Saturday, September 12, 2015

BOOK: Boccaccio, "Genealogy of the Pagan Gods" (Vol. 1)

Giovanni Boccaccio: Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. Vol. 1: Books I–V. Edited and translated by Jon Solomon. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 46. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674057104. xxxvii + 887 pp.

I didn't particularly enjoy reading this book, but I couldn't help admiring the author's gumption: he boldly waded into the unholy morass that is ancient Greek and Roman mythology and tried to arrange all the various mythological entities into one huge genealogical tree!

Judging by the translator's introduction (p. xii), he was neither the first nor the last person to make a compendium of classical mythology, though I'm not sure if other authors also tried to arrange everything into a genealogical tree. In any case, I imagined it would be obvious enough to everyone that ancient mythology is simply too messy, incompletely known, and internally inconsistent to be neatly arranged into one huge genealogy. Sure, you could extract numerous small genealogical fragments from it — Aeneas is the son of Venus, who is the daughter of Jupiter, who is the son of Saturn, etc. — but for many minor characters mentioned in ancient mythology, we probably simply don't have enough information about their ancestry to reliably place them into a genealogical tree.

Besides, when the same character is mentioned in several sources, they are often inconsistent with each other. Boccaccio, like other authors before him, tried to work around this by imagining that sometimes several characters with the same name got conflated into one, so that when things get too inconsistent, you can simply pretend to resolve them by disentangling one character into several different ones, who lived at different times and did different things. Thus you hear mentions of things like ‘the first Jupiter’, ‘the second Jupiter’, and so on (among other things there are at least five Minervas, 4.64; four Apollos, 5.3.1; three Aesculapii, 5.19.7 — incidentally, most of this stuff seems to be coming from Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods). On the positive side, this numbering of Jupiters provided the translator with the opportunity to sneak an excellent pun into the text (2.4.1): “Eusebius writes that Jupiter copulated with her [= Niobe] before any other mortal, and so he was the first Jupiter, for the others come much later.” :]

I wonder if the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves really thought of their mythology as being interconnected into one huge genealogical tree. Frankly, I doubt it, and as a result I doubt if works like Boccaccio's really help us understand ancient mythology any better. His genealogy just gives us an illusion of order and completeness where most likely no such things ever really existed, even during the ancient times themselves.

I can definitely sympathize with the impulse to do this sort of things, the fannish urge to present an orderly overview of some fictional universe that has delighted us — it's the same impulse that drives the contributors to many wikis and other such websites nowadays. I myself, many years ago, toyed with the idea of making a huge genealogy of the characters in Tolkien's works, but fortunately I came to my senses and abandoned it before wasting too much time on it. And similarly I couldn't help wishing that Boccaccio had recognized his effort with the pagan genealogy as futile and spent his time doing something else. We know that he was a great writer in his own right — he wrote the Decameron, after all — how interesting it would be if he had written his own retellings of the stories from ancient mythology, similar to the ones written more recently by people like Gustav Schwab or Robert Graves.

Instead, what we got here is a curious reference work where I'm not quite sure who is intended to benefit from it. (Boccaccio actually wrote it on commission for the king of Cyprus; p. viii.) If you want to find information about a particular mythological character, it isn't easy to find without an alphabetical index (which this edition has, of course, but I doubt that the manuscript copies of Boccaccio's time had anything of that sort; although it seems that the first such index was compiled soon after his death, see p. x). And it isn't terribly suitable for reading from cover to cover either, or at least I found it boring to read that way. Insofar as it contains retellings of stories from ancient mythology, these retellings tend to be very minimalistic, bare-bones, matter-of-fact abridgements which retain very little of the charm of the original stories.

(There are some exceptions to this, e.g. the story of Cupid and Psyche in 5.22 is written up nicely and with a reasonable level of detail. In fact as soon as Boccaccio steps away from making terse summaries and inane interpretations of ancient myths, he immediately begins to write in an interesting an engaging way; see e.g. 4.68.5–10 for the delightful tale of the discovery of a giant man's body in a cave near Trapani in Sicily, which he claims occurred in his own time; I wonder what was really behind this story.)

If someone unfamiliar with ancient mythology tried to acquaint himself with it by reading Boccaccio's genealogy, he would probably end up wondering why people are making so much fuss about such a boring jumble of absurdities. Still, I guess the problem is that I'm looking at his book too much from a present-day point of view, and thus I'm missing the real point — in the 14th century, when he wrote it, it was probably a very valuable reference work since so few other things of that sort were available.

A big part of Boccaccio's book are his attempts to find some quasi-reasonable explanations behind the various events and factoids mentioned in ancient sources. Boccaccio can't seem to bring himself to admit that most of the stories from ancient mythologies are basically random assemblages of bits and pieces that emerged over the centuries through the efforts of countless people involved in re-telling the stories to each other. Instead, he is determined to find some underlying deeper meaning behind every detail. He usually claims that a mythological character was based on a real person whose actions and personality traits were gradually inflated into the claims we now find about that character in ancient myths. These explanations required no small amount of ingenuity on Boccaccio's part, although much of the time the resulting explanations are just as ad-hoc and arbitrary as the original myths themselves. And of course it's easy to come up with several wildly different ‘interpretations’ of the same story — but in Boccaccio's eyes, that's a feature and not a bug (see his interesting discussion in 1.3.6–8).

A fine example of this sort of interpretations from 1.12: Tages was said to be “a son of Earth from an unknown father [. . .] the earth became a little swollen” and a local farmer, after a little digging, unearthed the little Tages. The baby quickly “became an old man” and “taught the locals the art of divination” (1.12.1–2). Boccaccio's heroic attempt to make sense of this mess: “It could be that there was someone who was studying divination for a long time [. . .] living apart from other humans, he suddenly appeared a learned man from an unknown place. And perhaps because he seemed to come out of a cave, it was said that he was the offspring of Earth. Alternatively, he appeared unexpectedly before the eyes of a man cultivating his fields, as if he came out of the glebes, and was called the son of Earth by the rustic people” etc. (1.12.4)

See also his hilarious interpretation of the Pygmalion myth in 2.49.4. And the story of Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the form of a bull turns into a tawdry tale of white slavery in 2.62.3 (Mercury, who also helps in the process, must be “some procurer leading a maiden from the city to the shore, or a beguiling merchant promising to show her jewels if she will climb aboard his ship”; the Jupiter/bull thing must be “a ship on which the emblem was a white bull” — practically the ‘Free Candy’ van of the ancient world). In 4.10.5–8 there's a rather moralistic interpretation of the tale of the Minotaur (Pasiphae = the human mind; Minos = reason; the bull that seduced her = “delights of the world”, etc.); similarly, he has a thorough interpretation of the story of Orpheus in which Eurydice stands for “natural concupiscence, which no mortal lacks” (5.12.7). See 4.46.5 for a rare occassion where he admits defeat: “In this story there are so many contradictory aspects of both the events and time periods that not only odes it eliminate any credibility in the story but it makes it utterly impossible to find any semblance to the truth.”

Many of his interpretations are based on ‘etymologies’, which I put into scare quotes since I suspect that most of the time they are based just on random similarities between words and not on a real etymological relationship. Thus we learn that Earth is called Terra “because she is ‘tread upon’ [teratur]’ ” and Tellus “because ‘we take [tollamus] from her’ ” (1.8.5) etc. And death is mors because “she ‘bites’ [mordeat] [. . .] or from ‘Mars’ [Marte] who is the murderer of men; or in that death is ‘bitterness’ [amaror]” (1.32.4) etc.

The scope of this work is impressive — this volume contains just one third of it, and is already one of the thickest that we've seen so far in the ITRL series. Boccaccio includes not just well-known gods like Jupiter and Athena, but also various abstract concepts (Eternity in 1.1, Chaos in 1.2, Night in 1.9, Fame in 1.10, etc. etc.) and numerous minor, utterly insignificant characters that just happen to be mentioned somewhere in passing in some ancient work. (In 4.46 he even mentions Isis and Apis, which I imagined more as part of Egyptian mythology than Greco-Roman.) And he clearly put in a huge amount of effort in combing through his sources, which range from ancient authors like Ovid and Cicero to medieval reference works of Isidore, Fulgentius, Rabanus and others (see the very interesting introduction by the translator, pp. xiv–xv). I was also awed by the translator's effort — while Boccaccio usually just cites his authorities by name, the translator then hunted down the title, chapter etc. of the passage which Boccaccio must have had in mind at that point, and all this is included in the notes at the end of the book. For the right sort of readers, I imagine such things must be extremely valuable.


I was interested to learn that Homer apparently had a teacher named Pronapides — this is the first time I've heard of this. See the translator's note 49 on p. 794: “All of Boccaccio's nearly one dozen citations of Pronapides of Athens, traditionally said (e.g., Diodorus of Sicily 3.67.5) to be the teacher of Homer, were derived from Theodontius.” See also the very interesting wikipedia page on Theodontius.

“Sleep is said to be the son of Erebus and Night because it is caused by moist vapors, rising from the stomach and blocking the arteries, and calm darkness.” (1.31.5) :)))

There's a very interesting paragraph on the definition of a day (1.34.4). Nowadays we are used to the idea of a day lasting from midnight to midnight, which appears to be derived from an ancient Roman custom while other ancient nations did it differently: for the Athenians, a day was from sunset to sunset; for Babylonians, from sunrise to sunrise; and for the Etruscans, from noon to noon (“This custom is still observed by astrologers”).

Nowadays rape is considered to be a very grim subject, but in ancient mythology it always comes across as downright merry. From 1.25.1: “While happily hunting in the forest, with her spear she inadvertently struck a satyr who desired to have his way with her. Amymone called upon Neptune for assistance. But the maiden Amymone, once the satyr was chased away, suffered from the greater god what she would not suffer from the satyr, and conceived with Neptune and gave birth to Nauplius.” You can practically imagine Neptune unzipping his pants while saying ‘I guess this is simply not your lucky day:)))

Apparently there's also a myth that myrrh, an incense-bearing tree, was initially a girl named Myrrha who was turned into a tree after seducing her father into some hot incest action (after her transformation, she gave birth to Adonis); 2.52.

There's a very interesting chapter on Dido, which mentions another (and even sadder) version of her story, very different from what we find in Virgil. In both versions she starts as a widow; in Virgil, she then falls in love with Aeneas and eventually commits suicide after he departs for Italy. But “Justin says that the Carthaginian leaders, under threat of war by the king of the Massitani, ordered her to marry [. . .] she requested a specific day on which she would promise to go to her husband [. . .] drawing a knife which she had secretly taken with her, she said, ‘Noble citizens, as you wish I go to my husband’; and after saying those words she killed herself, choosing death rather than staining her purity.” (1.60.3–4)

A very odd claim from 3.3.2: “as sailors say, saltiness is mixed into only the surface of sea water, while ten paces below the water is found to be sweet.”

Even more odd ideas from 3.21.4–5: “in the wombs of females there are seven chambers suitable for conception: there are three on the right side of the uterus, and an equal number on the left, and one in the middle [. . .] When those on the right receive the seed, they produce males, those on the left females, while those conceived in the middle are born having both sexes, and we call them Hermaphrodites.”

Venus apparently had a belt or cestos; “Lactantius says [. . .] that Venus did not wear this belt except for reputable marriages, and on account of this every other type of intercourse, in which the cestos is not worn, is called ‘incest.’ ” (3.22.10; and see also 4.47.4.) (Judging by, the second part of ‘incest’ actually comes from castus ‘chaste’.)

Boccaccio has a sudden outburst of skepticism in 4.18.5: “Lactantius used to say [. . .] and some other things which should be laughed at more than written about”. And in 4.24.2: “Fulgentius [. . .] pours out the longest, and in my judgment, the least apposite abundance of words”. And I love his sour tone in 4.30.4, disagreeing with some earlier interpretations: “There are, moreover, those who want this Hercules to be Perseus and the Hesperides to be the Gorgons; they are entitled to their opinion.” For someone who lived in a glass house, he sure liked to throw stones :))

I was surprised to see that he considers Pandora to have been a man, not a woman (4.45; citing Fulgentius).

One of the advantages of living in ancient times was that you could write the most obvious absurdities and people a thousand years later would still quote them as valuable bits of information: “The crow, as Fulgentius says, unique among the birds, has sixty-four mutations of voice” (4.28.65; and see also 5.3.8). Sometimes I wonder if the ancient authors ever deliberately decided to troll posterity by including this sort of things in their books :)

An interesting superstition from 6.3.8: “if laurel leaves are bound to the head of someone sleeping, they say he will see true dreams”.

You thought christianity has weird relics? The Greeks had the rattle of Dionysus! “Albericus adds, saying it was affirmed by Remigius, that at Nysa they preserve the rattle of Father Liber as evidence that he was nurtured there.” (5.25.14)

A gloriously silly interpretation of the story of Thyoneus, who stole a cow and was therefore pursued by the peasants; his father, the god Bacchus, helped him by transforming him into a hunter and the cow into a stag. “I think that he was a thief, and because the peasants were drinking heavily when they went to find their cow, he demonstrated to them with ease that he was a hunter and the cow a stag.” (5.27.2)

From 5.42.1: “When Bacchus took a liking to her, he deceived her, as Ovid says, in the guise of a grape, and ravaged her.” Talk about putting the rape into grape :))) I tried to find out more about how exactly this was supposed to work, but didn't find anything useful. The translator's note cites Ovid's Metamorphoses 6.125, where Ovid is actually telling the story of Arachne's weaving contest with Minerva; Arachne's work depicts many scenes from mythology, and Bacchus disguised as a cluster of grapes is one of these. Ovid just mentions it in passing, without going into detail.

There's an interesting but sad story behind the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (5.49). The nymph Callisto was raped by Jupiter and gave birth to a son, Arcas; Juno was angry at her (where's the logic in that?) and transformed her into a bear; Jupiter, the idiot, instead of transforming her back into a human, decided to ‘help’ by transforming her son into a bear as well, and then by transforming both into constellations. When it cames to idiot gods, the ones from Lovecraft's mythos are paragons of sanity compared to those from Greek mythology...

By the way, speaking of huge genealogical trees, I recommend the following website: It's a genealogical tree of stupendous proportions which includes all sorts of actually existing historical persons, mostly royalty and aristocrats, but then goes without interruptions all the way back to bona fide mythological gods like Poseidon, Cronos, Uranus and Chaos... :))

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