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A Platonic Myth: The Cicadas

‘Cicada’, by Stephanie Puiman Law


Plato, ‘Phaedrus’, 259 a-b-c-d. 

“…/…Socrates: It seems we clearly have time. Besides, I think that the cicadas, who are singing and carrying on conversations with one another in the heat of the day above our heads, are also watching us. And if they saw the two if us avoiding conversation at midday like most people, diverted by their song and sluggish of mind, nodding off, they would have every right to laugh at us, convinced that a pair of slaves had come to their resting place to sleep like sheep gathering around the spring in the afternoon. But if they see us in conversation, steadfastly navigating around them as if they were the Sirens, they will be very pleased and immediately give us the gift from the gods they are able to give to mortals.

Phaedrus: What is this gift? I don’t think I have heard of it.

Socrates: Everyone who loves the Muses should have heard of this. The story goes that the cicadas used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat or drink; so they died without realizing it. It is from them that the race of the cicadas came into being; and as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her. To Terpsichore they report those who have honored her by their devotion to the dance and thus make them dearer to her. To Erato, they report those who honored her by dedicating themselves to the affairs of love, and so too with the others Muses, according to the activity that honors each. And to Calliope, the oldest among them, and Urania, the next after her, who preside over the heavens and all discourse, human and divine, and sing with the sweetest voice, they report who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life. There are many reasons, then, why we should talk and not waste our afternoon in sleep.

Phaedrus: By all means let’s talk.”


Gold oak wreath with a bee and two cicadas. This wreath consists of two branches. At the back the stems have obliquely cut end-plates; at the front the two branches are held together with a split pin fastener that has a bee as its cap. The branches are made of sheet-gold tubes, over a modern copper core. Each branch has six sprays with eight leaves and seven or eight acorns, as well as a cicada. In addition, there are about a dozen single leaves set straight into each branch. The leaves are of three different sizes and are made in one piece with their stalks. The acorns are made in left and right die-formed halves; the cups are cross-hatched and there is a point on the top of the fruit. The cicadas are constructed from four separate sheets of gold – lower body, upper body, two wings. Origin : Hellenistic period. 350BC-300BC. Turkey, Çanakkale. Now at the British Museum.


Artwork by Amy Davis Roth.


Source: ‘Phaedrus’, 259 a-b-c-d. Page 535/36 of the 1997 Hackett ‘Collected Works of Plato’. Translated into English by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff.
A Platonic Myth: The Cicadas

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