Monday, December 13, 2010

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: