The Wisdom of the Ancients/6
THEY tell us, Pluto having, upon that memorable division of empire among the gods, received the infernal regions for his share, despaired of winning any one of the goddesses in marriage by an obsequious courtship, and therefore through necessity resolved upon a rape. Having watched his opportunity, he suddenly seized upon Proserpine, a most beautiful virgin, the daughter of Ceres, as she was gathering narcissus flowers in the meads of Sicily, and hurrying her to his chariot, carried her with him to the subterraneal regions, where she was treated with the highest reverence, and styled the Lady of Dis. But Ceres missing her only daughter, whom she extremely loved, grew pensive and anxious beyond measure, and taking a lighted torch in her hand, wandered the world over in quest of her daughter, but all to no purpose, till, suspecting she might be carried to the infernal regions, she, with great lamentation and abundance of tears, importuned Jupiter to restore her; and with much ado prevailed so far as to recover and bring her away, if she had tasted nothing there. This proved a hard condition upon the mother, for Proserpine was found to have eaten three kernels of a pomegranate. Cares, however, desisted not, but fell to her entreaties and lamentations afresh, insomuch that at last it was indulged her that Proserpine should divide the year betwixt her husband and her mother, and live six months with the one and as many with the other. After this; Theseus and Perithous, with uncommon audacity, attempted to force Proserpine away from Pluto's bed, but happening to grow tired in their journey, and resting themselves upon a stone in the realms below, they could never rise from it again, but remain sitting there for ever. Proserpine, therefore, still continued queen of the lower regions, in honour of whom there was also added this grand privilege, that though it had never been permitted any one to return after having once descended thither, a particular exception was made, that he who brought a golden bough as a present to Proserpine, might on that condition descend and return. This was an only bough that grew in a large dark grove, not from a tree of its own, but like the mistletoe, from another, and when plucked away a fresh one always shot out in its stead.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to regard natural philosophy, and searches deep into that rich and fruitful virtue and supply in subterraneous bodies, from whence all the things upon the earth's surface spring, and into which they again relapse and return. By Proserpine the ancients denoted that ethereal spirit shut up and detained within the earth, here represented by Pluto, the spirit being separated from the superior globe, according to the expression of the poet. This spirit is conceived as ravished, or snatched up by the earth, because it can no way be detained, when it has time and opportunity to fly off, but is only wrought together and fixed by sudden intermixture and comminution, in the same manner as if one should endeavour to mix air with water, which cannot otherwise be done than by a quick and rapid agitation, that joins them together in froth whilst the air is thus caught up by the water. And it is elegantly added, that Proserpine was ravished whilst she gathered narcissus flowers, which have their name from numbedness or stupefaction; for the spirit we speak of is in the fittest disposition to be embraced by terrestrial matter when it begins to coagulate, or grow torpid as it were.
It is an honour justly attributed to Proserpine, and not to any other wife of the gods, that of being the lady or mistress of her husband, because this spirit performs all its operations in the subterraneal regions, whilst Pluto, or the earth, remains stupid, or as it were ignorant of them.
The æther, or the efficacy of the heavenly bodies, denoted by Ceres, endeavours with infinite diligence to force out this spirit, and restore it to its pristine state. And by the torch in the hand of Ceres, or the nether, is doubtless meant the sun, which disperses light over the whole globe of the earth, and if the thing were possible, must have the greatest share in recovering Proserpine, or reinstating the subterraneal spirit. Yet Proserpine still continues and dwells below, after the manner excellently described in the condition betwixt Jupiter and Ceres. For first, it is certain that there are two ways of detaining the spirit, in solid and terrestrial matter, - the one by condensation or obstruction, which is mere violence and imprisonment; the other by administering a proper alignment, which in spontaneous and free. For after the included spirit begins to feed and nourish itself; it is not in a hurry to fly off, but remains as it were fixed in its own earth. And this is the moral of Proserpine's tasting the pomegranate; and were it not for this, she must long ago have been carried up by Ceres, who with her torch wandered the world over, and so the earth have been left without its spirit. For though the spirit in metals and minerals may perhaps be, after a particular manner, wrought in by the solidity of the mass, yet the spirit of vegetables and animals has open passages to escape at, unless it be willingly detained, in the way of sipping and tasting them.
The second article of agreement, that of Proserpine's remaining six months with her mother and six with her husband, is an elegant description of the division of the year; for the spirit diffused through the earth lives above-ground in the vegetable world during the summer months, but in the winter returns underground again.
The attempt of Theseus and Perithous to bring Proserpine away, denotes that the more subtile spirits, which descend in many bodies to the earth, may frequently be unable to drink in, unite with themselves, and carry off the subterraneous spirit, but on the contrary be coagulated by it, and rise no more, so as to increase the inhabitants and add to the dominion of Proserpine.
The alchemists will be apt to fall in with our interpretation of the golden bough, whether we will or no, because they promise golden mountains, and the restoration of natural bodies from their stone, as from the gates of Pluto; but we are well assured that their theory has no just foundation, and suspect they have no very encouraging or practical proofs of its soundness. Leaving, therefore, their conceits to themselves, we shall freely declare our own sentiments upon this last part of the fable. We are certain, from numerous figures and expressions of the ancients, that they judged the conservation, and in some degree the renovation, of natural bodies to be no desperate or impossible thing, but rather abstruse and out of the common road than wholly impracticable. And this seems to be their opinion in the present case, as they have placed this bough among an infinite number of shrubs, in a spacious and thick wood. They supposed it of gold, because gold is the emblem of duration. They feigned it adventitious, not native, because such an effect is to be expected from art, and not from any medicine or any simple or mere natural way of working.
THE ancient poets relate that Jupiter took Metis to wife, whose name plainly denotes counsel, and that he, perceiving she was pregnant by him, would by no means wait the time of her delivery, but directly devoured her; whence himself also became pregnant, and was delivered in a wonderful manner; for he from his head or brain brought forth Pallas armed.
EXPLANATION. - This fable, which in its literal sense appears monstrously absurd, seems to contain a state secret, and shows with what art kings usually carry themselves towards their council, in order to preserve their own authority and majesty not only inviolate, but so as to have it magnified and heightened among the people. For kings commonly link themselves as it were in a nuptial bond to their council, and deliberate and communicate with them after a prudent and laudable custom upon matters of the greatest importance, at the same time justly conceiving this no diminution of their majesty; but when the matter once ripens to a decree or order, which is a kind of birth, the king then suffers the council to go on no further, lest the act should seem to depend upon their pleasure. Now, therefore, the king usually assumes to himself whatever was wrought, elaborated, or formed, as it were, in the womb of the council (unless it be a matter of an invidious nature, which he is sure to put from him), so that the decree and the execution shall seem to flow from himself. And as this decree or execution proceeds with prudence and power, so as to imply necessity, it is elegantly wrapt up under the figure of Pallas armed.
Nor are kings content to have this seem the effect of their own authority, free will, and uncontrollable choice, unless they also take the whole honour to themselves, and make the people imagine that, all good and wholesome decrees proceed entirely from their own head, that is, their own sole prudence and judgment.
INTRODUCTION - The fable of the Sirens is, in a vulgar sense, justly enough explained of the pernicious incentives to pleasure ; but the ancient mythology seems to us like a vintage ill-pressed and trod; for though something has been own from it, yet all the more excellent parts remain behind in the grapes that are untouched.
FABLE - The Sirens are said to be the daughters of Achelous and Terpsichore, one of the Muses. In their early days they had wings, but lost them upon being conquered by the Muses, with whom they rashly contended; and with the feathers of these wings the Muses made themselves crowns, so that from this time the Muses wore wings on their heads, excepting only the mother to the Sirens.
These Sirens resided in certain pleasant islands, and when, from their watch-tower, they saw any ship approaching, they first detained the sailors by their music, then, enticing then to shore, destroyed them.
Their singing was not of one and the same kind, but they adapted their tunes exactly to the nature of each person, in order to captivate and secure him. And so destructive had they been, that these islands of the Sirens appeared, to a very great distance, white with the bones of their unburied captives.
Two different remedies were invented to protect persons against them, the one by Ulysses, the other by Orpheus. Ulysses commanded his associates to stop their ears close with wax; and he, determining to make the trial, and yet avoid the danger, ordered himself to be tied fast to a mast of the ship, giving strict charge not to be unbound, even though himself should entreat it; but Orpheus, without any binding at all, escaped the danger by loudly chanting to his harp the praises of the gods, whereby he drowned the voices of the Sirens.
EXPLANATION. - This fable is of the moral kind, and appears no less elegant than easy to interpret. For pleasures proceed from plenty and affluence, attended with activity or exultation of the mind. Anciently their first incentives were quick, and seized upon men as if they had been winged, but learning and philosophy afterwards prevailing, had at least the power to lay the mind under some restraint, and make it consider the issue of things, and thus deprived pleasures of their wings.
This conquest redounded greatly to the honour and ornament of the Muses; for after it appeared, by the example of a few, that philosophy could introduce a contempt of pleasures, it immediately seemed to be a sublime thing that could raise and elevate the soul, fixed in a manner down to the earth, and thus render men's thoughts, which reside in the head, winged as it were, or sublime.
Only the mother of the Sirens was not thus plumed on the head, which doubtless denotes superficial learning invented and used for delight end levity; an eminent example whereof we have in Petronius, who, after receiving sentence of death, still continued his gay frothy humour, and, as Tacitus observes, used his learning to solace or divert himself; and instead of such discourses as give firmness and constancy of mind, read nothing but loose poems and verses. Such learning as this seems, to pluck the crowns again from the Muses' heads, and restore them to the Sirens.
The Sirens are said to inhabit certain islands, because pleasures generally seek retirement, and often shun society. And for their songs, with the manifold artifice and destructiveness thereof, this is too obvious and common to need explanation. But that particular of the bones stretching like white cliffs along the shores, and appearing afar off, contains a more subtile allegory, and denotes that the examples of others' calamity and misfortunes, though ever so manifest and apparent, a have yet but little force to deter the corrupt nature of man from pleasures.
The allegory of the remedies against the Sirens is not difficult, but very wise and noble: it proposes, in effect, three remedies, as well against subtile as violent mischiefs, two drawn from philosophy and one from religion.
The first means of escaping is to resist the earliest temptation in the beginning, and diligently avoid and cut off all occasions that may solicit or sway the mind; and this is well represented by shutting up the ears, a kind of remedy to be necessarily used with mean and vulgar minds, such as the retinue of Ulysses.
But nobler spirits may converse, even in the midst of pleasures, if the mind be well guarded with constancy and resolution. And thus some delight to make a severe trial of their own virtue, and thoroughly acquaint themselves with the folly and madness of pleasures, without complying or being wholly given up to them; which is what Solomon professes of himself when he closes the account of all the numerous pleasures he gave a loose to, with this expression, "But wisdom still continued with me." Such heroes in virtue may, therefore, remain unmoved by the greatest incentives to pleasure, and stop themselves on the very precipice of danger; if, according to the example of Ulysses, they turn a deaf ear to pernicious counsel, and the flatteries of their friends and companions, which have the greatest power to shake and unsettle the mind.
But the most excellent remedy, in every temptation, is that of Orpheus, who, by loudly chanting and resounding the praises of the gods, confounded the voices, and kept himself from hearing the music of the Sirens; for divine contemplations exceed the pleasures of sense, not only in power but also in sweetness.
- ^ "Sive recens tellus, seductaque nuper ab alta Æthere, cognati retinebat semina cœli." - Metam. i. 80.
- ^ Many philosophers have certain speculations to this purpose. Sir Isaac Newton, in particular, suspects that the earth receives its vivifying spirit from the comets. And the philosophical chemists and astrologers have spun the thought into many fantastical distinctions and varieties. See Newton. Princip. lib. iii. p. 473, &c.
- ^ This policy strikingly characterised the conduct of Louis XIV., who placed his generals under a particular injunction, to advertise him of the success of any siege likely to be crowned with an immediate triumph, that he might attend in person and appear to take the town by a coup de main.
- ^ The one denoted by the river Achelous, and the other by Terpsichore, the muse that invented the cithara and delighted in dancing.
- ^ "Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus; Rumoresque senum severiorum, Omnes unius estimemus assis." - Catull. Eleg. v. And again - "Jura senes norint, et quod sit fasque nefasque; Inquirant tristes; legumque examina servent." - Metam. ix. 550.