Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Aeneas Meets a Girl in the Woods

Aeneas and his surviving crew are shipwrecked somewhere in northern Africa. He and his right-hand man Achates set off to take a look around and see if they can find civilization or any other survivors. While stomping off through the woods, Aeneas comes across his mama in disguise.

Cui mater media sese tulit obvia silva
virginis os habitumque gerens, et virginis arma
Spartanae, vel qualis equos Threissa fatigat
Harpalyce, volucremque fuga praevertitur Hebrum.
Namque umeris de more habilem suspenderat arcum
venatrix, dederatque comam diffundere ventis,
nuda genu, nodoque sinus collecta fluentes.

Not knowing who this babe-in-the-woods is, Aeneas responds to her greeting,

"Nulla tuarum audita mihi neque visa sororum --
O quam te memorem, virgo? Namque haud tibi vultus
mortalis, nec vox hominem sonat: O, dea certe --
an Phoebi soror? An nympharum sanguinis una?"

One of the first reactions of my students concerning this exchange is that Aeneas has some pretty lame pick-up lines! Their feelings are that Mother Venus has been described in some fairly alluring terms and that Aeneas is trying (unwittingly) to hit on his mother!

Is this Vergil's intention? Hmm... let's take a look. He describes Venus incognita as virginis os habitumque gerens (l. 315). He intends her to be a maiden and reinforces this notion later when Aeneas repeats the word in line 328. The focus is on her mouth (os, line 315) as a primary description by synecdoche. He continues a physical description with her shoulder (umeris, line 318), her hair blowing in the wind (comam diffundere ventis, line 318), and (gasp!) her leg exposed all the way up to the knee (nuda genu, line 320). Why would Vergil give such emphasis to her physical description, if he didn't wanted to paint this image of an attractive maiden bounding through the woods? She is Venus, after all, and deserves a description such as this. If we read this description as an intentional effort at allurement, this makes Aeneas words all the more provocative. He starts off by asking her with a plea (O, line 328) how he is to remember this encounter (quam te memorem, line 328), and he caps it off with the vocative virgo (line 328). Aeneas obviously is not aware that this is his mother, but he makes the assumption that she, based on her looks, is a maiden, not a puella, not a femina, not a mulier nor matrona. He then comments on her heavenly face (haud tibi vultus/ mortalis, lines 328-329) and her divine voice (nec vox hominem sonat, line 329). Again, why the emphasis on the physical? Finally, the weak pick-up line, O, dea certe (line 329). At least that's what my students think!

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