Happy birthday, Virgil!

October 15, 2008

Today is allegedly Virgil’s birthday, and I celebrated by reading book III of the Aeneid. Unlike the previous book, which primarily consisted of things bleeding or on fire, this one was almost like the Family Circus comics in which little Billy runs all over the place and is trailed by a broken black line to show where he has been. I cannot think of any other book that has so much traveling in so little time, and practically every place is tied to some significant event. “And this is where Aeneas tried to make a little altar from some branches, but the bush started bleeding and turned out to be a murdered Trojan.” “This is where they tried to kill and eat some cattle but the Harpies kept stealing their food and crapping on everything.” Goodness.

The book is almost amusing in that they end up at Delos, one of the sacred shrines of Apollo, and they are told by the booming voice of the god that they need to go back to the land of their “ancient mother” to start a new city. Unfortunately, they don’t know which ancient mother that refers to, and Aeneas’ dad gets it wrong and they end up on Crete. Things seem happy, people get married and start building houses, and then suddenly there’s a plague and one night the household gods wake Aeneas up to say, “Whoops, hey there guy, sorry that last prophecy was a little vague but you are totally not in the right spot. Get your stuff and head for Italy.” To which Aeneas naturally responds, “Where the hell is Italy?” but the gods had gone back to bed. He tells his dad, who says, “Oh yeah, that’s right, there was that other ancient mother who–” but nobody was listening to him anymore. So Aeneas has to get all the people back on the boats and start looking for this Italy place.

That’s how the language of prophecy works: by being vague and potentially confusing, but inevitably right because of its lack of specificity. Tireisias plays that game with Odysseus, mostly by using a lot of conditional statements. And here I thought the language of obfuscation had been invented by politicians…

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