In the past few weeks, I wrote a few blog posts on Dante’s Inferno, the great medieval Italian depiction of hell. As it happened, I was in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the other day, and I stumbled upon this wonderful sculpture of Dante and Virgil. I had not been previously aware of this 1862 sculpture by Baron Henri de Triqueti. (For more information on this work, click here.).
I was, though, aware of the serious “man-crush” Dante Alighieri had on Publius Vergilius Maro, more commonly known as Virgil. Virgil was a Roman poet who lived from 70 – 19 B.C., while Dante was a Florentine who lived from 1265-1321 A.D, Obviously, then, they never met. This sculpture is a product of Triqueti’s imagination.
Virgil was most famous for epic poem The Aeneid, which was in many ways a rewriting of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad, but from the point of view of the Trojans who eventually became the Romans who, at the time of Aeneid’s writing, were a powerful empire controlling a good chunk of the world.
Dante thought Virgil was awesome, the bees knees, the greatest thing since sliced bread, the top of the charts, quite simply the best. Dante thought Virgil was so cool, in fact, that he put him in his poem. Virgil in The Inferno symbolizes the epitome of human reason, the best that humans are capable of without the light of God. (Virgil was a pagan.) Unfortunately, Virgil lives in hell because he was pre-Christian. However, he lives in the best section of it, along with the other virtuous pagans. Nothing really bad happens to the virtuous pagans. They are simply without hope of heaven.
Having quite a bit of spare time on his hands, Virgil agrees to guide Dante through hell. He explains who is who, what is what, and why they sinners are punished the way they are. Without Virgil, Dante would not have been able to make it through hell and come out on the other end. Without Virgil as his poetic guide, he would not have been able to write the masterpiece of The Divine Comedy, either.
What about you? If you were writing an epic poem in which you were featured as the hero or heroine, who would you choose as your guide? Do you have a man-crush or woman-crush on an author, dead or alive?
Romantic love beckons to young girls, luring them in with promises of beautiful sunsets, rhapsodic violin melodies, and long romantic dinners. Love, they believe, will solve all their problems, heal all their wounds, and make their thighs look thinner.
For romantic girls such as these, the goddess of love resembles a fairy godmother, Disney style. American Girl Love Goddess is warm and benevolent, full of goodwill towards us mere humans. She just wants to see everyone happily coupled with their soul mates. She WILL eventually make all of us happy in love.
The Fairy Godmother from Disney’s “Cinderella”
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew better. The goddess of love they worshipped (called Aphrodite by the Greek and Venus by the Romans) was no warm and cuddly grandmother type. She was a FORCE to be reckoned with. She was someone to respect, someone to fear.
“Watch out, or I will smite you!”
Hippolytus and Phaedra learned this the hard way. Their stories, passed down by myth, were portrayed in Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, first performed in 428 B.C. in Athens. Hippolytus was an upright young man, full of virtue. He was so virtuous, in fact, that he did not pay the proper respect to Aphrodite. He preferred to remain a virgin and devote most of his reverence to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt. People warned Hippolytus that he was asking for trouble by ignoring Aphrodite and the force of eros she represented. Hippolytus ignored their wise counsel.
He should have paid more heed. Aphrodite did not take kindly to being ignored, and she decided to teach Hippolytus a lesson. Unfortunately, Aphrodite took out her desire for vengeance on an innocent bystander: Phaedra. Phaedra was married to Hippolytus’s father, Theseus. She was living happily with Theseus until Aphrodite decided to smite her with overwhelming passion for her stepson. Obviously, this put Phaedra in an untenable position.
Phaedra was in agony. She could not bear to live without the object of her desire, and yet she could never reveal her secret to anyone. So she decided to waste away silently. She stayed locked in her room, refusing to see anyone or eat anything. Struck as she was with the force of eros, she wanted to die.
The chorus of Hippolytus understood her pain, her predicament. They chanted the following lines:
Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear,
Men’s eyes with hunger; thou swift Foe that pliest
Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear;
Come not to me with Evil haunting near,
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear
Wing’s music as thou fliest!
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire,
Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear,
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire,
Erôs, Child of the Highest!
I won’t reveal what happened next, in case you wish to read the tragedy yourselves. (It’s well worth a read and does not take a long time.) Since it is considered a tragedy, however, you probably figured out that the story does not turn out well for either Phaedra or Hippolytus. Readers and viewers of Euripides’s Hippolytus understand that Eros is not a warm and benevolent gift. Rather it is an overwhelming, ruthless force that not only has a strong potential for serious damage, but can also kill.
Dido of Virgil’s The Aeneid (19 B.C.) shares a similar fate with Phaedra. Dido, like Phaedra, is the victim of the scheming love goddess. (Since Virgil was Roman, the goddess of love is now called Venus, but she is just as destructive as Aphrodite. )
When we first meet Dido, she is a strong, single, successful woman. She is the founder and ruler of Carthage, an up-and-coming city that has the potential to ruin Rome (in the future). Because Dido and her city are so successful, however, they pose a threat to Rome. Therefore they must be destroyed. Venus, who happens to be the mother of Aeneas (our hero), smites Dido with overpowering erotic love for her son. Once Dido is struck with Venus’s arrow, she is doomed:
The queen, for her part, all that evening ached
With longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound
Or inward fire eating her away.
The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her tie and again; his looks,
His words remained with her to haunt her mind, And desire for him gave her no rest.
Poor Dido! This love for Aeneas is not a gift, but a “wound,” and will be the cause of her undoing. Yes, she and Aeneas do have a mutually passionate relationship for a few months. But soon, Aeneas is called away by the gods. Yes, they actually visit him and tell him it’s time to leave Carthage to go found Rome. He feels bad, but he tells Dido he needs to move on.
Dido is devastated. For her, life is no longer worth living. She can never go back to her content days as Queen of Carthage. Instead, she builds a funeral pyre, climbs upon it, and stabs herself to death.
Keep in mind, all this ruin was caused by Venus, who deliberately started the flames of passion in Dido, knowing full well what the results would be. In other words, Venus is one cold bitch.
What should you take away from these ancient myths? The ancients knew something about the power of eros. They would tell you this:
Be careful. Pay Aphrodite/Venus the respect she is due. And then get out of her way before she smites you.
The rock band Nazareth knew this, too, as their hit song from 1976 demonstrates:
Love hurts, love scars, love wounds And mars, any heart Not tough or strong enough To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Love hurts……ooh, ooh love hurts