Asclepius, god of healing, accompanied by a snake, his usual animal symbol. Paris, Louvre. Illustration from Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities 1899.
The Year of the Rooster
This is the Year of the Rooster! And not just any rooster. In the Chinese Lunar calendar, there are five kinds of rooster: Wood, Fire, Earth, Gold, and Water. The year 2017, whose New Year is celebrated this January, is a Year of the Fire Rooster. Roosters are talkative and sociable, but they can be vain and boastful. The Fire Rooster, however, is trustworthy, with a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility. The U.S. Postal Service has issued a Lunar New Year's stamp with a picture of a rooster, as seen above.
"A cock for Asclepius"
The most famous rooster in antiquity is the cock which Socrates, in his last words, told Crito he owed to the god Asclepius. The story is told by Plato at the conclusion of the Phaedo. That dialog purports to recount the last day in the life of the great Athenian philosopher, as narrated by Socrates' disciple Phaedo to his friend Echecrates. In the political upheavals following the Peloponnesian War, Socrates (469(?)-399 B.C.), a philosophical gadfly, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock for "corrupting the Athenian youth" and for "impiety."
In the Phaedo, Socrates' friends gather in his jail cell for one last conversation. The ensuing dialog concerns the nature of the soul, and whether it survives the body. It covers questions of reincarnation and transmigration of formerly human souls into animals, and what happens to good and evil souls. (Souls contaminated by living in the bodies of the gluttonous and violent are reincarnated in the bodies of asses and other such beasts (Phaedo 81e), the unjust pass into the bodies of wolves and hawks (82a), those who have practiced moderation pass into ants and bees (82b)).
At last an attendant brings the poison cup, and Socrates asks permission to pour a customary libation, but the attendant says the poison is carefully measured out, and none can be spared. Socrates' friends start to cry, and Socrates reminds them to act in a dignified manner, and explains (misogynistically) that that is the reason he sent his wife and other women away, because of their emotional outbursts. Socrates drinks the poison, and as his limbs progressively go cold, he reminds Crito that "We owe a cock to Asclepius, pay the debt and do not neglect it" (118a). Crito asks for further information, but Socrates dies, leaving the enigma of what he meant.
What did Socrates mean?
People from Plato's time onward have scratched their heads over Socrates' intent. Offerings were customarily made to Asclepius, god of healing, after being cured of some illness. The animal most closely associated with Asclepius was the snake, but animals, including roosters, were customarily sacrificed to him. Some writers (including Nietzsche) have thought Socrates meant that life is a disease of which he was cured. Others think he meant that his disciples were cured by his teachings of their misguided thoughts. It is also possible that there is a mundane explanation, that he really did owe an offering to Asclepius for some previous cure. Colin Wells in "The Mystery of Socrates' Last Words" in Arion 16.2 (Fall, 2008) offers another very sensible interpretation. Socrates had wanted to pour a libation (perhaps ironically) from his cup of poison, as if it were wine on some special occasion. Prevented from doing so, he still felt that some appropriate offering should be made to the gods. Hemlock was, in fact, sometimes used as a medicine in small doses, and Plato refers to the poison as a pharmakon ("drug" or medicine), so what god is more appropriate than Asclepius?
We also note that a rooster was a traditional gift exchanged by gay men; see the vase painting below.
Below, in Greek and English, are the final lines of the Phaedo.
Ganymede, boy favorite of Zeus, playing with a hoop and holding a rooster. Berlin painter, Louvre. The rooster was frequently exchanged as a gift by gay men. The other side of the vase depicts Zeus in pursuit of Ganymede. (Image from Wikipedia, photo by Bibi Saint-Pol.)
Copyright © Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.
Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.
Return to Minerva Systems home page.