
|Most (2012)||Stewart (1905)||Partenie (2009)|
|Protagoras 320c-323a||Protagoras 320c-323a||Protagoras 320c-323a|
|Gorgias 523a-527a||Gorgias 523a-527c||Gorgias 523a-527a|
|Symposium 189c-193d||Symposium 189c-193d||Symposium 189c-193e|
|Symposium 203b-204a||Symposium 202d-212a||Symposium 201d-212c|
|Phaedo 107c-114c||Phaedo 107c-114c||Phaedo 107c-115a|
|Republic 10.613e-621d||Republic 10.613e-621d||Republic 10.614b-621d|
|Phaedrus 246a-257a||Phaedrus 246a-257a||Phaedrus 246a-257a|
|Statesman 268e-274e||Statesman 268e-274e||Statesman 268d-274e|
|Timaeus 29d-92c||Timaeus 29d-92c|
In addition to these, Partenie identifies a number of other shorter myths: Plato's account of Gyges and his magic ring [Republic 2.359d-360b]; his take on the tale of Boreas and Orithyia [Phaedrus 229cd]; the myth of Phaethon [Timaeus 22c]; and a brief reference to the mythical Amazons [Laws 7.804e]. These are based on traditional stories well-known to the philosopher and his immediate audience. Another myth from the Laws appears in 10.903b-905e and discusses Plato's conceptions of theology.
As one would suspect, many of Plato's myths deal in the main with the origins of civilisation and eschatological matters, with a significant focus on the development of society during the formative phase of human existence. The precise purpose for Plato's couching of philosophical material in terms of mythological stories is most probably as a mode of illustrating what he was seeking to prove in the dialogue.
The Protagoras myth presents the creation of all mortal life from a combination of earth and fire, with Prometheus and Epimetheus tasked with allocating the requisite biological traits to each species [320d]. Epimetheus carries out this task but neglects to provide a defence for humans [321c], leading Prometheus to steal the skills of Hephaestus and Athena, as well as hatching a plan to steal the knowledge of managing cities from Zeus, who has secreted it in a secure location [321c-322a]. Prometheus is punished for his efforts, while humans are now able to provide food for themselves, but remain vulnerable to other animals [322b]. The first cities fail and humans return to living in small communities, prompting Zeus to dispatch Hermes to give humans the gift of virtue to enable them to successfully implement city life [322c]. In response to Hermes asking to which portion of humanity he is to donate virtue, Zeus orders it given to all people [322d].
The Gorgias, which has as its subject the judgement of the souls of the dead, takes up the story some time later. Already there is a marked disparity of wealth [523c], and Plato remarks that many of the richest people, when they are being allocated their afterlife by the judges appointed for the purpose [523b], are unjustly given a more favourable judgement than their impoverished peers. Having its origins in the age of Cronus [523a] and persisting into the early reign of Zeus [523b], this system of allocating one's afterlife pre mortem was bound up with the concept that humans could foretell the day of their death, which Prometheus was tasked with ending [523de]. In response to the unfairness of this system, Zeus ordains that souls will be judged "naked," i.e. without bodily accoutrements, after death, by three of his sons most highly regarded for probity: Aeacus will judge the European dead, Rhadamanthus the Asians, and Minos will hold the casting vote [523e-524a]. The Cretans Minos and Rhadamanthus are accounted Asians presumably as a result of the Phoenician heritage of their mother Europa. The new system of judgement ensures more honest decisions, as sin causes the soul to appear tarnished [524d]. Consequently, villains are now rightly destined for punishment in Tartarus, though in most cases this is temporary and corrective, rather than punitive [525a], though a small minority of felons, mainly tyrants [525de], are consigned to Tartarus forever, due to the severity of their offences, to serve as examples [525c]. That tyrants are anomalously well-represented in Tartarus is due to the corrupting effects of power [526b], though in a few cases good people do manage to govern without necessarily turning bad [526a].
The other destination of souls are the Isles of the Blest, which were set up for the purpose during Cronus' reign [523a], and whose administrators led the complaints against the systematic corruption which enabled wealthy villains into the realm [523b]. As a result of the Zeus' new system of judgement, fewer souls enter the Isles, those souls being, Plato suggests, "most likely [...] a philosopher who minded his own business and remained detached from things throughout his life" [526c].
In terms of other Greek literature, Epimetheus was regarded as Prometheus' "scatter-brained" counterpart as early as the time of Hesiod, while Prometheus' prominent role in the creation of humankind is attested in the work of Sappho and especially in Aesop's Fables, with Hesiod also relating the myth of his theft of fire. Prometheus' connection with the ability to foresee one's own death is mentioned in the theatrical work Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus, where the Titan "caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom" , though this is couched within a discussion of Prometheus' role as the advocate of mortals. He accuses Zeus, in the aftermath of the Olympians' rise to power, of ignoring the needs of mortals [228-243], and presents his actions to prevent humans from knowing when they will die as a mercy and a contravention of Zeus' orders, for which, among other iniquities, he is suffering the punishment. His solution was to cause "blind hopes to dwell within their breasts" , which is likely as a result of Zeus' curse in the form of Pandora's jar. Humanity's dereliction in the early Olympian age would be revisited by Plato in the Statesman, where they are "deprived of the care of the deity who had possessed and tended" them [274b].
The Phaedrus presents an analogy of the soul as a two-horse chariot team [246a], one white and one black horse of contrasting temperaments [246b]. Souls originally have wings and follow the gods around in a great circuit of the universe [246e-247b], and glimpse the ὑπερουράνιον τόπον, a realm beyond the heavens which contains the Platonic forms [248a]. In the case of mortal souls, the wings are lost due to the agency of the black horse, whereupon that soul is forced to spend 10,000 years [248e] in the corporeal realm [246c] awaiting the return of the wings, with the only shortcut being three consecutive philosophical lives [249a], echoing to some extent Pindar [Olymp. 2.68], who states that "[t]hose who have persevered three times" reach the Isle of the Blest, and reinforcing the message of the Gorgias myth. The souls of philosophers are depicted as those who have spent more time gazing into the ὑπερουράνιον τόπον and have thus learned the most about the forms, and, as the most dedicated followers of a particular deity, bear some resemblance to them [248a]. Plato gives a scale of occupations by the amount of time spent looking at the realm outside heaven, with sophists and tyrants bringing up the rear [248de]. Another way to prompt the growth of the wings is through a reaction to a beautiful youth, caused by the soul's recollection of the form of beauty [250a].
The nature of the soul is also touched upon in the myth of rememberance from the Meno [81ac]. In this dialogue, Plato argues "that the soul is immortal and has been born many times" [81c], as a result of which its human incarnations are able to instinctively ascertain certain facts: "[f]or as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing - an act which men call learning - discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection" [81cd].
Another notable inclusion in the Phaedrus is the myth of Theuth of Egypt, to whom is ascribed the invention of "numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters" [274d], during the reign of a king confusingly called Thamus (i.e. the Mesopotamian Dumuzi or Tammuz). Theuth (better known as Thoth) praises his invention of writing, claiming it "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered" [274e], to which the king responds "you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise" [275a-b], a remarkable critique of writing and its deleterious effects on memory, an observation that can be seen to be prescient, albeit with the caveat that the oral tradition is, by definition, prone to change over time.
The remaining short myth from the Phaedrus concerns, as noted, the tale of Orithyia, the daughter of Erechtheus, being carried off by Boreas, god of the north wind. Plato provides a lógos suggesting that a blast from the north wind blew her from rocks to her doom [229cd]. Socrates, the speaker, however, goes on to dismiss this suggestion: he thinks "such explanations are very pretty in general, but are the inventions of a very clever and laborious and not altogether enviable man, for no other reason than because after this he must explain the forms of the Centaurs, and then that of the Chimaera, and there presses in upon him a whole crowd of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegas, and multitudes of strange, inconceivable, portentous natures" [229de].
The fate of the soul after death is given more detailed treatment in the Phaedo and the myth of the Pamphylian Er in the Republic . The Phaedo myth posits that the known world between the Pillars of Heracles and the River Phasis was one of a number of habitable areas of the planet, including one above, where the air served in the capacity of water in the mundane realm, and ether as air [110a]. This place is home to people who live longer and are free from disease, and who live in congress with the gods [111b], and from which the heavenly bodies can be seen "as they really are" [111c]. This is the destination for righteous souls [115b], saved by philosophy [115c].
In this schema, there are various bodies of water which flow downwards into the hollows and are recycled [112c], of which four are specifically mentioned. The first of these is the Oceanus, the outermost and largest [112e], with the Acheron flowing in the opposite direction through deserts before flowing through the earth into the Acherusian Lake, where the souls of the dead arrive [113a], including those souls who have finished their millennium of corrective punishment in Tartarus [113d, 114a]. The other two streams are the Pyriphlegethon - which issues between the Oceanus and Acheron and flows downwards into a fiery region, forming a lake larger than "our sea," comprised of mud and water, before flowing out past the Acherusian Lake and downward into Tartarus, where it is recycled, reemerging on the surface as flows of lava [113ab] - and the "bluish-grey" Cocytus, which flows through the Stygian region into a lake, the Styx, before continuing into Tartarus [113bc].
The description of the people of the upper realm seeing the heavenly bodies as they really are is similar to a Platonic analogy from the Republic, wherein Plato describes people held in a cave and mistaking the shadows cast by light from an unseen fire as reality [7.514ab]. The myth describes the progression of the individual upwards, first to behold the firelight itself, which leaves the poor fellow dazzled [515c], and finally into the sunlight [516a].
The myth of Er, another myth from the Republic, starts with the protagonist's death in battle [10.614b], whereupon he joins the souls of his deceased comrades in a meadow, standing before the appointed judges of the dead [614c]. Er is tasked by the judges with returning to the living to tell them what he will see, to serve as a warning to live righteously [614d]. There are two openings heading upwards and two more heading downwards on the right and left of these judges, through which souls go to and return from the heavenly realm and Tartarus respectively. Again, the souls spend 1,000 years (explained as ten lifetimes of 100 years) in the realm to which they are allocated [615a], before returning to the meadow to await the opportunity to select another incarnation [617de]. Among those souls returning is Ardiaeus the Great, a notorious Pamphylian tyrant from a millennium before, who is to be returned to Tartarus for another 1,000 years' punishment [615c] - a common occurrence for those in this line of work: tyrants are again specifically mentioned among those regarded as irredeemably corrupted [615de]. Plato notes that anyone attempting to gain unauthorised access to the portal to heaven is faced by "fierce, fiery-looking men" who ensure they do not achieve ingress [615e].
After a week in the meadow, Er joins his fellow travellers in a four-day journey to reach a light like a rainbow, which pierces the centre of the universe [616b], and is explained as binding the cosmos together [616c]. At the centre, they come across the spindle of Necessity (Ἀνάγκη, "Ananke"), within which the planets are seen tracing their courses, each with a siren singing a note of the music of the spheres [616e-617b]. Necessity is given here as the mother of the three Fates [617c]. There follows the choosing of the tutelary god and the nature of the soul's next incarnation, with an extended description of the choices of many ancient heroes - including the likes of Ajax, Agamemnon, Orpheus and Odysseus [620ae] - before another journey to the barren, scorching Plain of Oblivion (Λήθης πεδίον), where the souls are made to drink of the River of Neglect or Forgetfulness (Ἀμέλητα ποταμόν), causing them to finally forget their previous incarnation [621a]. During the following night, Er witnesses the souls departing to their next life like shooting stars [621b-622c], before he himself awakens on his funeral pyre and relates his experiences to his comrades.
Necessity also appears in the Timaeus as the personification of the entropic principle who is subordinated by the rational Demiurge into serving his purpose for the universe. The cosmogony in the dialogue proceeds after Critias terminates his discussion of Atlantis [27ab], whereupon Timaeus begins to describe the origins of the universe, stating that it is the creation of a divine Demiurge [27d-29d], and is a living being. Donald Zeyl sums up the cosmogony thus: -
The discourse unfolds in three main stages: the first sets out the achievements of Intellect (29d7–47e2), the second gives an account of the effects of Necessity (47d3–69a5), and the third shows how Intellect and Necessity cooperate in the production of the psychophysical constitution of human beings (69a6–92c9).
One interesting facet of the dialogue is the generations of the gods: "[o]f Ge and Uranus were born the children Oceanus and Tethys; and of these, Phorkys, Cronos, Rhea, and all that go with them; and of Cronos and Rhea were born Zeus and Hera and all [...] their brethren" [40e-41a], which is potentially an attempt to reconcile the Homeric and Hesiodic models (though Oceanus and Tethys as primordial father and mother also features elsewhere, and has venerable Mesopotamian antecedents).
In the Statesman, the Eleatic Stranger regales the Younger Socrates with some "light relief" [268c] in the form of an investigation into traces of catastrophic history embedded within the corpus of mythology then current among the Greeks. Citing the shifting of the sun in the story of Atreus and Thyestes, the tradition of the reign of Cronus and of the "earthborn" [268b], the Stranger suggests that, at certain points in time, the direction in which the universe turns is wont to alter [268e-269b], which he goes on to explain is due to the oversight of a god, who serves as a helmsman. However, once released and left unattended, the universe spins back upon itself [269c], with the change in direction marked by cataclysmic events [270c]. This is by design rather than accidental, as it emphasises that all that is material is prone to entropic principles of change and decay [269d-e].
The Stranger explains that the myth of the "earthborn" is actually a memory of the fact that people were born from the ground and aged in reverse during the previous cycle [270d-271a], and that its disastrous end was in part due to their using up their allotted number of lives [272de], prompting the helmsman to release the universe. Survivors of the cataclysm left records of the improbable nature of life in the previous cycle, which explains why the earliest people known to the Greeks were considered "earthborn" [271b].
During Cronus' reign, humans lived a life of innocence, being under the care of the god and his daemons, and not having to work to provision themselves [271d]. There was no fighting or carnivory [271e], and humans were able to communicate with other animals and learn their specialisations [272bc]. On the other hand, as there was no need for it, there was no organised society [271e], and humans were content to wander naked [272a]. It was due to the disappearance or downfall of Cronus at the end of the cycle that humans began to suffer the depredations of animals, prompting the gods to afford them gifts to stave off the deleterious effects of the catastrophe [274c].
The tradition of human innocence in the days of Cronus is reiterated in the Laws [4.713c-714b]. This snippet expands the ideas developed in the Statesman, with the Athenian Stranger stating that: "Cronos was aware of the fact that no human being [...] is capable of having irresponsible control of all human affairs without becoming filled with pride and injustice; so, pondering this fact, he then appointed as kings and rulers for our cities, not men, but beings of a race that was nobler and more divine, namely, daemons" [713c-d]. This is in sharp contrast to the contemporary world, in which "the people [under mortal rule] have no rest from ills and toils" [713e]. Plato concludes "that we ought by every means to imitate the life of the age of Cronos, as tradition paints it, and order both our homes and our States in obedience to the immortal element within us, giving to reason's ordering the name of 'law'" [713e-714a].
The Symposium represents a discussion between a number of Athens' great and good during the fifth century, each of whom is challenged to give an improvised speech lauding love. The first myth in the Symposium is placed in the mouth of the comic playwright Aristophanes, in which the early existence of humanity is explored. Features of the first humans was their bizarre round shape with two faces, four arms and four legs [189e-190a], as well as the existence of three genders, the third of which was the so-called "androgyne" [189d]. Though they sacrificed to the gods, these early people were impetuous and attempted to overthrow the Olympians, forming the basis for the myth of Otus and Ephialtes [190b]. As a result of this attempt, Zeus ordered each human to be cut in two, an order carried out by Apollo, which gave humans their familiar shape [190de]. As a result of this, the one half longed to be reunited with the other [190e]: the male and female proto-humans are now males and females with a homosexual orientation, whilst the androgynes became the more lascivious members of the heterosexual community [191c-192b]. One further tweak, carried out to avoid humans becoming extinct due to a lack of mating, was the transfer of the genitalia to the front, rather than the back, of the body [191b]. What is perhaps most striking about this description is Aristophanes' insistence that it is to be taken seriously, rather than as one of his satires [193d]. Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium has been widely regarded as the first attempt to define specific sexualities, though Aesop  also provides an explanation, blaming a drunken Prometheus for the creation of homosexuality.
Socrates' speech follows and in it he outlines the tale of the birth and heritage of Eros, i.e. Love, as apparently told to him by the Mantinaean holy woman Diotima [201d]. In this story, Eros is the son of Penia ("Poverty"), who seduced Porus ("Plenty") the son of Metis ("Cunning") at the celebration of the birth of Aphrodite [203b]. Rather than being a god or a vaguely-defined force which emerged at the very beginning of time (as in Hesiod's Theogony [116-122]), Eros is a daemon or spirit [202d], a species of intermediate power, an affinity with which allows spirituality to develop in humans [203a]. As such, the "vagrant" [203c-d] Eros is classed neither as a mortal nor an immortal [203e], with Socrates giving a touching description of how it can die after a brief flicker of life only to be reborn the next day.
Socrates' dealings with Diotima are suggestive of his desire to learn from religious figures as a young man, and are echoed in the Charmides, where he claims to have learned a particular charm "from one of the Thracian physicians of Zalmoxis, who are said even to make one immortal" [156d].
Also in the Republic, Plato introduces the story of a Lydian shepherd by the name of Gyges who, after a storm and an earthquake, witnesses the breaking open of an ancient tomb, wherein a bronze horse figure and other marvels are found [2.359d]. Inside this bronze horse is a gigantic corpse with a ring on its finger, which Gyges subsequently purloins [359e]. Finding out that the ring has the ability to confer invisibility on its wearer, Gyges wangles his way into becoming an emissary to the king [360ab]. Getting to the palace, he takes the opportunity to seduce the queen, eventually overthrowing the king and reigning in his stead [360b].
Given this fabulous tale, and the fact that Plato expressly uses it to highlight a notion of such powerful devices potentially making good men bad and bad men worse, we might also come to suspect that Gyges is a fictional personage. He was, however, historical. The Assyrian king Aššur-bāni-apli (Assurbanipal) mentions him as an ally who would prove duplicitous, the name appearing as Gugu in cuneiform. He may also be the inspiration for Ezekiel's Gog (Ezekiel 38 and 39). Ezekiel was writing during the reign of Gyges' successor Alyattes, at a time when Lydia was at the zenith of its powers. Additionally, various other Greek writers, including Herodotus [1.7-13], also mention Gyges: -
This Candaules then of whom I speak had become passionately in love with his own wife; and having become so, he deemed that his wife was fairer by far than all other women; and thus deeming, to Gyges the son of Daskylos [...] he said [...]: "Gyges, I think that thou dost not believe me when I tell thee of the beauty of my wife, for it happens that men's ears are less apt of belief than their eyes: contrive therefore means by which thou mayest look upon her naked."
Candaules' instigation of Gyges to furtively watch his wife disrobing in their bedchamber would presumably have suggested to Plato the notion of a Tolkienesque ring enabling the wearer to become invisible, with such a device suiting his purposes better as he attempts to make a philosophical comment on the corruptibility of man [Republic 2.360d-e]: -
If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
Though Candaules' name has not been preserved outside of Greek history, his other name, Myrsilus does, nevertheless have a ring of truth. Myrsilus, as well as the name of his father Myrsus, echoes the name Muršili, used by a number of kings of the great Hittite civilisation which held sway in Anatolia during the Bronze Age. There is a possibility that the Lydian language was descended from that of the Hittites and, as such, Myrsilus and his dynasty may have regarded themselves as the Hittites' true heirs.
Both the Republic [3.414c] and the Laws [2.663e] make mention of the story of Cadmus, which is dismissed as "a sort of Phoenician tale" & a "Sidonian fairy-tale" respectively. It is used in the Republic to preface the concept of the "Noble Lie," derived in part from Hesiod, which states that the different classes in society are defined by diverse metals which are mingled with their souls [3.415a]. It is left for Plato to identify the myth with that of Cadmus explicitly in the later Laws, where it is used as to argue that it is possible to teach impressionable young minds anything [2.663e-664a].
Plato also draws on the Amazon mythos to promote his ideas of gender equality: he has the Athenian Stranger declare in the Laws: "I believe the old tales I have heard, and I know now of my own observation, that there are practically countless myriads of women called Sauromatides, in the district of Pontus, upon whom equally with men is imposed the duty of handling bows and other weapons, as well as horses, and who practice it equally. In addition to this I allege the following argument. Since this state of things can exist, I affirm that the practice which at present prevails in our districts is a most irrational one - namely, that men and women should not all follow the same pursuits with one accord and with all their might" [7.804e-805a].