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The ancients had a very real spiritual life, and called upon the gods for help in various ways, but actual contact with a god was terrible to human beings, and often fatal (or worse). Mainstream Greco-Roman religion contained no notion of unconditional love of humanity by the gods. At best the relationship was either a quid-pro-quo bargain or maybe, if you were sufficiently excellent, you might earn the approval, even "love," in a sense, of a god. Look at Athena: she loves Odysseus because he is smart like her, but you and I would be toast.

Apollo and the Sibyl.

The most terrifying example of divine contact I can think of is the possession of the Cumaean Sibyl by Apollo in Vergil's Aeneid. Vergil fans will recall that Aeneas, having finally reached Italy (where he's been promised a kingdom) but at a loss about what to do, consults the oracular god Apollo through the latter's vehicle/interpreter the Sibyl. The god inspires his oracle and fills her with his presence (just as he does at the more famous Delphi), and she then more or less coherently utters his prophecies.

Here are the relevant passages from Aeneid, Book 6; Aeneas has just reached the cavern in which the Sibyl prophesies:

The giant flank of that Euboean crag has been dug out into a cave; a hundred broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates; as many voices rush from these--the Sibyl's replies. Just as the Trojans reached the threshold, the virgin cried: "Now call upon the fates for oracles! The god is here! The god!" As she says this before the doors, her face and colors alter suddenly; her hair is disarrayed; her breast heaves, and her wild heart swells with frenzy; she is taller now; her voice is more than human, for the power of god is closing in, he breathes upon her. . . .

But she has not yet given way to Phoebus: she rages, savage, in her cavern, tries to drive the great god from her breast. So much the more, he tires out her raving mouth; he tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force. And now the hundred gates of the house swing open of their own accord. They bear the answers of the priestess through the air . . . .

(The Sibyl speaks the god's prophecy.)

These are the words that from her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae chants; and these hard oracles come roaring from her cavern, mingling true sayings with darkness. So Apollo urges the reins as she raves on; he plies the spurs beneath her breast.

The scene is frightening, and has inexplicably never found its way onto film. Taken at face value, it depicts a human being being possessed by a force so much greater than herself that it strains her merely human resources nearly to breaking. She raves because a person cannot rationally take within herself the presence of a god.

The imagery, however, suggests sexual possession; or perhaps Vergil, seeking a way to help the reader comprehend the action, draws upon sexual aggression as a model for divine penetration of a human spirit. The cavern, threshold, doors, and gates all suggest the sexual entrance to a woman's body, and the swinging open of the gates of the cavern (her "house") just at the point Apollo "tames her wild heart, shapes by crushing force" only makes the metaphor clearer.

Another sexual metaphor is the image of riding: Apollo urges the reins; he plies the spurs. Riding (a horse) was a common ancient metaphor for sex, derived, of course, from a male-behind sexual position. (See the male rider in the Roman fresco with his hand raised as though to "ply the reins" in the URL given below.) For me the most frightening (and cinematic) part is the approach of the god: "The god is here! The god! . . . " etc.

Vergil often seems staid in comparison with Homer, but one thing Vergil constantly seeks to do is to emphasize the mixture of pain with duty, and here he has pulled out a deadly serious metaphor to convey the pain (and, we might infer, fear and pleasure) of the Sibyl as she is possessed by something beyond her control.


URL.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Pompeii_brothel_2.jpg (Male "riding" a female partner, Pompeii, Lupanar.)

The translation is from Allen Mandelbaum's 1981 The Aeneid of Vergil.

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