The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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