Aeneid paper

The Imagery of Fire in Virgil’s Aeneid
Paul M. Bushmiller
Classics 271
Prof. Steven Rutledge
28 April 1999

In discussing fire imagery in the Aeneid I will attempt in the course of this paper to bring in an analytic device to aid in assembling the wide array of symbols into a more uniform set of meaning. Consistently throughout the Aeneid, fire serves to provoke the characters to action. Action which otherwise it is not clear they would enter upon. Fire clears the way for the juggernaut plot to advance. Juno, first of all, described as burning - pondering (with her hatred of the Dardans) goes to Aeolus with the idea of sending the winds to create an under-handed storm to destroy the Trojans, at the sight of their fleeing ships and successful escape from the Greeks (I.75)1. Fire from the Greeks burns down Troy. Forced by necessity to flee for their lives, Aeneas can gain his fathers acquiescence only with the portent of two flaming omens. Cupid in the form of Ascanius induces Dido with a fated love for Aeneas, consummated by their union in the cave. Jupiter with these words on his lips sends Mercury down to a lingering Aeneas at Carthage.

Mercury, carry across the speeding winds the words I urge: his lovely mother did not promise such a son to us; she did not save him twice from

Grecian arms for this–but to be master of Italy a land that teems with place all earth within his laws. But if the brightness of such deeds is not enough to kindle him...does he–a father–begrudge Ascanius the walls of Rome? (IV.310-311)

Mercury flies down to Aeneas and delivers these very words among others, Aeneas is struck dumb by this (and not for the last time) and afterwards He burns to flee from Carthage (IV.375). Much later , but significantly, the Fury Allecto is sent by Juno to Amata, wife of King Latinus and mother of Lavinia, and to Turnus prince of the Rutulians and infests both with the flame of certain madness, inciting them to make war on the Trojans, a war which shapes the third part of the Aeneid through to its conclusion.

The central characters are all described principally in terms of their incendiary capacity. Dido burns, and burns, and burns, and burns. The plan of Venus (and of Juno as well) is to inflame the queen to madness (I.920). Later: The words of Ana feed the fire in Dido, hope burned away her doubt and destroyed her shame, (IV.75). And unhappy Dido burns (IV.90), Whirled around in fire by the furies (IV.514).

Dido, broken by fate can only call for an avenger [to] rise up from my bones, one who will track with fire brand and sword the Dardan settlers, (IV.863). Turnus after the visit by Allecto burns with a continuous rage which compels him unalterably to murderous action. Aeneas does not burn, not so much, but instead is confronted with fire -destructive fire he must run through and away from. Ever endangered by fire it seems to surround him throughout the work. Fire threatens to cut off his escape, as when his ships at the beach in Italy only divinely escape destruction, fire is also evoked to draw him forward. A clear example of this is the arrow that Acestes launches in a futile gesture that bursts into flames and disappears, regarded by all as an unmistakable sign to continue (V.690). Aeneas even has dreams of fire in book IV he rests and sleeps after completing preparations to leave Carthage, but dreams something, resembling Mercury, comes to him bringing a warning that morning will find his fleet burnt and destroyed unless he leaves right then in the night. It is fire he must master. In this light consider the passage: Insane I seize my weapons. There’s no sense in weapons, yet my spirit burns... (II.426-8). When later that night Aeneas feels in his mind a fire is burning [to kill Helen when he sees her] - Venus appears to check his madness (II.774-810). Aeneas final and greatest physical challenge, that of Turnus and his army is symbolically represented by fire. This is seen among other ways by the Chimera that crowns Turnus' helmet (VII.1033)- an image of Virgil’s that says much about both men. Aeneas’ own helmet tip pours fire down from its towering crest, (X.377). Aeneas is compelled to confront dangerous fire and finally to master and use it himself, this when he deturmines to attack Latinus’s city with fire in book XII).

Through the first third of the Aeneid fire is invoked continuously but in a myriad of forms and intents. It is largely used to describe disaster or signify rage, hatred, revenge, or strong passions in general. It also is used to show beatitude as with Ascanius’ halo of fire. A symbol of hope: the fireball seen just after Ascanius’ hair catches fire, is a marker of escape and deliverance. I is used to demonstrate safety or deliverance as when Virgil describes the first act of the sailors (Achates) on gaining shore at Carthage; Strike a spark from flint, and catch the fire up with leaves then they feast (I.243). We see it also used tangentially as a shorthand for piety when Iarbus is described as keeping Consecrated sleepless fire (IV.266). Fire is a contradictory and multi-coursed metaphor. It is omniferous in its utility.

To try to explain this polymorphous fire. I would like to turn to the French writer Gaston Bachelard, and a short work of his: the Psychoanalysis of Fire . Bachelard first tells us Fire is thus a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything and among all phenomenon it is really the only one... attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. (both p. 7). Bachelard’s concern is the uses of fire imagery in writing particularly what he sees as its automatic or unconscious uses. For modern man Bachelard sees fire as having only a literary reality. Its scientific reality for study now distributed across many disciplines of Chemistry and Physics. He also thinks that it is the apprehension of fire from reverie, not dreams so much that produce literary fire imagery. His chief distinction: in reverie it [the consciousness] is always centered more or less on one object This reverie is the first use and the truly human use of fire (p. 14). His course stems from the precepts of depth psychology. He proposes a set of four complexes which he names the Prometheus Complex, the Empedocles Complex, the Novalis Complex, and the Hoffman Complex. The first he has little to say about (I think because he considers it such a obvious notion) the Prometheus complex is: all those tendencies which compel us to know2 as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our teachers, more than our teachers. The last the Hoffman Complex deals with the specific issue of alcohol and fire - Fire water in a word, not a critical issue for the Aeneid so I will set it aside. The remaining two, I think, are very useful to our discussion.

His primary analytic is the Novalis Complex which deals with sexualized fire and this is treated through three chapters. He precedes this, though, with the Empedocles Complex. This is a true complex in which are united the love and respect for fire, the instinct for living, and the instinct for dying (p.16), Eros and Death. Fire, he claims metaphorically represents change and circumstantial development in contrast to monotonous and abstract flowing water. It urges us forward, suggests the desire to speed up the passage of time to bring all of life to its conclusion. It magnifies human destiny, links the small to the great. The fascinated individual hears the call of the funeral pyre...for him destruction is more than a change it is renewal3.Death in the flame is the least lonely of deaths. This is because one’s essence is wholly removed from the terrestrial. Bachelard gives two examples . The first is from a novel by Italian writer G. D’Annunzio, in English titled The Flame of Life. Here the character, Foscarino, a young broken hearted women (to me a clear echo of Dido) while touring a glass blowing factory desires, destruction, an all consuming fire to swallow her up, leave no trace. The second is the death of Hercules, a story found in Ovid and in Sophocles’ Trachinaie. I was unaware of this story ,but after determining its locations, I reviewed it both sources. Hercules at the end of his checkered career as the greatest hero, is laid low by a consuming wasting burning poison borne by blood. He does not die, but suffers. Finally he builds a funeral pyre atop Mt. Oeta, and has Philocrates set the torch to heal him. Jupiter looking down proclaims that the mortal half the fire will have, but the immortal will ascend to Olympus. Here is Dido of Carthage (not ascending to Olympus, but going to a place where love is returned for love), and here is more besides. Empedocles himself constitutes a third example. Bachelard says of this, that the dream is stronger than experience (in everyday life self immolation is not common, but he feels a transcendent yearning awareness of it is). Consumption by fire is a natural and enduring symbol of the destiny of mankind.

Turning to the Novalis Complex we encounter Bachelard’s best arbitrator of psychological aspects of fire, which is primarily a metaphor for passion, for love, in profane and pure terms. Novalis is Friedrich Von Hardenberg, the early 19th century German lyric poet. Bachelard draws on many sources always returning to Novalis for reciprocating expression. One can study, says Bachelard, only what one has first dreamed about. The natural origins of fire, chance lightening and the like, were probably not appreciated by early man. It would not have meant anything to them. This notion is related to a statement from the first chapter (p.16) that the conquest of the superfluous gives us greater spiritual is a creation of desire not need (and along those lines; many times Aeneas’ needs are met, but his desires ,god directed or not, point further and lead him on.) Man-made fire produced by rubbing, friction held meaning. Bachelard - quoting Max Muller Fire is the son of two pieces of wood which devours its parents on birth. Bachelard then states: if you lack fire this burning failure will gnaw at your heart, the fire will remain inside you. If you produce fire, the Sphinx itself will consume you. Somewhat poetically he says Love is a fire that is to be transmitted, fire is but a love whose secret is to be detected. Making fire is a eurhythmy running to euphoria, affective and sympathetic by transference because rubbing and touch has that effect to man. Fire was detected in ourselves before it was snatched from the gods In the Novalis Complex we see an impulse towards fire that is brought about through friction. It reconstitutes the prehistoric conquest of fire. It is characterized by a consciousness of inner heat, which has precedence over a purely visual knowledge of light. A satisfaction of the thermal sense, heat is a possession, it penetrates, goes to the interior unseen where the eye cannot go, the hand cannot enter.

Let us turn to Virgil and examine the many descriptions of hidden, felt, but unseen fires. In the passage describing Cupid's visit to Dido Virgil gives us this:

when she embraces you, and kis/ses tenderly. Your breathe can fill her with a hidden flame, your poison penetrate deceivingly (I.961)

A brief aside: later during the hunt when Ascanius is describe as riding his fiery stallion and again in Sicily where possibly that same horse is described as a gift from Dido, I found myself wondering, who did Dido fall in love with. Her eyes cling fast to him and all her heart (I.1000)). This is Cupid, in his masquerade as Ascanius, that is being spoken of here and in the lines that follow. It is the principle of love that takes hold and awakens her, the form is Ascanius and only from there redirected to the father - Aeneas.

In a metaphoric image that refers to the wooden horse’s evil hidden secret, the concealed men and the death and destruction they will soon release, the Trojan horse is described by this line: flames blazed from its staring eyes (II.244) . In Book four with Dido many times we see fires hidden, and (or) felt only, described: She feeds the wound within her veins; she is eaten by a secret flame, (IV. 4), meanwhile the supple flame devours her marrow , within her breast the silent wound lives on (IV.89), and the darkened room conceals its light, (IV.105). Even her final destruction is hidden from those it is directed towards: the walls of Carthage glowed with sad Elissa’s flames, they cannot know what caused so vast a blaze. I don’t think Aeneas and his sailors see the fire itself, not directly, just its light and shadows playing on the walls) And of course the fire that Allecto delivers is just such a secret caustic heat that intertwines bones with fire representing chaos, destruction and irrational rage (violentia and ira). I found it interesting regarding the character of Turnus that he rejects Allecto initially in her disguised form. She comes to him with essentially the same appeal that she came down to Amata with. A message that coiled like a jewel and poured into Amata, who had already loosened her hair and taken to the woods. The fury has to appear before him in her terrible naked form and thrust a fire brand into his breast before she can turn him to hate.

At this point I would like to turn to other considerations of fire. When Aeneas kills Turnus, Indeed before he kills Turnus, he has won his war. The settlement of the Trojans is secure. Alba Longa will be founded by them and from there someday Rome. One particular image of fire haunts this whole work: The great conflagration, the death of a city. The long crystalline depiction of the last night of Troy presented in book two is the primary image of such a traumatic thing. In book XII the mere threat of putting King Latinus’ city to the torch is enough to induce a shattering panic. Virgil shifts to a image of a burning bees nest: destruction and hopeless confusion. W. R. Johnson in his book Darkness Visible points to this as significant. Bee’s are otherwise a Virgilian trope of ideal Civitas with bee’s as perfect citizens. Here, Johnson says, Virgil is shedding his own best dream. Even as he is writing and building the myth of, rational order and continual renewal, he is also pulling it down. When Aeneas wins the war he defeats Juno - no small feat. He has sacrificed, suffered, and led many others to suffer, he has kept faith with duty, and it has not been easy. When he kills Turnus, he breaks the injunction given to him by his fathers’ shade to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud, (VI.1137)4 In doing this he loses to what Juno represents: Chaos, Passion Irrationality and Anger. And he launches a flawed civilization. A book that I picked off my shelf quite at random while writing this: Mircea Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return also speaks on this idea of launched, or relaunched, existence. This book figures prominently through the last chapter of Johnsons’ Darkness Visible, and it was useful to have discovered it before encountering Johsons' use of it.

The period of the end of the Roman republic was marked with a gradual breaking-down of the rational order and belief systems of the classical world. An order built on the dichotomy of mind and matter,on understandable, if harsh nature. The collapse of the Republic was a time of growing Chthonian fears, superstition, and thought. Caught up in this was a conception that Eliade uses the word Ekpyrosis to describe - a universal conflagration - one that would end Rome, end civilization. The Aeneid is an allegory of fire. Fire that has the power to achieve that destiny Bachelard refers to under the Empedocles complex.: the power to end Worlds. The Myth of the Eternal return, the terror of history, that Eliade writes of is the conception of history as cyclical and of the dangers believed to exist at the end of cycles. For the Romans this was reflected in the superstition of the Great Year (and other similar fears) at the end of which, Rome would end. This is the significance of Augustus, he interceded - delivered Rome through the end of the age of Iron (so it was supposed) into the age of Gold. In any regard there was no fire. Something happened, so the reasoning went. This is why the people accorded him, and Julius Caesar their measure of divinity. Aeneas has limned analogously with Augustus through the work (alongside Ulysses in counterpoint). The war with the Latins and Italians would certainly resonate emotionally with Virgil's audience as civil wars, along with their function as statements of the sacrifice of lesser nations to the destiny of Rome. The imperial court was surely receptive to the glorification of a hero who had persevered and brought his people through from an old and finished existence to a new and august one. Johnson believes that Virgil still saw a world that had immanence but lacked transcendence. His reading and intellectual empathy with Lucretius, The Epicurian author of De Rerum Natura, would not allow him to see the Augustin world as the rational repaired, renewed world the Romans wanted to see. If Rome was at a threshold of greatness for which its history was a justifying grand design,Virgil saw it founded incomplete, containing no concept not in the previous and as weighed down by irrationality as the civilization that Aeneas, the new model hero, founded.

In Bachelard's Final Chapter on idealized or purifying fire we see ideas that Virgil distributes lightly but carefully through the Aeneid. Purifying fire deodorizes, it separates and destroys material imperfections. Bachelard calls it a dialectic sublimation. Love become family, Fire becomes hearth and home. The Dialectic is between fire/heat and light. When Fire shines without burning its value is all purity. This is exactly how Ascanius is inflamed in Book II). This is echoed by the strange incident where Lavinia’s hair catches fire while attending the altars with pure and fragrant torches - wrapped in smoke and yellow light she spreads fire through the palace, (VII.90-95) but apparently is unharmed herself. Alongside purifying fire is impure fire. Purifying fire is lighter in color even to colorlessness and often described as an action of the tip of the flame, impure fire is deeper in the flame and darker to glowering red in color. Impure fire has an action like a fever and is a sickness of the blood (the metaphor is omnidirectional). Impure fire can be marked also by the presence of smoke, more particularly sooty smoke, and by much ash in proportion to the flame. Ash is the excrement of fire. What impure fire signifies is the need for renewal. Two Passages from the Aeneid illustrate these divergent actions. In Book six Anchises’ shade describes the purification process by which souls return to the upper world: Some there are purified by air...some...beneath a mighty whirlpool, or consumed by fire. For some this annuls the ancient stain and leaves them with the power of ether pure in us, fire of spirit simple and unspoiled(VI.985), they remain in the Field of Gladness. The rest are summoned to Lethe to forget and wish again for bodies. In contrast to this is King Evanders description of the death of the monster Cacus who belches black smoke..with blinding soot...a cloud of darkness, and vomits useless fire within that black mist, (VIII.538). It is the principle of fire that it must be renewed to avoid becoming impure, and fire equals blood and equals animus.

Throughout the battles the literal fires Turnus carries are sputtering and ineffective, he and his Latin army described as the plain that smoked with dust, the Latin ranks, (XI.1201). Whereas his fever is all consuming Words cannot check the violence of Turnus: the healing only aggravates his sickness; his fury flares. Even as his fate surrounds him, the grip of the gods on his soul fall away. His eyes begin to see (they see Juturna’s godhead, and her steadfastness to him), his mind understands (Jupiter, my enemy, XII.1192). His pride and his anger are gone by the time he is murdered, all too late. The Ira belongs to Aeneas, the belt of Pallas an icon signifying only the necessity of continuing the chain of vengeance.

Bachelard quotes Rilke on the quality of purification: to be loved means to be love is to shine with and inexhaustibly light. For to love is to escape from doubt (p. 106). And Novalis: light is the essence of igneous phenomenon where light finds nothing to do nothing to separate nothing to unite it continues on. (p. 106) but first must come the transition from inner flame to this celestial light. For Johnson, and perhaps we should end here, it is just this absence of this full light the dimness of the darkness visible which constitute Virgil's true and deliberate commentary on his world.

Bachelard, Gaston. the Psychoanalysis of Fire. trans. Alan CM Ross,pref. Northrop Frye Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. (Orig pub. in French under the Title La Psychoanalyse du Feu 1938 by Librarie Gallimard)

Eliade, Mircea. ch. 3 the Misfortunes of History, Ch. 4 the Terror of History Cosmos and History: the Myth of the Eternal Return. trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row, 1959 (Orig. pub. in French under the title Le Myth de Eternal Retour... 1949 by Librarie Gallimard)

Johnson, W R. Darkness Visible, a study of Vergil’s Aeneid. Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1976.

Mandelbaum, Allen, the Aeneid of Virgil: a verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum. New York Bantam: Books, 1971-1981.

1 Text references are to the line numbers of Mandelbaum's translation

2 Bachelard's emphasis

3 My emphasis this time, also the quotations above merely represent irreproducible turns of phrase - my paraphrasing here borders on transcription.

4 .parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. Sometimes (and more archly) translated as spare the humbled, war down the proud