Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ilia's dream

I’m not totally satisfied with this poem, but as it is based on a translation from a Latin text I feel some restriction in going too far from the original. The Latin text I used is by Ennius (239-169 BCE) and can be found in Beginning Latin Poetry Reader pp. 3-5. Without the notes that come with the text, I might have thought I was putting too much of my own interpretation on the poem. The notes make it clear that this is a story about rape.

Ilia is the daughter of Aeneas and of Eurydice, and full sister of the unnamed sister whom she addresses in this poem. Ilia is the mother of Romulus and Remus who are the children born as a result of this rape. Mars is the god of war, but also has to do with agriculture.

Ilia has a second name, Rhea Silvia. Rhea suggests the Greek word rheo ‘flow’, therefore associated with the river, the spirit of the Tiber. It’s possible it has a connection to res and regnum, hence to the ruling family. Silvia comes from Latin silva, ‘forest’ or ‘woods’, suggesting a goddess of the forests, the wilds, perhaps Diana.

This story has so many convolutions because Ilia aka Rhea Silvia is also a vestal virgin. The vestal virgins were selected at a very young age (6-10 years) and expected to remain virgins until the age of 35. In a society where a virgin is an independent woman with sacred power, the important thing is that she is not at the beck and call of a husband. By being selected, this daughter of royalty is prevented from having heirs. Her father Numitor has a nasty younger brother, Amulius who has already killed Numitor’s son and wants to see an end to his line. In the poem she is referred to as a daughter of Aeneas, but that was some eleven generations back and is shorthand for saying that she is part of this foundational family, of the lineage of Aeneas.

Numitor was king of Alba Longa which is now the site of Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. So the pope now hangs out in summer at the home of Rome’s first family. The sheep wins again!!  How is it possible that the sheep has come to hold all that belonged to the family with wolf connections, who lived comfortably with wilderness in the forest along with the animals?

The vestal virgins continued to have power in Classical Rome. They paid no taxes, they were the only ones allowed to drive a cart through the Forum (Senators did not have this privilege), they had the best seats in the Colisseum near the emperor (hard to know if they wanted to watch all those killings, especially of animals whom originally they represented). 

The vestal virgins' job to was keep alight the flame in the Temple of Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of hearth and home (Hestia in Greece). If the fire went out, then Rome’s end was near. This Roman temple was originally built around the 8th century BCE, so it is very old.

When Rhea Silvia aka Ilia gave birth to twins the punishment was to be thrown in jail (be weighed down with chains, according to Livy) and her children thrown in the river.

The fire of the vestals was put out by order of Christian emperor Thodosius I in 394 CE. The College of the Vestals was then disbanded, but an interesting side story is the appropriation of the vestals’ garments by the church. The main items of clothing of a vestal were an infula (a white woollen fillet), a suffibulum (a white woollen veil), and a palla (a long very simple shawl made of wool which Roman women wore as everyday clothing). When a Catholic cardinal attains the status of cardinal he receives a woollen item of clothing. So far, I’ve found out that the pope has a palla. It looks pretty likely that the other two are also part of the clergy’s vestments. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about priests’ clothing in the Catholic Church. I’ve long noticed the church’s predisposition for long garments that resemble what women used to wear, but I did not know they took holus bolus the outfit of the vestal virgins.

Ilia’s dream
I know it is a dream but it doesn’t help
every night I relive it
Nutrix limbs shaking with age
rushes in her torch aflame
I weep rivers in dream-shock shouting my terrors

dear sister daughter of Eurydice
you are our father’s favourite
but he forsakes me in these hours
I tell you life and energy have left me
abandoned my whole body

the man who seized me
it was Mars
was handsome and I was swept away
he took me to an enchanted willow grove
in a rapture embraced by the river

I was lost in that strange locale
my very self displaced
I was ravaged
and he laughed
sister afterwards my heart ached for you

I do not know up from down
earth sways at my every step
a voice disembodied
our father Aeneas
you must bear these troubles alone

he does not comfort me
only the old woman with her trembling limbs
he does not come to me nor defend me
he kowtows to the one who thinks he’s god
as if this excuses rape

I stretch my hands skyward
but all the words I hear are smooth-tongued
I am heart-sick
and insomnia stalks my bedside

Gavin Betts and Daniel Franklin eds. 2006. Beginning Latin Poetry Reader. New York: McGraw Hill. The poem is called ‘The Dream of Ilia’.

The photos below are pictures taken from Rome Reconstructed which shows photos of how it looks now (no water there the day I took my photos) and how it probably looked during the Classical period.

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