Sympathetic Magic and Sacrifice in Virgil’s Aeneid [Lecture]

Sympathetic Magic and Sacrifice in Virgil’s Aeneid [Lecture]


Regina Magica:
‘Sympathetic Magic,’the φαρμακός motif, and Dido’s Rituals in Book IV of
the Aeneid  
When Norman Wentworth DeWitt published his doctoral dissertation in 1908, he outlined
a number of features in the Dido episode of the Aeneid (Book IV) which tied it explicitly
to both the genres of erotic poetry and Greek tragedy. Among the topoi which tied Dido to
the ‘erotic’ and ‘tragic’ genres was the recurring motif of a spurned lover who
resorted to magic for revenge. One can easily recall Medea, Deianira, Ariadne, or many other
tragic women for examples of such a motif. Anothertragic motifto which Virgil was clearly
alluding by introducing the Massilian sorceress was that of the φαρμακός – the scapegoat
– who must be ritually intoxicated, raised up on the stage, and ritually sacrificed to
expiate and elicit some form of personal catharsis for the audience. It is typical of tragedy
to simulate human sacrifice, and typical of erotic poetry to make use of the supernatural
as a dramatic device;Dido’s episode in the Aeneid is no different. In recent decades,
however, these views have come into question. A debate among some Virgil scholars has surrounded
this question:does Dido really have recourse to witchcraft or ‘sympathetic magic’ before
ending her life in Book IV’s closing scene?Where many scholars saw a ritual of ‘sympathetic
magic’ at work, to ratify a curse against the Trojan race and all its descendants,other
scholars, namely T. E. Goud and J. C. Yardley, completely deny Dido’s involvement with
‘sympathetic magic,’preferring to seethe echoes of a more dignified traditional Roman
funerary practice over practices of witchcraft. The aim of this paper then is to outline the
arguments on both sides of the debate, and ultimately to argue in defence of both the
φαρμακός interpretation and the ‘sympathetic magic’ hypothesis which Goud and Yardley
have so succinctly denied. The section of the Aeneid relevant to our
interests begins at line 4.450, after Dido realizes Aeneas is set on his departure and
the tragic queen has turned to her “incense-burning altar” to determine how she might best “leave
the light” (lucemque relinquat). Here Dido beholds a number of ill-omens: her
libations seem to blacken and turn into sordid gore, the shrine of Sychaeus appears to emit
disembodied voices, and she hears an owl stretch out its long songs into a lament (4.452-465).
Dido is then plagued with dreams of both a savage Aeneas pursuing her, and of desolate
loneliness (4.468). After this exhaustive list of evil omens, we can see Virgil setting
the stage for the erotic and tragic motifs outlined above.The queen, out of her mind,
is likened by simile to the intoxicated King Pentheus –the φαρμακός of Euripides’
Bacchae – who, led on by Bacchus to be sacrificed by the maenads, beholds ranks of furies, twin
suns, and twin cities (4.469-470). Having received similar visions, Dido turns
to her sister Anna, feigning a plan to either bring Aeneas back to herself, or release her
of her love for him (4.479). In order to accomplish her intended ritual, Dido recalls a priestess
from Massilia, from the edge of the world,who had once beenrecommended to her. This priestess,
we are told, had formerly served in the temple of the Hesperides where with feasts of honey
and opium she had tendedto the serpent which guarded the golden apples (4.483-486). The
priestessclaims to possess the ability both to liberate the minds of those she desires,
and to plague the minds of others with anxiety. In addition to this, we are told she can stop
the flow of water mid-river, turn back the stars in the sky (thus affecting the machinery
of Fate as understood by the ancients’ astrological world-view), and to summon the shades of night
(4.487-490). This scene acts as a reminder to Virgil’s
audience that they are still back mythological times, in illo tempore, thus reinforcing the
immanence of the supernatural and the magical. At the behest of the priestess, Dido tells
Anna to erect a pyre in secret, collect the arma and the exuvias of Aeneas and place them
atop the lectum jugalem (later called a torus) which she claims she will use to rid herself
of her beloved’s memory (4.494-498). With these things having been collected and
set up in the palace courtyard, Dido and Anna stand around the pyre preparing for a ritual
while the employed priestess thrice invokes the names of her hundred gods, among whom
are named Erebus, Chaos, and the threefold goddesses Hecate and Diana (that is, in their
various forms as maiden, mother, and crone). Then Virgil gives us the most explicitly ‘magical’
passage from this section: Sparserat et latices simulatos fontis Averni,
falcibus et messae ad lunam quaeruntur aenis pubentes herbae nigri cum lacte veneni;
quaeritur et nascenti sequi de fronte revulsus et matri praereptus amor. (4.412-416) Here, in a manner most reminiscent of antiquity’s
numerous extant magical papyri or even later medieval magical grimoires,Virgil gives us
the ritual preparations of the priestess: she had sprinkled libations of simulated infernal
waters; collected black herbs (i.e. papaver somniferum, opium) filled with a drugged sap
which had been cut with a bronze sickle in the hour of the Moon; and torn a love-charm
(revulsus… amor) from the brow of a colt. Compare this, for example, to an entry in
the astral magical grimoire the ‘Gayat al-Hakim’ (the ‘Goal of the Sage’),more commonly
known in the West as the Picatrix, a medieval source, albeit one composed of extant fragments
of Greek origin: Take one and a fifth pounds of cannabis (canabeto)
sap and the same amount of the sap from the plane tree, then mix them together. Extract
these saps from the aforementioned things while the Sun is in Virgo and Mercury is luminous
and direct in his advance; grind them up in a marble mortar…Blend all these things together
very well, to which you should add a half pound of blood from a stag decapitated with
a bronze knife. In this rather typical Greek-styled recipe
invoking the Moon, we see how magical instructions often consist of using magical ingredients
(e.g. the “sap of a plane tree” or the “latices simulatos fontis Averni”) with
psychoactive ones (“cannabis sap”or the “lacte veneni” of opium), gathered at
proscribed times (“Extract these saps… while the Sun is in Virgo” or“ad lunam
quaeruntur”) with a tool made of the metal suited to the task (“marble mortar/bronze
knife” or “falcibus… aenis”). And of course, no magical recipe is complete
without the appropriate animal parts (the “blood of a stag” or the “revulsus…amor”). We thus see Virgil unambiguously presenting
all the elements of ritual magic here – omens, visions, a supernatural guide, magical ingredients,
and an elaborate ritual –consequently fulfilling the aforementioned ‘scorned woman resorting
to witchcraft’ motif so typical of erotic poetry – all of which is in preparation
for the introduction of the second motif, the tragic sacrifice of theφαρμακός. This interpretation, however, has not been
unanimous. In their 1988 article, “Dido’s Burning Effigy,” T. E. Goud and J.C. Yardley
argued that“surely the exuviae,ensis,effigies, and torusare all part of this symbolic funeral
and have nothing to do with ‘sympathetic magic.’” Theymaintained that the ‘sympathetic
magic’ interpretation could not account for the description of Dido placing an effigies
on a torus,atorus being placed on a pyre, and a courtyard being wreathed with fronde…
funerea (4.506-7), all of which are features of a traditional Roman funeral for individuals
whose bodies are not present. It was difficult for Goud and Yardley to see
what implication these three activities had for a magical ceremony, especially given that
they could point to numerous references in Roman historians of effigy-burning funeral
rites being performed for noblesin absentia (i.e. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Pertinax) which
happened to share many characteristics with Dido’s pyre ritual. “Virgil’s audience”
they wrote“would certainly have known that an effigies on a torus, placed on a pyre garlanded
fronde… funerea was a common feature of the cremation of a Roman noble. They would have realized that Virgil had effected
a subtle transition from considerations of magic to a very Roman funeral rite, with the
effigies being pivotal in this transition.” Such an interpretation could indeed have served
to dignify and redeem Dido, ennobling her from a type of Medean madness by envisioning
her performing some noble Roman funerary rite. This interpretation, however, does violence
to the tragic/erotic motifs which DeWitt has highlighted for us, and which Virgil was surely
trying to evoke. Goud and Yardley’s position assumes that
Dido’s unwillingness to be involved with the magical arts (as seen at 4.492-3) is an
outright denunciation of the use of magic, rather than a mere show of hesitation or fear
in the face of the priestess’ terrible powers. If Dido was ultimately unwilling to perform
magic, what then are we to do with this Massilian priestess? Why does she continue to play a central role
in Dido’s ritual less than 15 lines later? Dido says it would please her “to destroy
every memorial of the accursed man and [do whatever] the priestess commands.” This plainlysuggeststhat the priestess had
enumerated a list of things to Dido which needed to be acquired for the production of
an effective curse image: the armaviri, which Aeneas had left hanging in the bridal chamber,
and his exuviae – a word which could mean his equipment, but could just as likely refer
to some remnant of his body (hair, skin, fingernails, etc.) which might be used as a means to exact Dido’s curse. It was common practice
in Greco-Roman magic to acquire some possession or piece of one’s intended target before
attempting to curse them. These exuviae, if indeed they do imply physical
remains from Aeneas’ body, certainly imply a spell component to the fashioning of a curse
image. Regardless of whether or not Aeneas’ exuviae
imply ‘sympathetic magic,’ why would Virgil have devoted so much attention to a character
who physically embodies witchcraft unless he were explicitly preparing his readers for
Dido’s ensuing curse against the Trojan race? Goud and Yardley make no mention of
lines 4.412-416 quoted above in their argument, lines which are unambiguously ritualistic
and magical in character. Furthermore, their argument hinges on the
interpretation that the torus on which the effigy is placed is the royal couch rather
than the bed on which Dido was ‘undone’ (perii, 4.497). Though without a doubt Goud
and Yardley’s arguments can provide readers of Dido’s death scene with an added ‘noble’
dimension, this view should be taken ‘in addition to’ rather than ‘against’ the
traditional interpretation which sees Dido engaged in some form of curse-oriented witchcraft. Besides, to say the exuviae, ensis, effigies,
and torus “have nothing to do with sympathetic magic” is essentially to deny the reality
that sympathetic magic is itself inherent to funeral rites, especially in those funerals
which make use of an effigy instead of a body. We might better yet synthesize the two competing
views and say there is a sort of semioticpun or intentional ambiguity operating on two
levels: on one hand, Dido is building up a pyre in the noble Roman style to prepare for
a royal funeral using the effigy of Aeneas in place of the absentee king, while, on the
other hand,Dido is gathering the material components she was instructed to collect by
the Massilian priestess for a curses he had hoped ratify by a libation of her own blood. ‘Sympathetic magic’ need not always be
ignoble, and these two perspectives need not contradict each other. Furthermore, Goud and
Yardley’s arguments do not take into account how all the ritual preparations at the end
of Book IV ultimately lead up to the curse Dido utters against Aeneas and all his descendantsat
lines 4.621-9: Haec precor, hanc vocem extremam cum sanguine
fundo. Tum vos, O Tyrii, stirpem et genus omne futurum
exercete odiis, cinerique haec mitti tenosto munera. Nullus amor populis nec foedera sunto.
Exoria realiquis nostris ex ossibus ultor qui face Dardanios ferroque sequare colonos,
nunc, olim, quocumquedabunt se tempore vires. Litora litoribus contraria, fluctibus undas
imprecor, arma armis : pugnent ipsisque nepotesque. It is customary in magical texts – especially
those concerned with magical images (effigies) – to perform elaborate image-centered rituals,
sacrifices, and prayers in order to ensure one’s requests be well received by the gods.
In this case, the priestess’ hundred gods are thrice invoked, the spell components are
gathered, a sacrifice is made to Stygian Jupiter (4.638), and Dido’s request is placed just
before committing her fatal act. ‘Sympathetic magic,’ despite Goud and
Yardley’s interpretation, is undoubtedly afoot throughout the entirety of this episode. There is, however, another dimension to this
ritual. In discussing his own interpretation of the Dido tragedy, William Francis Jackson
Knight offered this rather enlightening note: “Servius says that [Dido’s] name meant
“brave maiden” in Phoenician, and [it] was given to her after her death. Her other
name, Elissa, is Elath, the feminine of the Semitic El, which means lord or God [cf. Adonai/Adonis]…
Partly she was a Phoenician fertility goddess…” Dido’s intoxication at the hands of the
priestess, her elevation on the imagined stage, and her death atop the pyre are most appropriate
precursors to the tragic queen’s death since each of these elements reflect the traditional
practices whereby Near Eastern fertility god-kings were sacrificed (a motif preserved in many
tragedies of Euripides, most notably in the Bacchae which is explicitly referenced by
Vergil at lines 4.479). Dido (the φαρμακός)is the sacrificial victim prepared by the Massilian
priestess (the φαρμακεύς/φαρμακίς), thus fulfilling an archetypal motif so widely
discussed by the Cambridge Ritualists in the first half of the 20th century. Though she began as the queen of great Carthage,
Dido dies in an operatic and magically-charged act of suicide: elevated, impaled, and burned
on a pyre for the catharsis of our hero Aeneas. Where she had first been alluded to as Diana,
a goddess of the hunt, the tragic queen’scharacter is slowly altered over the course of Books
I through IV. We see her transform fromhuntress to hunted, and from queen to sacrificed animal.
Like all tragic figures, she falls; and as φαρμακός, her expulsion from the city
ends the ‘love-plague’ which had paralyzed Aeneas from his god-given duty. Dido’s death acts as expiation for Aeneas
and the city which he will ultimately found.The poet does not suffer the Roman hero to be
tormented by rashnessor immoderate love, the type of love which Dido embodies unto death.
Rather, she bears the prospect of any such emotions down with herself to the underworld. From this, it is clear that the primitive
religious institutions so central to Greek tragedy was here as central to Virgil’s
subtext,as were the literary conventions of erotic poetry discussed by DeWitt, and possibly
even the political undertones argued by Goud and Yardley. In conclusion, we have seen anumber of interpretations
concerning the conclusion of the Dido episode in the Aeneid – none of which need be entirely
contradictory with one another. Where some scholars such as Norman DeWitt
have seen predominantly the conventions of erotic poetry at work (the scorned woman taking
recourse to magic), and others such as W. F. J. Knight and Page DuBois have tended to
place emphasis onthe ritual conventions of Greek drama (the φαρμακός motif),
Goud and Yardley have argued (somewhat, though not entirely unconvincingly) that the episode
is an explicit allusion to traditional Roman funerary practices. In any case, it is this
author’s belief that all of these views may be safely reconciled with one another
without doing violence to any one particular interpretation. If anything, this threefold interpretation
attests to the wit and skill of our poet Virgil in synthesizing so many disparate strains
of thought into one coherent and multi-faceted narrative.

Dereck Turner

3 thoughts on “Sympathetic Magic and Sacrifice in Virgil’s Aeneid [Lecture]

  1. The Modern Hermeticist says:

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  2. ᑎIᑎE Oᖴ Oᗯᒪᔕ says:

    DIVINE

  3. Val Cronin says:

    How do you spell the word listed along with 'exuvias' at 5:00. The closed-caption says 'arma'.

    Exuvias apparently means armor, clothing, or skin.

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