Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aeneas: The Original Gangsta!

OK, let's just get this out of the way at the start: Aeneas is one bad ass motherf*cker! If he had access to a gun, he'd pop a cap in yo ass! As it is, he chops off heads, runs people through with his sword and/or spear, hacks off limbs, gouges eyes out...well, you get the idea, which is basically: Don't Fuck with Aeneas. Unless you want your skull split open, your torso impaled, and/or head cut clean off.

I finished The Aeneid last night, and I'm a bit humbled to try to blog about it. I mean, good God, this is one of the all-time literature classics, read by about 800 billion people over the last 2000 years. What hasn't been said about this epic poem? Critics for the past two millennia have analyzed every line ad nauseam (note my use of appropriate!), so what is there that I could possibly add? Well, I'll give a few impressions, derivative and trivial as they might be, and then slink slowly back into my whiskey clouded haze.

First of all, as I hinted to in the opening paragraph, this book gets really bloody towards the end. The poem is divided into two halves, with the first half detailing the wanderings of Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees as they try to make it to the promised land of Italy. This half of the poem reminds one of Homer's Odyssey. Once in Italy, the second half of the poem details their strife with the native Italians, who are friendly and welcoming at first. But because of misunderstandings, and interference from the Gods (mostly the latter, actually), things quickly fall apart and the Trojans and the Latins soon go to war. And a vicious war it is, described in very bloody and gory detail. This half of the poem is reminiscent of Homer's Iliad. Just to give you a flavor of the bloodiness, let me quote a couple of lines (this from the Robert Fitzgerald translation) from Book XI, where a woman warrior joins the side of the Latins and goes on a bloody rampage against the Trojans on the battlefield:
Then running as Orsilochus gave chase
In a wide circuit, tricking him, she closed
A narrowing ring till she became a pursuer;
Then to her full height risen drove her axe
Repeatedly through helmet and through bone
As the man begged and begged her to show mercy.
Warm brains from his head-wound wetted his face.
Ah, the joys of poetry. And there are many passages like this, describing in gory detail decapitations and impalements and bloody killings on the battlefield. I mean, this poem is like the Roman version of "Grand Theft Auto III". It's pretty impressive, actually. And parents today worry that video games and movie violence will turn their children into psychopathic killing machines, when in actuality, this kind of stuff has been around for the past 2000 years, even in "classic" literature. And as we all know, there have been no incidents of violent behavior over that span of time. Oh, wait...

In addition to sword slashing, skull smashing, and Latin bashing, lots of other stuff happens in the rest of the Aeneid. One pretty cool part is where Aeneas goes into the underworld, where the dead reside, in order to hang out with his dead father. The descriptions of the different parts of the world of the dead are quite fascinating. We learn there are special areas where dead babies hang out, where suicides gather, where criminals are punished, etc. And worst is the people whose bodies were not buried and given funeral rites...these people can't even get across the River Styx until they've hung out on its banks for 100 years. Makes me wonder if Virgil was maybe paid off by some folks in the Roman undertaking business so he'd throw this bit in. Aeneas meets his father, who died a year earlier, and they hang out, have a few beers, and discuss the glory that will be Rome and why Aeneas therefore must continue with his journey, since he's got a lot of founding to do. But perhaps the saddest part of his voyage to the underworld is that he meets Dido, the Carthaginian Queen, who unbeknownst to Aeneas has committed suicide. Some backstory here: Dido was made to fall in love with Aeneas through the meddling of Venus and Juno, for their usual complex reasons. She falls deeply in love with him, and they end up having a torrid affair while the Trojans are in Carthage repairing their fleet. But when Aeneas starts to linger and think about just settling down in Carthage and getting his fill of the royal booty, instead of heading off to found Rome, the Gods send down a messenger who tells him to get off his ass and get going. Aeneas, being full of piety, listens and sails off, leaving Dido so despondant that she builds a huge funeral pyre and throws herself on it. So when Aeneas sees her in the underworld he's taken aback because he hadn't realized she was dead, and feels terrible that she killed herself over him (well, who wouldn't?). He calls to her, and asks for forgiveness, but Dido totally gives him the cold shoulder and doesn't look at him or respond to him in any way...instead she walks on and joins up with her dead husband. Damn girl, that's harsh.

As I said, when Aeneas and his fellow Trojans land in Italy they are initially greeted by the local king with a warm welcome. The king has heard a prophesy that his daughter Lavinia will marry a handsome stranger from another land, and when he sees Aeneas he realizes that he's the dude, and so decides to marry her off to him. But there's just a slight problem: she's already betrothed to guy named Turnus. When Turnus hears of all this, he's pissed, as is the girl's mother. With a little needling from the Gods, this quickly devolves into a full scale war between the Latins (the native Italians) and the Trojans. This is where all the skull splitting, decapitating, etc. comes into play. The fighting goes back and forth, and I don't have the time or the energy or the whiskey to go into all the twist and turns, but it's clear that the final showdown will be a battle between Turnus and Aeneas. Not only are they fighting over a dame (hmmm, just like in the Trojan War) but they are both leading their respective armies. In addition, Turnus killed a young man named Pallas, the son of another local king. This king agreed to an alliance with the Trojans, and sent his soldiers, including Pallas, to join the fighting on Aeneas's side. Aeneas took Pallas under his wing, and became his mentor. Unfortunately for Pallas, Turnus kills him on the battlefield, and then takes his belt to wear as a trophy because he knows Aeneas loves Pallas and he wants to fuck with Aeneas. This turns out to be not a good move. When the final showdown between the two men finally does occur, Aeneas spears Turnus through the thigh. When Aeneas goes over to finish him off, Turnus admits defeat and asks for mercy. Aeneas thinks about it, and begins to think that he doesn't really need to kill Turnus. But then he sees him wearing Pallas's belt and, well, you can guess the rest. Don't Fuck With Aeneas. The End.

A theme I mentioned in my last post on The Aeneid remains through the rest of the book, and that is the relationship of the Gods to events on Earth. Venus is Aeneas's mother, and does everything she can to help him. Juno, for reasons dating back to the Trojan War (see my previous post) hates Aeneas because he's a Trojan. The two conspire to manipulate events either for or against the Trojans, but Jupiter has already told them that it's fated that Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees will settle in Italy and found the Roman race. Yet Juno is so damn petulant that she just has to make the Trojans suffer in every way possible. Finally, at the end, Jupiter has had enough, and tells her to just let it go...that she knows Aeneas will kill Turnus and maybe she just needs to take a chill pill. Juno finally relents, but says she wants the Trojans to lose their Trojan identity when they marry the locals and to adopt the local Latin language. Jupiter says sure, fine, whatever, and so Juno steps back and doesn't help Turnus in his final battle. I found it interesting that the Gods can do all kinds of things but they can't ultimately stop what's fated to be. And only Jupiter seems to be able to keep this in mind. Why are the Gods so short-sighted, and what is it that determines fate if it's not the Gods? Doesn't sound very God-like to me on both counts. In fact they don't sound so much like Gods as like cranky Superfriends. Anyway, I don't have the answers to all this, because the whiskey is really kicking in now.

Finally, I did a web search on The Aeneid and learned that St. Augustine read The Aeneid as a child and wept at the death of Dido. I find it utterly mind boggling to think that St. Augustine and I read the same book. I dunno, maybe that's part of the reason that reading the classics is so cool. And yes, St. Augustine's Confessions are on my list, so he and I will have something else in common, in addition to knowing not to fuck with Aeneas.

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