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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: Aeneid

>Ronald Hutton, Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com (Hutton & Reincarnation, Part Five)

>According to Ronald Hutton, reincarnation is the kind of thing that the “western” mind is disinclined to think up on its own, and this to the extent that anyone in the western world today who knows about, much less believes in, reincarnation, (according to Hutton) can only have come to this state due to the relatively recent (in historical terms) introduction to the West of ideas from Eastern religions and philosophy, and this primarily as a result of the British colonization of India.

A fundamental problem with Hutton’s thesis, as discussed in Part One of this ongoing series, is that explicit references to reincarnation as an idea associated with classical Greco-Roman Paganism (that is, with the very foundations of western culture), and with Pythagoreanism in particular (that is, with the very foundations of western philosophy), are found in the writings of influential 17th century English intellectuals such as François Bernier (1625-1688) and Thomas Tryon (1634-1703).

Another fatal flaw in the theory of the purely eastern origins of reincarnation, as discussed in Part Two, is that Christians (and “western” Christians in particular) have known about reincarnation from the beginning, as the writings of Tertullian (c.160-c.220 AD), aka “The First Theologian of the West“, clearly show. Nor was reincarnation simply forgotten about after the “triumph” of Christianity over the Pagan religions that had embraced and propagated the idea, as the 11th century trial of John Italos (also discussed in Part Two), and the Renaissance debate over Platonism and Pythagoreanism (discussed in Part Three) both clearly demonstrate. Additionally, we also know (see Part Four) that at least from the 12th century onwards, metempsychosis had an important place in the mystical traditions of European Jewry.

But wait, there’s more. Much more.

Reincarnation is also prominently featured in Vergil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, two of the most influential works of literature in the history of western culture.

It should be remembered that for nearly a thousand years, even the most well educated western europeans were, with very few exceptions, completely greekless. Homer and Hesiod were essentially lost. Until the 15th century, Plato was known only through a few of his works that had Latin translations (some of which were not produced until the 12th century). And the situation for Aristotle was only somewhat better than that for Plato.

But the ability to read Latin has a continuous, if at times somewhat precarious, history throughout all of western european history. And while I will, for now, focus on Vergil and Ovid, it is worth mentioning that reference to transmigration of souls is not at all uncommon in Latin literature generally. Ennius (c.239-c.169 BC) is often credited as the first known Latin writer to speak of reincarnation (indeed, he spoke of being the reincarnation of Homer!). However, the exposure of the Romans to metempsychosis dates back to the 6th century BC, that is, the earliest days of Pythagoreanism itself, which, after all, began not in “Greece” (as we think of it today), but in “Magna Graecia”, that is, in Italy.

But even if metempsychosis appeared nowhere else in all of Latin literature; and even if Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena, George of Trebizond, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola had never once mentioned transmigration of souls; and even if François Bernier and Thomas Tryon had never lived; and even if all mention of reincarnation were to disappear from the writings of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish mystics and kabbalistic interpreters; still, Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by themselves, would provide definitive and absolute proof that it is impossible to speak, with any justification whatsoever, of reincarnation as an idea that “comes from the East” due only to the influence of “Hindu and Buddhist thought”, and that this “Eastern” idea only “reached Europe … in the 18th century.”

Even a high school student who doesn’t bother to actually read the Aeneid, but relies, instead, on what can be found at a helpful website such as the appropriately named “gradesaver.com” will be able to learn at least this much about Aeneas’ visit to his dead father, Anchises, in The Underworld:

“Finally, Aeneas arrives in the Groves of Blessedness, where he finds Anchises. He tries to throw his arms around his father, but grabs only air. Anchises describes the many wonders of Elysium to Aeneas, and he then focuses on the great future in store for Aeneas and his descendants: ‘my tongue will now reveal/ the fame that is to come
from Dardan sons’. When Aeneas notices souls hovering over a river, Anchises explains that the river is called Lethe, and that after drinking from it souls are stripped of any memory of their former lives, then returned to earth to begin life again in a new body. Anchises points out several souls who would have been significant to Virgil’s audience, including Romulus, the founder of Rome; Ascanius’s descendants; Julius Caesar; and Caesar Augustus himself. Tears spring to Anchises’s eyes when he points out the handsome Marcellus, Augustus’s heir, who died at a young age.”

Similarly, if a high school student were to search the sight gradesaver.com for the terms “Ovid” and “Pythagoras”, he or she would immediately be taken to the Summary of Book XV of the Metamorphoses, where we read that:

“In Crotona lived Pythagoras, an extremely profound thinker who was in exile from Samos. He addressed topics such as the gods, the origin of the earth, the motions of the stars.

“We hear Pythagoras’ discourse and he argues in favor of vegetarianism, suggesting that there is plenty of food without eating meat, and he points out that only the vicious animals are flesh-eaters. He suggests that in past ages, when people did not kill animals, they were happier, and bemoans the slaughter of cattle, who work alongside humans. Pythagoras chastises those who believe that the gods enjoy the slaughter of such peaceful and loyal animals. He turns to the theory of Metempsychosis — his belief that when someone dies the soul is freed to inhabit another body. He insists that thus no one need fear death.

“Pythagoras also declares that nothing in life stays the same: everything is like time, constantly moving from day to night, never ceasing to progress. He points out that human beings pass through stages just like the seasons. Childhood is like springtime, summer like youth, autumn is maturity and winter is old age. The physical body changes too, growing from a seed in the womb to a mature adult, then decaying as the body ages. Continuing on this idea, Pythagoras takes as an example the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. He points out that each can become the others. Air can become water, water can become wind or air. The earth can become fire, and fire can become water. All things on earth and in heaven change and transform, but nothing is ever truly “born” or truly “dies.” Pythagoras points to the changing nature of the natural environment as further proof that change is everywhere.

“Pythagoras then presents the idea that buried corpses give rise to other creatures. He gives examples, suggesting that the bodies of sacrificial cattle give birth to honey-bees and that mud gives rise to frogs. Pythagoras cites as a better example the marvelous phoenix, a bird that lives for five hundred years, then combusts. From its ashes another phoenix is born. The philosopher then translates his belief in omnipresent change into human terms, pointing out that history changes and shifts as well. Some powers decline and some rise. Troy may have fallen, but in the ashes of Troy, Rome was born. He predicts that Rome will rise to become a power greater than any the earth has seen. Pythagoras returns to his plea for vegetarianism, saying that since nature constantly changes and the soul shifts between objects, and because nothing separates the animal world from the human world, when we kill an animal we might as well be slaughtering a human. Thus, to eat an animal is no better than cannibalism.

For more on Vergil and Ovid:

Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:

  1. Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
  2. Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
  3. Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
  4. Part Four: “Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah”
  5. Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
  6. Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
  7. Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis

>Vergil’s Cosmology and Modern Paganism

>There is astonishingly little material in the English language on the religious aspects of Vergil’s writings, and the Aeneid in particular. This is especially appalling considering the fact that the Aeneid is hands down the single most influential work of literature in all of Western history, and that it is unquestionably a work of religious literature from start to finish. This last fact is well recognized by a few (if completely unsuspected by most); for example noted historian Peter Brown has referred to the Aeneid as “an inexaustible source of precise religious information.” (for more on Brown and Vergil, see here.)

The religious vision of Vergil should be (and would be if it were more widely known and understood) immediately familiar and very attractive to the vast majority of modern people who consider themselves “Pagan”. First of all, Vergil’s Cosmos is inhabited by both Gods and humans, and the relationship between them lies at the core of the story of Aeneas. In particular, communication between Gods and humans appears over and over throughout the Aeneid, in the form of prayer, visions, divination, omens, rituals, dreams, etc.

But the similarities between classical Greco-Roman Vergilian Paganism and the more recent versions of Paganism go much further. Vergil’s cosmos is alive, conscious, intelligent and decidedly “magical”, and against this cosmic backdrop humans are primarily spiritual beings who undergo repeated earthly incarnations, and in the process, at least potentially, make spiritual progress from lifetime to lifetime, with help and guidance from the Gods if such is sought properly, but primarily under their own power and by their own choice. This is essentially the same conception of reincarnation (or, more precisely, metempsychosis) that was held by both Gerald Gardner and Dion Fortune (for examples), and it is ubiquitous among modern Pagans.

Aeneas embodies not only heroic qualities that clearly separate him from ordinary humans, but also conventional virtues, the first of which is piety, in a way that grounds his character and that emphasizes his humanity (both in the sense of his human-ness and his humane-ness).

The story of the Aeneid is the story of the spiritual quest of a truly virtuous man, and, as such, is not a story of “redemption” in the Christian sense. Aeneas is no “miserable sinner” in desperate need of salvation. This is an important contrast not only with the self-loathing message of the Christian gospel, but, and more subtly, with the Aeneid’s only real competitor in the class of epic journeys of self-discovery: Homer’s Odyssey.

The intersection of Homer and Vergil (and, concomitantly, of Odysseus and Aeneas) is significant in many ways. For one thing, it is Vergil, not Homer, who supplies us with the most famous Homeric/Odyssian episode of all: that of the Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy, which are not to be found in either the Iliad or the Odyssey (as every schoolchild should know, but vanishingly few do).

Of far greater importance than the gaps filled in by Vergil is the tremendous contrast between Odysseus and Aeneas in terms of their character. The former is primarily characterized by his daring and cunning, the latter by his virtue and piety. Aeneas certainly possesses those qualities that earn Odysseus the epithet “wily”, whereas Homer’s hero is, especially at the beginning of the Odyssey, rather deficient in the pietas department.

Odysseus succeeded in acquiring great wealth and fame through violence and deception, only to lose it all by the time we get to the 24th Book of the Odyssey. In the end, Odysseus must expend all of his strength and intelligence just to regain what he already had before he left Ithaca, 20 years previously, in search of ill-gotten gain. In contrast, Aeneas (who, it should not be overlooked, was on the receiving end of Odysseus’ great victory) suffers a collective disaster that befalls his people and his polis, but from which he is spared, so that he can be entrusted with not only the safety of the survivors, but the founding of a whole new civilization in far off Hesperia.

One thing that especially distinguishes Aeneas is his extraordinary parentage. Not only is his mother the Goddess Venus Herself, but his father is the remarkable Anchises, the mortal lover of the Goddess of Love. And it is to fulfill his promise to his father, that Aeneas undertakes the great task that stands alongside the founding of Rome as equal in importance: the conquest of Death itself. The following is a very nice redaction of the cosmological vision revealed to Aeneas by Anchises upon the Fields of Elysium. It is taken from Agathe Thornton’s The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil’s Aeneid.

In the ‘Underworld’, the spirit of Anchises reveals to his son Aeneas the values and structure of the universe and the value of man’s life within it. The following is part of his teaching.

First of all, heaven, earth, sea, and sun and moon are set over against breath or spirit (spiritus) which nourishes them from within; in further explanation, limbs, mass, and mighty body are set over against mind which is spread through the limbs, stirs the mass into action, and mingles with the body. So there are heaven, earth, sea, moon, and sun which form the mighty limbs of the massive cosmic body. These are nourished, pervaded, and set in motion by breath or mind. The whole cosmos or universe is one body alive in every part through the breath and mind that pervade it. This implies that what we should call ‘inanimate nature’ — heaven or sky, earth and water — is alive, because throughout each of them and each part of them is poured out the breath or mind in this universe. Here the cosmos is one, its unity being that of a living organism.

From the mingling of the breath or mind of the cosmos with the body of the cosmos came to be man, beast, bird, and fish. The life-force within them is fiery, and the origin of their seed is heavenly. their bodies, on the other hand, are ‘harmful’ to them, ‘slow them down’, ‘make them weak’, and are doomed to death’. Their bodies and limbs are such, because they are ‘earthen’. Man and animals have then within them two contrasted substances: the fiery and heavenly on the one hand, and the earthen on the other. The fiery and heavenly means life and strength, the earthen harm, slowness, weakness, and death. This conception of the nature of man and the animals tells us not only about man, but by implication it also adds a new dimension to our knowledge about the cosmos as a whole. So far we have been told that the whole universe is alive through the indwelling breath or mind. Now we learn that the cosmos is not the same all over, but that its upper portion, the heaven, is fiery and connected with strength, life, and fertility, while its lower portion, the earth, implies all that tends to impeded life and in the end overcomes life by death. This introduces a gradation of values into the world: the cosmos rises from the deadly depths of the earth to the fiery height of heaven which abounds in life.

Man is then a mixture of heaven and earth, and as such is subject to the baneful influences of his earthen parts. From these arise in him fear and desire, grief and joy, and the incapacity to see clearly the breezes which move, of course, in the heaven. This implies a further definition of values in the cosmos. What is of the sky of heaven is fiery, full of life, free of passion, and free of the darkening of mind caused by the fetters of earth; what is of he earth is tied up with death, subject to conflicting emotions, and deprived of vision. If all this is imagined in its full scale, it means that the universe is a structure which from the turbulent evil depths of the earth rise up, with light, tranquility, and purity increasing, to the top of the heavens, where there is nothing but the fiery ether and mind. This gradation in life-force and in moral quality is characteristic both of the One Cosmic God, and of the world of the many living beings which have been born from the One God, namely men, animals, birds, and fish.

The universe is then twofold in nature. On the one hand, it is One all-comprehensive divine being; and the parts of the cosmos, like heaven, earth, sea, are his limbs. But is is also a world full of many beings graded in the quality of their character.
[pp. 35-36]

The above paraphrase of Anchisean cosmology rather over-emphasizes its dualistic nature, and, in particular, exaggerates the “evil” character of all that is earthy/terrestrial. Thornton somewhat compensates for this later on when describing the types of beings that populate the surface of the earth (as opposed to it’s nether regions) and “the land in which people live” generally:

The spirits that are, in the most general way in the Aeneid, the life of nature on earth and sea are the Fauns and the Nymphs. According to King Latinus indigenous Fauns and Nymphs inhabited the woods on the site which later became the city of Rome (8.314). The safe harbour in which Aeneas lands in Libya ends in a cave of grotto (antrumm 1.166) below overhanging cliffs: ‘Here is [a spring of] water and there are seats of living [i.e. not man-made] rock, the house of nymphs.’ ‘Nymphs and rivers are closely connected,’ as Conington says: Aeneas prays to the nymphs as the ‘fountainhead of rivers’. But they also dwell in on the mountain-tops 94.168) and they are often the mothers of great men in mythical times, as of Latinus and Iarbas and others (7.47, 4.198).

Sea-nymphs come to his aid when Aeneas returns from Evander and Etruria ignorant of the danger besetting Ascanius and the Trojans he has left behind in Latium. These nymphs appear to him on his night voyage and warn him of the situation (10.219ff).
[p. 44]

Thornton then proceeds to describe the pantheistic view of the physical universe that pervades Vergil’s thinking, although she unnecessarily mangles things by insisting that the conception of the universe as a single “immense living being” is somehow “monotheistic”, when it is nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, in acknowledging that Vergil shares with Varro (and Plato and many others) the view that the physical world as a whole is inherently divine, any kind of simplistic world-hating dualism is thereby thoroughly undermined. Thornton then goes on to explain that not only is the Cosmos as a whole divine, and not only is “the land in which people live” also populated by magical creatures who can come to our aid, but in addition the Sea and the Air are themselves Gods (Neptune and Juno, respectively), and the Air, in particular, is the sacred medium through which communication between Gods and humans takes place. So it’s not such a bad old world after all!

Another highly significant aspect of Vergilian cosmology that Thornton discusses is the cyclic nature of time: “The concept of time implied here is ‘cyclic’, and the fact that the ancient time notion is ‘cyclic’ and not ‘linear’, as our own time notion tends to be, is well known. Virgil thought of time in the ancient way.” [p. 70] A little later on, Thornton synthesizes various elements of Vergilian cosmology as follows, “When we consider the cosmos of the Aeneid as a whole … [it is] a coherent world of Gods, nature, and men revolving onwards with ever a new slice of it entering into the actuality of existence.” [p. 74] Thornton further characterizes the active role of the Gods in affairs of the world, and human affairs in particular, that is to say, “the relationship between the divine and human worlds,” in these words: “the wills and actions of the Gods permeate and determine the natural and human world in such a way that each slice of cosmic living is imbued with and characterized by the nature of the divinity acting in it and ruling it.”

Many modern Pagans struggle to find a coherent and intellectually satisfying theology that is compatible with their own personal intuitions and experiences of the divine. All too often these attempts are frustrated by a reliance on completely useless sources: either those that are heavily influenced by monotheism (and Christianity in particular), or modern (often supposedly “Pagan”) sources that ignore, or even denigrate, the relevant insights of our ancient Pagan ancestors. The simple truth is that well known and readily available ancient Pagan works, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, etc, constitute an inexhaustible source of insights into the Gods and the Cosmos.

further reading:

Begin in Fire: More on Battlestar Galactica, the Aeneid, and Alchemy

“What fire cannot do, the Danaans did.” [Aeneid, II.505]
The last post on the subject of comparing Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid (“End”, as in Telos) focused on similarities between some of the major characters in both stories, but with this post I will start focusing more on plot elements. Of course, the topics of “character” and “plot” are obviously impossible to keep neatly separated from each other.

There are three obvious areas of plot overlap between BSG and the Aeneid: (1) Both stories begin in catastrophic violence from which there are few survivors, and these refugees then become the main focus of the action. (2) Both stories lead up to a final apocalyptic conflict, but in both cases there is a reconciliation, although not before there is significant bloodshed on both sides. Despite the amount of carnage in this final conflict, the reconciliation at the end is in stark contrast to the pitiless violence at the beginning, which is literally genocidal in its intent. (3) The final conclusions of both stories ultimately hinge on a heroic leader who has overcome death, and who thereby has gained the knowledge needed to lead the people to their destiny.

Previously, in Alchemy, the Aeneid and Battlestar Galactica, I very briefly, schematically and somewhat cryptically indicated that the plot elements outlined above (and some others) can be correlated to a sequence of seven Alchemical Operations. Five of those seven Operations correspond nicely with the three areas of overlap given above as follows:

(1) The catastrophic beginning followed by the initial wanderings of the refugees corresponds to Calcinatio and Solutio (the first two Operations).
(2) The apocaplytic conflict followed by reconciliation correspond to Separatio and Coniunctio (the final two Operations).
(3) The heroic encounter with and victory over Death, and the knowledge gained thereby, corresponds to Mortificatio (the fifth Operation).

This leaves two remaining Operations: Coagulatio and Sublimatio, both of which, in this proposed alchemical literary analysis of BSG and the Aeneid, have to do with the sojourn in, and subsequent flight from, New Caprica and Carthage, respectively. The parallels between New Caprica and Carthage are especially fascinating and are among the most striking of all the similarities between these two very different stories. But those correspondences will have to wait their turn as I go through the Operations in the order they appear in BSG and the Aeneid: (1)Calcinatio, (2)Solutio, (3)Coagulatio, (4)Sublimatio, (5)Mortificatio, (6)Separatio, (7)Coniunctio.

This ordering of the Operations is taken from Edward F. Edinger’s book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. In one of the most remarkable synchronicities of my life, I just happened to find myself reading Edinger’s book at the same time that I first read Vergil’s Aeneid. I had no intention of finding Alchemical messages in the story of Aeneas, in fact it seemed much more to be the case that these messages were intent on finding me!

In that book Edinger presents the seven specific Alchemical Operations that I have been discussing, and in the order I am using here. However, Alchemy being, well, Alchemy, there are many different ways of dividing up, naming, ordering, and explaining the “Operations” of the Art.

The fiery nature of Calcinatio clearly resembles the destruction of Caprica and Troy. Edinger states at the very beginning of his chapter on Calcinatio: .

Most lists of Alchemical Operations begin with calcinatio. A few authors say that solutio comes first. However the sequence of operations (with one or two exceptions) does not seem to be psychologically significant. Any operation may be the initiating one, and the others may follow in any order.
[p. 17]

When it is the first Operation, Calcinatio represents an initial purification and sacrifice. To illustrate this Edinger quotes from Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries (on pages 39-40):

[E]ven as the Gods cut through matter by the fire of the thunderbolt, and separate off from it those elements which are immaterial in their essence, but are overcome by it and imprisoned by it, and render them impassible instead of passible, even so the fire of our realm, imitating the acitivity of the divine fire, destroys all that is material in the sacrifies, purifies the offerings with fire and frees them from the bonds of matter, and renders them suitable, through the purification of their nature, for consorting with the Gods, and by the same procedures liberates us from the bonds of generation and makes us like to the Gods, and renders us worthy to enjoy their friendship, and turns round our material nature towards the immaterial.
[p. 247 of Dillon’s 2003 paperback SBL edition]

Immediately after that quote Edinger adds:

Similarly, certain myths speak of the fire bath that conveys immortality. For example, Demeter, in her sorrowful wanderings after the abduction of Persephone, accepts the hospitality of Celeus and Metaneira, king and queen of Eleusis. In gratitude she plans to make their young son Demophoon immortal by holding him in the fire. Metaneira sees this procedure and interrupts it by her screams. Immortality is a quality of the archetypes. Thus the psychological meaning of the fire-bath of immortality will be that a connection is made between the ego and the archetypal psyche, making the former aware of its transpersonal, eternal, or immortal aspect.

The end product of calcinatio is a white ash. This corresponds to the so-called “white foliated earth” of many alchemical texts. It signifies the albedo or whitening phase and has paradoxical associations. On the one hand ashes signify despair, mourning, or repentance. On the other hand they contain the supreme value, the goal of the work. One text says, “Despise not the ashes for they are the diadem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure.”

The text that Edinger quotes from is the Rosarium Philosophorum, as quoted by Jung in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which Jung adds this: “In other words, ash is the spirit that dwells in the glorified body.” This “ash” is the final end to which the Operations of Alchemy are directed, and the “glorified body” is the only vehicle, or means, by which one can be transported to that final goal. Both the goal and also the means to that goal can be none other than the True Self, which is revealed in a very preliminary wayat the beginning of the Great Work. This is a promise of things to come — like the first tentative kiss of young lovers. Calcinatio provides the first glimpse of the Undiscovered Self at the very moment when the process of discovery has just begun.

“End”, as in Telos: More on Battlestar Galactica and Vergil’s Aeneid

“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Spoiler Alert: The following post discusses the way in the which the Battlestar Galactica TV series ends. You have been warned. Oh, and it also discusses the way in which Vergil’s Aeneid ends. And it also discusses the similarities between the two.

For those unfamiliar with the Aeneid, here is an incredibly helpful online study guide. That page was created by William A. Johnson, professor of Classics at University of Cincinnati. He also has similar pages for the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh!

And for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, I have provided extensive linkage to the Battlestar Wiki.

Early on in the first season of Battlestar Galactica it occurred to me that there is a very broad similarity between how that story starts out and the beginning of Vergil’s Aeneid. In both cases a sudden and cataclysmic military attack leaves only a handful of survivors who then set out on a long journey in search of a new home. Knowing how the Aeneid ends, but not knowing where BSG would lead, I wondered if the parallels would hold up over time. In particular I wondered whether or not the humans and Cylons would somehow reconcile, in the way that the Latins and Trojans do at the end of the Aeneid.

For those who know their Aeneid, you might be thinking: “Hey! The Trojans did not reconcile with the people who destroyed Troy (the Greeks), they reconciled with the Latins.” Well, OK, sure. But first of all I am not saying that everything is exactly the same in BSG as it was in the Aeneid. And also there is, of course, a very important reconciliation, of sorts, in the alliance struck personally between Aeneas and King Evander (a Greek of Arcadian persuasion).

For that matter, those who know their Aeneid might also be thinking “Hey! Just what exactly do you mean by ‘at the end of the Aeneid’!?” Naturally, I am of course referring to the “XIIIth Book” of the Aeneid, as written by Maffeo Vegio in 1428 (fourteen and a half centuries after Vergil’s untimely death). Vegio’s ending so seamless completes Vergil’s unfinished story, and his Latin is so, well, Vergilian, that for centuries afterward, Vegio’s thirteenth book was included as a matter of course in editions of the Aeneid.

Vegio’s ultimate reconciliation of Latins and Trojans has the advantage of being well supported by and completely consistent with what Vergil had already written. In particular, the heroic leader Aeneas (quite unlike William Adama!) has no desire to fight the Latins in the first place, and King Latinus (unlike John Cavil and Boomer) also does not want war with the newcomers, and is in fact very favorably disposed toward Aeneas, whom he sees as the ideal son-in-law whose arrival had already been foretold by prophecy.

Wait, now that I think of it, it could be (and probably should be) argued that Cavil and Boomer (and especially Boomer considering how she ends up) better fit the role of Turnus. And that would mean that D’anna Biers is more like King Latinus, which is especially fitting given the fact that it was D’anna who foresaw the identities of the Final Five (just as Latinus received the prophecy about the coming of Aeneas), and the way in which D’anna dejectedly bows out of the action, by remaining behind on “earth”, just as Latinus must sit by and is powerless to prevent his people from waging a war he knows should not be fought.

Oh, and another parallel between Boomer and Turnus is that Boomer’s “swing vote” was decisive in paving the way for both the Cylon Civil War, and the continuation of the war with the humans. Just as Turnus was the decisive “vote” in turning the Latins against the Trojans.

Another possible candidate for BSG’s version of Turnus, if only because of the timing of her death, could be the truly evil Tory Foster. Depending on how one reads the original character Turnus, though, there is a serious problem with the Turnus=Tory equation, and this is especially true to the extent that we accept Maffeo Vegio’s version of the ending. However, for those who see Turnus as a pure villain, then this is a pretty good match.

Vegio places great emphasis on the manner in which Turnus is honored after his death. Vergil himself had made a point of almost sparing Turnus. Aeneas kills Turnus only because of the death of the young Pallas (Evander’s son) at the hands of the Rutulian, and, most especially, because of the fact that Juturna‘s brother proudly wore Pallas’ belt as a gruesome trophy.

Boomer dies heroically. She must pay for her many terrible deeds, but in the end she is the one who brings the child Hera back safely. But Athena will never forgive Boomer for kidnapping Hera in the first place, and, in the process, beating the frak out of her (Athena) and then frakking her human lover, Helo (who thinks he is frakking Athena, and that is what really and truly enraged Athena because Boomer proved that Helo couldn’t tell the frakking difference).

But Tory does not die heroically. Nor is there really ever even a hint of anything that might make her character other than irredeemably evil and every bit as amoral as Cavil, but without his endearingly cynical witticisms. And yet really, when you think about, what else could Tory have done? Cally was going to kill Nicholas, whom everyone at the time thought was half-Cylon. Tory had to prevent that. Srsly. And there was no way for Tory to just save Nicholas and leave it at that. Cally would “out” Tyrol, Tory, Tigh and Anders as skinjobs and would probably never rest until she had finally murdered her son one way or the other, now that she knew he was half-Cylon. Did I mention that Cally really, really hates Cylons?

But Tory makes it clear that murdering Cally doesn’t bother her even a little. The only times that she shows any concern are when she is worried that Galen might suspect, which he never does — until, well, you know when Final Five all do the Cylon version of the Vulcan mind-meld thing.

Which brings us, finally, to Kara Thrace. You see, when Galen “sees” what Tory did to Cally, he predictably frakking loses it completely, and kills Tory then and there with his bare frakking hands. This obviously disrupts the “mind meld” process, rather irreversibly, thus seriously undermining the fragile human/Cylon truce which is based on the promise that the Final Five will provide the Cylons with resurrection technology in exchange for a permanent end to hostilities. The Cylons, well, the bad ones anyway, understandably believe that they have been duped and a rather one-sided gun-fight breaks out in the CIC, in which all the bad Cylons are killed (including Cavil — who shoots himself).

Only, really, that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that a stray rock hits the Raptor that had been piloted by Racetrack and Skulls at just the right angle to cause Racetrack’s dead hand to flop down on the launch button for the nukes that Racetrack and Skulls had decided to arm just before being killed by an earlier stray asteroid. These nukes blast apart the massive Cylon Colony, thus disrupting, rather irreversibly, the delicate gravitational balance that was allowing everyone to orbit around the Black Hole rather than being sucked down into it.

Adama orders Kara to jump the ship before it is gravitationally singularity-ized. Where to? It doesn’t matter, Starbuck, just jump us out of here now!! Oh, OK. So, well, why don’t I just punch in my favorite song from childhood in numerical form and see where that lands us? OK, just get us the frak out of here before we all find out what the view is like on the other frakking side of the event horizon!

And so Kara Thrace, the Herald of Death, She who is dead already, who knows she is dead, who has accepted her death and who has even said goodbye to herself, leads them all to their end. But it turns out that this is “end” as in telos. That is, “end” as in goal, purpose, destiny. Kara Thrace is Aeneas, the hero who has conquered death itself, who travels to the Underworld and returns to lead her people to a new home and a new beginning.

Alchemy, the Aeneid, and Battlestar Galactica

“You are the harbinger of death, Kara Thrace. You will lead them all to their end.”
The Hybrid to Starbuck

“The way to Hades is easy; night and day lie open the gates of death’s dark kingdom: but to retrace your steps, to find the way back to daylight—that is the task.”
The Sibyl to Aeneas

Destruction of the Colonies/Fall of Troy

The initial wanderings of the refugees in their ships

New Caprica/Carthage

Leaving New Caprica/Carthage

Death of Kara Thrace/Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld

Divisions among humans and Cylons/War between Trojans and Latins

Final reconciliation of humans and Cylons/Reconciliation of Trojans and Latins

Luck on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis (AND Luck on Gibbon on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis)

Both Macrobius in his Saturnalia, and Servius in his Commentaries on the Aeneid (both from ~400 AD) referred to Vergil as pontifex maximus. And perhaps not without reason. Sixteen centuries later, contemporary scholar of late antiquity, Peter Brown, refers to the writings of Vergil as an “inexaustible source of precise religious information”, the mere existence of which posed a real threat to Christendom (see his biography of Augustine).

Here is how George Luck begins his Vergil and the Mystery Religions, a chapter in his book Ancient Pathways and Hidden Pursuits:

In his Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist (2 vols [1737-1741]) Bishop Warburton proposed an interpretation of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid which seems to be almost completely forgotten today. None of the handbooks, none of the recent books on Virgil, none of the commentaries (not even Norden) seem to know of it, and yet this theory may provide the key to the understanding of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld. One of the reasons for this curious damnatio memoriae could be the character of Warburton’s book. It is full of bold and controversial ideas which are presented with considerable learning, but also in a dogmatic and sometimes presumptuous way manner. This manner obviously annoyed Gibbon, the historian, who published in his youth a scathing review which he did not care to sign with his name. It must have made a certain impression on the scholars of that time, for C.G. Heyne, the well-known editor and commentator of Virgil praises the anonymous author as doctor … et elegantissimus Britannus. In later years Gibbon himself admitted that he had treated a man who deserved his esteem with contempt and regretted the “cowardly concealment” of his name in a personal attack.

The time has come for a fresh examination of Warburton’s views. It should be said that he seems to have taken most of his material from the Eleusinia of Ioannes Meursius (1579-1639), and this was held against him at the time. But the idea which electrified the whole mass of evidence was his own, and we are concerned with the idea. It is also true that many of his arguments are specious. On the other hand, material which he could not have known seems to support his view.

In the sixth book of the Aeneid Virgil’s hero, led by the Sibyl of Cumae, descends into the underworld to consult his father, Anchises. The ceremonial of his entrance is elaborate, and as we follow him on his path the geography of Hades with its inhabitants unfolds before our eyes ….

At this point Luck introduces what I consider to be a rather clumsy contrasting comparison between Homer and Vergil, claiming that “in six or seven centuries Homer’s dreary panorama [in the Odysseus’ famous Nekyia ritual in Book XI of the Odyssey] of hell has been brightened.”

The reason I find this “contrast” so clumsy is that Luck himself, as will be seen in his own words below, denotes Plato and the Mystery Religions as the two main sources of this supposed “brightening”. But Plato’s chronological position in that span of “six or seven centuries” between Homer and Vergil is no closer to the latter than the former. And the Mystery Religions are older still, for they were already well established in the time of Socrates.

But let’s now return to George Luck:

There were two main sources of light: Platonism and the mystery religions. Both forces are so complex that they cannot be defined here. Even in Virgil’s time there was no general agreement as to what Plato said, and central message as well as the ritual of the various mystery religions was still a well-kept secret, though certain allusions which would mean nothing to ordinary people were apparently tolerated. We find such allusions in Pindar, in Sophocles, in Isocrates, in Cicero, in Apuleius, and though they are deliberately obscure and ambiguous, they all seem to point to a message of hope beyond extinction and a promise of life everlasting. Such a message can also be found in the sixth book of the Aeneid.

Pindar, for instance, praises in a famous fragment (137 Snell) the man who has “seen those things” before he descends into the underworld, for he “knows the end of life, and he knows its beginning, given by Zeus.”

…. A passage from one of Sophocles’ lost plays (fr. 719 Dindorf = 837 Pearson) provides a parallel and a commentary: “Thrice happy are those mortals who, having seen these rites, go to Hades; for they alone are allowed to live there; to the rest all there is bad.”

Several pages later, Luck gets back to Warburton:

Warburton wrote, “The descent of Virgil’s hero into the infernal regions, I presume, was no other than a figurative description of an initiation, and particularly a very exact picture of the spectacles in the Eleusinian mysteries, where everything was done in show and machinery, and where a representation of the history of Ceres afforded opportunity to bring in the scenes of heaven, hell, purgatory and whatever related to the future state of men and heroes ….”

…. I shall not list all of Warburton’s arguments, only those that seem plausible or significant, but I shall present them in modern terms and support them with new evidence, wherever possible. In doing this it would have been awkward to separate his thoughts from my own in every single instance. I have therefore decided to state his case as he might do it today, with all the tools of modern scholarship and the research of two hundred years at his disposal. At the same time I should like to refer readers to Warburton’s book, which, for all it’s eccentricities and prolixity, still makes excellent reading.

Want to know more? Well here‘s a link to Warburton’s book (The Divine Legation), the whole thing is available free online! And here is a link to a detailed analysis of Warburton’s thesis written by Thomas Taylor (a contemporary of Warburton and Gibbon), who mostly concurs, but hardly uncritically, with Warburton’s main conclusion. And here is a link to Luck’s book containing the essay Virgil and the Mystery Religions.

The Eleusinian Mysteries and The Sixth Book of the Aeneid

Many people suspect that Book Six of Vergil’s Aeneid contains a great deal of information about the Eleusinian Mysteries. See, for example, Thomas Taylor’s essay on “The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries”:
http://www.sacred- texts.com/ cla/ebm/ebm05. htm:

Dr. Warburton, in his Divine Legation of Moses, has ingeniously proved, that the sixth book of Virgil’s Æneid represents some of the dramatic exhibitions of the Eleusinian Mysteries; but, at the same time, has utterly failed in attempting to unfold their latent meaning, and obscure though important end. By the assistance, however, of the Platonic philosophy, I have been enabled to correct his errors, and to vindicate the wisdom of antiquity from his aspersionsby a genuine account of this sublime institution; of which the following observations are designed as a comprehensive view.

The famous Sixth Book contains one of the more humorous passages in all of epic poetry. When Aeneas pleads for the Sibyl to help him to visit his dead father in Hades:

Grant me to see the face, and hear the voice
Of my loved sire once more; point me the way,
Unbar the sacred portals!

The Priestess of Hecate replies:

Descent to Hell is easy — day and night
Wide open stands the gate of darksome Dis,
But to retrace your steps, and mount again
Into the upper air is hard indeed.

But of course, as everyone knows the Sibyl grants to Aeneas what he needs both to go and visit Anchises, and to “mount again into the upper air”.

If you want to know more about the connections between the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Aeneid, then you might wish to take a look at this other post in which I go into the matter in greater detail, and with more sources: Luck on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis (AND Luck on Gibbon on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis).

"Inexhaustible Source": Reflections on Vergil and Augustine

Contra Paganos
In the year 413, Anno Domini, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, began writing his magnum opus, “City of God, Against the Pagans.” The main catalyst that impelled Augustine in this undertaking was that, for the first time in almost 800 years, the city of Rome had been entered by an invading force in 410. The sacking of Rome by the Visigoths under the command of Alaric (who was himself a Christian, albeit a heretic in the eyes of the Church) had sent shockwaves through the (only recently) Christianized Roman world. Jerome had summed up how many felt: “If Rome can perish, what can be safe?”

A century earlier (in 312) Constantine (at the time not yet sole Emperor, but already ruler of half the Empire) had had his famous vision of the cross, marking the beginning of what would come to be known as the “triumph” of Christianity, a pleasant sounding euphemism for the forceful imposition of one single monolithic ideology on about one fourth of the earth’s population, while simultaneously destroying (systematically and intentionally) a huge portion of the cultural heritage of the humanity. From Constantine to Augustine, each passing generation had witnessed a relentless ratcheting up of the pressure on all those who dared to cling stubbornly to the old ways.

In 381 the Emperor Theodosius had removed any lingering fig leaf of tolerance and declared the practice of all religions other than Nicene Christianity punishable by death (although this proved far easier to decree than to enforce). Ten years after Theodosius’ edict, the temple honoring Isis and Serapis in Alexandria, including the famed statue of Serapis (nearly 700 years old), was reduced to rubble by a Christian mob–a fate that had already befallen most of the other major sacred sites of the ancient oikoumene (the “known world”). And as the destruction of the Serapaeum illustrated, it was not only legal penalties (up to capital punishment, but also including fines, imprisonment and torture), but also vicious mob violence, usually incited and led by Christian monks, that incentivized conversions to the new religion of the “creed making fishermen”, as one notable fourth century Pagan critic labeled the Christians.

Augustine was writing his anti-Pagan polemic, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, over thirty years after Theodosius had outlawed Paganism. So, apparently, or at least in Augustine’s mind, Christianity’s “triumph” over Paganism was still in some doubt. But perhaps Augustine was merely kicking those who were already down and defeated, if only to ensure they stayed that way? To what extent did Pagans continue to pose a substantial threat in reality (that is, not just in Augustine’s literary imagination)?

Peter Brown, one of Augustine’s most notable modern biographers, had this to say about the potential lingering danger to Christianity still posed by just a single Pagan book, Vergil’s Aeneid:

“The Christian Emperors had abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus, but Vergil might still replace them in performing this office for [Pagan] religious readers. From being a school text-book, Vergil could become, like the Bible, an inexhaustible source of precise religious information.”

What basis is there for the fear that Brown ascribes to Augustine as the motivation for bothering to write a book “Against the Pagans”? Well, after all (and as Brown rightly points out) the Bible itself is just a book, and anyone who wished to suppress Christianity would certainly see the Bible as a potential source of problems in that regard.

Pagans versus Christians

Lets take a moment to look more closely, if only briefly, at the situation, with respect to Pagans and Christians, in the Roman Empire in 413. Just eight years earlier, in 405, a high ranking political official named Stilicho (who was also a celebrated general) had ordered the destruction of the Sibylline books, ancient and revered Pagan oracles which had played a central role in the religion, and the history, of the Roman people since the 5th century BC. Just a little over a year later, on December 31, 406, a mixed group of Vandals, Alans, and Seubi crossed the Rhine river, thereby virtually erasing (forever, as it turns out) the boundary separating the Empire from the “barbarians”. Numerous Roman cities were attacked by these invaders, and in addition there now occurred a wave of unrest within the Roman army itself, including mutinies in which senior officers lost their lives at the hands of the soldiers they commanded.

This also coincided with an intensification of the ever-present internecine political intrigues and subversive plotting (both real and imagined) among officials at all levels of the Roman state. Like all powerful men, Stilicho had acquired powerful enemies, and in 408 those enemies (fellow high ranking Romans) managed to have Stilicho arrested and lost no time in putting him to death, and soon thereafter his son Eucherios was also murdered. More executions followed and a general state of chaos, confusion and panic was taking hold throughout the Western Empire, including Italy itself.

After the execution of Stilicho, the Visigoth leader, Alaric, began planning another attack on the city of Rome. For it had been Stilicho who had defeated Alaric’s previous assault on Rome, and, in fact, destroying the sacred Sibbyline books had been part of how Stilicho had chosen to commemorate his victory over Alaric and the Visigoths (when Stilicho returned triumphantly to Rome in 405 he accused the remaining Pagans in the city of using prophecies taken from the Sibylline books to attack the Christian government, and so had the books seized and burned). Alaric, himself a Christian, probably did not care (or possibly even know) about the fate of the sacred Pagan texts, but he certainly knew of and cared a great deal about the death of his nemesis Stilicho, especially since it coincided with a disastrously low ebb in both the political and military cohesion of the Western part of the Roman state. This string of catastrophes culminated in 410 when the city of Rome was entered by an invading force, Alaric’s Visigoths, for the first time since 387 BC.

Diehard Pagan Resistance to Christianization

Despite persecution, the “ancestral traditions, coeval with time” had remained stubbornly entrenched in the hearts of many of the inhabitants of the city built on seven hills. And now the Roman Pagans voiced their bitter satisfaction over the disaster that had befallen them, blaming this on the Christians. The sack of Rome was proof, if any was needed, that it had been a grave mistake to abandon the Old Gods, to destroy the sacred sites and sacred texts (like the Sibylline books), and to punish and even murder pious Pagans, including Priests and Priestesses.

Well before Alaric’s sack of Rome, a resurgence of Paganism had already been underway during the second half of the fourth century. In 360, during the brief (less than two year) reign of the Pagan Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”), there was, for example, “a resurgence of [Pagan] temple building in the rural areas” of far away Roman Britain, according to Dorothy Watts in her “Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain” [p.140]. Watts also notes that “the demise of some presumed [Christian] churches coincide with this revival of Paganism.” Theodosius’ edict of 381 can also be seen as rather strong evidence that such a revival of Paganism was quite real and widespread.

At the opposite end of the Empire from Britain, and nearly thirty years after Julian’s death, when the Temple of Serapis and Isis in Alexandria was destroyed in 391, the Christian mob had to first fight their way through Pagans who had gathered to defend that holy place. And in 394 Pagans attempted a revolt against the Emperor Theodosius. This revolt, under the leadership of Eugenius and Arbogast, enjoyed support among the remaining Pagans in the Roman Senate. Like all revolutions, this one was far from “pure” in its alliances and motivations, and there was certainly as much politics to it as religion, if not more (although to a very great extent the two cannot be separated), nevertheless it amounted to an all-out Pagan revolt against the Christian Emperor, albeit an unsuccessful one.

The defeat of Arbogast and Eugenius was felt as a body blow to those who had continued to hope for a frontal assault on Christendom by Pagan die-hards. And yet the struggle was far from over. And so, when the Christian God was unable to defend the city of Rome against invaders who were themselves Christians, there were still plenty of Pagans around to take cold comfort from that catastrophe.

Many, both Christians and Pagans, fled Rome in 410, and many of them ended up in the cities of North Africa, where Augustine lived. Peter Brown describes the Christians who “flocked” to North Africa in 410 as “uncertain of themselves.” According to Brown these same Christians had only recently “boasted of a ‘Christian era'”, but now “found themselves unpopular” because of the “unparalleled disasters” that had befallen the Christian Empire.

Religious tensions were already very high in North Africa. For years the fanatic Christian Bishops had been orchestrating a reign of terror against Pagan hold-outs, using both legal and extra-legal means without restraint. Peter Brown describes the super-critical situation in North Africa in 410 in these words: “For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions … used to pave public highways.”

In one incident a group of Pagans had managed to gain the upper hand and nearly killed a Christian official who was trying to break up a public procession in honor of an ancient Pagan festival in the town of Calama in 408. Afterward these local Pagans feared for their lives as the Christians debated what manner of collective punishment to mete out against them. Augustine himself was dragged into the conflict over how best to teach a lesson to the unruly Pagans of Calama. In the end there is no record of executions in the wake of the Calama “riot”, but ruinous fines were imposed on local Pagans, and temples, statues and other Pagan holy objects that had survived up to then were ruthlessly destroyed.

When things went from bad to worse in 410 with the sack of Rome and then the stream of refugees (a mixture of newly disheartened Christians and long embittered Pagans) into Africa, Augustine roused himself to action. He was in his late 50’s and in ill health. But he was increasingly fearful that, far from being merely inconsequential dead-enders, the remaining highly educated Pagans constituted “a wide intelligentsia, spreading throughout all the provinces of the West.” And far from being just a bunch of irrationally stubborn troublemakers, this Pagan intelligentsia was comprised of “deeply religious” men and women committed to “the preservation of a whole way of life”, despite the fact that their way of life had long ago been officially abolished.

“The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry,” Peter Brown tells us, painting a vivid picture of the mental universe of these deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century, “could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation. For such a man … to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements.”

At first Augustine limited himself to writing letters, giving sermons, and even engaging directly with Pagan intellectuals. But he had already established his reputation as the great intellectual of Western (that is, Latin-speaking, as opposed to Greek speaking) Christendom. And as fears mounted that Paganism might yet rise from it’s own ashes, Augustine was implored to go further, much further, and to accomplish nothing less that a “final exorcism of the Pagan past.” [p.310] The result took him almost 20 years to complete, and even the author could not restrain himself from calling it “a giant of a book”. Apparently he did not realize that he thus cast Christianity as Goliath, and Paganism as David.