Socrates as a Swan

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    Though not mentioned in the Hymn to Apollo, Leto’s childbirth on the island of Delos was said to be surrounded by swans, which came to be one of the many symbols of Apollo. Socrates, in fact, references the swans in Phaedo 84e to 85b, comparing his current prophetic state to theirs. He tells us that swans are said to sing loudest on the day of their death, and that some see this as a final lament (a swan song), but he sees it as a joyous prophecy of their release and rejoining with Apollo. As is implied in the Apology (and elsewhere), Apollo, the god of Truth, is the main god that Socrates serves. The connection is not a coincidence, of course.
    Socrates is reminding his listeners that he is like the swans, giving a prophecy of how his own death will finally bring him the Truth he has always sought. The comparison does not end here. Although Hades is often presented as being underground, Socrates repeatedly refers to his soul after death as one that will be unburdened, flying rather than being dragged down by bodily concerns (e.g. 80e). The souls of those obsessed with worldly things are “thrown into Tartarus” (113e), which is described as a pit in Greek religion, while the pious and philosophical “make their way up” to “beautiful dwelling places” (114c).
    I wonder if these flight metaphors and references to the soul as birdlike are a new metaphor in Greek thought. Certainly, in Homer, even the best of those in the afterlike are seen as mere shadows of this world, living in caves (consider Odysseus meeting with the shade of Achilles). Socrates compares himself to servants of Apollo, a servant of Truth, and the reward is to dwell WITH the gods, in a place described as upward, not downward, where the soul is in flight, and not burdened by the earthy or any desires toward earthly things.
    One thing that speaks against this idea is that he still refers to the “underworld” at 115a, but perhaps this is a translation issue, and the word really refers to the afterlife in general, in which case Plato’s references to a soul that is free to move upward and dwell with the gods, like swans, may represent a complete change in how the afterlife is viewed in Western thought.

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