Discuss the role of the supernatural in Aeneid 3
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 in 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,...
Bibliography: Camps, William Anthony (1969) “An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid” Oxford University Press
Coleman, Robert (Oct., 1982) “The Gods in the Aeneid”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 29, No. 2
Duckworth, George E
Hardie, Philip (1998) “Virgil new surveys in Classics”, Cambridge University Press
Lyne, R.O.A.M (1992) “Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid”, Clarendon Press
MacInnes, John (September, 1910) “The conception of Fata in the Aeneid”, The Classical Review, Vol. 24, No. 6
Matthaei, Louise E
Virgil Translated by David West (2003) “The Aeneid”, Penguin Classics
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