Category Archives: Mythology

Atonement

Today I taught Virgil, Aeneid 12 — the final book of the epic. Mostly I lectured about

**SPOILER ALERT**

the death of Turnus. When Aeneas kills him, he says (Frederick Ahl’s translation):

Pallas gives you this death-stroke, yes Pallas / Makes you the sacrifice, spills your criminal blood in atonement!

In Latin this is:

Pallas te hoc uulnere, Pallas / immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.

I hadn’t checked the Latin before class, but as I read Aeneas’ declaration out to my students, I said to them that I did not like this use of atonement. In the context, Aeneas is essentially killing out of revenge, possibly seeking propitiation for Turnus’ killing of Pallas. Now, atonement is often used in contemporary English in the place of propitiation, but its wider use implies something bigger and potentially very different.

Without looking at the Latin, we decided on retribution — propitiation usually involves the gods, after all.

Ahl has a difficult task throughout his translation, because he is trying to translate verse into verse across different languages. But at least he is not trying to match the same number of English iambic pentameters to ancient dactylic hexameters like Emily Wilson does in her Odyssey, since that is essentially impossible without more cutting than usual.

Anyway, ‘spills … in atonement’ renders the Latin ‘poenam … sumit’, which I would take to be ‘exact/inflict the penalty/punishment’.

This is retribution, not atonement.

How are we to differentiate?

Well, maybe this is just the philologist in me, but the English word atonement, while it often comes out meaning ‘retribution’ in contemporary English, does not always mean that today, nor has it historically. Moreover, it is more often used in terms of ‘reparation’ today — that is, one ‘atones for’ one’s crimes.

Atonement, as you likely know, is about the only word in the English theological vocabulary descended from neither Latin nor Greek. It looks like its original meaning — ‘making at one’ or even, dare we try?, ‘one-ing’ or ‘onement’. It comes to take on ideas from propitiation, retribution, reparation, because of its use to refer to how Jesus oned humans and God by taking on human sin, guilt, punishment, etc., and dying.

But because of its use in Christian theology, it strikes me that we should be careful how we use the word atonement, regardless of popular uses. Does Turnus atone for his sin with his death, or does Pallas simply take retribution from Turnus’ blood?

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Dido, Queen of Carthage

I have the privilege this semester of teaching Virgil’s Aeneid (on which I’ve blogged here) in English (translation by Frederick Ahl). Last week, we covered Book 4. This is the section of the Aeneid in which Aeneas and Dido have an affair that Dido considers marriage, and in the end, Dido kills herself on a pyre of her stuff, after raging through the streets of Carthage like a bacchante.

In his Confessions, Augustine admits to weeping at Aeneid 4 as a boy.

Normally, when we read the tragedy of Dido, we cannot help feel for her as a woman maltreated by a man. Servius, the fourth-century commentator on Virgil, says that Virgil modelled Dido on Apollonius of Rhodes’ account of Jason and Medea — a love story that, had Apollonius got to the end, closes with the woman abandoned by the man and getting violent revenge. Another parallel, perhaps, is Theseus abandoning Ariadne on Naxos, as recounted in one of Virgil’s intertexts, Catullus 64, a mini-epic about the marriage of Peleus and Thetis.

Elaine Fantham says that Dido is more like Hypsipyle than Medea, of all of Jason’s women, and perhaps even more like Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus — a woman driven to love by scheming divinities whose real target is a man.

Fantham, in her introduction to Ahl’s translation, makes an important point about our reading of Dido:

‘Rather than relive Dido’s sufferings, we must note that she stands for the future of her city. When Dido stabs herself upon the funeral pyre Rumour, the same destructive spirit that precipitated the lovers’ separation, now raves through the city as if all Carthage (like Troy) was falling to enemy occupation and being consumed by flames. The greatest wrong done by Dido’s love for Aeneas was arguably to her own people. –Introduction, xxvii

Normally, we see Dido as a poor woman who has fallen for and succumbed to her womanly passions. I think we should, rather, see Dido as a queen, who has been targeted by Venus and Juno for their own ends, leading to disaster.

We do not, for example, read Turnus the way we read Dido. When he calls for war and rages against the Trojans, we do not say that he has succumbed to his manly passions for war and violence. We rightly acknowledge the role that the Fury Allecto has in Turnus’ turning.

Dido, who first appears being likened to the Goddess Diana and is seen as a self-strong, self-assured political player in Africa who has rejected marriage not only out of loyalty to her dead husband but out of political shrewdness for the future of Carthage, should not simply be reduced to a woman succumbing to the passions of romantic love. She should be seen as a character and a player in her own right.

This changes it. She becomes like Turnus, a victim of Venus and Cupid, and then also of Juno, who meant to favour her. Her wrong, her culpa, also shifts from the private to the public. Dido has not merely had an affair but has endangered the entire Carthaginian enterprise.

In a poem full of political players, this should not be lost.

Violence in Literature

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

Not too long ago, I was reading a historical novel and wondering if it would be a good present for someone I know. My one concern was the violence — this was a novel about the Roman army, and there were a few battle scenes. And then, maybe the next day (?), I was reading the Aeneid, which includes such passages as this:

Tarquitius next set himself in the path of Aeneas’ fury.
Born to a nymph, Dryope, and fathered by Faunus, the woodlands’
God, he was prancing, proud in his blazing armour. Aeneas,
Hefting a spear, pinned the massive weight of his shield to his breastplate.
As the man begged in vain and prepared to keep pleading, Aeneas
Slashed off his head. When it fell to the ground, he rolled over the headless,
Still warm trunk with his feet… -Aeneid 10.550-556, trans. Ahl

This, I concede, is probably not the most violent scene in the Aeneid, but I hope it suffices as an example. This poem is violent, filled with many grim deaths. But overall, it is worth reading — the violence is part of the story, part of the art, and contributes to the bigger themes I discussed when recommending that you read this epic.

The Aeneid is not the grimmest of Latin epics when it comes to violence. From what I have read so far, that goes to Lucan’s Civil War:

One of the twins dared grab a Roman vessel
from his Greek stern when oars were interlocked
in slanting comb; but a heavy blow from above cut off
his hand, which clung there still, such was the pressure of its grasp
and, holding on with tightened muscles, it grew stiff in death.
In adversity his courage grew: mutilated, his noble wrath
increases and with strong left hand he renews the battle
and leans across the waters to seize his own right hand:
but this hand too with all the arm is severed.
Now without his shield and weapons, he is not hidden deep
inside the ship but exposed, and as he protects with naked breast
his brother’s shield, he stands firm, though pierced by many a spear,
and in a death already well earned he receives the weapons which
in their fall would have killed many of his own people. Then he gathered
into his tired frame the life that was departing by many wounds
and braced his limbs with all the blood remaining
and, though his muscles were failing in their strength, he leaped
on to the enemy ship, to damage it by his weight alone.
-Civil War 3.609-626, trans. Braund

Not the most gruesome death, but possibly one of the most bizarre as Braund observes. This death, which continues on the blood-soaked ship until it sinks, like the others in Lucan, highlights the monstrosity of civil war. There are no heroic deaths here, for the order of the world has been cast awry.

One more example from Latin epic, the death of Pentheus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:

… The whole mad throng
Rush at him, all united, and pursue
Their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure,
Now using less fierce language, blaming now
Himself, admitting now that he’s done wrong.
Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe!
Mercy! Actaeon’s ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon’s name’s unknown. She tore away
His outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched
The other off. With no hands left to stretch
Out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried,
And showed the severed stumps. And at the sight
Agave howled and tossed her head and hair,
Her streaming hair, and tore his head right off,
And, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried,
‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph’s mine!’
-Trans. A. D. Melville

The Expendables films having nothing on Ovid.

Each of these poems has its violent moments. But each also has wider themes — love, destiny, the wrath of the gods, freedom, glory, right behaviour. The violence and death are not there to be glorified or revelled in. They are subservient to the wider purpose of great poetry. And, whether you like them or not, these three are consummate poets.

Turning back, then, to a modern historical novel, the question should be the same, even if the artistry is not Virgilian, Ovidian, or Lucanian. What does the violence do? Does it propel the plot? Does it deepen a character? Does it expand a theme? Or is it merely titillation for the violent side of males who live in a society that prevents most of them from being legitimately violent?

Once these questions are answered, the rest should fall into place.

Why read the Aeneid of Virgil?

Arms and the man I sing

I recently finished my fourth English reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, this time in the translation of Frederick Ahl with an excellent introduction by the late Elaine Fantham (Fantham taught me Latin verse in my MA at Toronto, and I have enormous esteem for her work and great affection for her person).

As with the Iliad, there are good extrinsic reasons to read Virgil’s great epic — all post-Virgilian Latin verse, especially epic, for one thing. Even Ovid’s Amores — a magnificent series of elegiac love poetry — are haunted by Virgil, beginning with the word arma. Also, Dante (whom I also love) and Milton (Milton also has some Lucan in him — and Lucan is, in many ways, the anti-Virgil). Or if, like me, you’re a Bernini fan:

Someone somewhere once called the Aeneid the epic poem of Europe. We are all, for good or ill, wrapped up in the great European cultural project, from Homer to Star Trek. The Aeneid permeates much of this, and not only poetry, but philosophy at least as early as Seneca, theology in Augustine, and the visual arts. Oh, and Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. As I said about The Iliad:

not reading [it] means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life

Other reasons? So many. Here are three.

First, duty. This is perhaps a reason to read the Aeneid today. Over and over and over again in the Aeneid, the titular hero is ‘pius Aeneas’ — falsely rendered ‘pious’. Ahl goes for ‘righteous’, Heaney for ‘filled with devotion’. Aeneas, for all his faults (we’ll get to those), is a man who knows what his destiny is (okay, most of us don’t have gods and ghosts helping us out in that regard), and he does what is necessary to that end. He single-mindedly seeks to do his duty to his fate.

He is also a devoted son, father, husband — he seeks to do his duty to Anchises, his father, whom he carries away from Troy in spite of Anchises’ protestations. He also brings his son Iulus/Ascanius. He wishes to bring his wife Creusa, but she is slain in the god-rendered destruction of Troy.

Aeneas fulfils his duty to the gods. He brings with him his household gods from Troy to give them a new home. He performs sacrifices to the gods. He fulfils vows to the gods. He also fulfis his duty to the dead by giving them proper burial when possible.

In an age where we shirk duty when possible and do whatever we please, perhaps we could learn from Aeneas?

But — well, then there’s the second reason. Ambiguity. Is pius Aeneas always pious? Think of his own aristeia, the needless slaughter of so many Latins. The killing of his great foe. His manipulation and abandonment of Dido. Aeneas can be a violent, dangerous man. Not all of the killing in this poem is just, and some of the unjust killing is on the part of Aeneas, pius or not.

This is part of why I love this poem. Maybe we need to think about duty. But Virgil doesn’t avoid the muck. Death. War. Violence. Betrayal. These are the stuff of the crooked ways of humans. And his great, beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry draws you and pulls you. It’s an amazing poem — people like me want to find ‘morals’ to the story: Devoted Aeneas! But Virgil says, ‘Oh, but — violent Aeneas, angry Aeneas, shameless Aeneas, woman-abandoning Aeneas…’

Both Aeneases are real. That’s part of the beauty of the poem.

And so the third: The Aeneid is beautiful in Latin, beautiful in a good English translation. If you are Latin-less, get Fagles (Penguin) or Ahl (Oxford). Read it in verse — Dryden, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve not read C. Day Lewis’s. Death can be beautiful when narrated by the greatest poet of the Latin language. Storms at sea can grip you. Even catalogues of Romans take on something beyond expected glory when rendered in dactylic hexameter.

There is power in Virgil’s verse. I find this hard to put into words, which probably makes me a bad critic. But maybe beauty isn’t quite right as the third reason. This is a magnificent, complex poem, referring backwards and forwards to itself. The action and the set descriptions are carefully paced to keep your interest. The relationship to Homer is there at first sight, and suddenly more complex at fourth read. Read the Aeneid because it is … wondrous.

I have a friend who hates the term ‘instant classic’. Nothing, she says, is an instant classic. Well, Virgil was. He was taught in schools almost as soon as he existed. Already, his contemporaries had to find new things to do. This poem could not be ignored by Ovid. Lucan, in his choice of the grotesque horror of civil war, had to do something completely different, composing verse in the shadow the great Virgil.

The Aeneid is a rich, powerful, complex, beautiful poem about destiny, about duty, and about the ambiguities of life as lived by mortals who are trying to do their duty and fulfil their destinies. Read it. Then read it again.

#philologywillsavetheworld

Also: check out my post about The Odyssey!

Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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