Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Which I Ask Virgil Life's Tough Questions


You may know Virgil as the author of The Aeneid, but during the Middle Ages, he was believed to be a prophet who could tell your fortune.

Medieval scholars believed that there was something special about Virgil. He was a pagan, of course, having lived before the birth of Christ and therefore unworthy of salvation, but in many ways he was the best pagan. In the fourth of his ten eclogues--pastoral poems that use the themes of Greek mythology--he writes of a golden age that is ushered in by the birth of a special child. The devout of the time took this to be a prophecy of Christianity (hell, some of them still do), and elevated Virgil above the status of just poet. He became a sorcerer.

This is one of the many reasons Dante chose him to escort him through Inferno and Purgatorio. (Note that Virgil, the pagan, is not allowed to enter Paradiso with him. That's where Beatrice comes in.) Virgil was the most important and widely read of all the ancients in the Middle Ages, and The Aeneid was a standard text for students.

Which brings us to the sortes virgilianae. People believed that if you had a copy of The Aeneid, and asked Virgil a question, he could answer you via his text. The process for choosing your passage varied. Some used dice to choose a page and line, some collaborated on a decision a-la ouija boards, and some held the book on its spine and let it open on its own. But the resulting passage was said to be a personal prophecy. The dark ages, indeed. 

(By the way, this practice is explicitly forbidden in the Torah. I also learned that.)

So, I decided to give it a try. I asked some of the ontological questions that I present to my literature students, and I checked out what old Virgil had to say in his sortes virgilinae. I just flipped through the pages and stuck my finger out, and these are the results:

Question: What is the meaning of life?

Answer: This counsel fanned the flame, already kindled,
Giving her hesitant sister hope, and set her
Free of scruple. (Book IV, ll. 76-78)


Analysis: So, like, hope? Does this mean hope is the meaning of life? That's a pleasant enough thought. But what about being "free of scruple"? Should I not worry about issues of morality? That doesn't seem right.


Question: How can I accept the idea that someday my life will end?

Answer: With reins of vine-shoots twisted, Bacchus, driving
Down from Mysa’s height his tiger team.
Do we lag still at carrying our valor
Into action? (Book VI, ll. 1082-1085)



Analysis: Maybe this means that I should stop worrying about death because it's causing my "valor" to "lag." Sort of like, "fortune favors the bold"?


Question: Do the rewards of life balance or outweigh its pain?

Answer: So, raptly, everywhere, father and son
Wandered the airy plain and viewed it all.
After Anchises had conducted him
to every region and had fired his love
of glory in the years to come, he spoke
of wars that he must fight, of Laurentines,
and of Latinus’ city, then of how
he might avoid or bear each toil to come.

Analysis: So, life is full of "toils" and struggles, but love between father and son is the consolation for it all?

Question:  How can we tell the false from the genuine?
Answer: What’s so remarkable if, to a girl’s taste
your mainstay is your horse? (Book XI, ll. 957-958))

Analysis: I don't get it. That's a dumb answer.

Question: How should I live?
Answer: Is Fortune keeping you alive? (Book V, ll. 807)

Analysis: Virgil keeps answering my questions with other questions. Is fortune keeping me alive? I don't know. Maybe?

After I gave up on any of this making much sense, my wife came in to see what I was doing. She picked up The Aenied and told me to ask one more. It was Sunday night, and we were exhausted from a long weekend. Here was our last question:

Will we make it through this week alive?
At which my father Anchises cried:
“No doubt of it!”

Finally, a success!

1 comment:

  1. I think the "free of scruple" bit is Virgil predicting the existence of a Neitzchean superman. Does that mean Virgil predicts both the birth and the death of God?

    Impressive.

    I saw a Mike Leigh movie once about a bunch of young women who did this same thing with an old copy of Wuthering Heights. Probably works better with Virgil.

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