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Love’s dangerous power in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

apollo__daphne_september_2aThis morning I finished reading A.D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The power and danger of love are a main theme running throughout this 15-book epic of transformations. That amore, love, should be a main feature of Ovid’s epic is no surprise — he is one of Latin poetry’s great love poets (arguably the greatest, although popular opinion would probably grant that to Catullus). Before turning to epic, after all, Ovid wrote elegiac verse. His first production was a series of love poems, the Amores. He also wrote the Ars Amatoria — the art of love (really, the art of seduction) and the Remedia amoris — the remedy of love. His first extended foray into mythological poetry was the Heroides, a series of letters written in elegiac couplets betwen famous heroines of myth.

So — no grand surprise that love is one of the most powerful driving factors when Ovid turns his mind to epic verse.

Part of the dangerous power of love in the Metamorphoses lies in the rejected lover. This struck me today particularly in Book 14, when Picus rejects the witch Circe’s advances, since he’s already in love with his wife, Canens. Circe responds:

‘non inpune feres, neque’ ait ‘reddere Canenti,
laesaque quid faciat, quid amans, quid femina, disces
rebus; at est et amans et laesa et femina Circe!’ (Met. 14.383-385)

‘You shall not act without punishment, nor,’ she said, ‘return to Canens,
and what a wounded, what a loving, what a woman may do, you shall learn —
indeed both the one loving and the wounded and the woman is Circe!’ (my trans of the top of my head)

*spoiler*

Picus gets turned into a woodpecker.

For marital faithfulness.

Throughout the Metamorphoses, people are slain or transformed because they reject the love of some powerful being. Perhaps, as in Apollo and Daphne, the transformation is salvation. Perhaps, as in Picus and Circe, the transformation is punishment.

It’s been about nine years since I read Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue all about eros — love — but I do wonder what a good Platonist would make of Ovid’s amor. Elsewhere, Ovid refers to himself as tenerorum lusor amorum — the player of tender loves.

But the loves of the Metamorphoses are not tender. They can be violent. Rape is a disturbiningly common reality for the females of Graeco-Roman mythology. The raptus of Proserpina may, in context, refer to her being snatched away to the Underworld by Pluto — but its etymological descendant is uncomfortably near the surface of the whole tale. And even the willing suffer for their love in this poem — Semele, the human mother of Bacchus, is fried to a crisp by the lightning flash of Jupiter’s godhead, to give one example.

Love is a powerful force. Amor, eros, desire — driving people, pulling them in one direction or another. The poet knows it and exposes it here, often at its grimmest — murder, deception, incest, intrigue, suicide, starvation. I guess this is why Plato has Socrates discoursing about seeking the good and the beautiful, and that our powerful desires will ultimately only be satisfied by to kallisto, the most beautiful.

Otherwise, we risk being turned into trees, springs, rivers, rocks, and birds.

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Ovid’s Amores: Wit, desire, artifice

I just finished A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Amores in his Oxford World’s Classics volume of Ovid, The Love Poems. I had previously read his translation of the Metamorphoses and fell in love with the liveliness of Melville’s verse, as quick to turn a phrase as Ovid himself, so when I took advantage of Blackwell’s 2 for 1 sale of Oxford World’s Classics early this week, I paired this volume with Selected Philosophical Writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

If I ever get around to recommending more classical epic, a piece on the Metamorphoses would be in order — following, however, The Aeneid of Vergil.

But right now, some thoughts on the Amores as they come.

This selection of poems includes some of Ovid’s earliest publications (Ovid lived 43 BC-AD 17/18), although he re-edited the original five books into three for the final, single-volume edition. The poetry included here is elegiac verse. Elegy is written in couplets; the first line of the couplet is a dactylic hexameter, the same meter as epic verse, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The second line of the couplet is a pentameter, comprising two pairs of two and a half dactyls.*

It is a meter as invariable as the Appenines of Ovid’s birthplace (Sulmo), moving ever forward as desire draws a man to his beloved. It can be playful; it can be mournful. Today, we associate elegy with mourning.

In Latin, elegiac verse was written primarily for love poetry. The themes of elegiac verse are, in fact, often associated with mourning or lament. Lamenting the burning of desire caused by love. Lamenting a door keeping the lover out of the beloved’s house. Lamenting the husband at a dinner party. Lamenting the beloved being away for the weekend. Lamenting the beloved coming back to Rome early. Lamenting the beloved’s unfaithfulness.

That’s not all that it’s about, but those are not uncommon themes in Latin love elegy, which I first encountered with J C Yardley at the University of Ottawa where we read his little text and commentary Minor Authors of the Corpus Tibullianum (including such figures as Lygdamus and Sulpicia) as well as a few from Tibullus himself. The other poet famous today for Latin love elegy is Propertius. And all of these men looked back to Gallus, from whom one papyrus fragment was found in the 20th century, much to the disappointment of Latinists everywhere. It wasn’t as good as hoped.

Anyway, Ovid comes after Tibullus and Propertius and basically does everything you can with Latin love elegy. In the introduction to this volume, E J Kenney says that he ‘finished off … Latin love elegy.’ (xix) Whereas for one such as Tibullus and Propertius, the affair is mostly an unhappy business, Ovid’s love affair is, until the later stages of Book 3, not unhappy.

There are laments or complaints, such as to doors and slaves and suchlike. But Ovid’s wit brings us a largely happy love affair from inception to denouement — hence it is not always happy, for the endings of such things tend not to be. In three books of short poems, Ovid takes his reader on a journey through this love affair, his wit creating various conceits and situations along the way: addressing the doorpost, a (written) poem that is ostensibly an oral message to the slave who bears a written message, a poem to the mistress followed by one to the slavegirl about the same event, one early poem about what to do if the husband is at a party, a later one about her doing these things in relation to other men at a party where Ovid is present, and so forth.

Besides the straight-out love poetry, there are pauses and breaks. We have an encounter between Tragedy and Elegy. We have a defence of poetry vs politics and the lawcourt. We have a funerary elegy for Tibullus. And throughout, there is interwoven Ovid’s expected mythological allusions and uncommon, unstandard versions of the tales of literature, as well as allusions to his other work, such as the Heroides which are a series of fictional letters from famous heroines of myth to their lovers.

Throughout, driving Ovid more than anything is desire. The desire for Corinna, who is probably a fiction. The desire for immortality and fame. The desire to twist and turn and make new what has been done before by many another. The desire for his art to be taken seriously. And the glass tesserae that comprise Ovid’s mosaic of poetry are wit and artifice.

Wit and artifice — not necessarily insincere but a caution to take Ovid’s love poetry too seriously — run through all of Ovid’s work, whether the works in elegiac verse such as the Amores and Ars Amatoria or the epic Metamorphoses.

I invite you spend some time today with one of Rome’s wittiest poets, a man who was certainly successor to Virgil as the giant of the Augustan Age. And do so, if you can, in the company of A. D. Melville’s masterful, faithful, fast-paced translation.

PS: If you’re interested in the Metamorphoses, Nemo at ‘Books on Trial’ has two posts of what will be a series up, one on Phaeton and another on Narcissus and Echo.

*A dactyl is: Long, short, short, like the joints of a finger (daktylos is Greek for finger).

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.

Galerie Mazarine at the Site Richelieu, Bibliothèque nationale de France

This image of the staircase up to the Galerie Mazarine was all I could find

For my month in Paris, I spend my mornings attending French class and my afternoons at the Bibliotheque nationale de France. They house their manuscripts at the Richelieu Library, and the Salle de Lecture is in a part of the building known as the Galerie Mazarine, build in the mid 1600s.

The Galerie Mazarine is one of those long, Baroque galleries you see in movies about Louis XIV and the like. It has many high windows along one side, each topped by a golden scallop. The other side, parallel with the windows, are false windows, painted with pastoral scenes. The majority of these are hidden behind shelves of books and a modern wall that dwell here now, the use of les lecteurs at the Richelieu.

Many long tables cross the floor of the Galerie for les lecteurs, with a counter a little over midway along the Galerie. It is at one of these long tables I sat yesterday and today, beneath a crystal chandelier. The candles are equipped with lightbulbs, but the chandelier is now also fitted out with other incandescent lights that point straight down from the midst of the crystals; the candle-bulbs are off. Most of the room’s lighting, however, comes not from the chandeliers but from the modern world’s ubiquitous fluorescent tubes.

Of course, it is not the chandeliers or windows, or even the false windows — lovely though they be — that make this room. It is the ornate, Baroque ceiling above it all, above the gold-and-white moulding. Painted on this ceiling, separated one from another by golden Baroque ornament, are many images of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Straight ahead from seats 23 (yesterday’s) and 22 (today’s), above the entrance, are Romulus and Remus being found by their adoptive shepherd parents as the she-wolf suckles them.

Off to my left was an image of the Achaeans taking the Trojan women to their ships. The right — pretty much straight above my head — in one of the larger painted panels was Aeneas escaping Troy, Anchises on his back. Creusa stands behind, weeping. That must be her ghost.

With such a ceiling as this, the Galerie Mazarine could easily be the most beautiful library workspace I have used, were it not for the modern encumbrances such walls with modern books and lights up above that block the view of the Galerie.

But it is a very beautiful salle de lecture, and I am happy to be spending a month working with manuscripts in it!

Exile

Turner: Ovid Banished from Rome

On Saturday, before writing my last post, I read Cicero’s letters to Atticus for the years 58 up to mid-57 BC. At this time, Cicero was in exile; he claims through the envy of friends, although I reckon the machinations of enemies would be more apt. Yet perhaps my view of Clodius is tainted by later events. Nonetheless, he was in exile on the grounds that he had put Roman citizens to death without trial when he was consul (two consuls ruled Rome in the Republic) in the events of the Catalinarian Conspiracy (for which, besides Cicero’s Speeches Against Catiline, I recommend Sallust) — events in which Cicero viewed himself as the Saviour of the Nation.

Going into exile, then, was a bit of a blow. This, he felt, was undeserved! It spelt ruin for him, his family, his property! Throughout his letters, he declares to Atticus that he wishes his friend had not convinced him to live. He wishes he’d committed suicide instead of this. If he had killed himself before the law of exile was passed, his family would have inherited his property and lived comfortably. As it was, all of his things had been confiscated and his wife and children were in a dangerous state of affairs. Not only did his exile bring his ruin, it brought them ruin. Cicero’s thinking, then, is that if he’d committed suicide first, he alone would have suffered.

For a Platonist, death is only the start of the next round anyway. Once the lots were cast, Cicero would have expected to drink from the River Lethe and be reincarnated anyway. Death, for Cicero or for any other Roman, was not so bad an option. It kept honour intact. It maintained one’s gravitas. But exile … well, exile was something different.

But this episode, unlike his clash with Antony over a decade later, ended happily for Cicero. He was recalled from exile and was able to resume his life as a leading man in Rome, as an orator, as an advocate in the law courts, as a philosophiser, as a (bad) poet.

Cicero is not the only, nor the most famous, exile of Roman history. We have also P. Ovidius Naso (on whom I’ve blogged here and here). Augustus exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea for his ars and something else, the nature of which was so delicate no clues exist that are sufficient for us to work it out, try as Ronald Syme might. Unlike Cicero, Ovid died in exile; but he left us literary remains, the Tristia, as well as Ex Ponto (epistolary poems), and the finishing touches on his great works the Fasti and Metamorphoses.

Less well-known in certain circles is John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, who was also exiled to the Black Sea region, in 404. Like Cicero and Ovid, he left letters. Unlike Cicero, he does not wish to be dead. He encourages his supporters in the city to promote his cause, and he engages, both in the letters and in his work On Providence, in philosophising and theologising his situation. Why, he asks, does God allow bad things to happen to good people? (Similar to Boethius’s philosophising in prison, only explicitly Christian.)

Dante Wrote Masterworks from Exile

Exile has been a force in world history for generations. Today, the Queen of Iran is in exile. James VII (II) died in exile, but his descendants still live on abroad. In the Anglo-Saxon world, exile was often a punishment for crimes, and the exile found himself in a world cut off from the assistance and benefaction of a lord and of kin ties. So also in the Viking world, which gives us the exile Eric the Red who went off to find Greenland, making good use of his time away from home.

What a person does with exile is up to him. Cicero moved around, wrote letters not only to Atticus but to his family as well, fretted about his brother, and wished he were dead. He did, however, seek not to change, writing to Atticus:

I am the same man. My enemies have robbed me of what I have, but not of what I am. (Ad Atticum 3.5, 6 April 58 BC)

Ovid and Chrysostom spent their exiles trying to get reinstated back home (but to no avail). Ovid also employed his wit to compose and revise his poetry; Chrysostom used his to produce theology. Eric the Red discovered Greenland. These men all demonstrated that their circumstances do not define them. It was not Rome or Constantinople or Iceland that made them who they were. That was something inside, something that could operate at any place and under any circumstances.

Still, I’m glad not to be an exile, myself!

Ovidian humanity

Recently, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by A. D. Melville. This translation captures the speed, the vividness, the living poetry of Ovid’s’ hexameters. I recommend it (whereas the Penguin Classics translation I most emphatically do not).

Unlike most of the epics we think of when we think epicThe OdysseyThe AeneidGilgamesh, Beowulf and such — the Metamorphoses is an entire history of the cosmos from Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, told through the specific lens of — you guessed it — metamorphosis.

Right now, I wish to focus in on one passage from the creation story of Ovid’s mythological epic (epic mythology?). In Bk 1 (remember that in ancient literature a ‘book’ is like a chapter), we read:

Then man was made, perhaps from seed divine,
Formed by the great Creator, so to found
A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,
So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,
Kept still some essence of the kindred sky–
Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,
In likeness of the gods that govern the world–
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky,
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed
Put on the unknown form of humankind.

Hopefully you have enjoyed Melville’s blank verse rendering of Ovid’s hexameters; I know I do. What’s to notice here is what makes us human. All the other animals have been created (as in Genesis), and now, ‘in likeness of the gods’ (as in Genesis), the human race is made.

This post is not about Christian theology (fear not!). Nonetheless, Christian theologians/exegetes/preachers/commentators have spent much time mulling over what it means to be made in the image of God. Does it lie in God’s first commandment to the man and woman? Does it lie in the nature of the Holy Trinity? Is it reason?

It seems to me that Ovid’s answer is that ‘man was made to hold his head / Erect in majesty and see the sky / And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.’

We are fashioned of earth and heaven, says Ovid. And so, of earth, our feet are planted on the ground. Yet, of heaven, our eyes look upwards. We touch the sky (excuse us as we do so, says Jimi). We, unlike the four-footed beasts (says Ovid), stand erect and behold the vastness of the Milky Way, the passage of the Moon, the blazing inferno of the Sun. We walk beneath this vast, starry host and cannot help but consider our place in the universe.

And, as beings who can feel small in the face of that speckled black vastness, we sing songs of this earthy life and that heavenly glory. We philosophise to make sense of it all. We tell of deeds great and deeds small, of gods gigantic and humans striving for gigantism.

Poised between animal and divine, we are human. Walking beneath the vastness of the stars of night, we turn mystical, philosophical, scientifical.

Not such a bad way to be.

“Bacchus who sets us free”

Thus writes Robert Fagles at Aeneid 4.73.  Although Virgil’s Latin (at 4.58) merely says, “patrique Lyaeo” — “and to Father Lyaeus”, one of the names of Dionysus — this phrase makes me ponder, “How does Bacchus set us free?”  Could one, perhaps, through an examination of ancient texts, produce a Dionysian Liberation Theology?*

Bacchus (or Dionysus), if you were wondering, is the god of the ancient pantheon associated with ekstasis — standing outside of oneself — which takes madness as one of its main forms, as we see in Fagles’ translation of Aen. 4.300ff (his 4.373):*

She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through
the entire city, raving like some Maenad
driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems,
when the cyclic orgy, shouts of “Bacchus!” fire her on
and Cithaeron echoes round with maddened midnight cries.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dido “rages in helpless frenzy” (my trans.).  And then she “bacchatur” through the whole city (4.301).  What is there of freedom in someone who rages, is helpless, raves, is driven wild, whose actions madden Mt. Cithaeron?

Consider, if you will, the life of an upper-class woman in the Graeco-Roman world.  She sits in the back row at the amphitheatre.  She spends most of her life indoors doing as little work as possible.  She shrouds her head in public.  Her first marriage is probably arranged by her father or some other powerful male relative.  She also has access to education, parties, chariot races, the right to divorce her husband, exotic foods, alcohol in moderation, and so forth.

However, in a world of clearly defined roles and strong, sturdy ideals of pietas — duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to the country, duty to one’s honour — for both men and women, how does madness not set people free?

A Bacchante, as seen in The Bacchae by Euripides, has the opportunity to dance like a wild woman, to shake the thyrsus (Bacchus’ holy staff), to shake her wild her, to abandon the city and dance on the hills.  She is freed from the need to be decorous, she can live by the motto “Dignity Is for Chumps” as a Bacchante, she is freed from the inhibitions placed on her by herself and her society.  For a time, she is freed from her womanly duties and responsibilities without becoming impia.

Bacchus sets us free.  Father Liber (another name; this one is Roman) is also the god of wine, a substance that has its own dis-inhibiting effect upon people, making it similar to madness.  And since Liber is, himself a lover — “he himself is warmed” by the flame of love (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.525) — he helps lovers in their quest for the beloved.  I reckon Ovid recommends the use of wine in the pursuit of one’s beloved, and that Bacchus who sets us free will join in the fight.  It’s not necessarily advice I would give, but there it is in one of our texts.  We are set free by wine — by Father Liber — to find somebody to love.  And since scholars think that Bacchus was originally a fertility god, this only makes sense.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dionysus is also the god of the theatre — hence the City Dionysia in Athens, the great theatre festival whence we gain Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.  In the theatre, you are freed from your very self.  Standing on the stage, looking out in the crowd of thousands of people, you are not Thespis anymore.  With the mask covering your face, you are an ancient hero, or a slave, or a god, or an aristocratic lady.  You can take the words of the playwright, words wrought to make people think about current affairs, words brought to bring about catharsis, and you can speak them into peoples souls from behind that mask.  And it is not Thespis speaking but another.  You, Thespis, are free, for you are not Thespis.

For us in the modern world, there is much to be liberated from.  And while Bacchus was fake at best and a demon at worst (to take the ancient Christian take on pagan gods), a bit of the Dionysian spirit should hopefully be good for us and set us free.  Freedom from inhibitions.  Freedom from feeling constrained by the necessities of life around us.  Freedom from decorum.  Freedom from lovelessness.  Freedom to be a little crazy.

To quote a non-classical source, “A little madness in the spring is healthy even for the king.” (Emily Dickinson)

*The ancient texts will serve, to some degree, a similar role to that of the Bible in Christian Liberation Theology.