Disclosure: this was a re-work of my undergraduate “thesis” which I ended up submitting when I (unsuccessfully) applied to PhD programs in 2020.
Who are the gods? Are they like mankind, full of worry, hardship, and tragedy? Mankind, who in our minds, fixes upon the inconsequentialities of daily life— what should I eat for breakfast, how should I approach this awkward social situation, do I need or simply want a cup of coffee? Or are they like the those “gods” according to the Epicureans— being who, living in a complete and perfect harmony, have ataraxia? In regard to the gods and their nature, there is rarely an agreement among men: whether the gods live corporeally or metaphysically, whether they are good or bad, or whether or not they even concern themselves with the petty affairs of mortals. In the Aeneid, Vergil plays with the concept of human perception of the divine masterfully. All things considered, it seems only logical that Vergil treats his gods not as truly corporeal, anthropomorphized beings which exist on the same plane of reality that humans do, but rather, as metaphors for general human wants, desires, or needs— or perhaps even as an excuse as to why an individual human acted on his own wants, desires, needs.
In one of the most philosophical dialogues of the entire poem, Nisus asks his partner Euryalus, “Do the gods put these wants into our minds, Euryalus, or does each person make a god out of his own fierce desire? (Aeneid, 9.184)” Here Vergil makes the Roman readers (or rather, listeners) cognizant of their own conception of the gods, and, in doing so, seemingly breaks the fourth wall. Subtly, he gives a hint of all the things and ideas that the gods represent, and, by extension, one theme of the epic poem. His masterful craft is clearly demonstrated in several places throughout the work; this essay will showcase several examples that support the argument, providing details about the imagery used by Vergil, and, at the same time, commenting on the status of human nature via poetry. But first, it is important to examine what was said by Nisus to Euryalus before the siege of the Trojan citadel in Italy, where the first the first example can be found.
Nisus, spurred on by his “innate” Roman desire for war and glory, questions the nature of the gods. To Euryalus, his partner, who is also keeping watch over the fortress, he posits an idea which he has apparently been mulling over for quite some time. Nisus has come to a conclusion that with the gods, there are two distinct possibilities: either that the gods impose their desires upon men, and, in a way, that makes us as though we are slaves, twisting and turning, squirming with the will of the gods; or that the gods might be merely for show, existing in name only, nothing more than the creations of the human mind, incorporated only in order that mankind might give a name and reason to the passion that compels them onward— and, perhaps more conveniently, something (or “someone”) to blame when at fault, and to praise when successful.
In the first case the gods must be real things, but in the second, the possibility that they are only human constructs is high. At this point in the poem, Father Aeneas, the de facto king of the Trojan remnants, had given Nisus and Euryalus orders to watch over the citadel as a night garrison, in case a raiding party of enemy Rutulians were to come; however, Nisus’ desire for glory compelled him, along with Euryalus, to defy Aeneas’s mandate. The two wandered away from their watch into the camp of sleeping Rutulian soldiers and engaged in murder and plunder, which quickly lead to their doom. Was this the work of a god? In Nisus’ case, unlike other examples from the poem, a specific god had not come to tempt him with his idea of glory. The trope was subverted then, because there was not a god. Vergil perhaps wrote the scene precisely to subvert the trope, to demonstrate that he is a master of poets, unbound by popular convention or expectation, and capable of a “twist.” Furthermore, Nisus seems to have put this idea in his head on his own; either that or he thinks it was put there by a divinity, and thus takes action. It is not entirely clear which of the two scenarios are true in Nisus’ case, but either way he acts upon the thought. There is one final thing to note here: both Nisus and Euryalus died. It is customary for the gods to punish those who are disobedient, sometimes with death (and even, in some cases, to punish those who are obedient for no other reason than because it is possible). So then, who was the god here— or what is Vergil trying to demonstrate?
A second meeting in which a god is a metaphor for desire, acts as an incorporation of such, and appears to a mortal as a passion, is in the first book. Venus, the goddess of love, sex, lust, desire, passion, etc., sends her son (Aeneas’ stepbrother), Cupid, to Carthage, where Aeneas is staying for the time being. In her attempt to help her son Aeneas, she directs Cupid to transform into the likeness of Ascanius (Aeneas’ son) and lead Dido into Aeneas’ love through a little disingenuity and a little magic. Cupid, of course, is to the Romans the embodiment of desire— hence his name. His mother is as well, and these two are one of the best examples of the overarching theme of the certain type of divine intervention being explored in The Aeneid, because they can be understood easily by many modern readers familiar with the Greco-Roman tradition of the major gods and goddesses. On the other hand, some of the other Roman ideas in this poem do not necessarily lend themselves to be easily understood by modern audiences without an intricate familiarity with Roman religious storytelling tropes. In addition, the ideas would perhaps seeming strange or off-putting to those who live in a time, place, and cultural tradition with different norms.
Cupid came to create an attraction between Dido and Aeneas, and more importantly, to perhaps excuse them, in whole or in part, from their actions. Because of this, it seems that neither Dido nor Aeneas should have complete culpability when the two lovers part ways. Although a modern interpretation might rightly place the majority of the blame for the whole situation on what decisions Aeneas makes under the circumstances he is dealt, it remains that both he and Dido were powerless to stop the machinations of the gods, to sever the fabric of fate. Or at least, that is what Mercury comes to remind Aeneas of before the storm-tossed Trojan refugee decides to leave to continue with his pietas. The fact that Aeneas would leave Dido was divinely communicated to both parties does not excuse the hurt, although it helps to explain it. Once again, a mortal did not obey (or in this case, refused to accept) the proclamation of a goddess, and for it, was punished. Dido’s dream of living happily ever after with Aeneas did not come to fruition. As Bruce Springsteen asked in The River, “Is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse?” But the question must be asked: was Dido punished by a goddess or by her own mind? Is her anguish, as Nisus’ inability to resist the temptation of glory, self-inflicted? Today this might be called a self-fulfilling prophecy— a case of someone becoming so worried and fixated on something purely hypothetical that she manifests the very tragedy herself; in this case Dido, unable or unwilling to accept a divine mandate (Aeneas’s pietas, his heavenly duty of “founding” Rome) becomes the architect of her own destruction. Again, the parallel with the first example of Nisus makes itself clear. Gods are used both as an impetus for events, and an excuse for our actions related to those events.
It is important to admit that humans are notoriously bad at thinking rationally, especially when vague and abstract concepts like love and glory are involved. So, if the idea that gods do not exist as “gods made into men”, but rather as the movement of particles clanging together in one’s mind, another perspective is open to us; namely, that in Vergil’s time the gods had become merely things for show, ways of abdicating oneself of responsibility or of desire, or only just a custom of old for the sake of preserving tradition. Under this interpretation, it seems Vergil is simultaneously supporting a return to old ways, an Augustinian objective of sorts— but also rendering a somewhat Epicurean sentiment.
The next example concerns poor Palinurus the helmsman, who sails Aeneas’ ship. After Aeneas and friends leave the funerary games of Anchises, heavy with the consequences of their revelry, the crew go to bed, leaving Palinurus to steer the ship. He is dutifully sailing through the night when the personification of Sleep as a god slowly descends from the heavens, tempting Palinurus with the sweet relief of slumber (5.838). Palinurus, of course, knows he cannot go to sleep because he is sailing a ship, and if he abdicated his duty the ship could crash and everyone aboard might die, but Sleep is persistent devil. Sleep says, “Palinurus, son of Iasus, the seas themselves steer the fleet, the breezes blow steadily, this hour is granted for rest. Lay down your head and rob your weary eyes of labour. For a little while, I myself will take on your duty for you” (5.834).Naturally, Sleep is engaging in the meddlesome behavior the divine beings in these stories seem unable to resist. Representing the desire of rest, the human necessity of slumber, Sleep is a great manipulator who persuades Palinurus to rest with magical drops from the river Styx, which is akin to the contemporary idea of the Sandman— perhaps what can be called a childhood god. As people tend to lie to themselves when tired, saying, “I’m only going to rest my eyes for a minute,” so did Palinurus, in a moment of human weakness. Having convinced himself that it would be okay to sleep, he nodded off and fell off the deck into the icy depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Vergil represents this with Palinurus being thrown from the boat by Sleep: another way to blame a human act on a god. Of course, what “really” happened was that Palinurus succumbed to his tiredness, fell asleep, and slipped off the boat. But in Vergil’s world, it cannot be so. A god did it, put the irresistible desire into Palinurus’ heart, and who was he to sever the fabric of fate? It is likely that Palinurus would have died at the hands of the indigenous people of the Italian lands when he washed ashore; but when Aeneas meets him in the underworld, Palinurus gives the story of Sleep forcefully ripping him away from the boat while he was still clinging to the helm and throwing him into the ocean. Palinurus’ justification is necessary within the context of the theme of divine intervention.
Rumor is another goddess representing desire and being personified as such, although a different type of desire from Cupid and Venus. Rumor makes an important appearance in book nine, flying around though the town and telling the people about the death of Nisus and Euryalus, going so far as to tell Euryalus’ mother about his death, and the carrying by Turnus and company of his and Nisus’ decapitated heads upon spears in celebration. Of course, this pains her heart, as any mother would be sick with grief at the news of the death of her son. Before that, in book four, Rumor is described perfectly by Vergil: at first she starts out small, through fear or weakness. Then she starts growing with the number of people who spread her message. After having her toxic words repeated by many people, she is able to stretch her wretched wings and fly through the air without fear, since she is now more powerful, sufficiently “monstrous, horrible, and unnatural” for her task (4.184). She is described as a truly ugly monster. Once again, Rumor comes in book seven in order to spread the prophecy sought by king Latinus from the oracle of Faunus throughout the land. This prophecy says that Latinus should not give his daughter in marriage to a Latin man (7.104), which is what leads him to believe Lavinia should be married to Aeneas instead of Turnus. Rumor appears in other places as well, doing the same thing. It seems as though Vergil intended an obviousness in this personification of Rumor, whereas with other gods it is not always as clear or in plain sight. It is likely that to Vergil and other Romans, that their gods were metaphors was obvious. For example, describing how ugly, vile, and twisted Rumor was serves as a way to get a point across, or to teach a lesson (in this case, clearly, “Don’t spread rumors”).
Iris is another goddess to be considered, but a more interesting case. She is more or less a “henchman” of Juno, carrying out some of her plots against the Trojans, which usually involve impeding Aeneas’ pietas, either directly or indirectly. But with Iris, it is hard to say she really represents a desire, unless we consider that desire to be revenge. Juno, despite knowing well the rules of how goddesses like her operate in this universe, is hell-bent on destroying Aeneas, no matter the cost, and no matter the proclamation of Jupiter or any other god. And all the anger, the ira, of Juno against Aeneas is the embodiment of a complete prejudice against all Trojans, stemming back to poor Paris, the Trojan prince who got mixed up with divinities.
In Paris’ story, the goddess Discord likewise represents a desire, and is given a very human and compelling motivation for causing the trouble stemming from the golden apple. Being made to pick between gifts of Juno, Venus, and Athena as bribes to settle the argument of who the “fairest” was meant to be, Paris is bound to a choice. He has no way to escape the it, but is his choice predetermined? Are the threads of fate already woven into the next part of his story, or do the bribes offered by each goddess allow Paris to select and carry out his more burning desire? Being made to choose between Athena’s offer of unmatched wisdom, Venus’ offer of having the most beautiful woman as his wife, and Juno’s offer of being the most powerful leader, Paris could not help but choose Venus, angering Juno and setting the pieces in place for Iris to eventually come to disrupt Aeneas’ mission as an act of revenge. In some versions of the myth, Aeneas joined Paris on his escapade to capture Helen, which may also play into the goddess’ desire to harm Aeneas, as he is guilty by association. For their acts against Juno, and against the Greek people as represented by the capture of Helen, and of course, for not choosing Juno, who loves the Greek people, in the contest, all the Trojans were made to suffer. Once the Trojan war began, the gods and goddesses took sides, and this is where Iris comes in. Since the gods do usually follow, at least in this epic poem, the Epicurean trope that the greater gods are somewhat more “hands-off” in their approach to handling mortals than other beings, Juno has to enact her revenge through some other means; namely, a lesser god, because they do not seem to be bound by the same laws greater gods are. Gods at Jupiter’s level and above were often bound by the “do not directly meddle in the lives of mortals” tenet, so they send gods from the lower ranks to do their bidding. Of course, where necessary, the tenet is not so strictly adhered to, since we see some acts of direct interference, such as Neptune’s calming of the sea, despite that being more of a reaction than an initial action. Many times throughout the poem, Iris is sent by Juno to impede Aeneas’s progress toward Italy and the fulfilment of his pietas. Juno’s seething rage is therefore only realized though Iris; it can be said, then, that in this way the lesser gods are to the greater gods as the gods in general are to humans.
A different aspect in The Aeneid is that the greater gods— Jupiter, for example— do not seem at first sight to be the same as the lesser gods; for example, Cupid is clearly on a different plane of power than Juno, and is used by Venus in a similar way that Juno uses Iris. In this way, gods being personifications of desires occur with gods of lesser importance. Certainly, Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and the rest represent or have dominion over a part of the earth and/or human affairs, but looking past these things, we see that which they lord over is not so different than that which lesser gods represent. Venus, the goddess of “love”, represents physical love and carnal lust, as does her son Cupid; Neptune represents the passion of sailing; Mars, fighting; Saturn, governing; Jupiter, making decisions for oneself; Pluto, conquering death; Vulcan, being skilled in the crafting of armor and weapons; and so forth. In On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero, a master of oratory and philosophy, is incredulous to the fact that people so easily make gods into men. Why should gods be like men? And if they are like humans, why would they care about human affairs? Do gods even exist? Or do they, as Vergil so put it through Nisus’ question, become our desires?
There is a conflict: throughout history men have found or invented things, ideas, and paradigms, to which they gave the name gods, in order to serve a certain end. Perhaps to control others, to explain strange phenomena, to give people hope, or to give people fear. These gods, ancient and modern, have caused war, death, and pain for their names. In many of the instances of religion used as an excuse committing acts of harm, men think a god is on their side. This comes in many forms: priests on a mission to convert those who have different beliefs; military leaders justifying their genocide because those who would resist their “divinely granted rights” are clearly not in the favor of their gods, or are even less human for not believing in them; or legislators who would deny equal access to resources because their belief system is the only correct one. Today, our gods are not different than the gods at any time in the past; although cultures change, men do not. In fact, as the old adage goes “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” with contemporary takes merely being different wallpaper applied to the same old room. We see Jesus Christ as an example, who, to his followers represents all things good, pure, and holy; he represents a salvation from the anguish of mortal life, an unattainable ideal, and a promise unfulfilled to the living— a promise of life everlasting in the Christian version of the Elysian fields. This promise is a gift for those suffering on Earth. The mythology/theology of Jesus is attractive for many reasons, but possibly the most important is the promise of the afterlife. This, of course, is another desire: the desire for eternity, for having what might be our most valuable resource— time. And this promise, this desire, is something truly unattainable until it is too late to find out if it is possible. All men must die, but must all men stay dead?
In this way, the gods of other cultures and civilizations like Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, etc. served the same purpose. Whether or not the gods truly existed or not is inconsequential. What mattered—and matters—to humans is that the gods stand for something, that they can be looked to for comfort, for answers, for advice. For expressing a desire.
It can be said, then, that according to this evidence, Greek and Roman gods, and perhaps all gods, for that matter, represent human desires. That which humans want to do is represented by their gods. In the stories, the storytellers use gods who are anthropomorphized in order to represent human wants in a manner that is easy to understand. Religious stories generally have some type of moral or message, as this is an easy way to reach masses of people— an oral tradition— before mass communication. The oral tradition of ancient people carried on through centuries before being written down and carries over to this day. These stories were obviously intended to instill some type of values unto their hearers. One of Augustus’s goals was to re-instill the traditional Roman values to the people of his empire. one of the ways Vergil attempted this was to re-introduce people to the ancient tales. In fact, a major point of the emperor’s patronage to the poets was to further his goals of empiric unification through a return to the state religion, traditional values, etc. These goals were based in the idea that religion was, or could be, the glue which holds the paper of society together. It seems as though this happens over and over again: for instance, a politician who makes a call for “return to simpler times” or “a return to morals” is making the same appeal. Like Cicero who lamented the morals changing with respect to times, modern leaders do likewise. The sort of fallacy here is that people are not really inherently any different than they were a generation or two or ten ago, but instead there is a desire for a certain control by the people making these claims. As such, it logically follows that these claims are often intricately linked with some type of religious belief. Maybe not as strong as a god, but the religious belief backing the desire is there nonetheless.
What is it, then, to be human, if not to look for meaning in the world, and to explain one’s feelings in ways that absolve one from those feelings? Sometimes, our explanation happens to be “gods.” So it is fitting to say of the gods that they represent the desires of men; and the punishment for someone who disobeyed a god means that someone has rendered a punishment to himself, because he has succumbed to a weakness of the mind or of the heart. Vergil, ever the master of lyric poetry, sometimes hides this fact in darkness, but at other times he displays it in plain sight; that his gods are not gods but personifications, a way of demonstrating the weaknesses, desires, and even tragic character flaws of humans— and something onto which to place blame. It is, after all easier to blame everything but ourselves. “Oh, the times, oh, the morals?” Cicero had it wrong. New times will not make new people. Times change, but people do not. Not O tempora, O mores, but O Homines.