Printer Friendly

Lucretius' Erotic Mother: Maternity as a Poetic Construct in De Rerum Natura.

There can be no doubt that maternity plays a key role for Lucretius in the composition of De rerum natura, as the very first words of the poem evoke a mother, Aeneadum genetrix, thereby placing it under the sign of maternity. Indeed, looking beyond the proem to the beginning of what we might call the "technical" part of the poem, we find Lucretius' philosophical argument again placed at the outset under the sign of maternity. In the first of six arguments in which he sets out the basic philosophical foundation of his materialism, that is, the nature of matter, Lucretius asks: quippe ubi non essent genitalia corpora cuique / qui possit mater rebus consistere certa? ("For if there were no factors governing birth, / how could we tell who anyone's mother was?" 1.167-68). (1) A long philosophical discourse follows, in which the poet puts into play the first of numerous encounters between philosophy and poetry, operative here in the phrase mater rebus. Lucretius' reply posits fixed "seeds," responsible for creatio n and located in the place of each thing's "matter" and "first bodies":

at nunc seminibus quia certis quaeque creantur,

inde enascitur atque oras in luminas exit.

materies ubi inest cuiusque et corpora prima.

But things are formed, now, from specific seeds,

hence each at birth comes to die coasts of light

from a thing possessed of its essential atoms. (1.169-71)

Here, where we should expect purely analytical language, we find the philosopher-poet in a mixture of science, word-play, and metaphor establishing an important etymological connection between mater and materies. (2) Moreover, with the Ennian phrase in luminas oras, Lucretius signals a concrete link to the world of poetry. (3) With these poetic underpinnings--mater as metaphor, the allusion to the poet Ennius with a phrase signifying birth, and the mater/materies pun--we find maternity in Lucretius' first scientific proof mediating between poetry and philosophy.

These two points of departure, Aeneadum genetrix and mater rebus, suggest the importance of maternity in this text. The question then arises, What is maternity for Lucretius? I propose to approach this question by looking at three mothers in De rerum natura: Venus, as she appears in the proem of Book 1; Cybele, or the Magna Mater whose procession is described in Book 2; and Terra Mater herself, particularly in the depiction of the origin of living things at 5.783ff. I shall consider all three maternal figures from a double perspective: first, as different representations of the principle of creation (symbolic genetrices) or, in a larger sense, the process of desire, procreation, and birth; and second, in terms of the alma mater, or nourishing mother, of the second line of the poem. I argue that the relationship between these two aspects of maternity can be linked directly to Lucretius' authorial stance, that is, to his project as an Epicurean poet. Lucretius' key mother figures are ambiguously erotic, both s exual and maternal; but this ambiguity is part and parcel of Lucretius' double poetic goal to seduce his readers and to comfort them.

The maternal Muse of the poem, Venus as Aeneadum genetrix, at first seems to be mother in name only, the simple signifier of the historical origins of the Roman people. (4) But Venus is, above all, voluptas (the Epicurean [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]and as the following vibrant picture of the natural world reveals, she is the seductive power of the desire to procreate: efficis at cupide generatim saecla propagent (1.20). Creation in nature spills over into the notion of poetic creation with the repetition of rerum naturam at 21 (what Venus guides: quae quoniam rerum naturam sola gubernas) and at 25 (the verses that Lucretius writes: quos ego de rerum natura pangere conor). A second repetition reiterates this process when the lepore (14) of Venus, which overcomes the wild beasts, reappears as the leporem (28) of Lucretius' verses (Kenney 14). Having asked the goddess for leporem, the poet then introduces the first dark note of the poem: effice ut intereafera moenera militiai Iper maria ac terras omnis sopita quiescant ("Cause meanwhile that all savage works of war / by land and sea drop off to sleep and rest," 29-30). These "savage military works" prefigure the appearance of Mars two lines later, quoniam belli fera moenera Mayors / arm ipotens regit ("though Mars the War Lord rules I war's savage works," 32-33), and also recall line 21 (quoniam ... gubernans). A striking description of Mars lying in the lap of Venus follows. Many readers have had difficulty reconciling this picture of Venus with the earlier portrait of her as Muse and creative principle. Cyril Bailey writes: "The purely allegorical interpretation becomes still more impossible when the second part of the invocation (29-43) is considered. The picture of Venus reclining in the arms of Mars and her appeal to him to grant a cessation of war cannot be applied satisfactorily to the 'creative power of nature." (5) But Bailey is mistaken in asserting that Venus reclines in the arms of Mars. It is the other way around--Mars is lying in the lap of V enus. Bailey's slip comes, I believe, from the assumption that Mars and Venus are the adult lovers we find in mythology. Virgil's imitation of the line (turn pater aeterno fatur devinctus amore, Aen. 8.394) is consistent with this view, although he pairs Venus with her husband Vulcan. Robert Brown, reading this scene with an eye to Lucretius' presentation of sex at the end of Book 4, says of Venus that she is encouraged to take advantage of the weakness of Mars "like an artful courtesan" (97).

Several details in Lucretius' portrait, however, offer an alternative interpretation, namely, that Mars and Venus are not both adults. I propose that Mars has become a symbolic infant, nursed not by milk from Venus' breast, but by sweet words from her mouth. (6) We find him in her lap, his smooth neck bent back (tereti cervice reposta) feeding his eyes (pascit). Commentators like Ernout and Bailey point to a similar passage in Book 8 of Virgil's Aeneid, where the poet describes the shield of Aeneas:

fecerat et viridi fetam Mavortis in antro

procubuissc lupam, geminos huic ubera circum

ludere pendentis pueros et lambere matrem

impavidos, illam tercti cercice reflexa

mulcere alternos et corpora fingere lingua.

And he had made the nursing she-wolf stretched out in the green cave of Mars, and twin boys around her breasts, hanging, were playing and licking their mother without fear. while she, her smooth neck bent back, caressed them in turn and shaped their bodies with her tongue. (630-34)

Venus is absent here, as is Mars (although his name appears in connection with the setting, and in the same archaic form as in Lucretius). What we have instead is a nursing she-wolf, another mythological mother of Rome, and the twins Romulus and Remus who hang (pendentis) from the wolf, just as Mars hangs (pendet) from the mouth of Venus. But Virgil apparently is borrowing here from Ennius, not from Lucretius; indeed, of this passage Servius writes, sane totus hic locus Ennianus est. (7) If so, Lucretius is responsible for the changes in the intertext: he has taken the she-wolf, a literal alma mater with important connections to the beginnings of Rome, and rewritten her as Venus, Rome's figurative alma mater and Lucretius' maternal Muse, from whose body pours that which will quiet the savageries of war (the cries of Mars) and bring peace to all.

And what precisely pours from the mouth of Venus? Sweet loquellas, a diminutive term and thus language appropriate for children and for lovers when they indulge in "baby talk." Loquella is used twice more in De rerum natura, each time in the context of infancy. It appears in Book 5 when Lucretius, having briefly summed up what has proceeded, announces his plan for the remainder of the book: it will be a book of origins, he says, which explains the beginning of the world and its living creatures. The loquella forms part of the brief sketch of the infancy of the human race as bonds began to form through language: quove modo genus humanum variante loquella/coeperit inter se vesci per nomina rerum ("And how the human race, with varied speech, /began to treat together by naming things," 5.71-72). (8) Loquella also occurs later in the book when Lucretius asserts that our world is much too flawed to have been made for us by the gods. Here nature is seen in opposition to man, who is pictured as a helpless newborn. The passage is long, but worth quoting in full:

turn porro puer, Ut saevis proiectus ab undis

navita, nudus humi iaect infans indigus omni

vitali auxilio. cum primum in luminas oras

nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit, 225

vagituque locum lugubri complet. ut aequumst

cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.

at variae crescunt pecudes armenta feraeque

nec crepitacillis opus est nec cuiquam adhibendast

almae nutricis blanda atque infracta loquella 230

nec varias quaerunt vestes pro tempore caeli,

denique non armis opus eat, non moenibus altis

qui sua tutentur, quando omnibus omnia large

tellus ipsa parit naturaque daedala rerum.

And then the infant, like some sailor tossed

from savage seas, lies naked, speechless, helpless

to keep alive, when nature first has heaved

and spilled him into the light from mother's womb;

he fills the world with wails-and well he might,

such pain awaits his passage through this life!

But all the animals grow-sheep, cattle, wild;

they need no rattles, either, nor need hear

the lisping, lallying sweet-talk of the wet-nurse;

they don't need different clothing for each season.

Lastly, they need no weapons nor high walls

to guard their goods: for all, their every need

pours from the lap of earth and magic nature.

As in the proem, the loquella of the nurse brings comfort and quiet; it is also blanda, a term associated with Venus in the opening hymn (1.19). (9) The phrase daedala tellus also recalls Venus as does, of course, the word almae. Mars is present in these lines too, because humans, unlike animals, have need of arms and high defensive walls (232). Yet, even though soothing words and arms are both things humans must supply for themselves, they are not at all synonymous. Martha Nussbaum sees the nurse as representing an alternative to arming, that is, a second response to the dangers in which humans find themselves. Nussbaum labels these responses society and counter-aggression (61). In this passage, then, society is represented by the image of an infant being consoled. Earlier in Book 5, loquella signalled society in an abstract infancy, while in the proem to Book 1 loquella was positioned in opposition to Mars, who is himself turned into an infant literally in front of our eyes. Here, however, in the place of a nursemaid or another representative of human interaction, we have Venus. She, like Mars, has also undergone a transformation: presented at the outset as a creative principle in nature, she has come to symbolize the creation of a poem whose mission is to bring solace and peace of mind. (10)

As we have seen, Venus' transformation pivots upon the transformation of an Ennian passage. Ennius' suggested presence in the proem becomes a literal presence in 1.102-48, when he is evoked as a poetic forefather, one who has already visited the Muses on Helicon. Furthermore, the vision of Ennius includes his poetic forefather, Homer. Certain verbal echoes place Homer in the

same relation to Ennius as Venus is to the poet of De rerum natura. Homer's vision (species) is exortam semper florentis (1.124). recalling the species of nature in the proem: nam simul ac species patefactast verna diei (1.10). Homer, like Venus, is connected to the nature of things: rerum naturam expandere dictis (1.126). The paternal model, however, is in some respects a negative version of the poet's maternal Muse. Homer appears in the darkness of Hades, which, in the larger context, is clearly the darkness of ignorance and fear produced by dreams and illusions. Salty tears, not sweet words, pour from him. (11) The lepor of Venus and the poetry inspired by her are absent. Instead of lepor--a term that appears many times in the poem and seems to have a powerful resonance for Lucretius--we find amoeno, an adjective that the poet uses elsewhere only once.

It is probably no coincidence that Ennius has his vision while sleeping, whereas Lucretius' vision comes to him during sleepless nights (inducit noctes vigilare serenas, 1.142). (12) Lucretius has thus effectively subordinated poetic vision (as opposed to his own vision, which, as we shall see, is something more than poetry) to the dream world and its visions of monsters and the dead, prefiguring his dream theory in Book 4. (13) The darkness of this nightmare world will not be dispelled by the light of day, but by the "face" of nature:

hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest

non radii solis ncque lucida tela diei

discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

This fright, this night of the mind, must be dispelled

not by the rays of the sun, nor day's bright spears,

but by the face of nature and her laws. (1.146-48)

These lines appear three more times, each time following a simile that uses an image of nighttime terrors (2.55-61, 3.87-93, 6.35-41):

nam vel uti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis

in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus

inter dum, nihilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam

quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.

hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest

non radii solis neque lucida tela diei

discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

For as in the dead of night children are prey

to hosts of terrors, so we sometimes by day

are fearful of things that should no more concern us

than bogeys that frighten children in the dark.

This fright, this night of the mind, must be dispelled

not by the rays of the sun, nor day's bright spears,

nec me animi fallit quam sint obscura; sed acri

but by the face of nature and her laws.

If we, with our groundless fears, resemble children troubled by bad dreams, it is not hard to imagine Lucretius' poem fulfilling the function of the soothing maternal words that reassure those troubled children in the night.

Lucretius presents his project as enlightenment pitted against the dark terrors of the soul; however, he has another kind of darkness to contend with, namely, the obscurity of his subject matter: nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscure reperta / difficile inlustrare Latinis versibus esse ("And well do I know Greek science is obscure / and difficult to explain in Latin verse," 1.136-37). The first of these lines is virtually repeated later in Book 1, where Lucretius returns to the Muses in a scene recalling Ennius on Helicon:

nec me animi fallit quam sint obscura; sed acri

percusit thyrso laudis specs magna meum cor

et simul incusit suavem mi in pectus amorem

Musarum, quo munc instinctus mente vigneti

avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante

trita solo

Nor am I deceived how dark my subject: still

high hope of priase strikes hard upon my soul

and also drives into my heart sweet love

of the Muses; steeped in this, with ind alert,

I travel the Muses' pathless places; none

before has walked where I walk. (1.922-97)

Venus is not named, but she is represented here by the desire to create poetry. The verbs Lucretius uses to describe this desire (percussit, incussit, instinctus) are remarkably similar to those that animated the description of nature under the sway of Venus in the proem (birds are perculsae at 1.13, while Venus is described as incutiens her love into the breast of every creature, 1.19). Despite the obvious similarities to the lines about Ennius at 1.117-18, there is a strong emphasis on Lucretius' uniqueness (a note sounded in the earlier passage at 1.136-39 as well), which may account for the fact that Lucretius finds his Muses in Pieria, not, like Ennius, on Mount Helicon. (14) As Lucretius has explained already, his originality is dependent upon the obscurity of the material, and the form in which he chooses to present it. Here he reiterates 1.136-39: deinde quod obscura de re tam lucida pango / carmina musaeo contingens cuncta lepore ("And, next, I turn the bright light of my verse/on darkness, painting it all with poetry's charm," 1.933-94). (15) The phrase musaeo lepore reminds us of the direct appeal to Venus as Muse at

1.28. At the same time, the governing verb contingens suggests a simile to the poet: he will disguise his material, just as a doctor might trick a child into taking his medicine by putting honey on the edge of the cup:

sed vet uti pueris absinthia taetra medentes

contingunt mellis dulci flavoque liquore ...

For just as doctors, who must give vile wormwood

to children, begin by painting the cup-lip round

with sweet and golden honey . . . (1.936-38)

As in the nightmare simile, the reader is again put in the position of a child, albeit a sick one rather than one frightened in the night. However, the situatton is virtually identical since the poet has previously established, at the end of the Ennian scene, a close association between disease, sleep, and the unnatural, terrifying visions they both produce:

unde anima atque animi constet natura videndum,

et quae res nobis vigilantibus obvia mentes

terrificet morbo adfectis somnoque sepultis.

We must inspect the nature of soul and mind,

and things that come to fill our hearts with fear

when we lie ill and awake, or tombed in sleep. (1.131-33)

The image of the honey on the cup is not, however, without a certain ambivalence. Poetry's appeal involves deliberate deception, but the seductiveness of Lucretius' poetry must be read from a maternal perspective, as we read the seductiveness of Venus at the end of the proem. This is the seductiveness of gentle persuasion, directed towards the well being of another; in other words, poetry is not merely an appealing surface whose intent is to deceive, (16) as Venus does at the end of Book 4, when she deceives the lover with false visions (sic in amore Venus simulacris ludit amantis, 4.1101). Lucretius' poetry captures the dual aspect of Venus, maternal and seductive, harnessing the power of beauty and beguilement to administer a healing wisdom.

The poet equates the desired state of well being (tranquilla pace, 1.31) with peaceful rest and sleep (cf. omnis sopita quiescant, 1.30). As an Epicurean ideal, the same notion appears in yet another invocation to a Muse (in this case, Calliope) with a different term for rest and repose, requies:

tu inihi supremae praescripta ad candida callis

currenti spatiuin praemonstra, callida muss

Calliope, requies hominum divomque voluptas,

te duce ut insigni capiam cum laude coronam.

The mark of my final goal (17) shines white before me

as I run on: show me the course, bright Muse,

Calliope, peace of man and joy of gods!

Lead me to win my crown, my sign of glory! (6.92-95)

Here the te duce recalls the proem's Venus, as does requies hominum divomque voluptas. Note too that in this passage, the Muse is requies for men, but voluptas for the gods, whereas in the proem she was voluptas for both men and gods (Clay 256). In other words, the suggestion of two Venuses in the proem--one to be read as desire leading to both procreation and poetic creation, the other representing that poetic creation as inspired by and fulfilling a maternal impulse--has been made concrete in the subdivision of [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] into requies and voluptas, a transformation reflected in the choice of Calliope rather than Venus as the Muse's representative. (18)

At the beginning of Book 2, the poet gives an exemplum of Epicurean requies, which he contrasts with opulence and luxury:

cum tamen inter Se prostrati in gramine molli

propter aquae rivum sub ramis arboris altae

non magnis opibus iucunde corpora curant

praesertim cum tempestas adridet et anni

tempora conspergunt viridantis floribus herbas.

Why! Men can lie on soft turf side by side

under a tall tree's branches near a stream,

and easily pleasantly, care for creature needs

especially when the sun shines, and the year

in season sprinkles the fresh green grass with flowers. (2.29-33)

These lines are repeated in a completely different context at 5.1392-96, where Lucretius presents the discovery of music. This is the time in man's early history (the genus terrigenarum, 5.1411) when the rustic Muse (agrestis musa) flourishes. Men crown themselves, just as the poets will later be crowned (turn caput atque urnerosplexis redimir coron is, 1399). Everything is filled with life and joy, and this race still calls earth mater (1402). Finally, the music offers solace to those who cannot sleep (et vigilantibus hinc aderant solacia somno, 1405), reminding us of the poet, awake, composing his verses during the calm nights. Solace, in fact, is exactly how Lucretius describes his project at 5.113: multa tibi expediam doctis solacia dictis. Solacia is a privileged term in De rerum natura: it appears only twice other than at 5.113 and 5.1405. Earlier in Book 5, it referred to the words of Epicurus: dulcia permulcent animos solacia vitae (5.21), while in Book 6 it occurs again in reference to Epicurus: et p rimae dederunt solacia dulcia vitae / cum genuere virum tali cum corde repertum ("She [Athens] too first brought sweet comfort to mankind / when she begot that man, revealed so great," 6.4-5). Solace then, is virtually synonymous with the Epicurean mission. That it should be a property of music is highly significant, especially in this idyllic setting that is itself emblematically Epicurean. Although in introducing this scene Lucretius specifies that creating music came long before the creation of poetry, we may read it as a mirror image of the poem De rerum natura and its readers. In other words, this passage looks back to an idealized moment in history before men had need of the comforting words of Epicurus, even as it implicitly looks forward to a vision of what Lucretius hopes his poem will accomplish. The music of the "rustic Muse" is the precursor of Lucretius' Muse, alma Venus.

To sum up thus far: as a Muse, Venus represents for Lucretius the creation of poetry as well as the power of its beauty and charm; this power is explicitly linked to a maternal impulse to calm, to reassure, to heal what has been made sick through ignorance and fear. Many readers have not seen the alma Venus as maternal at all. Elder, in his analysis of the proem, writes that Lucretius wants his poem to be "productive," suggesting that the poet "wishes his readers to 'mate' with it and through this communion to produce the right way to live life" (112). As my examination of other passages in which Muses are present has shown, Lucretius' model must be seen as part of a poetic stance that is nurturing and solicitous. If there is resistance to this model, it is undoubtedly because in the De rerum natura the maternal finds itself uncomfortably close to the seductive; (19) however, as famously demonstrated by Freud, the maternal and the seductive are far from being mutually exclusive. Yet we should note that the F reudian concept of symbiosis may be more relevant to Lucretius' maternal Muse than that of an Oedipal mother. Symbiosis refers to the time when the infant is unaware of itself as a separate being. (20) This state is lost when the infant becomes aware of Self and Other as different entities. There is a powerful desire to return to the pre-loss state of symbiosis, which Caldwell describes as "the paradoxical desire not to desire" (25). With this paradox CaIdwell summarizes the Epicurean program, for [alpha][tau][alpha][rho][alpha][xi][iota][alpha] (or the solacium of Lucretius which will bring one to this state) represents a peace of mind akin to the absence of desire. For Lucretius, the poetics of maternity thus combines the principle of creation with the promise of a symbiotic-like tranquility, presented to us as a maternal Venus with Mars on her lap, nourishing him with what we have seen is none other than the music of poetry itself.

The episode of the Magna Mater (2.600-43) affords an opportunity to consider what amounts to a perversion of the maternal. In this case we find the mother metaphor manifested in actual ritual, that is, in the practice of religion. At first the poet does not appear to be describing Cybele's procession at all: he begins with an explanation of her iconography, moves on to an explanation of her entourage, and not until tympana tenta tonant palmis at 618 are readers abruptly aware that we are in the presence of the sights and sounds of the procession itself. Having begun in the realm of allegory and interpretation, the poet shifts to dramatic description and then returns to interpretation by referring to the Greeks again at line 629. At the end of the passage, Lucretius once more pointedly steps back to let others speak with significant (641). Thus it is the Greeks (veteres Graium docti poetae, 600) who have provided the allegorizing framework. Although "old, learned poets" seems respectable enough, the reader mi ght be somewhat wary, remembering the vates and their terriloqui words at 1.102-03. By insisting on the Greeks as the creators of this allegory (note the third-person plural verbs adiunxere and cinxere in 604 and 606), Lucretius puts the act of interpretation itself on parade, indirectly preparing us to understand the power of this religious ritual at a distance and thus to recognize its ultimate falsity.

Some readers such as Bailey have focussed-naively, I think-on the historical and informative content of the Magna Mater passage. Others have concentrated on Lucretius' skillful manipulation of the allegorizing process. David West finds that Lucretius imitates this technique in the many puns and etymological figures in the passage (e.g., feras/effera, 604 and Phrygias/fruges, 611). West asserts: "He has not soiled his own mind with these superstitions. But it is wholly in accordance with the empathetic genius of this poet, with the virulence of his polemic and with his own penchant for word play to mimic the ingenuity of this allegorizing technique" (104-09). Douglas Stewart reads the passage as a meta-allegory in which the silent Magna Mater serves as a mythic representation of nature at the atomic level: "The essence of Epicurean materialism, strictly considered, is noncommunication" (78). For Stewart, if the silence of Cybele is the equivalent of the truth, then the procession, with its loud accompaniment, is logically its opposite: "The noisy chaos of the procession represents, first, man's interpretation of reality, a false one; and second, man's ritualistic enactment of his neuroses in attempting to invest his life with meaning it does not have ... " (82).

Yet, in spite of the complex verbal strategies used by Lucretius here and the possibility that the silent Magna Mater and her following may be viewed as an allegory within an allegory, we must not overlook the fact that this procession is a "real" historical event. The poet has mapped exegesis onto ritual, so that he models here not simply an illustration of allegory (or perhaps its deconstruction, for this is the direction in which West and Stewart are headed), but a powerful and rather frightening aspect of numen. It is through the process of allegory and the attribution of meaning to symbol that we see how this meaning becomes religion. (21)

Given the inherent positive value of maternity in De rerum natura, why would Lucretius focus his attention on religion through the maternal figure of the Magna Mater? One effect of juxtaposing the maternal and the religious is to allow the poet to exploit what is unnatural and perverse in the religious experience. From the beginning lines of the episode, maternity is undermined by an opposing militarism and violence. The Magna Mater appears in a chariot, not simply wearing but "fortified" (munita) with a turreted (muralis) crown. (22) This crown presents a striking contrast to the poets' crowns we have seen in Book 1. Chariot, crown, and lion escort are received, understandably, with horror and awe (horrifice). Harnessed lions will appear in a similar role with disastrous results in Book 5, where Lucretius recounts the development of weaponry and claims that an attempt was made to use animals as implements of war. Although he names bulls first, lions are the animals actually described in this scenario. Drive n wild by the slaughter around them, they are uncontrollable:

ne quiquam, quoniam permixta caede calentes

turbabant saevi nullo discrimine turmas

terrificas capitum quatientis undique cristas.

A mistake, for the blood-drenched melee drove them mad;

gone wild, they tore at the troops, both sides alike,

everywhere shaking their terrible heads and manes. (13313-15)

Although the Magna Mater's lions are fairly unremarkable by comparison, Lucretius certainly had in mind their savage potential (realized in Book 5), since 5.1315 is almost identical to 2.632 where he describes the Phrygian dancers (terrificas capiturn quatientes numine cristas). (23)

The military emphasis continues with repeated references to weapons, first those of the castrated priests (2.621), then those of the Curetes (629) and their mythic precursors (637). In fact, Lucretius ends the Magna Mater episode by stressing the significance of the armed band that accompanies her:

propterea magnam armati matrem comitantur,

aut quia significant divam praedicere Ut armis

ac virtute velint patriam defendere terram

terra tenet merito, quaniam genus ipsa creavit

praesidioque parent decorique parentibus esse.

Hence men-at-arms accompany the 'Great Mother"-

or else they symbolize her holy law

that men must bravely fight for fatherland

and be to their kind a bulwark and an honor. (640-43)

These lines represent an amplification of the military theme, for instead of deriving their symbolic value from a specific act, like the castration of the Galli, or from a specific mythical moment, like the Curetes beating on their shields, they refer to a timeless state of military preparedness, as well as a military state of mind (praesidioque ... parentibus).

In keeping with the militaristic introduction of the Magna Mater is the notion of dominance and submission: adiunxere feras, quia quamvis effera proles / officiis debet molliri victa parentum ("They added the lions since, however savage, / the child must bow [be softened] before the parent's love," 2.604-05). Reading line 605 one inevitably thinks of Iphigenia in 1.84-101 and the terrible perversion of familial love and duty in the cause of religion she represents. Furthermore, the picture of wild children tamed by their parents' duties is completely inconsistent with the other images of parents and children in the poem. In Book 5, we see an inverted mirror image of 2.604-05, where it is the children who "soften" the human race: prolemque ex se videre creatam / tum genus humanum primum mollescere coepit ("and saw their own begotten children, / then first the human race began to soften," 5.1013-14). (24)

Just as the lions of the Magna Mater represent the submissive child, her priests (the Galli) represent the punished child. They have outraged the divinity and shown themselves unworthy of their parents:

Gallos attribuunt, quia, numen qui violarint

Matris et ingrati genitoribus inventi sint,

significare volunt indignos esse putandos,

vivam progeniem qui in oras luminis edant.

Her eunuch priests are sign that those who break

"Our Mother's law," and prove themselves "ungrateful

ut pluma atque pili primum saetaeque creantur

to father and mother," must be declared unfit

to bring live offspring to the coasts of light. (2.614-17)

The Galli's horrible punishment is symbolically visible to the crowd in the form of their "weapons," or knives. The poet suggests that this display threatens or is meant to threaten, as well as frighten, the crowd, for he describes the crowd in terms that recall the "sins" of the Galli: ingratos animos atque impia pectora volgi / conterrere metu quae possint numine divae ("To drive the 'hard of heart' and 'rude of mind' / to panic in terror of the goddess' power," 2.622-23). That the mutilation of the Galli is self-inflicted is consistent with Lucretius' message that religion, with its threats and terrors, is a self-imposed burden. Moreover, it is an unnatural burden, as unnatural as the castrated Galli themselves, as unnatural as the need to specify that the offspring denied to them is (or would be) alive (vivam progeniam, 617).

The dancing Phrygians also represent a kind of unnatural perversion. We have already noted that their shaking crests will reappear as lions' manes in the horrific animal slaughter scene of Book 5. Indeed, there is something bloodthirsty about these dancers who exultant sanguine laeti (2.631). Furthermore, the verb used to describe their dancing, ludo, has been used twice before and will not reappear again with this meaning. In both instances lambs are the subject of the verb: in Book 1 where they play, tipsy from their mother's milk (1.260), and at 2.320: et satiati agni ludunt blandeque coruscant. (25) Given this pastoral association, the description of the Phrygians musically "at play" is highly ironic.

I cannot agree with Stewart's contention that the Magna Mater is a doublet of Venus, (26) for her representation here is completely eclipsed by the violence and emblems of Mars which surround her. If she herself is silent, it is because there is no possibility of comforting loquellae in the Magna Mater scene. The poet is silent as well, having temporarily yielded to the Greek poets. In fact we have an explicit subversion of the solace offered by Venus and Lucretius' poetry. The Magna Mater is threatening and, far from providing comfort, she must be placated with gifts. The poet's irony is unmistakable when he closes this episode on Cybele as mother earth incarnate with a reference to the fatherland (velint patriam defendere terram, 2.642).

The terra genetrix of 5.783-836 stands as a counterpoint to the Magna Mater of Book 2. Cybele, as we have seen, is an allegory with a literalness that comes from her historical context, that is, her worship in religious ritual. Furthermore, Lucretius has presented her in such a way as to virtually leach away her maternity, leaving Cybele as a symbol, not of motherhood, which is procreative and nourishing, but of divinity misused and misrepresented. Terra genetrix is also a symbol, or at least a poetic vision of the earth, which has been invested here with a historicity and given a literalness (albeit one far different than that of the Magna Mater) which reaffirms the positive nature of maternity. The historical truth of Mother Earth is important in the context of Book 5, which, as evidenced by its beginning and endpoints, is concerned with the mortality of the world. Lucretius must insist upon the literal historical reality of the end of the earth, and thus of its beginning as well.

According to Censorinus, the idea that primitive earth developed wombs out of which emerged the first humans belongs to Epicurus (Bailey 1453). Bailey notes that the image of the earth suckling these creatures may have come from Archelaus (as quoted in Diogenes Laertius, 2.17). Thus Lucretius is following a precedent, not poetic fancy, when he locates a literal terra genetrix in historical time.

Lucretius' account of the beginnings of living beings is not straightforwardly diachronic, however. A series of verbal echoes creates a doubling effect. The earth is rightly called Mother first at 5.795, after the poet has narrated in some detail the creation of grasses and trees but left the rest (mortalia saecla) rather vague: ut merito maternum nomen adepta / terra sit, e terra quoniam sunt cuncta creata ("Rightly the earth is left then with the name / of mother, since of the earth all things are born," 5.795-96). There follows a lengthier description of the beginning of birds and humans, and then again:

Quare etiam atque etiam maternum nomen adepta

terra tenet merito, quoniam genus ipsa creavit

humanum atque animal prope certo tempore fudit ...

Meet and properly then, earth won and keeps

the name of mother, since she herself created

mankind, and at its proper season birthed . . .(5.821-23)

We have, then, two narratives of beginning, one that begins with the grasses (principio genus herbarum viridemque nitorem, 5.783), and a second, longer one that begins with the birds (principic genus alituum variaque volucres, 5.801). This is our first indication that the poet is allowing a poetic presentation to intrude upon a chronological and "historical" version of the world's beginning. Moreover, the first narrative openly embraces poetry with a simile that compares the earth's original foliage to the wings, hairs, or bristles of an animal:

ut pluma atque pili primum saetaeque creantur

quadripedum membris et corpore pennipotentem,

sic nova tum tellus herbas virgultaque primum

sustulit, inde loci mortalia saccla creavit.

As feathers and fur first grow, and bristles, too,

on quadruped limbs and bodies of wing-borne birds,

so then young earth first put forth grass and brush,

then second in order created mortal kinds. (5.788-91)

The point or purpose of this simile is not immediately apparent, as it seems to confuse rather than clarify, mixing vegetal and animal categories. Its sole function, apparently, is to create a symmetrical but inverse point of comparison with the next significant creation scene, that is, the birth of humans from the ground, in the manner of plants. The second narrative offers a structural parallel with a second simile, followed as before by the creation of mortalia saecla:

ova relinquebant exclusae tempore verno

folliculos ut nunc terctis aestate cicadae

lincunt sponte sua victum vitamque petentes.

tum tibi terra dedit primum mortalia saecla.

They abandoned their eggs, hatched out in time of spring,

as now cicadas leave the chrysalis

in summer to seek a living on their own.

Then only did earth first bear your mortal creatures. (5.802-05)

Again the simile seems somewhat pointless: birds Continue to leave their eggs, so the contrast between the "then" of the birds and the "now" of the cicadas is not illuminating. Perhaps Lucretius was intrigued by cicadas (he uses them as an example at 4.58 of things that cast off a "likeness"), or he wished to suggest an association of the cicadas with the Muses, such as we find in the Phaedrus of Plato. Most likely Lucretius had actually seen cicadas emerging from the ground (where they spend four years as grubs (27)), and so this simile, like the previous one, looks forward to the image of the earth bearing human creatures.

Having given birth, the earth nurses these first children with a milk-like substance. A third and final simile explains:

et sucum venis cogebat fundere apertis

consimilem lactis, sicut nune femina quaeque

cum peperit, dulci repletur lacte, quod omnis

impletus in mammas convertitur ille alimenti.

And out of her opened veins made flow a liquid

very like milk, as now, when a woman bears

a child, sweet milk fills her, because her powers

of nourishment all converge upon her breasts. (5.812-15)

As the poet goes on to demonstrate, the capacity of the earth to bear life is accompanied by her capacity to nourish and sustain life. The earth provides for all of the first children's needs, in stark contrast with the helpless newborn seen earlier at 5.222-34.

This nourishing aspect of the earth as symbolized by the nursing mother hovers in the background in an earlier version of terra genetrix in Book 1. There, Father Sky falls as rain into the lap of Mother Earth, who produces nourishment for animals and humans. The poet then passes from the general to the specific, ending this description of a thriving world with ewes and their young:

hinc fessae pecudes pinguis per pabula laeta

corpora deponunt et candens lacteus umor

uberibus manat distentis, hinc nova proles

artubus infirmis teneras lasciva per herbas

ludit lacte mero mentes perculsa novellas.

Hence flocks wearied with fat lay themselves down

out in the fertile fields, and bright white liquor

leaks from their swollen teats; hence newborn lambs

gambol on wobbly legs through tender grass,

their baby hearts tipsy with winy milk. (1.257-61)

West, who sees in this passage a similarity to the lactation of terra genetrix in Book 5, notes (6) a hint of sexuality in lasciva, connected with the suggestion of tipsiness in lacte mero. In other words, this earlier representation of Mother Earth manages to convey subtly both sexual desire and maternal nourishing, the two roles delineated by Venus in the proem. This conflation of the two Venuses is, in fact, present in the passage in Book 5 as well, if we accept the proposition that along with copying Epicurus and Archelaus, Lucretius, when he composed this scene, had in mind Euripides and his tragedy The Bacchae. In this play, the Bacchants assemble in the woods, and those women who have left their nursing infants at home suckle gazelles and wolf cubs (699-702). In the same scene women strike the ground and produce water and wine, and the earth gives out milk as well, when they scrape it with their fingers: [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (709-10). In Euripides the tension between the sexual and the maternal is deliberate and on a grand scale. In Lucretius, the sexual is tenuously present in the allusion to Euripides' play. Confirmation comes at the end of the terra genetrix passage: Mother Earth bears the race of humans and animals, omne quod in magnis bacchatur montibus passim (5.824). This is the only occurrence of bacchor in De rerum natura.

The ambivalence surrounding the concept of mother as sexual subject stands at the head of De rerum natura in the phrase alma Venus. Maternity and sexuality are then explicitly and skillfully overlapped at the end of the proem in the Venus-Mars couple. There, like a palimpsest, the Ennian intertext bleeds through, revealing a nursing mother, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. Mars lies quietly-for quiet is the natural result of victory over war-in the lap of Venus, not inflamed by passion, but conquered by love. The Magna Mater scene shows us the reverse. Cybele's followers illustrate an uncontrolled frenzy, the heat of passion gone awry and misappropriated by the crowd as religious ritual. It is no accident that this maternal figure does not speak, even though Lucretius has posited a strong connection between the maternal voice (the sweet loquellae of Venus) and his own poetry. Cybele is passive, that is, not a speaking subject, but an object spoken by other poets. These poets "signify" her in such a w ay that she is displaced by Mars himself. The Magna Mater episode effectively undoes the proem: silence replaces poetry; frenzy, peace; threats and intimidation, comfort and solace. Cybele represents a perversion of both sexuality and maternity. The perversion is dropped with the terra genetrix. With this maternal figure, poetry, represented by the repeated use of similes, undermines the pretext of a purely historical account, while the Euripidean intertext, with its suggestion of an underlying sexuality, undermines the purely maternal.

By insisting, however delicately, on both the nourishing and the sexual aspect of maternity, Lucretius remains true to the double nature of his Muse, the alma Venus. She is the source of desire, and thus source of both life and poetry. She is the seductiveness that will make bearable the truth about the world, namely, that it is mortal. She is also the source of the peace of mind that comes with an understanding of the true nature of things, the soothing voice that calms our fears of the imaginary and the irrational. It is because she is both sexual and maternal that the reader is not inclined, as Elder proposes, to "mate" with the poem. Rather, we are invited to be reborn ourselves, brought from the darkness of superstition to the "shores of light" which are illuminated by the poet's revealed truth. In this sense, De rerum natura, "born" of Lucretius, is itself mother, responsible for the reader's rebirth. Lucretius implies as much when he shows us reason itself as a genetrix at the end of Book 5: sic unum quicquid paulatim protrahit aetas / in medium ratioque in luminis erigit oras ("Thus, step by step, time lays each fact before us, I and reason lifts it to the coasts of light," 5.1454-55).

BARBARA CLAYTON is a graduate student at Stanford University. She is currently completing a dissertation on the Odyssey, entitled "Postmodern Penelope: Refiguring the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey."

(1.) Unless otherwise noted, translations are Copley's.

(2.) P. Brown xxxvii. Brown notes these instances of implied etymological connections as well: natura (nasci) 1.21-25, superstitio (superstare) 1.65. and religio (religare) 1.932. These observations were first made by Friedlander, and substantially expanded by Snyder.

(3.) Lucretius is notably fond of this phrase, using it a total of 11 times in De return natura. Although most obviously a birth metaphor, the phrase also suggests enlightenment as one progresses from the darkness of ignorance to a true understanding of the nature of things.

(4.) Much ink has been spilled over Lucretius' portrayal and use of the Venus figure in the proem. See Kenney 13 and, more recently, Gale 208-23. Gale's discussion has the advantage of citing comprehensive bibliography, as well as presenting some of the more popular interpretations. Gale favors reading the "Hymn to Venus" as an allegory of spring, with Mars representing "blustery March" pacified by "peaceful April" (218). Neither Kenney nor Gale is interested in the maternal aspect of Venus.

Segal, Charles. 1990a. "Dreams and Poets in Lucretius." ICS 15.2: 251-62.

(5.) Bailey 590. In his "Addenda," Bailey presents a suggestion of Ettore Bignone that this second Venus represents the Epicurean [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "The sexual pleasure [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCE NOT ASCII], which results in creation is kinetic [this would correspond to [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "pleasure of movement"], the pleasure of peace and contemplation is static [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "pleasure of equilibrium"]. The former is represented in the earlier part of the invocation, but in the latter Venus has become the pleasure of [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and it is naturally her function Co grant peace to Rome ... " (1750). Bignone's suggestion seems at first glance implausible, since he associates catastemic pleasure with sex, that is, with Venus in her relationship with Mars. However, his linking of the two Venuses with the two different kinds of Epicurean pleasure is, as I shall explain, consistent with my own reading.

(6.) Eller 37 reads Venus with Mars in her lap as a "mutterliche Geste," but makes no comment upon the sweet words pouring from her mouth as a second maternal gesture. For Eller she is clearly a lover rather than a mother: "Hier ist Venus nicht mehr abstrakte Macht oder Verkorperung cines Triebes, sondern Person, Frau, und zwar vom Mann emanzipierte Frau, die den Mann mit ibren Reizen lenkt, wie sie will."

(7.) Quoted by Skutsch 216. Skutsch has doubts about 1.630 belonging to Ennius because of incompatibility with the next fragment, but feels that tereti cervice reflexam "is most certainly Ennian." In other words, there is no doubt as to the scene being one of the she-wolf nursing the children,

(8.) Lucretius returns to this theme of early man and language at 5.1027-29.

(9.) For blandum as one of the key "touchstone" terms set out in the proem, cf. Elder 113.

(10.) A touching, almost personal reading of Venus in the proem, and one that seems to understand the maternal nature of Lucretius' Muse better than many more sophisticated accounts, can be found in Vertue.

(11.) See Livrea for a discussion of Homer's tears, and possible precedents in the visual/plastic arts.

(12.) However, in his naturalistic account of dreams in Book 4, where he explains that people dream of doing what they do during their waking life, Lucretius states that he also dreams about working on his poem, just as lawyers dream about their cases and sailors dream about the sea (966-70).

(13.) Segal 1990a: 252. Segal also notes a complementarity between this passage and the Iphigenia passage just before it.

(14.) Clay 44, who notes that Helicon is frequented by other poets at 3.130-35, 4.545-46, 6.786-87.

(15.) Copley's translation slightly modified.

(16.) This is Clay's argument (295).

(17.) Joseph Martin prints callis in the Teubner edition, but many scholars prefer the alternative reading calcis.

(18.) Bailey sees the shift to Calliope as "conventional" and "incapable of any rationalistic interpretation" (1561). It is also possible that after the negative portrayal of Book 4. Venus can no longer be appealed to as a maternal Muse. Certainly Calliope gives this brief invocation a certain literary flashiness: first the extended alliteration and word play in candida, callis [calchis] currenti. callida, Calliope and, second, through the chariot conceit, an allusion to poetic predecessors; see Clay 252 who cites Pindar and Bacehylides. as well as Parmenides and Empedocles

(19.) As Vertue delicately puts it, "In a man of fastidious temperament thc more closely the concept of a goddess approximates to the mother, the more reluctance there will be to see association between her and that purely physical passion that has no place between members of a family" (150).

(20.) This description and the following observations are taken from the concise presentation in Caldwell 23-27.

(21.) Clay 229: "This is our first example in the poem of how men transform their real experience of the world into religion. It is a matter of attribution."

(22.) Such crowns, according to OLD, s.v. muralis, p. 1146, were given to soldiers as a reward for being the first to scale a wall.

(23.) Cf. Segal 1990b: 200-06. Segal notes numerous connections between Book 5 and the Magna Mater episode. While I agree with his reading of Book 5, my interpretation of the Magna Mater is entirely different than his.

(24.) For a somewhat different reading of mollescere. ef. Nugent 202-03.

(25.) Ludo was also used to describe deception at 1.939 and 4.1101. Cf. the discussion above of the honeyed cup.

(26.) See Stewart 79.

(27.) Attenborough 44.


Attenborough, David. 1987. The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man. Boston.

Bignone, Ettore. 1945. Storia della letteratura latina. Florence.

Brown, P. Michael, ed. 1984. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, I. Bristol.

Brown, Robert D. 1987. Lucretius on Love and Sex. Leiden.

Caldwerll, Richard. 1989. The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth. New York and Oxford.

Clay, Diskin. 1983. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca.

Copley, Frank O., trans. 1977. Lucretius: The Nature of Things. New York.

Elder, J. P. 1954. "Lucretius 1.1-19." TAPA 85: 88-120.

Eller, Karl Heinz. 1992. "Hominum divumque voluptas, Aspekte der Lukrezischen Venus." Der Altsprachliche Unterricht 35.3: 3445.

Ernout, A. and L. Robin. 1962. Lucrece: De Rerum Natura. Commentaire, exegetique et critique. Paris.

Friedlander, Paul. 1941. "The Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius," AJP 62: 16-34.

Gale, Monica. 1994. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge.

Kenney, E. J. 1977. Lucretius. Greece & Rome, New Surveys in the Classics, 11. Oxford.

Livrea, Enrico. 1990. "Ennio e le lacrime di Omero." RFIC 118: 33-42.

Nugent, S. Georgia. 1994. "Mater Matters: The Female in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura." Colby Quarterly 30.3: 179-205.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1990. "'By Words Not Arms': Lucretius on Gentleness in an Unsafe World." Apeiron 23.4: 41-90.

-----. 1990b. Lucretius on Death and Anxiety. Princeton.

Skutsch, Otto, ed. 1985. The Annals of Q. Ennius. Oxford.

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. 1980. Puns and Poetry in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Amsterdam.

Stewart, Douglas J. 1970. "The Silence of Magna Mater." HSCP 74: 75-84.

Vertue, H. St. H. 1956. "Venus and Lucretius." G&R 3: 140-52.

West, David. 1969. The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius. Edinburgh.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Texas Tech University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Clayton, Barbara
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Previous Article:Odysseus Panourgos: The Liar's Style in Tragedy and Oratory.
Next Article:Catullus, C. 37, and the Theme of Magna Bella.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters