In the Phaedrus, the character Socrates describes the human soul in its intermediary state as like a winged chariot ascending toward the ridge of heaven to behold the everlasting knowledge of the Forms. The two horses pulling the chariot symbolise the soul’s lofty and lowly impulses, while the charioteer represents intellect or reason, pointing the soul in the direction of eternal truth by keeping its disparate forces in check.
In Plato’s allegory, it is the equine wings that allow the chariot to soar upwards and enter into the realm of the gods. By signifying self-movement, their presence reflects the soul’s divine nature more so than any other aspect of the vessel. For if the horses do not submit to the charioteer’s whip, their celestial pinions wither, the soul-chariot falls back to earth, and to the mutability of another material incarnation. This is why the intelligence of the philosopher is said to ‘become winged’ when the mind is concentrated on the memory of its prior incorporeal existence.
For the Greeks, ecstasy or ekstasis referred to the flight of the soul from the body, but almost any image of natural flight can become an uplifting force for the ecstatic imagination. When a swallow glides and wheels above the horizon, its body appears made out of the air that surrounds it. Its youthful movement captures an instinctive bliss that evokes in the psyche a purely aerial state seldom experienced, except perhaps in dreams. The sight of this embodied force, perfectly attuned to the most rarified of elements, snatches us away from the linear travails of earth and transports us to a place where age no longer weighs us down. Embracing verticality, the bird in flight makes us forget time.