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On Sorcery In Virgil’s Aeneid

 
Editorial Note: Given the interest generated by this part of the recent O9A text Some Questions And Answers About The Order of Nine Angles (2017) Part Two we reproduce it here as stand-alone post.

The item in question – titled On Sorcery In Virgil’s Aeneid – was a note written by Anton Long around six years ago which was published in Azoth, an internal ONA bulletin. The note includes Anton Long’s translation of the Latin quote by Virgil.

To provide some context, what is evoked by Virgil – the immolation of a lady (Dido) who would rather die than dishonour herself by having to live with a barbarian, and who is angry at Aeneas for deserting her and who seeks aid through The Craft via a Dragon-friendly priestess – is a manifestation of the Western ethos and a world away from what is evoked by the medieval grimoire, Magian influenced, tradition with its profusion of hierarchical ‘demons’, its alleged ‘secrets’, and its hollow promises that anyone can control such ‘demonic’ entities if they have the right accoutrements and the right Magian names.

 
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On Sorcery In Virgil’s Aeneid

 

The following text – along with an awful lot of classical literature – has long been misunderstood.

hinc mihi Massylae gentis monstrata sacerdos,
Hesperidum templi custos, epulasque draconi
quae dabat et sacros servabat in arbore ramos, (485)
spargens umida mella soporiferumque papaver.
haec se carminibus promittit solvere mentes
quas velit, ast aliis duras immittere curas,
sistere aquam fluviis et vertere sidera retro,
nocturnosque movet Manis: mugire videbis (490)
sub pedibus terram et descendere montibus ornos.
testor, cara, deos et te, germana, tuumque
dulce caput, magicas invitam accingier artis.

Here is a misinterpretation of the Latin, published in 1910, which completely distorts the meaning:

       “From thence is come a witch, a priestess, a Numidian crone, who guards the shrine of the Hesperides and feeds the dragon; she protects the fruit of that enchanting tree, and scatters there her slumbrous poppies mixed with honey-dew. Her spells and magic promise to set free what hearts she will, or visit cruel woes on men afar. She stops the downward flow of rivers, and turns back the rolling stars; on midnight ghosts she calls: her votaries hear earth bellowing loud below, while from the hills the ash-trees travel down. But, sister mine, thou knowest, and the gods their witness give, how little mind have I to don the garb of sorcery.”

Here is an interpretation which seeks to express what Virgil actually wrote:

       From there a priestess of the Massylian clan was made known to me – custodian as she was of the Temple of Hesperidum – who delivers food to the Dragon and protects the sacred branches of the Tree, sprinkling there moist honey and soporific seeds of poppy. She offers – to whomsoever she chooses – to release through song their feelings, and – for others – to let in lasting anxiety: to still the flowing waters and redirect the constellations to where they were; to drive away the Shades of Night. You shall perceive the Earth shake beneath her feet and the Mountain-Ash descend the mountains. And, my sister, upon the gods and by your dear life I bear witness that I reluctantly undertake the practice of The Craft.”

a) The word translated by song is carmen (as in Orff’s Carmina Burana) and might well be a reference to the power of song as evident in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The word translated by ‘feelings’ is mentes, although a suitable alternative translation would be ‘to free through song the heartache’ since the Latin and the context – abolere nefandi cuncta viri monumenta iuvat monstratque sacerdos, “that slimy man” – suggests the place in the body where strong emotions and feelings are considered to reside.

b) The phrase sistere aquam fluviis et vertere sidera retro is not meant to be taken literally, but rather metaphorically; as in ‘still the tears of heartache’ and ‘return to how things were’ before the anxiety. Similarly, nocturnosque movet Manis is turn away, move away, banish, the ‘ghosts’ that might haunt our sleepless nights.

c) The word translated by The Craft is magicas and which Latin word is derived from the Greek μαγικός with the etymology of the Greek word being uncertain, although μαγικός is the title of a work attributed, in the Suda, to Antisthenes, and by Diogenes Laertius to Aristotle (qv. V. Rose, Aristotelis Qui Ferebantur Librorum Fragmenta, Leipzig 1886). One suggestion was that the word derives from Magi, with the (popular but unproven) assumption being that the Magi were skilled in what is now termed ‘magick’ (or sorcery, γοητικός, qv. Aristotle Fragment 36), although there is evidence to suggest (qv. Fragments 33 and 35) that the ‘lost work’ with the title μαγικός – whomsoever the author was – treated the Magi as philosophers and not as sorcerers, with Plutarch in Adversus Colotem mentioning a work which dealt with Zoroaster as a philosopher.

In Ovid, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder, magicus can be taken as meaning one or more of the following: (i) a particular type of chanting or singing, of an ancient kind different from what the word ‘incantation’ now implies; (ii) certain types of divination including what is now known as astrology; (iii) certain rites and practices, including human sacrifice (homo immolaretur); and (iv) the use of herbs to cure ailments and sickness. Pliny (Book XXX, iii) also comments that britannia hodieque eam adtonita celebrat tantis caerimoniis, ut dedisse Persis videri possit, “even now Britannia practices it so enthusiastically with such large ceremonies it is conceivable they gave it to the Persians.”

Hence to translate magicas here as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’ – replete as those words now are with accumulated meanings irrelevant to ancient times – is unhelpful, particularly as Pliny writes (in Book XXX, ii) that Homer’s Odyssey is based upon the Art (ars) in question and relates a legend that Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato, all journeyed abroad to learn that Art.

Given what Ovid, Tacitus, and especially Pliny the Elder – and Homer in The Odyssey if we accept Pliny’s suggestion – wrote regarding the art that is magicas, then The Craft is a most suitable translation, redolent as it is of an ancient and almost forgotten Western esoteric tradition.

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