A Muse in Grant Park, Chicago. Officially known as the Spirit of Music, she is part of a memorial to Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sculpted by Albin Polasek (1923). (Photo by C.A. Sowa, November 20, 2017.)
Why is the month of May called that?
Where did the name of the month of May come from? The answer seems like a no-brainer. Obviously, May was named for Maia, one of the Pleiades, mother of Hermes (Mercury) by Zeus (Jupiter). The Romans identified Maia with Terra (Earth) or with the Bona Dea (the Good Goddess). And the name of the month of June obviously is derived from the name of the goddess Juno. Or is any of this true?
Ovid, in Book 5 of his Fasti, or Festival Calendar, is just as curious as we are. So he did the logical thing, and consulted the Muses. Ever whimsical and inventive, Ovid considered that as a bard, he could be on familiar terms with any god he wanted to talk to. In January, for example, he encounters the double-faced god Janus, with whom, once he gets over his initial fright at the god's strange appearance, he has a long conversation. So these Muses are not the mystical beings encountered by Hesiod in his Theogony, but straightforward and familiar partners in conversation.
The Muses disagree
But the goddesses disagree! Polyhymnia begins, and the others "remain silent, but take mental notes." Polyhymnia provides a history of the universe, which begins with Chaos, as in Hesiod, but then diverges wildly. Ovid's Chaos is as much metaphorical as literal. After the Earth sank of its own weight, taking the waters with it, and Heaven rose of its own lightness, none of the other heavenly bodies and various divinities knew what place to occupy, and even "plebeian" gods were sitting on the heavenly throne. Finally, Honor and Reverence gave birth to Majesty (Maiestas), who sorted things out, and now sits beside Jupiter. From her name comes the name of "May."
The Muses Clio and Thalia agree with Polyhymnia, but Urania offers another explanation. She contends that in olden days age was held in reverence, and so the name of "May" honors the elders (maiores) and the name of June honors youth (juniores). Then Calliope chimes in, claiming that "May" indeed honors Maia, mother of Mercury, connecting that god with the story of Evander of Arcadia, who legend says founded a city on the future site of Rome, bringing his native gods with him.
Ovid wisely decides that he wants the favor of all the Muses, and he will not choose between them.
And what about June?
In Book 6 of the Fasti, Ovid is puzzled again. Apparently the question of the name of "June" is still not settled. Three more goddeses appear to the poet. The goddess Juno, queen of the gods, appears first, scaring the poet at first. She is angry. She is both sister and wife of Jupiter, and she knows not which makes her more proud. If, she says, May can be named for Maia, a mere paelex (mistress), surely she herself, as wife, can have a month named after her. But then Hebe, wife of Hercules and goddess of youth (called Iuventas in Latin), claims the month for herself. Finally, the goddess Concord appears, and suggests that the name of June comes from legendary Roman history, and is named for the junction of two kingdoms ruled by Tatius and Quirinus. The implication is that peace can be achieved.
Once again, Ovid refuses to render judgment, remembering that in the Judgment of Paris, a decision in a beauty contest between three goddesses led to the Trojan War.
Below, in Latin and English, are the opening lines of the fifth book of Ovid's Fasti. Aganippe and Hippocrene ("the Horse's Spring") are two springs on Mount Helicon, associated with the Muses. Here, the two are identified as one. Hippocrene is supposed to have risen from a blow by the hoof of the winged horse Pegasus, ridden by Bellerophon in his defeat of the Chimera. One story has it that Pegasus sprang from the blood of the monster Medusa when she was beheaded by Perseus.
The Muse Erato. (Image from Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884.)
Orpheus in a bucolic landscape, by the German artist Hans Thoma (1839-1924), whose painting of the goddess Flora appeared in the March 2018 web page. Thoma painted scenes of rural life, in his native Bavaria and in Italy, as well as allegorical and mythological subjects. This is another mythic scene, painted in 1898.
The Earth's bounty
In April we celebrate Earth Day, when we reconnect with Mother Earth and renew our commitment to protect and preserve this wonderful planet. As spring and summer begin, we renew our appreciation of Earth's gifts to us — the soil, rocks, and sand, the trees and flowers, the rivers, mountains, deserts, and glaciers, the clouds, rain, wind, and snow. We relearn, if we have forgotten, our relationship to animals, insects, and fish — all the creatures that creep, that crawl, that fly and run and swim, that purr and bark and chirp and caw.
The ancient Greeks and Romans, like all who grow up in rural environments, lived close to nature. Their depictions of trees and animals, their moods, emotions, and behavior, were not just abstract or poetical, they were part of the life they lived. Their divinities were close to Nature, too. The god Pan, half-goat, is understandable when we realize that his favored country of Arcadia is a rocky hardscrabble land where the only cattle that can be raised are goats and sheep.
Vergil's Georgics: sympathy with Nature
Our Quotation of the Month consists of the opening verses of Vergil's Georgics (ca. 29 B.C.), a hexameter poem on agriculture in four books. In Book I, he treats the raising of crops, in Book II the cultivation of grape vines, in Book III the rearing of cattle, and in Book IV the care of bees. Practical information is adorned with mythic tales, including the story of Orpheus and Euridice in Book Four. His models and influences were many. An obvious Greek antecedent is Hesiod's Works and Days, the Boeotian Old Farmer's Almanac. He also drew on Aratus' Phaenomena, on celestial phenomena and the weather. Among Roman sources he could use Varro's Rerum rusticarum libri III (Three Books on Agriculture). Vergil, however, puts his own stamp on his subject, especially in his empathetic portrayals of his animal subjects. We see this in the grief of the ox, whose brother and yoke-mate drops dead of the plague beside him (Book 3.515-530). We see it, too, in the family of bees, in whose perfectly regulated society each individual has its assigned task, and who buzz contentedly as they go off to sleep at night (Book 4.176-190).
Happy crops, wedded vines, and thrifty bees
In the Prolog to Book I of the Georgics, addressed to his patron Maecenas, Vergil outlines the subjects of his poem: crops and tillage, viticulture, cattle breeding, and beekeeping. The phrase "wedding vines to elms" refers to the ancient practice of training the grape vines on rows of live trees rather than artificial stakes.
Vergil invokes the rural gods and goddesses, alluding to names both well-known and obscure. He invokes Liber, an old Italian deity of planting, later identified with the Greek Bacchus, and Ceres, goddess of the grain. Faunus ("the favorable god," from faveo) was another old country god, whose voice was heard in the whisper of the winds, later identified with the Greek Pan. the Fauni, like Pan, were portrayed as half goat. Dryads are tree nymphs (from Greek drys "tree," especially "oak"). The "caretaker of the groves" is the hero Aristaeus, who taught mankind farming methods, especially beekeeping.
The Scorpion draws in his claws, yes really!
Finally, in rather cringe-worthy flattery of Augustus Caesar, Vergil invokes the emperor as a future god, asking his divine aid in the welfare of crops and productivity. The phrase "your mother's myrtle" refers to Venus, through Aeneas the mythic ancestress of the Julian gens, into which Augustus had been adopted. The myrtle was sacred to Venus.
Vergil wonders which branch of the divine Augustus will choose, and speculates that he will become a constellation among the stars, where Scorpio draws in his claws to make room for the new occupant. He will be next to Virgo (here called Erigone in reference is to a complicated story in which Erigone, a virgin, commits suicide over the unjust death of her father Icarius). The astronomical speculation, as it happens, is not as silly as it sounds. The constellation now called Libra ("the Scales") was once considered an extension of Scorpio, known as "the Scorpion's Claws," so that the Scorpion took, in Vergil's words, "more than a just proportion of the sky." Vergil deftly associates the new designation of Libra as the "Scales of Justice" with Augustus' fair and just government.
Below, in Latin and English, are the opening lines of Vergil's First Georgic.
Haystacks, from Souvenir of Dakota, the Artesian Wells, by Mrs. A.J. Dickinson, Chamberlain, South Dakota, illustrated by Nelle B. Lockwood, Chamberlain, South Dakota, 1898.
"Flora" by the German artist Hans Thoma (1839-1924). Thoma painted many pictures of idealized rural life, both in his native Bavaria and in Italy. He also painted many mythological and allegorical subjects, as well as realistic portraits of family and friends and several self-protraits — the original "selfies." (Incidentally, Thoma was a relative of mine, an uncle of my grandmother, Virginia Schmid Cooper, an artist working in California. Illustration from Thoma, des Meisters Gemälde in 874 Abbildungen, 1909.)
The spring equinox
Spring is here, as we celebrate Easter, Passover, and the spring equinox, partaking of festivals both religious and secular. Baseball season has begun, too.
For the March Quotation of the Month, we offer a poem from late antiquity that describes a walk through the garden in early morning, with the poet musing on roses that bloom in morning, but fall at night.
The poems ascribed to Ausonius
Our poem has traditionally been ascribed to the poet Ausonius (ca.310-ca.395 A.D.), a native of Burdigala in Roman Aquitaine (modern Bordeaux), who was a tutor to the future emperor Gratian, and later made by him a consul. In some manuscripts the poem is even ascribed To Vergil. More recently, however, it is classed with the Appendix Ausoniana, a group of writings probably not by Ausonius, but from a later period.
Gather Ye Rosebuds
In the opening lines of the poem, which we quote, we find our poet wandering one spring morning in his rose garden, admiring the jewels of frost that cling to shrubs and flowers. But these are jewels that will disappear with the rising sun. His thoughts turn to the roses — does the Dawn steal her colors from the rose, or is it the other way around? For Venus is the goddess of both Morning Star and rose.
In the rest of the poem, he sees the roses in all stages of their birth, lovely maturity, and death, as their petals fall upon the ground. The flower that the Morning Star beheld being born is elderly by nightfall. But from death new life will arise. The poet ends with lines that anticipate Robert Herrick's 17th century "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," saying "Virgin, gather roses while the flower is new and youth is new,/ and be mindful that your lifetime hurries on."
Below, in Latin and English, are the opening lines of this anonymous poem. The Latin is from the Loeb edition, Vol. 2 pp.277-280. A line appears to be missing from the text after verse 9.
Frülingswiese ("Spring Meadow"), one of Thoma's idealized landscapes. No particular place is named here. (From Thoma, des Meisters Gemälde in 874 Abbildungen, 1909.)
Above: Meleager, with his hunting dog, in a Roman statue of the first century A.D. It is one of many copies of a lost bronze sculpture by the fourth century B.C. artist Scopas of Paros. Meleager was a member of the Argonautic expedition and participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. In some versions of the statue, as in this one, Meleager is depicted with the head of the boar. (from the Fusconi-Pighini collection, Museo Pio-Clementino, Rome.) photo upoaded to Wikimedia by Jastrow (Marie-Lan Nguyen).
The Chinese Year of the Dog
In the Chinese Lunar Calendar, 2018 is a Year of the Dog. Depending on the year, the dog may be associated with one of five elements. In 2018 it is associated with the Earth element; others may be Wood Dogs, Fire dogs, Metal Dogs, and Water Dogs. Persons born in a Year of the Dog are independent, energetic, sincere, and loyal. They can also be stubborn. For our Quotation of the Month, we have chosen one of the most memorable dogs in ancient epic, Odysseus' old hunting dog Argus, who greets Odysseus after twenty years, as described in Book 17 of the Odyssey.
Argus, Odysseus' faithful hunting dog, alone recognizes his disguised master
It is one of the most poignant recognition scenes in Homer, as the ancient dog and the disguised hero recognize each other. The humans, however, are oblivious.
Odysseus, having wandered far and suffered much during and after the fall of Troy, at last reaches the shores of his native Ithaca, in disguise as a common tramp. He is taken in, as described in Book 14, by the swineherd Eumaeus, who has taken faithful care of Odysseus' herd in his master's absence. Regularly, he must provide fat boars to the evil Suitors for their banquets, as they feast at Odysseus' expense while wooing his wife Penelope. Eumaeus has built, without telling anyone, a palatial set of pens for the hogs, and even sleeps next to the animals to keep guard over them. Ever cautious, Odysseus does not reveal his true identity to Eumaeus, but spins yarns about his supposed origin, still testing Eumaeus' loyalty.
While Odysseus and Eumaeus are talking, Odysseus' son Telemachus arrives, having made his own journey (in the first four books of the Odyssey) in a fruitless search for his father, while eluding the Suitors' plans to kill him off. Odysseus, while Eumaeus is out of the room, reveals himself to Telemachus, but only after the goddess Athena, changes his appearance from his beggar's clothes. Then, before Eumaeus returns, she changes him back again. At last, Odysseus, led by Eumaeus, proceeds up to the big house, to confront the taunts of the Suitors, who little know the revenge Odysseus will bring upon them.
Argus, his mission accomplished, can die happy
As Odysseus and Eumaeus approach the house, Odysseus sees his old hunting dog Argus — since argos means "brightly shining" or "swift," we might call him "Flash" — he is lying in a pile of manure, covered with ticks, uncared-for and neglected. But Argus alone, the old and tattered dog, recognizes Odysseus, in the form of the old and tattered man. Too weak to get up, he wags his tail and lowers his ears in a playful position. They know each other, but Odysseus cannot give himself away, and turns his head as he wipes away a tear. He asks Eumaeus what happened, and the old swineherd tells him how the young men used to hunt with Argus, but now none of the staff cares for him. (He gets in a dig at the institution of slavery, saying that slaves are unwilling to work because "when a man becomes a slave, Zeus takes away half their qualities.")
Odysseus and Eumaeus proceed into the hall, but Argus, his life's mission accomplished, dies happy, having finally seen his master after twenty years.
Below, in Greek and English, is the scene in the Odyssey in which Argus and Odysseus, unbeknownst to others, recognize each other.
Hades and Persephone at home with the family dog, Cerberus, who seems to be begging for a bone with all three of his heads. Obviously, that much-feared canine, like the legendary Irish wolfhound, is "fierce when provoked, but gentle when stroked." (Illustration from Seyffert's A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1899.)
Above: Prow of a Roman two-banked war ship, ca. 50 A.D. From a relief found in the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste, now in the Vatican. Note the leather bags around the ports through which the oars stick from the hull; these keep water from getting in around the oars, but do not constrict their movement. (Illustration from Cecil Torr, Ancient Ships, , 1895.)
"I have a dream" still resonates
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we celebrate the third Monday of every year (in 2018 on his actual birthday, January 15), gave his "I have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The repeated refrain came in an extemporized coda to a prepared speech, in which he was urged on by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who called out to him from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" Inspired, he spoke of the American dream, and of his own dream that one day America would "live up to its creed, that 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.'"
Together with his other great speech, "I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the Promised Land," delivered on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King's "Dream" speech takes its place among the world's great inspirational orations.
Petronius as an observer of the Roman scene
Our Quotation of the Month is a short poem concerning dreams, and the role each individual plays in deciding what his or her dreams will be. It is by a rather unlikely writer, the Roman Petronius Arbiter (27 A.D.-66 A.D.), whose surname doubtless came from his position at Nero's court as arbiter elegantiae or "judge of elegance." While he seems to have been an able administrator in his position as governor of Bithynia and as consul, he was (as described by Tacitus) more famous for his love of idleness and extravagance. He is best known today as the probable author of the Satyricon, a novel that we have in incomplete form, which satirizes Roman life as he must have known it all too well. Its most famous passage is the Cena Trimalchionis, "Trimalchio's Dinner," an outrageous depiction of over-the-top excess.
Petronius made enemies at court, and accused, whether justly or unjustly, of conspiracy against the emperor, was arrested. Deciding to go out on his own terms, he committed suicide, slitting his wrists, then playfully bandaging them up again, while conversing with his friends, then finally consigning himself to death.
Petronius on our own role in choosing our dreams
In addition to the gross Satyricon, Petronius also wrote poems on a variety of subjects, many in a contemplative mood. One of these is on dreams. Dreams come not from the gods or from the sky, but from ourselves. Whatever concerns us by day, is fulfilled — or not — by night. The warrior sees himself successful in battle, the lawyer trembles as he sees the judge. A woman writes to her lover, and a dog chases rabbits in his sleep. A sailor may save his capsized ship — or he may cling to it as he drowns. It is up to him.
The poem ends with the thought that "for the miserable, the wounds last all night long." This ending may seem a bit downbeat, but the message is clear, that we are ultimately the controllers of our own dreams.
The Latin text is that found in the Loeb edition, the work of Professor Buecheler. It also appears in Helen Waddell's Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (1930). Petronius did not belong to the mediaeval period in terms of chronology, but it was Waddell's point that the mediaeval spirit in poetry, a romantic quality, began much earlier. In her opinion, "Petronius is closer to the first Italian sonnet writers than he is to Horace."
Below, in Latin and English, is Petronius' poem on dreams. The translation, as usual, is my own.
Bust of Selene on a sarcophagus, from Tomb D in Via Belluzzo, Rome, now at the Baths of Diocletian. Goddess of the Moon, who lights up the night, she wears a crescent on her head and carries a torch. The concerns of the day are rehashed at night. (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006), from Wikimedia.)
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