Click to Subscribe
▶  More from
‘Destiny’s Exile’
The Aeneid of Virgil: Impressions of a Migratory Epic
The founding of a Nation and of the apparatus of The State inflicts, by chance or by design, a collective amnesia, redefining reality from the view of a starting point. An example is our oldest extant document of the heroic west, of what became of the war Band, when Gilgamesh is introduced in terms of his City, his State, and then strives the entire epic to transcend the limits of this construct—seeking furiously backward in Time for a sense of his identity, explained in terms of immortality. Below is the opening to my adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, reflecting the traditional, mystic journey of a hero sung in such a way as to illuminate a people’s past.
Ascend the Carven Stair, that ever upward path unimaginable to the mortal mind.
Approach Her Stone Womb, raised by Him, the king smitten by Love.
Traverse the circuitous wall of mighty Uruk, examine its awesome foundations, admire its brickwork—mud transformed by unnamed toilsome hands.
Behold the land enclosed by this hardened feat, the palms, gardens, orchards, the plush abodes of the masters, the shops and marketplaces, the dwellings of the teaming slaves and their places of bondage.
At the base of the massive all-enclosing wall is set the cornerstone, the crux which binds all.
Find it.
Dig beneath.
Unearth the copper box, upon which is inscribed: Gilgamesh, for this is He.
Unlock it.
Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli.
Discover how He suffered the sorrows of the accursed and how he likewise knew the boons of the blessed.
Read of the trials and triumphs of Gilgamesh.
Virgil had a tougher task in framing the heroic prehistory of his folk—and any such history must be heroic, from the exodus of a slave nation to the migration of a hunted tribe. For Rome had formed its identity as a kingdom, reformed its identity as a republic, and was now attempting to reform its identity as an empire. Virgil took the rare step of using preexisting mythic lore to frame not a metaphoric migration story of a people whose homeland has been conquered, but of an actual migration yarn, with the hero not apart in search of the key to his folk’s identity, but in the lead in search of a home. The historic accuracy of this epic is probably quite bad, as it deals with prehistoric events erased by the foundation of Rome. However, Virgil lived in a time when swirling nations of nomads and semi-nomads migrated just beyond the Roman border. Also, every Greco-Roman scholar was steeped in the lore of the hero’s metaphoric migration out of time and knew the actual histories of Hellenic nations that had been founded as colonies by migrants from the Hellenic homeland, many of them on the Italian peninsula, such as Sybaris, Lokri, Rhegium, Syracuse and Kroton.
Virgil was in fact, telling the generalized migration story of many—and perhaps most—of the Aryan peoples who came as conquerors to the Middle Sea, about which Rome was steadily consolidating its iron grip, a grasp of nations that might better be maintained by soldiers possessed of a sense of heroic destiny linked to a deep history unsullied by the recent dissolution of their nation.
Virgil said it best:
“Of arms I sing and the hero, destiny’s exile…”
Virgil and all the epic poets knew that the soul of their people had been forged in exile among enemies and settled nations as they wondered the face of a hostile world and fought for their place—not a place, but their place—within its cruel bounds.
He: Gilgamesh: Into the Face of Time
prev:  ‘His Third Helpmate’     ‹  histories  ›     next:  Vergil’s Shadow

Add a new comment below: