Category Archives: Mythology

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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Ovid

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

I recently finished teaching Ovid to both my classes. In fourth-year Latin verse, we finished up my chosen selections from his Epistulae ex Ponto (letters from Pontus), and in Latin epic we finished A. D. Melville’s translation of his Metamorphoses.

In my undergrad, I read only a few Latin poets — Virgil, minor authors associated with Tibullus, and Ovid. The Ovid I read then was his Ars Amatoria — the art of love. Ovid is a great poet, and if you are Latinless, A. D. Melville is a great translator of Ovid. Depending on your personality, you’d best start either with The Love Poems or The Metamorphoses.

Ovid himself started with the love poems — the Amores, themselves full of wit and charm and amusement, executed in brilliant elegiac couplets. This was his favoured metre — the first line of each couplet is a dactylic hexameter (the metre of epic), the second line has had a foot stolen by Cupid (technically called a dactylic pentameter, and that’s all we’re saying about metre today).

He played with all the conventions of Latin love elegy, and went on to his Ars Amatoria in that metre as a way to produce a mock-didactic poem about how to pick up the ladies, with a section for ladies to pick up men. Sometimes he gives opposite advice. Men — make sure you see her in daylight to make sure she’s really pretty; sometimes lamplight covers up blemishes. Ladies — make sure he only sees you in the lamplight, it covers up blemishes.

Apparently chariot races are also a good place to find a date.

Poets who are always testing and stretching their art are not comfortable with staying still, however. Thus Horace ranges through as much lyric as he can before moving to satire, and thence to the invention of Latin verse epistles. Ovid takes his love elegy and transforms it with his own first foray into mythology and the verse epistle with the Heroides. If you know classical mythology, I very strongly encourage you to read the Heroides. These are letters from the women of myth to their men, mostly complaining about their ill-treatment. Cutting and vibrant, they create a voice for the too-often voiceless characters of classical verse.

Ovid’s next two forays into myth were simultaneous — why stick to one thing when you can do two? The famous Metamorphoses, the epic that defies convention, and the Fasti, a work that could be said to be at least inspired by HellIenistic models, a poem in elegiac couplets that goes through the Roman calendar and gives the myths and legends surrounding their foundations. Two different approaches, two different tones, pure Ovid.

If you know a ‘Greek myth’, there is a very good chance that you know it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For example, we have no pre-Ovid version of Narcissus and Echo. The version of Apollo and Daphne we all love, or of Pygmalion, or of countless others, is the version as recounted by Ovid. Ovid’s main concern in the Metamorphoses is not simply to recount myth after myth about 250 times in almost 10,000 lines of dactylic hexameter. If that were the case — shoot me now. Rather, it is to use myths, and myths of metamorphosis in particular, to plumb the depths of the human soul to bring out the psychology and suffering and pathos of every sad myth, and cry out against the injustices of the gods.

(Aside: You’d think there’d’ve been a Greek Ragnarok; these guys are just as bad.)

Ovid soon had cause to cry out against Jupiter — as the poets called the first emperor, Augustus. He found himself exiled for a poem — the Ars Amatoria — and an error. We don’t know what the error was. Off he went to Tomis in Scythia Minor on the Black Sea (modern Tomi, Romania). Was it as bad as he says in the Tristia and Letters from Pontus?

I think it felt that way to Ovid — what more can we ask of a man?

He died in exile, despite his many letters and poems sent home.

His verse coruscates with device, artifice, wit, and cleverness. He is perhaps too clever for his own good, bringing down the censure of Quintilian and the English Augustans (18th century). Not only that — he’s fun! And we all know serious literature cannot be fun, of all things.

This brief encomiastic run-through of his poetic output scarcely does him justice. If you’re looking for a new poet to test out, if you want to test the waters of classical verse — try Ovid.

Tonight I finished The Silmarillion

First-edition cover, George Allen & Unwin, art by Tolkien (a heraldic device for Lúthien). Click the image for copyright info.

Having put our son to bed, my wife and I were preparing to have Grendel’s favourite snack* with a cup of tea, and discussing our relaxation plans for the evening. I said I wanted a cup of tea because I was almost done The Silmarillion. She said she was impressed. It’s not that impressive that I’ve read all those other boring because I had to read them. But she tried The Silmarillion and didn’t finish.

So did I. Twice.

Or was that three times?

I have to say, it takes a particular kind of Tolkien fan to like this more than The Lord of the Rings or to be really, really excited about re-reading this book. The Silmarillion is a hard book to get into, especially if (as on my first try) you mistakenly think it is a novel. It is not. It is less of a novel than The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien denies that LotR is a novel, FYI).

This is big mythology written in faux-archaic English from the creation of the world to the end of The Lord of the Rings. (By far, the best faux-archaic English I’ve read yet.) It was edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) out of the various versions and notes of his father. The elder Tolkien had intended to get this published, but when he brought it to his publisher, he was told to do something more hobbity instead (so we got The Lord of the Rings, praise Ilúvatar!). That is to say — however difficult this book is, unlike some (most? much? all?) of the other posthumous disiecti membra doctoris Christopher has inundated us with over the years, some version of this was meant to see the light of day.

Anyway, this probably makes me seem like I’m down on The Silmarillion, and all the people who do ‘philosophy and fantasy’ or ‘theology and fantasy’ or ‘Tolkien and Northernism’ or what-have-you are preparing to troll me. I’m not.

I really, really like the first few pages. After that, there is a certain amount of slogging to get through to bits that I liked. Interesting stories — like making the trees of light in Valinor, or Melkor riding Ungoliant to undo what the Valar do, or the creation of the Dwarves, or the departing of the Noldor for Middle Earth, or the fight that one guy with a forgettable name had with Morgoth and cut off his foot, or Beren and Lúthien, or the fifth battle against Morgoth, or parts of the extraordinarily long and depressing tale of Túrin, or Earendil, or what-have-you — simmer in the midst of a barrage of names and long non-descriptions of imaginary places that are mostly names of rivers and mountain ranges and the points of the compass with no maps to help.

The interesting stories and parts of stories are really interesting, though. Don’t get me wrong. I even get the depressing ones. In fact, you can see the unsurprising interweaving of Tolkien’s Catholicism and his Anglo-Saxon/Norse philology in some of the depressing parts (which is to say, they have interest!). In The Silmarillion, even the evil, even the discordant notes, works as part of the harmony of the whole — somehow. What Melkor/Morgoth intends for evil, Ilúvatar will have turn out for good in the end.

That is Catholic. Augustinian, even.

But all joy is tinged with sorrow. Happiness has a cutting edge of grief. The elves are fair and wondrous, but also sad. This sort of sorrow runs through a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature.

All of this to say — I enjoyed The Silmarillion overall, whether I can pronounce the titles of its different sections or not.

In the end, I do have mixed feelings about The Silmarillion.

Basically, I feel as though, if I’m going to put this much effort into a book, I’d rather it be actual ancient mythology, and not a philologist’s dream-child. I like it, but I feel that the reward may not be worth the effort of a second reading — for me, at least. Those of you who revel in this book and drool over your print-fresh copies of The Fall of Gondolin — have at it.

*Danishes.

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?

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!