Tag Archives: virgil

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

Outside (au-dehors)

Sometimes, despite the fact that you don’t feel well, thoughts start tumbling over one another when you can’t sleep. Sleep becomes impossible. Blogging ensues …

Parc des Buttes Chaumont. Not my photo; once I have one, it’ll be on Flickr

A recent Facebook exchange included me mentioning that I had gone running (au Parc des Buttes Chaumont). The response to the running was, ‘why in the world were you running?!?!? were you being chased?’

Me:I was running to keep from becoming too fat. The French verb for ‘to get fatter’ is ‘grossir’. Je ne veux pas grossir.

E: ah, let it happen. become a gourmand!!

Me: The trouble with becoming a gourmand is that I don’t really want to die of a heart attack or anything like that.

E: have you ever seen a dead sasquatch. i haven’t. neither have the hundreds of quatch hunters out there. sasquatches don’t die. eat that pastry.

For the above to make sense, note well that I am a sasquatch. ‘Quatch’ for short. We proceeded to discuss baby pigeons, which I have seen where I run in Edinburgh. But that’s a different, yet related, story.

In my current way of living, I primarily go outside for two reasons: 1. Travel and 2. Fear of a Heart Attack Makes Me Run.

And I don’t really run that often, although the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a good choice for it, as is the Union Canal back in Edinburgh.

This lack of outside is in contrast with when I was a child.

Childhood summers and weekends and Easter breaks were largely lived out of doors. For seven years, we lived on a property with 12 acres. We Hoskin children would vanish into the woods or swamp or even just the backyard for hours on end. There, we would fight monsters and each other, hunt frogs, construct a mini-golf course, construct forts, chase the donkey, wander aimlessly, play badminton as well as the dangerous excursions into lawn darts.

There was this meadow that over the years was slowly converting itself into forest, having formerly been pasture. With naught but children about to keep things under control, saplings and small bushes soon arose in the midst of the grass and cowpies that greeted us upon arrival. Jonathan invented a game whereby this was some sort of enchanted meadow, and we had to cross without touching any bushes, saplings, or thistles (thistles so big, so bad, so prickly they could beat you up). If so, I don’t really know what happened. You probably died; that’s how these things went. The bad guy, of course, was on the other side. And we would vanquish him.

Or I would ride my bike to Aaron’s place. I remember Aaron, Kiaran, and I went to this dam they had made once, on a farmer’s canal. It was very cool, and minnows could get caught in it. My memory tells me that the water was very clear. Also, we would go gopher hunting. I killed nothing. Aaron’s cat would eat our killings.

Or I would ride my bike into town. With Anthony, I would get up to all sorts of shenanigans in his back yard. Or wander around. Wander to Red Basket for slushes ($1 including GST). With Will and the other Ferreys, there would be lots of out-of-doors activity. The sandbox. Riding bikes around. Going to ‘Christopher’s Park’ or ‘The Dentist Office Playground’, or their grandma’s (where there was a pretty sweet willow tree). In the spring, when the run-off occurred, there would ensue walnut-shell boat races in the gutters — the sort of thing children raised in the foothills do.

We would go to the lake, as a family or with friends. I was part of the canoe club. Sometimes, we would take a drive into the more wilderness bits of the country and go for a hike. We would go camping in the summer.

I have always been bookish, but I also used to spend a lot of time out of doors. Now, I run maybe twice a week. In Edinburgh, I walk to New College, climbing the steps by the Castle. In Paris, I walk to the Métro.

Where is the adventure? Where is the wild? I think the wild is here in these urban settings, their blocks of flats on all sides, the shops on the ground floor. There are the parks, the canals, the rivers, the cemeteries. There are the trains that take you beyond the city, to a wilderness less tame.

I should avail myself of these. Reading Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics is not the way to draw nigh to the natural. Getting my nose out of a book on occasion is …

Virgil’s Eclogues as a play?

I really think that the Eclogues of Virgil could work as a play. Maybe not all of them. The fourth would be hard. I read them in English last week whilst waiting for manuscripts to turn up, and I think it would work.

Imagine a stage with a pastoral backdrop. Maybe some live sheep and goats. A rock or two. And these shepherds who walk up to one another and tell each other stories. Or engage in singing contests.

And the singing would have to be real. And it would have to be in earnest. Not silly or moronic. But taking Virgil’s poetry and creating singable, English songs out of it. It would be brilliant.

I’m sure someone has. If so, I wish them luck.

Why Late Antiquity?

So, as it turns out, I am on the way to being a scholar of that growing and ever-more-popular field ‘Late Antiquity.’ As a previous post makes clear, I am especially interested in the Later Roman Empire. As the wee bio on this blog shows, my research lies in the letters of Pope Leo I (‘the Great’).

At one level, it is entirely unsurprising and quite natural that I have chosen to study Late Antiquity. I have two degrees in Classics yet spent much of my childhood and teenage years invested in various aspects of the Mediaeval world, from knights and Crusades to Vikings and epic poems to King Arthur and St. Francis. Late Antiquity is the period that bridges my personal and scholarly interests. No shock that I have landed here, then!

But as a scholar, I evidently need something more than, ‘It’s cool,’ or, ‘Latin is pretty sweet,’ to keep me interested for an extended period of time. The subterranean causes of this scholarly interest are hinted at in this passage from Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred:

Yet it would be unhelpful to ask which part of the Calendar [of 354] was ‘real’ and which an empty shell, maintained only by unthinking tradition. The more we look at such art, the more we are impressed by the way in which the parts that we tend to keep in separate compartments, by labelling them ‘classical’, even ‘pagan’, as distinct from ‘Christian’, form a coherent whole; they sidle up to each other, under the subeterranean attraction of deep homologies. The classical and Christian elements are not simply incompatible, nor can their relative degree of presence or absence be taken as an indicator of a process of Christianisation … the classical elements have been redeployed. (pp. 12-13)

It is this redeployment of the classical inheritance in Late Antiquity that most interests me. One of Leo’s early modern editors referred to this pope as being ecclesiasticae dictionis Tullius — a Cicero of ecclesiastical oratory. If he is correct, how is Leo Cicero? What things does Leo do that Cicero did? How classical is his oratory — style, Latinity, ornament, composition, etc?

When I look at Leo’s letters, how do they reflect their classical heritage? What is there of Pliny and Cicero and Seneca in Leonine epistolary? And yet, because his redeployment is explicitly Christian, what is there of St Paul in these letters? More to the point, of St Ambrose, St Jerome, and St Augustine?

This redeployment of the classical heritage within the shifting world of Late Antiquity is a fascinating study. We can see it in the use made by Christian Platonists (there’s even an interesting 19th-century volume, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria by Charles Bigg as well as the more recent study by Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition). Or what about the shade of the Stoa in which, no doubt, early asceticism spent some time?

The gods become the planets, and the planets take on astrological significance, such that they are syncretised into the Mediaeval worldview, and poetry is written about and to them, roles are given them, personifying them as if they were actually the pagan gods. But given the Mediaeval penchant for allegory, the planets are probably not even allegories for gods nor for astrology but for something else (on the planets, see C S Lewis, The Discarded Image).

Oh, yes. Allegory. Here the Christians of Late Antiquity take up with vigour, most famously in Origen in the 200s but also in Ambrose in the 300s, the allegorising of religious texts, something done by Philo, by the Platonists, by the pagan readers of Homer. I had a professor who scorned the mediaeval monastic culture of allegory; she imagined that they produced these (often admittedly bad) allegories as a way to justify reading things like Ovid. Yet allegory is helplessly classical, part of the Hellenistic heritage she was allegedly a specialist of.

Art historians could go on about art, no doubt. So also architecture historians. And legal historians. And so forth.

To close: I was almost a Virgilian. I love Virgil. I think he is one of the most fantastic poets of the ancient world. One studies Virgil because Virgil is intrinsically interesting as a poet. He does lovely things with words, with metre, with symbol, with images, with narratology.

One also studies Virgil because of his own redeployment of the classical heritage, the redeployment in the Aeneid of classical Homer, Hellenistic Apollonius, Roman Ennius — elsewhere of Hellenistic Theocritus. He takes these poetic epic traditions and refracts them through the lens not only of his own history but of his own self and poetic ambitions. And thus produces for us amazing epic and pastoral poetry.

Late Antiquity — Christian Late Antiquity — gives us Prudentius. Prudentius takes the Latin epic tradition of Virgil and does all the sames sorts of things as Virgil had done with his tradition, and part of his redeployment is a specifically Christian redeployment of the material. I could do so many of the same things with Prudentius as with Virgil, only the playing field is a lot less crowded.

The Sorrows of Aeneas

This is a brief thought that floated through my mind whilst reading W F Jackson Knight’s translation of Aeneid V this evening, for there we see Aeneas encounter his father, Anchises’, ghost. As Anchises fades from sight, having given his pius son advice, Aeneas cries:

Where do you go in this haste, so soon? Where dart away? Whom are you hurrying to escape? And who denies you to my embrace?

The above is not the first time we meet Aeneas in a situation such as this. In Book I, we see him encounter his mother, Venus, who has taken on the form of a young maiden out hunting (sort of a sexy Artemis). As she departs, her son realises who it is with whom he’s been talking. Aeneas laments her swift departure as well as the fact that she’d fooled him — again.

This seems to be habitual behaviour on the part of Venus, ‘Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas’ (Lucretius 1.1)

As we learn over the course of the next two books, where Virgil’s narratology employs the methods of Homer’s Odyssey through a first-person narration of the past as told by a character in the book, Aeneas has had a terrible time of it. His wife, Creusa, died in the sack of Troy. When her ghost appeared to him, he attempted to embrace her three times, and three times he failed. Then his dad died. Then, after a lot of wandering, we get to the storm with which Virgil opens his epic.

So he meets his mother in the woods, and she doesn’t even have the decency to reveal herself to him and be a mother (Mehercule!). By this stage, Aeneas is probably feeling sort of like, “Really? Again?”

Then there’s the whole Dido thing (see Acts 3-5 of Berlioz’s masterpiece Les Troyens or Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for this one), following which we have the “funeral” (one-year anniversary of death?) games for Anchises, in the midst of which four ships get burnt by women driven mad by Juno (Juno likes to choose women as her tools in this epic, and she also likes to provoke madness).

Book VI involves more death and sorrow for pius Aeneas — Aeneas comes face to face with his own failures at pietas as he beholds Dido in the Underworld. And then he lands in Latium, where he gets to spend the second half of the epic fighting a war over a girl betrothed to him in a perfectly normal, binding, arranged marriage. At the last, Pallas is slain and Aeneas turns into Achilles (cf. Iliad 21) against the people he is destined to rule.

When you look over the 12 books of the Aeneid, Aeneas gets very few breaks. After losing his entire culture and city along with his wife due to the devious scheming of polytropos Odysseus and his big horse, he tries settling down but never has the opportunity to rest. His dad dies along the way. He meets a nice girl, but that ends badly. So he follows destiny, fulfilling his obligations as a good, pius Roman, only to face a war in which the gods themselves are against him.

Perhaps these sorrows and the fact that he keeps fighting both for his people — that remnant of Troy that was — and for the will of the gods (save for in that whole Dido thing) are what make Aeneas not only pius but also Virgil’s other favoured adjective for this hero, egregius — outstanding.

Piusthat acts according to duty, dutiful; esp. that performs what is due to the gods and religion in general, to parrents, kindred, teachers, country; pious, devout, conscientious, affectionate, tender, kind, good, grateful, respectful, loyal, patriotic, etc. (of persons and things) (from Lewis & Short)

“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.