I have been digging into Tacitus since the beginning of the year, but my work has only really just begun to accelerate and maintain a steady pace. I am uncertain if my interest in the ancient Germans is a function of the paucity of information in the literary record concerning them and their lives, or if it persists in spite of that sad state of affairs. I tend to incline to the latter supposition, since the importance of these peoples for the late history of the Roman Empire, and, of course, Europe as a whole, cannot be underestimated. Also, I think, it is the risk and tension between cultures — the German against the Roman — and the rough excitement of frontier culture, that makes the limes, the limit of Roman ‘civilization’, so interesting.
“Wherefore, they deemed [their womenfolk] to be, in truth, something sacred and prescient, neither spurning their counsels nor disregarding their opinions.”
inesse quin etiam sanctum aliquid et providum putant, nec aut consilia earum aspernantur aut responsa neglegunt.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, VIII,2.
Excerpts from the Aeneid of Virgil
translated by Robert Fagles
Now carved out of the rocky flanks of Cumae
lies an enormous cavern pierced by a hundred tunnels,
a hundred mouths with as many voices rushing out,
the Sibyl’s rapt replies. They had just gained
the sacred sill when the virgin cries aloud:
“Now is the the time to ask your fate to speak!
The god, look, the god!”
So she cries before
the enterance – suddenly all her features, all
her color changes, her braided hair flies loose
and her breast heaves, her heart bursts with frenzy,
she seems to rise in height, the ring of her voice no longer
human – the breath, the power of god comes closer, closer.
“Why so slow, Trojan Aeneas?” she shouts, “so slow
to pray, to swear your vows? Not until you do
will the great jaws of our spellbound house gape wide.”
And with that command the prophetess fell silent….
“….But grant one prayer.
Since here, they say, are the gates of Death’s king
and the dark marsh where the Acheron comes flooding up,
please, allow me to go and see my beloved father,
meet him face-to-face.
Teach me the way, throw wide the sacred doors!….”
|The Sybil of Cumae|
..So he prayed,
grasping the alter while the Sibyl gave her answer:
“Born of the blood of gods, Anchises’ son,
man of Troy, the descent to the Underworld is easy.
Night and day the gates of shadowy Death stand open wide,
but to retrace your steps, to climb back to the upper air-
there the struggle, there the labor lies. Only a few,
loved by impartial Jove or born aloft to the sky
by their own fiery virtue – some sons of the gods
have made their way. The entire heartland here
is thick with woods, Cocytus glides around it,
coiling dense and dark.
But if such a wild desire seizes on you – twice
to sail the Stygian marsh, to see black Tartarus twice –
if you’re so eager to give yourself to this, this mad ordeal,
then hear what you must accomplish first.
deep in a shady tree there grows a golden bough,
its leaves and its hardy, sinewy stem all gold,
held sacred to Juno of the Dead, Porserpina.
The whole grove covers it over, dusky valleys
enfold it too, closing around it. No one
may pass below the secret places of the earth before
he plucks the fruit, the golden foliage of that tree.
As her beauty’s due, Proserpina decreed this bough
shall be offered up to her as her own hallowed gift.
When the first spray’s torn away, another takes its place,
gold too, the metal breaks into leaf again, all gold.
Lift up your eyes and search, and once you find it,
duly pluck it off with your hand. Freely, easily,
all by itself it comes away, if Fate calls you on.
If not, no strenght within you can overpower it,
no iron blade, however hard, can tear it off….”
|Death on a Pale Horse – J.M.W. Turner|
Sooner or later the hero travels to the Land of the Dead, the shadow realm… seeking secret knowledge. What world is this of half light, and half truths, and half remembered things, where those who used to walk with us are now but phantoms of their former selves? Memories, I say. Not of the deceased alone, but of the departed, the unreachable ones, those who have passed away either in mind or in body or in spirit. And the only form they have now is that which the hero imparts to them by his rememberance.
There can be no satisfaction gained here; the elixir will not be obtained. For when we question those who reside here, we merely question ourselves, our memory, the simulacrum of those who have passed far and strange away from us, and who are out of ear shot. And what can we tell ourselves about what those who are not here might think? Nothing… and what is more, when we speak with them (in our thoughts), we become as them… faded and wan and little more than a ghost of what we once were when life was all about. This is the meaning of the hero passing yonder. And what is the secret knowledge that he seeks? What balm? Just this, that he too is a ghost haunting someone else’s dark dream. It is the death wish, the desire to be remembered; but with that also, to be as faded as these pale reflections and less than alive.