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Dr. Joseph Hattrup: “The Fall of Mount Atlas”

Posted: October 10, 2014

A Tutor Talk by Dr. Joseph P. Hattrup

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty or chaplaincy present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for speakers to discuss topics of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Dr. Joseph P. Hattrup delivered the following talk on October 9, 2014:



I want to open by pointing out that in the Aeneid Virgil simulates at least three whole poems: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, all of this in the space of twelve books. When I first drafted this paper, I included brief but sufficiently thorough accounts of how the Aeneid simulates the Iliad and the Odyssey to make that point compelling. However, that paper took two hours to read, so I won’t do that today. It is obvious to everyone that Virgil imitates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the Aeneid. That he simulates them part for part as wholes is less obvious, but it can be shown. Today, however, I will confine my attention to Virgil’s simulation of Lucretius’ poem on the nature of things. I will argue that Virgil simulates the De Rerum Natura as a whole, part for part, and that he does so in an inverted manner. That is, he imitates the whole of Lucretius’ poem in order to give it a tendency opposite to the tendency it displays in its own right. I will then go on to the theme of Mount Atlas in order to make a suggestion based on the simulations that occur in the Aeneid.

1. Simulation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

I will now turn to Lucretius. I have claimed that, like both of Homer’s poems, Lucretius’ poem is simulated in the Aeneid in reverse. In order for this sort of thing to happen at the level of order that it does for the Odyssey and the Iliad, two things would be necessary: first, there would have to be a discoverable plot in Lucretius’ poem that could be represented in the Aeneid, and second, there would have to be a hero into whose place Aeneas would step. In fact, both of these things are true of the De Rerum Natura. There is a plot to the poem, and not merely a scientific argument. This plot consists in the steps taken to disarm religion and to show the world for what it is: one of the mortals. There is also a hero: this is just how Lucretius represents Epicurus to his reader, as the hero who waged war on the gods, and won. The parts of Lucretius’ poem are roughly as follows:

  1. The invocation of Venus that opens the poem;
  2. The analysis of the cosmos into and the composition of the cosmos out of the primordial bodies and void (Books 1-2);
  3. The nature of mind, soul, and spirit (Book 3);
  4. The nature of knowledge through simulacra, and the consequent condemnation of amorous love as a consumption of images (Book 4);
  5. The story of the cosmos from generation to final dissolution, both as a whole and in its parts, namely, the human being and the city (Book 5);
  6. The unmasking of violent prodigies as chance, natural events (Book 6).

It is my belief that the themes of all six books of the De Rerum Natura are carefully woven into the fabric of Book 1 of the Aeneid. I will give a brief description of this interweaving, and then I will make a suggestion concerning its importance. Here are the weaves (in three stages):

1) Early in Book 1 of the Aeneid, we get the image of the cave of Aeolus, which sets a paradigm for many similar images that are ubiquitous in the remainder of the work. Here are the lines (Text 1):

“Here in a vast cavern King Aeolus
Rules the contending winds and moaning gales
As warden of their prison. Round the walls
They chafe and bluster underground. The din
Makes a great mountain murmur overhead.
High on a citadel enthroned,
Scepter in hand, he mollifies their fury,
Else they might flay the sea and sweep away
Land masses and deep sky through empty air.
In fear of this, Jupiter hid them away
In caverns of black night. He set above them
Granite of high mountains - and a king
Empowered at command to rein them in
Or let them go. To this king Juno now
Made her petition...”

There are scenes in nearly every book of the Aeneid that recall this description of violent wind trapped raging in an underworld cavern: the belly of the wooden horse in Book 2; Charybdis in Book 3; the cave of love in Book 4, where Dido and Aeneas are united in a love that begets fury rather than peace; the congregation of Trojan women in Book 5; the Underworld itself in Book 6; The cave of Amsanctus in Book 7, into which Allecto descends after her works of fury in the lands under sky; the cave of Cacus in Book 8, which Hercules opens to the light of heaven. I leave Books 9-12 to the imagination. In all of these scenes we have the image of pent-up fury in the undergloom that is focused in the speech of Jupiter to Venus early in Book 1 in the image of Impious Furor chained by one hundred links of bronze. So the image of the winds chained in an underworld cavern, raging like wild beasts, plants a motif for the Aeneid that sets the stage for the action again and again.

But this image would be familiar to one versed in the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. In Book 6 of the De Rerum, when Lucretius is explaining away the phenomenon of lightning, he gives this description (Text 2):

“Watch and consider, when the crosswinds blow
Clouds in the shape of mountains through the air,
Or you see clouds banked up over mountain peaks
Pile one upon the other and crowding down,
Docked in one station while all the winds are buried,
Then you can recognize their massiveness
And see that they're built like grottoes hung with stone,
Which in the rising storm are filled by winds
That grumble and roar, disdaining to be shut
In clouds, like beasts that bluster from their cages.
Now here, now there, through the clouds they vent their fury,
Circling and prowling for the way out, rolling
Fire-atoms together from the clouds and driving
And forcing and spinning the flame in the hollow oven
Till they tear the cloud and glitter and shake with light.”

So right away in the Aeneid the theme of pent-up fury buried in an underworld is linked with Lucretius’ attempt to explain away divine fury altogether. This is curious, since Virgil portrays this fury as ruled by divine governance, while Lucretius is precisely trying to show that the imagination of such divine governance is due to the folly of human fear.

2) But this sort of connection happens again. Late in Book 1 of the Aeneid, when the Trojans have been invited into Dido’s court, and the Trojans and Tyrians are enjoying a joint feast, the bard Iopas comes forward to sing. This is the moment when, in the corresponding scene in the Odyssey, the bard Demodokos comes forth in the feast in which the Phaiakians host Odysseus to sing the comic song about Ares’ adulterous love of Aphrodite. But Iopas sings nothing of the sort. Here is the text (Text 3):

“And Lord Iopas,
With flowing hair, whom giant Atlas taught,
Made the room echo to his golden lyre.
He sang the straying moon and toiling sun,
The origin of mankind and the beasts,
Of rain and fire; the rainy Hyades,
Arcturus, the Great Bear and Little Bear;
The reason winter suns are in such haste
To dip in Ocean, or what holds the nights
Endless in winter.”

Now, there are two things to notice about this song. First, it is clearly singing the causes of things. It is a song about the cosmos. In fact, if one looks into the matter part by part, it is a precise summary of Book 5 of the De Rerum Natura, in which all of these matters are sung. Second, we should notice that Lucretius begins his own poem with the very song of Demodokos that Virgil has replaced with the song of Iopas. That is, Lucretius begins by singing of the embrace of love and war, of Venus and Mars. His song is not as obviously comic as that of Demodokos, but a plea to Venus to bring War to his knees. But there seems to be a kind of swap intended by Virgil nevertheless. So now both Books 5 and 6 of the De Rerum Natura are simulated in Book 1 of the Aeneid.

3) We go farther. In Book 4 of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, we find his argument that sensation and understanding consist in the reception of very fine images that stream off of bodies and interact with atoms in the knowing organism. Lucretius condemns amorous love on this basis. Here is a particularly important passage (Text 4):

“But the same madness returns, and the fury too,
They long to attain they don’t know what, and can’t
Find any trick to master this disease:
They waver, and pine away from the hidden wound.
Add that they spend their strength to the point of exhaustion,
That they waste their time at another’s beck and call!
Their duties fall faint, their fame grows sick and totters,
Their business fails and their wealth is turned into
Ointments from Persia and sweet Sicyonian slippers.”

This is practically a description of Dido in Book 4 of the Aeneid. Her love is characterized as both madness and fury. Her love is described as a wound received in her breast, and the language with this wound is described is the same as the language used to describe the wound of Juno’s anger, the wound inflicted by Allecto on Amata, the wound inflicted by Allecto on Turnus, the sword wound by which Dido slays herself, and the sword wound by which Aeneas slays Turnus. All of these wounds are described by the language that Lucretius uses here in Book 4 to define the wound of love. It should be noted that love and fury are closely related concepts in both works. Here is one passage from Book 4 of the Aeneid that more or less makes the point (Text 5):

“What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers?
The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,
And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.
Unlucky Dido, burning, in her madness
Roamed through all the city, like a doe
Hit by an arrow shot from far away
By a shepherd hunting in the Cretan woods-
Hit by surprise, nor could the hunter see
His flying steel had fixed itself in her;
But though she runs for life through copse and glade
The fatal shaft clings to her side.
Towers, half-built, rose
No farther; men no longer trained in arms
Or toiled to make harbors and battlements
Impregnable. Projects were broken off,
Laid over, and the menacing huge walls
With cranes unmoving stood against the sky.”

Now, what do we make of all this? I have suggested above that Virgil sets up Aeneas as a counter-Ulysses and a counter-Achilles by simulating the actions of the Odyssey and the Iliad in reverse. This is why Ulysses and Pyrrhus are the chief Greek persona in Book 2. Here, too, Virgil seems to be setting up Aeneas as a kind of counter-Epicurus; that is, as one who endures the realities enunciated in the De Rerum Natura while at the same time asserting the divine rule over these things and insisting on his piety, on the fulfillment of his mission to sail to Italy. On the cosmic level of things, Aeneas is described as bringing about a world infinite in time and space whose walls are eternal and indestructible, a view of things that flies in the face of Lucretius’ insistence that the world’s walls are mortal and must eventually decay into oblivion.

One reason for noticing the presence of the argument of the De Rerum Natura in the Aeneid is to notice just what is at stake in Aeneas’ planting his city in Italy. As far as I have seen, there are two major questions that people ask about the Aeneid: first, is it pro-Augustan, or anti-Augustan? Second, is it pro-Epicurean, or anti-Epicurean? Insofar as both contexts are present in the poem, there must be a connection between them. It would be important to identify that connection. In either case, it seems to me that the dream presented by the Aeneid is explicit and clear. This dream is the hope of an eternal city governed by law in which peace, rather than war, is the paradigm of life. This city is characterized by humility, piety, mercy, and wisdom. The question is just whether this presentation is merely a dream or not.

2. The Fall of Mount Atlas

What I would like to do now is to briefly reflect on an aspect of this dream. It is a cosmic aspect. One is invited, I think, to consider such cosmic questions by the fact of who Aeneas is – that is, he is not just a new Ulysses and a new Achilles, but he is also a new Epicurus. He is a man whose relation to God is just as important, if not more so, than his relation to other men. The question I would like to consider is this: given that Aeneas is aiming to bring about unity in Italy, just how far does this unity extend? Jupiter says in Book 1 that Rome will unite the tribes of Italy. He also says that Rome will unite Greece and Troy. Anchises adds Africa and India to the package in Book 6. This amounts to the unification of the human world. I would like to suggest that the poem implies not only a unification of the human world, but also a unification of earth with heaven.

If this were true, it would be massive in its implications. If we look back to the legends from which Virgil is working surrounding the coming to be of the cosmos’s governance, we realize that Zeus was not always king of heaven. He stole his government from his father, Cronos. In Romanesque, this converts to Jupiter and Saturn. So, as Evander says to Aeneas in Book 8, Saturn has been banished from heaven by Jupiter, who now holds the reins of state. Fundamental to this state of affairs is the punishment of Atlas.

In the beginning, there was heaven and earth. Heaven and earth joined in marriage to produce the Titans. Atlas was a second generation Titan, son of Iapetus and Asia. Jupiter made war on the Titans, banishing them from heaven, some of them to hell. Atlas he punished by making him separate heaven from earth, holding the heavens on his shoulders, thus putting an end to the race of Titans forever. So any claim to reunite heaven and earth would be extraordinary. This claim would involve as a central figure the figure of Atlas.

In the Aeneid Atlas is a mountain. He stands on the west coast of North Africa within sight of the Atlantic Ocean. He also stands somewhere near the garden of the Hesperides, his daughters. This is an ideal situation for him since the extreme west of the world is the place where the sky wants to touch the earth. It is also the border between day and night, the place where “the sun sinks beneath the waves of Ocean.” Incidentally, it is also near the Tropic of Cancer. I would like to make a few suggestions about the importance of Mount Atlas in the poem.

First, it should be noticed that when Aeneas marries Lavinia, a union of the families of Jupiter and Saturn comes about. Lavinia is emphatically descended from Saturn in a pure line that, as far as I can see, makes no reference to Jupiter or to Atlas or to any of the other common divine ancestors shared by the important peoples in the poem. If this is not the case, I would be grateful to hear of it. Aeneas, on the other hand, is emphatically descended from Jupiter, by way of Atlas. Dardanus is the first forefather of the Trojans, who originally came from Italy. Dardanus was the son of Jupiter by Electra, one of the Pleiades, famous daughters of Atlas. So one could say that here Jupiter descends by way of Mount Atlas to join his line with the line of Saturn in a people who, establishing a foothold in Italy, bring about a world empire. This joining is extremely interesting in light of the war between Jupiter and Saturn that brings Saturn into Italy in the first place. So Aeneas’ marriage to Lavinia strongly implies a union between heaven and earth, in addition to the union of earth’s peoples. This is my first suggestion.

The second suggestion comes from the scene that most dramatically involves the figure of Atlas in the poem. When Aeneas, dressed in Tyrian purple, has abandoned the quest for Italy in order to build the walls of Carthage, Jupiter sends Mercury down to chastise him. The scene in which Mercury descends to earth is closely patterned off the scene in Book 5 of the Odyssey where Hermes (Mercury, in Greek) descends from Mount Olympos to command Kalypso to let Odysseus go. There are two important differences in the descriptions. In the Odyssey Hermes descends directly from Mount Olympos to the sea, which he skims like a sea-bird until he reaches Kalypso’s island. In the Aeneid, Mercury also descends from Mount Olympos to the sea, which he skims like a sea-bird; but this time, he pauses on the peak of Mount Atlas. Here is the text (Text 6):

Made ready to obey the great command
Of his great father, and he first tied on
The golden sandals, winged, that high in air
Transport him over seas or over land
Abreast of gale winds; then he took the wand
With which he summons pale souls out of Orcus
And ushers others to the undergloom,
Lulls men to slumber or awakens them,
And opens dead men’s eyes. This wand in hand,
He can drive winds before him, swimming down
Along the stormcloud. Now aloft, he saw
The craggy flanks and crown of patient Atlas,
Giant Atlas, balancing the sky
Upon his peak – his pine-forested head
In vapor cowled, beaten by wind and rain.
Snow lay upon his shoulders, rills cascaded
Down his ancient chin and beard a-bristle,
Caked with ice. Here Mercury of Cyllenë
Hovered first on even wings, then down
He plummeted to sea-level and flew on
Like a low-flying gull that skims the shallows
And rocky coasts where fish ply close inshore.
So, like a gull between the earth and sky,
The progeny of Cyllenë, on the wing
From his maternal grandsire, split the winds
To the sand bars of Libya.”

This passage magnificently accomplishes many things at once. First, it describes Mercury’s descent in a stair-like manner, having him drop from one mountain to another, from Greece to Africa, and then finally to the ground. Second, it displays the condition Aeneas is in, insofar as Mercury is described as descending into an underworld to wake him up, bring him back to life, and raise him up again. But what is Atlas in particular doing here?

Atlas is explicitly mentioned as Mercury’s grandfather. Mercury is the son of Maia, another one of the Pleiades, famous daughters of Atlas. All the Pleiades were born on Mount Cyllenë, on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and Mercury was born there as well. So this descent of Mercury is not just a physical locomotion; it is his genealogy.

Here it becomes most interesting to note the epithet by which Mercury is named. This epithet is completely consistent throughout the Aeneid, as far as I can tell. He is described as “born of Cyllenë” or as “son of Maia.” Consequently, it is through his descent from Atlas that Virgil wants us to attend to him. This becomes crucial in the scene in Book 8 in which Aeneas urges Evander to a military compact through their common descent. He appeals to the fact that Evander is the son of Mercury, and therefore of Maia, while he, Aeneas, is a son of Electra, making them both descendants of Atlas. So this is a point of interest.

However, the point becomes not only interesting, but astonishing, when we compare this scene of Mercury’s descent of Mount Atlas with the corresponding scene in the Odyssey of Hermes’ descent from Mount Olympos. There, his epithet, as it usually is in Homer, is “Argeiphontes,” that is, “slayer of Argus.” Argus was the hundred eyed monster set by Hera to guard Io. To briefly recap, Zeus came down to lie in love with Io, daughter of Inachus of the city of Argos on the Peloponnese. Hera got to know of it and came to investigate. In order to hide her, Zeus changed Io into a white cow. Hera, knowing all along what was happening, asked Zeus for the cow as a gift. Zeus could not say no. So Hera took Io and set the monster Argus to guard her. Zeus sent Hermes to steal her back, but as Hermes could not evade Argus he killed him instead, making him known everywhere as the “strong Hermes, Argus-slayer,” and this is just how he is named in Book 5 of the Odyssey. It is also just how he is named in Book 24 of the Iliad.

But Mercury is not named this way in the Aeneid. Rather, he is called “son of Maia.” What happened to “Argeiphontes?” It seems to me that this name is not removed from the action of the Aeneid but transplanted. It is applied to Aeneas himself instead. There are a couple of points by which I would argue this claim. First, and most superficially, Aeneas in fact takes on some of the actions assigned to Hermes in the Odyssey. Whereas in Book 5 of the Odyssey it is Hermes who approaches the cave of Kalypso in awe of the gardens there and argues to Kalypso, though against his will, that she should free Odysseus, it is Aeneas in Book 1 of the Aeneid who approaches Carthage in wonder at its glory and then later argues to Dido, though against his will, that she should let him go. So Book 1 makes the reader think of Aeneas and Hermes together right away.

But the likeness becomes much stronger in Book 7. There, in the catalogue of Italian kings marching to war against the Trojans the poet gives us a description of Turnus’ shield (Text 7):

“On his polished shield,
In gold emblazonry, Io appeared
With lifted horns and hair grown coarse – that instant
Changed, in the huge blazon, into a cow.
There stood her escort, Argus, and her father,
Inachus, the rivergod, poured out
A stream from a figured urn.”

In itself, this description is magnificent, but it is puzzling. Why is Turnus wearing Io and Argus on his shield? There is a very good reason that one can give right away. Io is the common ancestress of the Argives. As such, she represents the origin of Turnus’ people and so might fittingly be made an emblem under which the Rutulians march to war. The stream flowing from Inachus’ urn might be understood to represent his generation of the Argive line. So this is one way of understanding the shield.

But the shield has another important moment in the poem, in Turnus’ death scene (Text 8):

“Aeneas made
His deadly spear flash in the sun and aimed it,
Narrowing his eyes for a lucky hit.
Then, distant still, he put his body’s might
Into the cast. Never a stone that soared
From a wall-battering catapult went humming
Loud as this, nor with so great a crack
Burst ever a bolt of lightning. It flew on
Like a black whirlwind bringing devastation,
Pierced with a crash the rim of sevenfold shield,
Cleared the cuirass’ edge, and passed clean through
The middle of Turnus’ thigh. Force of the blow
Brought the huge man to earth, his knees buckling,
And a groan swept the Rutulians as they rose,
A groan heard echoing on all sides from all
The mountain range, and echoed by the forests.”

There are three figures on Turnus’ shield: Inachus, Io, and Argus. It seems to me one must ask, which figure did Aeneas’ spear hit?

Suppose that it was Argus. Then one might suggest that in killing Turnus, or at least in bringing him down, Aeneas is himself the Argus-slayer of the Aeneid. There are many directions one might take this suggestion. For now, I will limit my thoughts to the implications for Mount Atlas. If what I have suggested is right, that Aeneas is taking on a Mercury-like set of activities, then Mount Atlas seems to become a focus point of the poem. Mercury descends Mount Atlas in order to bring the will of God to man; Aeneas mounts Mount Atlas to bring man to God. And so this is a second reason, in addition to the marriage of the lines of Jupiter and Saturn, to think that something like a union between heaven and earth is implied by Virgil’s poem.

Here is a final consideration: In the middle of Book 7, Allecto descends again from the sky back into Hell. She sinks into the ground through the bore-hole of Amsanctus, which Virgil says is situated in the middle of Italy. Apollo refers to Hesperia, to Italy, as the mother, or nurse, of the Trojan people in Book 3. Consequently, the hole of Amsanctus seems to be another breast-wound, like Dido’s, but this time inflicted on the Earth herself. When Aeneas passes by the gates of Tartarus in Book 6, we are told that the Titans lie at the bottom, at a depth twice heaven’s height. So it is reasonable to think that the breast-wound in the Earth, within which the fury of hell burns, is an effect of the Titanic wars in which Jupiter first seized power in heaven. If, then, when Aeneas slays Turnus in the end of the poem he is putting Furor to rest, banishing it from the realm under sky to the undergloom, then we might understand Aeneas’ final act in the drama as a healing of this Earth-wound. This is a final reason for thinking that an effect of Aeneas’ founding of Rome is a re-ordering of the relation between heaven and earth.

 Joseph P. Hattrup
Isaac Cross (’19) -- quote 1

“The Discussion Method gives you a sense of finding the truth for yourself, and thereby owning it, rather than being told what to think.”

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Leominster, Massachusetts

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Archbishop of Sydney