Friday, January 15, 2010

Tongues of Fire: Omens of Roman Establishment in the Aeneid and Acts of the Apostles

"So did Creusa cry; her wailing filled
my father's house. But even then there comes
a sudden omen--wonderful to tell:
between the hands, before the faces of
his grieving parents, over Iulus' head
there leaps a lithe flametip that seems to shed
a radiance; the tongue of fire flickers,
harmless, a plays about his soft hair, grazes
his temples. Shuddering in our alarm,
we rush to shake the flames out of his hair
and quench the holy fire with water. But
Anchises raised his glad eyes to the stars
and lifted heavenward his voice and hands:
'O Jupiter, all-able one, if you
are moved by any prayers, look on us.
I only ask you this: if by our goodness
we merit it, then, Father, grant to us
your help and let your sign confirm these omens.'"
(Virgil, Aeneid 2.920-937; trans. Mandelbaum; cf. Fitzgerald translation in which the line numbering is 2.888-901)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
(Acts 2:1-4)

At the conflagration of Troy, a tongue of fire rests upon Aeneas' son, Ascanius, yet only Aeneas' father, Anchises, recognizes the harmless, holy fire that does not burn for what it is: a great omen sent by Jupiter. It portends the great future of Aeneas as he will journey to and fro across the Aegean and then the Mediterranean--much like Odysseus/Ulysses did--to reach his final fate, his destiny, to provide a foundation for Rome and a found a lineage for its rulers leading all the way down to Augustus (one might recognize the similarity between Ascanius' other name, Iulus, and Augustus' adopted father's, Iulius (that is, Julius Caesar). The Aeneid is full of portents. One can almost open it at random and read a messianic prophecy of Aeneas' destiny and what great things will come from his descendants, especially Caesar--some have noted similarities to Jewish prophecy and have suggested an indirect connection via the Sybilline oracles from the Jewish prophetic tradition and Virgil's near obsession with prophecy.

Yet I am not so interested in the oft-observed similarities between Jewish and Virgilian prophecy, but the actual portent itself. Aeneas finds himself in a moment of stagnation and uncertainty as Troy falls around him. He seeks his family in his own home when he sees this miraculous event unfold. I am ignorant of such an image in Greco-Roman literature, yet the non-burning fire immediately recalls Exodus 3, of the burning bush that does not consume the bush, at least for a reader steeped equally in classical and biblical traditions. The Fitzgerald translation emphasizes the "harmless" nature of the tongue of fire, stating that it did not burn him even though it danced about his hair and the temples of his head. But it more directly resembles another call to action: Acts 2:1-4. There, too, tongues of fire rest upon the head--are there any other works that depict the initiatory omen as a tongue of fire about the head, or are these the only ones? In both the image is brief; if one skims or looks up momentarily, one will miss it. While in the Aeneid there was a singular tongue that rested upon Aeneas' son, the means of descent to reach Rome's glorious future, here they are multiple, divided, and distributed among all the disciples. The tongues of fire turn to fiery speech, as each of them begins to speak in tongues as the Spirit gives them the ability and, subsequently, Peter gives the sermon of his life as his powers of speech heat up. Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, traditionally martyred at Rome, traditionally the first bishop of Rome, should shoot a flag into the air of literary memory, however, as we know that this, too, is a foundation story, one that may start a bit further south than Troy, but likewise moves from the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Rome, a story that will involve journeys--and similar near-death experiences--upon the stormy seas as the winds and waves rage, but the protagonist Aeneas, Paul will survive to (co-)found the Roman establishment. After their tribulations and trials, after their perilous journeys across the sea, Aeneas will found the city and its people, Peter and Paul will found its church. For both, the first omen to move from waiting and inaction to the circuitous route to Rome was a tongue of fire sent by their highest God.

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