My earlier blog (March 15, 2009) about geology and the invention of the photographic process by Fox Talbot included a quotation. Fox Talbot, who had received a an education in mathematics and the Greek and Latin classics, cited two lines from Virgil’s Georgics. Virgil describes making his own way on the heights of Mount Parnassus, the home of the muses, and descending to the Castalian spring of Delphi. As chance would have it, my wife, Betty, and I made a last minute decision to take an excursion to Greece. After traveling from island to island we came to Athens and then to Delphi and the astonishing Sanctuary to Apollo.
Apollo is said to have killed the Pytho, a female serpent that guarded a deep cavern and the spring of Cassotis. This legend was linked to an Apollo cult whose central feature was the Pythian oracle. On ritual occasions the oracle placed herself on a tripod above the vaporous chasm. In this unenviable toxic situation, partially poisoned by the cyanide released from chewing laurel leaves, she uttered strange cries that were interpreted by priests. At the time of Virgil the Sanctuary was still active and, more significantly, the cult was sponsored by the Roman Emperor Augustus, Virgil’s patron.
Steep limestone cliffs rise above the Sanctuary. The Castalian spring is at the bottom of a gully with steep walls — the above photograph was taken from near the spring. Here lies the problem. No obvious track slopes downwards to Castalia’s spring. Poetry should be prepared to meet a reality test. How did Virgil descend from the Parnassian heights without breaking his neck?
After visiting the Sanctuary our group stayed in a small hotel in the village adjacent to the Delphi sanctuary. The roads of the village are carved into the mountainside. As the day began to cool, around 5 pm, I set out to explore by ascending the steep sequences of steps that linked one road level to another. Above the final road were open fields with scattered olive trees. A sign indicated a Forestry Commission trail to Mount Parnassus. The highest point of the mountain is about 2,450 meters (8,056 feet); I was probably at 900 meters. I followed the trail upwards past limestone boulders. Soon no village was visible — looking back the panorama extended to the Gulf of Itea, some 5 miles away, and beyond that to the Gulf of Corinth. As the trail approached the steeper rocks it swung to the left but I pushed my way to a ridge on the right where a wire fence blocked further exploration. Beyond the ridge was a precipitous decent to the Stadium of the Sanctuary. The fence could be followed upwards through a barrier of thorns and thistles towards the steeper rocks. If I had been wearing boots instead of sandals I could probably have scrambled beyond the fence, but from my highest point I could see, carved into the limestone, a series of steps. Could this have been the decending path taken by Virgil?
I can only speculate about the upper reaches of the mountain. If it is like the Turkish Mount Olympus (2,366 m/7,762 ft), whose limestone heights I ascended in 2004, it is a rolling barren stone desert. In Turkey there was no certain track and plenty of choice as to route — for a while I was slightly lost in the mist. If it is like Mount Pachnes (2,453m/8,045 ft) in the White Mountains of Crete that I ascended in 2005, the bare rocks may have deep potholes and caves. Mount Parnassus should thus have afforded Virgil plenty of choice for exhilarating wandering. But was Virgil wearing sandals?
The Heroic Quest
The relevance of all this to Himalayan Portfolios lies less in the view camera and geology linkage than in the iconic figure of Virgil -- a molder of the Western concept of the epic form and the heroic quest. The Aeneid, once a staple of a classics-grounded education, decribes how the virtuous Aeneus escaped from the destruction of Troy with his wife (daugher of the slain Priam, king of Troy), his son and his aged father Anchises. The escape was helped by Venus his mother (daughter of Jupiter). He set out to recreate the glory that was Troy in a new city and country, but from the beginning he was opposed by Juno, wife of Jupiter. (The conflict between Venus and Juno started the Trojan War.) In Virgil's poem Aeneus' heroic struggle was accomplished, but with much grief and slaughter. The Aeneid begins with a cry of bafflement: Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods? Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? It is a question that might well be asked when deeply committed and experienced climbers get wiped out by a storm or avalanche.
Virgil’s Virgil and Dante’s Virgil
In Himalayan Portfolios, under the heading “The Eternal Quest” (p 167), I cited Tennyson’s poem Ulysses that influenced generations of explorers and mountaineers. The poem is based on a famous passage in Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s guide Virgil, by his authority as an epic poet, commands the flame-encased spirit of Ulysses (Gk. Odysseus) to describe his final journey. It is a story unknown from any source other than Dante. Ulysses, growing old and bored by life in Ithaca, sails southwards beyond the Pillars of Hercules and beyond Africa in search of “knowledge and excellence.” After glimpsing the island of the mythical Mount Purgatory that Dante places at the South Pole, the ship is destroyed in a storm and the flawed hero, Ulysses, ends up in the circle of those who gave council to promote deceit (he promoted the Trojan horse.) The sprit, having related his fate, is dismissed by the poet and Ulysses rejoins the endless cavalcade of wandering flames. Tennyson, by omitting this context, avoids the implication of deceit and clothes Ulysses in the virtue of the struggle.
How did Virgil get the job as Dante’s guide? In Book VI of the Aeneid Virgil describes how the Sybil of Apollo at Cumae in Italy tells Aeneus that if he performs certain tasks, most famously finding and plucking the golden bough, she will lead him to the shade of his father in the underworld. This journey, in which various other shades are encountered, forms the outline for Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. (The shades encountered include Dido whom Aeneus had abandoned in Carthage --Dido had committed suicide -- not surpisingly, she refuses to speak.) In Dante’s Divine Comedy Virgil takes the place of the Sybil. He qualifies for this task because, like Aeneus, he is wise and virtuous (Inf. I, 85), and because for Dante he is the guru-like teacher and master of the poetic craft. As a soul guide (Gk, psychopomp) he is unlike the Shaman soul guide who escorts the dead (see HP, p84), he is a guide of the living.
Virgil takes on the task because he is asked. In the poem the exiled Dante is lost and frightened and in need of rescue. In this he resembles Wordsworth who experienced a “treacherous desertion” of the soul when the French Revolution turned into the Terror. Wordsworth was rescued through the support of his sister Dorothy and the intervention of Nature (see HP, p142.) For Dante the rescue comes through the intervention of Beatrice. In the poem she is the agent of divine grace. In his commentary “The Figure of Beatrice” Charles Williams points out that Beatrice cannot command Virgil. She may astonish him by her beauty—“Her eyes outshone the firmament.” (Inf II, 55)— but his assistance in rescuing Dante is ultimately a matter of courtesy. (Williams quote Tyndal’s translation of St Paul: “Love suffereth long and is courteous.”) Virgil accepts her request, but it is only when his ghostly form is addressed by Dante, who appeals for help, that he takes on a corporeal form and the dialog can begin (Inf. I,65). In the journey through Hell and Purgatory the bond between Dante and Virgil increases until in the sacred wood of the earthly paradise Virgil departs and Dante is “orphaned”. This takes place when Beatrice appears in a magnificent pageant and Dante turns to Virgil, quoting a passage from the Aenaed relating to Dido and her love for Aeneus, only to find Virgil has departed, his task being completed (Perg. XXX, 46).
It is easy to miss the utter strangeness of Virgil’s commission. Beatrice and Virgil belong to different theological universes separated by a great gulf. Her system centers on a single all loving and all powerful god. Virgil had cried: Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods? He could equally well have been a Himalayan Buddhist believing in many terrifiying earth spirits and mountain gods. How can she be sure he has changed to her system of belief? But Beatrice does not quibble about his theology. They are united in courtesy: he understands her compassion, she accepts his autonomy as a poet. It is as a poet that he can speak to Dante.
Addendum: The classical sublime
The Golden Bough; J.M.W. Turner, exhibited 1834, Tate Gallery. The Sibyl holds a sickle and the freshly cut bough in front of Lake Avernus, the legendary gateway to the Underworld. There are earlier more literal versions. A 1798 version is in the Tate Gallery. "Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sybyl," 1814-15, is in the Yale Center for British Art. The 1834 version relates to Claud's Aeneus paintings and to Turner's Claud-inspired Carthage paintings. In these late Turner's the gold has taken over the painting. Sir James Frazer in Chapter 1 of the Golden Bough wrote: "Who does not know Turner's picture of the Golden Bough?"