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
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 thisbut to be master of Italy a land that teems with empire...to place all earth within his laws. But if the brightness of such deeds is not enough to kindle him...does hea fatherbegrudge 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
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),
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:
I seize my weapons. Theres 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 Virgils 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
Latinuss 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
is thus a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything
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). Bachelards 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
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:
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
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
and circumstantial development in contrast to
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.
in the flame is the least lonely of deaths. This is because
ones essence is wholly removed from the terrestrial. Bachelard
gives two examples . The first is from a novel by Italian writer
G. DAnnunzio, 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 Bachelards
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)
the conquest of the superfluous gives us greater spiritual
excitement...man 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
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
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.
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 horses
evil hidden secret, the concealed men and the death and destruction
they will soon release, the Trojan horse is described by this
flames blazed from its staring eyes (II.244) . In
Book four with Dido many times we see fires hidden, and (or) felt
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
the walls of Carthage glowed with sad Elissas
flames, they cannot know what caused so vast a blaze. I dont
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. Bees are otherwise
a Virgilian trope of ideal Civitas with bees 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
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 Eliades 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
Love become family, Fire becomes hearth and home.
The Dialectic is between fire/heat and light. When
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 Lavinias 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
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
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 Juturnas
godhead, and her steadfastness to him), his mind understands (
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:
be loved means to be consumed...to 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)
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 Vergils 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.
.parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. Sometimes
(and more archly) translated as
spare the humbled, war down