“Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”

I like to do requests when I can, and sadly I was not able to fulfill one last week about Erictho, the amazing witch who appears in Book VI of Civil War. Not only that, but David beat me to it with this excellent post, which you should absolutely read if a grisly witch “in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself” sounds like fun to you. (It is.)

So instead of repeating much I’d want to from his post, I’ll use Erictho instead as another window into the discussion of Fortune and the idea that “knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse.” Over the course of Book VI, Caesar and Pompey end up in Thessaly, which an editor of my Penguin Classics edition helpfully summarizes as being “a cursed land, long fated and well prepared for this world cataclysm of Roman civil war” because of “geography, mythology, and history.” This is where Sextus consults Erictho. He does so “[s]purred by fear to foreknow the course of Fate”:

impatient with waiting, sick from everything coming,
he doesn’t consult Delos’ tripods, or Pythia’s caves,
nor is willing to find out what Dodona—who nursed us
with first fruits—would sound from Jupiter’s bronzes,
or who could discern fates in entrails, or read birds,
or watch the flashing sky and scrutinize the stars
with Assyrian worry, or any other kind of secret
that is permissible. He investigated things
the gods above detest, savage Magis’ arcane
lore and altars sad with funeral rites,
trusting in shades and Dis, and pitifully he
was certain the gods above know far too little.

Instead, he goes to see the wicked witch of eastern Greece, who deals not with the gods above but with nature itself—tearing flesh apart with her own teeth, gnawing on desiccated fingernails—and the brutal, repulsive things she does with “nature” (which has now been subverted) actually give her power over those gods. Lucan wonders why they “toil to follow, and fear/to spurn, magic chants and herbs?” but it’s clear that they do, “duty-bound” or otherwise. So Erictho is able to conduct her necromancy.

And Sextus is sure he wants to know his fate—unlike some other people in the poem.

My mind quakes, stricken by doubts; nonetheless,
I’m ready for definite horros. Take away from chance
the power to rush down blind and all of a sudden.

The absurdity of what Sextus is asking is immediately clear: you must tell me what really will happen, because I can’t handle the power of blind chance—because once you tell me, surely chance loses its very nature!

Still, they go through a whole macabre song and dance specially designed to get Sextus the most accurate answer possible. They pick a fresh corpse, so that its ghost won’t be too used to the underworld yet and will still be able to communicate intelligibly with those of us still around. Erictho invokes, maybe, the Demiurgis himself in a positive rage so that Sextus can get his answer. And the answer he gets is just right, in every sense.

Of course, even Sextus’s certainty that he wants to know his fate—that he can’t take the uncertainty anymore—doesn’t keep him from being afraid of certainty itself either. Or of the process of getting there. David quotes Erictho scolding him:

“If indeed I show you swamps of Styx and the shore
that roars with fire, if by my aid you’re able
to see the Eumenides and Cerberus, shaking
his necks that bristle with snakes, and the conquered backs
of Giants, why should you be scared, you cowards,
to meet with ghosts who are themselves afraid?”

Perhaps the ghosts are simply afraid to go out into the light again for a time, disoriented, not in the loop of Erictho’s apparently hyperactive life as a witch. But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more than that, if they must continue to be afraid even though they have passed on to a place where they can know everything. Or perhaps they can’t—Erictho and Sextus’s friend says that even “[a] clearer seer” would “be unsure where to call you,/where to drive you from, which tracts or skies/of the world he should order you to shun.”

Nothing’s certain here, it seems, but uncertainty and fear.

2 comments to “Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”

  • Also interesting to contrast with the visions in Book 1, where the augurs and the other people looking at animal guts are very unhappy with their results so they go back and check again! Or the scene with the pythia of Delphi, who fakes her trance at first!

    And of course it hearkens back to the beginning of Book II:

    Why,
    Ruler of Olympus, did you add these cares
    to anxious mortals, to know future disasters
    through dire omens? Either the creator of things,
    when first flame abated and he obtained the reign
    over rude and formless matter, fixed the causes
    eternally—by which he holds all in order,
    obeying the law himself—then partitioned
    the world into ages, set limits for the fates;
    or nothing is settled and fortune wanders uncertain,
    twisting and turning events, and chance rules mortals.
    May it be sudden, whatever you devise. Let
    the minds of men be blind to future fate.
    Leave them free to hope within their fears.

    Lucan debates between whether the universe is a mechanistic clock or completely unpredictable and capricious. But as far as WE are concerned, does it even matter? I feel like the corpse’s response nicely sums up the dialectic: Fortune will produce what to US are unpredictable events…nonetheless, it is absolutely certain and foreordained that you and everyone else will die. Is that enough certainty for you?

  • Unfortunately for us, thanks to that ruler of Olympus, that is not enough certainty at all! But it’s the only kind we’re going to have.

    The pythia of Delphi and the early augurs were the exact things I was thinking were so closely connected with this. It was terribly interesting to me how she faked her trance but then “gave in” or whatever and had a “real” trance–which was noticeably different and real. And the real one hurt!

    It’s funny that all this business has made War and Peace the book at the top of my mind as I read a lot of Civil War. It’s all just a nebula in my mind now though so I’ll just throw out the idea for now and let it percolate a bit more.

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