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Discuss the Role of the Supernatural in the Aeneid



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    In ancient poetry, gods were people too; early epic was history but a history adorned by myth. This fantastical, mythical element came via the gods, envisaged as anthropomorphic deities. In Virgil’s Aeneid these gods function in epic as literary vehicles and as characters no less detailed and individual than the people in the poem. In this world where the mortal and the supernatural not only coexist but interweave with one another, the Aeneid follows the mortal Trojans as their world moves from war to peace and as they attempt, often unsuccessfully, to overcome the supernatural obstacles put in their path.

    Before any attempt can be made to discuss religion in the Aeneid Book 3, a little must first be understood about the religious beliefs of the ancient world and how they fit into the ideas of the supernatural that we see within the Aeneid. The Graeco-Roman world of the gods was very different to the rigid religious systems that we see today. The Gods took a part in every aspect of life, from Helios directing his golden chariot and making the sun rise in the morning to the Nymphs that were thought to live in every tree and every stream. These beliefs were however, in no way uniform.

    In their society it was perfectly reasonable, and acceptable, to believe in only certain parts of a very varying religious doctrine or to favour some facets of it above others. Unfortunately this means it is impossible to conjecture what form of religion the average educated Augustan would have believed in, let alone what Virgil himself believed in. Camps’ slightly unsupportable conclusion is that Virgil (and his educated contemporaries) believed in a plurality of powers, but with little faith in the names and characteristics of the traditional anthropomorphic pantheon.

    Clark also conjectures heavily on what Virgil believed in. A significant point that Clark makes is that “Virgil’s mind was fashioned in a world made fluid by the sceptics”; both philosophical thinkers like Plato and literary figures such as Euripides had undeniably changed how the world viewed religion, so that even if they believed in the Homeric plurality of powers, they certainly cannot have believed that they were worthy of such whole hearted reverence; the Romans and their ancestors surpassed the gods in goodness, or rather they appear to n the Aeneid. Hardie, providing much the same examples as Clark, concludes that he was influenced by all of these aspects of religion different religions without subscribing solely to one, something that certainly fits in with the idea of a much more fluid ancient belief system. While it is impossible to come to come to any sort of reliable conclusion regarding Virgil’s beliefs, I think that examining what is likely provides a good grounding and something to think about when examining the ideas he presents in the actual poem.

    In the ancient world, when science was not very developed, and when plagues and disasters, like that on Crete in Book 3, seemed to afflict the world indiscriminately, a polythesic religion and partial and separate gods would seem a plausible, though far from comforting, religion. Myth, such as that in lines 570-583, with the myth of Enceladus, “crushed under the great mass” (“urgueri mole hac”) of “Mighty Etna”. (“ingentemque… Aetnam”), has always been used to explained the unknown.

    To the Trojans it is his “weary” (“fessum”) turning that causes Sicily to “tremble” (“intremere”) not any geological force. Even the descriptions of Etna as a mountain are hugely personified, with the mountain “groaning” (“murmure”) and “licking the stars” (“sidera lambit”). By explaining away these mysterious happenings through myth and legend they are putting them into a form they can in their own way understand.

    It is undeniable that the anthropomorphic deities are part of the machinery of epic and for a poet of Virgil’s skill they allow a massive exploitation of pictoral power, for example the detailed descriptions of the harpies in book 3. Virgil dedicates 46 lines to these repellent creatures, conjuring up a truly monstrous image that draws on all of the senses, from their “rank stench” and their “infernal screeching” (“vox taetrum dira inter odorem”) to the “filth oozing from their bellies” (“foedissima ventris proluvies”).

    Virgil ensures that the reader believes his initial claim that these are “no prodigy more vile than these, nor plague more pitiless ere rose by wrath divine from Stygian wave” (“tristius haud illis monstrum, nec saevior ulla pestis et ira deum Stygiis sese extulit undis”) and also appreciates this, just one of many, new hardships for the ever “enduring” (“duri”) and ever suffering Trojans. On many occasions, Virgil almost seems to be simply showing off as he shows how the divine elements can be deadly, terrifying but often beautiful too.

    For example from lines 173-180 when he describes ow Aeneas “marvelled” (“attonitus”) at the “heavenly presences so vocal and bright, for it was not sleep but face to face I deemed I could discern each contenance august and hoyl brow, wach mantled head; and from my body I ran a cold sweat of awe” (“visis et voce deorum—nec sopor illud erat, sed coram adgnoscere voltusvelatasque comas praesentiaque ora videbar; tum gelidus toto manabat corpore sudor corripio e stratis corpus, tendoque supinas ad caelum cum voce manus, et munera libo intemerata focis”) the reader cannot help but to be drawn into his sense of wonder, helping us to understand the faith and dedication of a man who is willing to follow an, often not fully understood, prophecy beyond even what may seem his best interests; for example when he is forced to leave “little Troy” and the home comforts and stability it offers.

    The explanation of the supernatural in the Aeneid as being merely an exploitation of literary prowess but in my opinion this fails to attribute enough importance to the characterisation of the gods. Their motives are always selfish – whether it is Juno’s pride, Neptune’s territorial nature or Hercules saving the Arcadians because someone stole his cows, there are no instances when the Gods were motivated by the apparently human ideas of justice or morality.

    The gods, unrestrained by pain and death, do not seem to hold to the same sense of justice as men. Even beyond this, the gods expect nobility and morality from the men but show no interest in following it themselves. The most explicit example of this occurs not in Book 3 but in Book 8 when we are presented with the most explicit scene of divine frivolity: the seduction of Vulcan by Venus. Juxtaposed with the stoic life of Evander, the two gods and their rich and ornate room in no way conform to this moral advice and although their divinity places them “above” this advice, they seem in my opinion to lose their nobility because they do not take it.

    In a wider context, this passage is surrounded by images of war; and the gods are entirely aloof from the sufferings of war and their bedroom scene here makes a painful contrast with the scenes of battle to come. The possibility of a heroic and noble god in the Aeneid is denied by this toleration and causation of suffering and it is by no means beyond comprehension that men should be more virtuous than the more trivial gods. While this idea is developed more thoroughly throughout the entire poem, we do see it in the description in Book 3. 138, which is interesting in regards to the realms of human and divine power and how vulnerable mortals are to divine will. The long suffering Trojans, thinking that they are following the misleading instructions of Apollo, land at Crete, believing this to finally be their homeland.

    Virgil first emphasises and draws attention to the desperation of the men to reach this new homeland, as he describes them encouraging each other to get to the island as soon as possible (“hortantur socii”), with Virgil using a small passage on direct speech to further engage the audience (“Cretam proavosque petamus! ”, “On to Crete and our sires”). He then describes their “eagerness” (“avidus”) at the idea that they have at last found that very basic need, a home. He even describes how the omens, which were very important to the ancient Greeks, appeared good; “freely behind us blew the friendly winds, and gave smooth passage” (“prosequitur surgens a puppi ventus euntis”). However, he instantly juxtaposes this positive lexis, using the coordinating conjunctions “when suddenly”, with a terrible plague. Indeed, Virgil in this scene seems at one of his most, in my opinion, openly condemning of the morals of the gods.

    He does not hesitate to create pathos; the Trojans do not simply die, they “lose their sweet lives” (“linquebant dulcis animas”) nor are they simply ill, rather seen to be desperately “dragging around their sickly bodies” (“aegra trahebant corpora”). He also makes very clear that the origins of the plague, the “corrupto caeli” (corrupted sky) and “Sirius” (the dog-star), are supernatural- the gods are unfairly punishing the Trojans not for some sin or crime but simply because they chose the wrong ancestor out of a choice of two. “Pietas”, a quality which includes a duty to the gods, and correct religious observance, was of course essential to the growth of Rome. The final reconciliation of Juno is partly achieved by Aeneas’ and the Trojans’ numerous prayers and sacrifices to her – Virgil is saying that the cumulative effect of being a pious nation brings an appropriate reward.

    The Trojans pray consistently throughout the poem, for example each time they leave or arrive anywhere, and signs of prayer and ritual are frequent, even if just passing mentions of temples or “dancing bacchants”. They ensure that Polydorus is buried according to proper funeral rites in lines 61-68, delaying their important journey in order to pay proper respect. They are even described by Virgil in line two of Book 3 as “immeritam” (“guiltless”). However for a poem in which piety is apparently favoured above all other qualities, the act of prayer, or more specifically the results of an act of prayer, seem very inconsistent. It often seems to be the case that the gods are simply indifferent.

    They may be moved by prayer, for example when Anchises receives the “optatae aurae” (prayed for winds) but this does not happen often as can be most clearly seen in the poignant description of Juno turning her head away from the desperately praying Trojans as their city was destroyed. When Anchises prays in Book 3 for the gods to spare their “servate pios” (“faithful votaries”) from the Harpies curse his prayers are simply ignored, seeming to suggest yet again that prayer seemed to make little real difference in the world of the Aenied. The overall message seems to be that if the fates are against you, there is little you can do about it. The gods, Jupiter among them, are still the Homeric gods: proud, wilful, partial, deceitful, immoral, insensitive, cruel – and the humans are vulnerable to their partial will.

    Coleman states that any chance events, both common and miraculous, are ascribed to divine causes, which bring emphasis to an event which has important consequences, enabling the narrative to rely less on chance and so enabling the event’s importance to increase in magnitude. For example Aeneas immediately reads the plague at Crete as a sign that they are in the wrong place. Almost every event that drives the Trojans onwards, from plagues to monsters, can be ascribed to some kind of supernatural force. However while there are some events that must happen but there are also many contingencies which are left to the self determining human agent. Man is conditioned in many ways: by the gods, by his environment but in the greater part of his life he is a free willing agent.

    The gods give signs and omens but it is always made clear that Aeneas is choosing to follow these, using them as instruction rather than order and often seeking out directions. It is worth noting that while other characters, such as Dido, Mezentius and Turnus, act in opposition to the fated order of events and end in disaster, Aeneas always cooperates and acts in harmony with destiny. Duckworth states that “Aeneas, far from being a weak character or a puppet in the hands of Fate, is in every way a worthy hero of the epic which bears his name … There is no lack of strong feeling in Aeneas, but he has subordinated his feelings to the will of the gods and Fate”.

    He may sometimes be reluctant to follow the signs or unintentionally misinterpret them but in the end it is always his sense of piety and dedication to the future of Rome that wins out, not any sense of personal gain or even gain for his men; his dedication to the gods is greater even to that of his comrades. Although the Gods that we have discussed so far create a very Homeric picture of religion in the Aeneid, juxtaposed to this is the decidedly unHomeric element of fate, a very interesting element of the higher powers in the Aeneid. MacInnes distinguishes three separate meanings of the word fatum: firstly the “lot” of the individual; secondly the “will of the individual gods”; and thirdly, the overriding destiny of the world. Fate can also often be misleading, as in Book 3 when Anchises mistakenly decides Crete must be their allotted homeland, forgetting their double ancestry.

    Beings other than just the gods seem to be able to create fate, such as the harpy Celaeno who appears in Book 3 with her curse that the Trojans that “sed non ante datam cingetis moenibus urbem, quam vos dira fames nostraeque iniuria caeids ambesas subigat malis absumere mensas” (“But never shall you rear circling walls of your own city, till our blood by you unjustly spilt, your famished jaws bite and your tables, and half devour”). However it is fate as an ordained course of events which the word fata most often means. Indeed if fate can be called a deity, it is the most powerful one- there are many examples throughout the text where Fate rules supreme; the Trojans must and will found Rome. MacInnes states that Virgil believed, or at least wrote the Aeneid with this belief, in one supreme and spiritual deity whose decrees are fata – inviolable courses of destined events – but that he has not irrevocably fixed the destiny of every man.

    However the gods and goddesses have little power against impersonal and unalterable “fatum”. Fate sets a point at which history will arrive (the fall of Troy, the founding of Rome); gods, and to some extent men, can delay this point and change the way it will be reached, but they cannot change the event itself. Virgil accepts the existent undetermined state of mind on determinism and allows freedom to his characters to whom omnipotence and omniscience in a deterministic world would be meaningless. He reveals a strong faith in Rome and that her triumphant career is in accord with fate and achieved through the favour of Jupiter and despite, or thanks to, conflicts of other divine forces.

    In the Aeneid the religion is real, in which the gods are individual and self-interested and fate gives an overall direction to the poem and the gods determine where it goes between Troy and Rome. The rivalry between the gods looms over the narrative of the Aeneid so heavily that at times the story seems to be less about the deeds of the mortal characters than about the bickering of the gods who continually disrupt and manipulate events on Earth. The Aeneid raises questions about the function of the will of human beings whom the gods seem to control and, when they wish, destroy. Indeed, the whole poem is a mediation on the problems of religion which is still with us today, albeit in a different form.

    Discuss the Role of the Supernatural in the Aeneid. (2016, Sep 29). Retrieved from

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