Changing and Being Changed

The poem is witty and fascinating from a number of perspectives. Nevertheless, my reading, which will be given in some detail, is interested only in the narrator’s view on lived ancient religion. On the whole the text presents itself as an inscription, addressing every possible passerby. Such a communicative technique is known from many epigraphical texts. Who, however, is the speaker? My first contention is that it is the god himself. The speaker establishes a distance between himself and the statue by his speaking of a body (in . .. corpore, 1) and of a statue (signa . .. dei, 2). Thus a difference is established; the god who introduces himself by the name of Vertumnus possesses a body and a statue (or statues).[1] The god is not coextensive with the statue, as is stressed in a later passage where reference is made to an earlier wooden image (59): identity is constituted in the continuity of the god, not that of the statue. Likewise, the god is not identical with or bound to his place; verses 3—4 indicate that the speaker has been in other places before Rome: he “left,” that is, was previously in, Etruria among the Volsinii. Perhaps even a third distinction is referred to. The divine subject preceded his naming; he is earlier than his name: mihi . . . nomen ab eventu patria lingua dedit (47—48). Here, we should note that “fatherly language” is somewhat ambivalent in the mouth of an Etruscan immigrant, as it refers to the Latin etymology made explicit in this distich. In sum, the identity of the god is the identity of a subject who is able to remember and narrate change as change encountered by himself. Under these circumstances, the fact that he knows of the change of the course of the Tiber only from hearsay (aiunt, 7)—this is the first of the poem’s etymologies Vert-amnis, “turned river”—implicitly questions the correctness of an etymology that is not backed by his own experience. In another passage, that which refers particularly to unsuitable dedications, the assertion “I remember” (memini, 27) affirms the identity I propose.

It is not etymology that defines the god, but ritual. Various agricultural products adorn the god from summer to late autumn. The variety of fruits is stressed as much as the different seasons (11—18). Transposing these verses, as has been suggested recently by Heyworth,[2] would destroy the link between the immediately preceding etymology based on annus, “year,” and the elaborate description of seasonal offerings. It would also eliminate the carefully maintained distinction between agriculture here and horticulture later.[3] [4] The specific dedications that the god lists are pronouncedly individual. The grafter who harvests apples from a pear tree (17—18) is the most extreme example. Nevertheless, all these practices could be summarized as sacrum; it is recurrent ritual that is described. A generation earlier, Marcus Terentius Varro had mapped highly specialized deities onto functions or rather fields of competence in the fourteenth book of his Antiquitates rerum divinarum.2 At first, this poem also seems to suggest such areas of competence. After all, the Forum Holitorium, the urban market of vegetables, was not far from the statue’s position during Propertius’s time.

I follow the transmitted text in preserving Vertumni. . . sacrum (12).[5] Sacrum is the aspect of cult that provides the raison d’etre of the god at Rome. From a different perspective, sacra is that which is due to the god. Again, sacrum implies regularity. This regularity, however, is not a precise and detailed repetition of a ritual script. Instead, it is based on habits and beliefs, the range of variation of which is described in the verses that follow. There are no written documents, no lex sacra affixed to the open sanctuary.[6] The rules are rules that are presumed by visitors. The reading vulgus instead of rursus in verse 12 is an old conjecture, an attempt to define the subject of such assumptions and beliefs; populus is a younger proposal.[7] Both miss the point of the whole poem. It is not Propertius but modern scholarship that restricts heterodox beliefs to a particular (lower) social stratum, “popular” or “folk religion.”

After amply illustrating it, the god himself opposes the etymology based on annus with a forceful mendax fama, “lying rumour” (21). It is surprising that the god distances himself from what he had conveyed as the reason for the practices described over six lines, but the text takes pains to restrict the criticism to the etymology, no-minis index (22). The offerings derived from commercial agriculture are very similar to what is later described as gifts supplied by gardening, by horticulture, de quo mihi maxima fama est, “what I am most famous for” (41). But Propertius’s speaker is not contrasting correct and incorrect practice. In both cases the rationale behind the offerings is, epistemologically speaking, a matter offama, “rumor.” We are far from knowledge or prescripts. Any truth claim could be related only to the accuracy of the etymology itself. Ritual action and theological reflection about the god’s identity fall asunder.

In a long chain of examples (23—46), the discrepancy between ritual practices and theological deliberations increasingly comes to the fore. This is hardly consistent with an idea of ancient religion wherein individuals are religious actors who carefully try to select and reproduce the most effective cult from the broad public (and sometimes private) range of available sanctuaries and sets of ritual practices associated with a particular god (frequently referred to as “the cult of Apollo,” “the cult of Venus,” and so forth). What is presupposed in Propertius is a basic mode of communication with deities via dedications. As Marcel Mauss has pointed out in his groundbreaking reflections on giving, the gift is an element in a strategy to define addressees in terms of their status and their relationship to donators.[8] This is relevant for the ancient practice of prayer accompanied by dedication and for that of the vow promising dedication. Within the asymmetrical communication between the hierarchically inferior mortal and the powerful god, who is visible only in mediated form, these practices were able not only to represent the initiator before an audience and attract the latter’s attention, as relevance theory suggests,[9] but also to help define the elusive recipient.[10] Therefore, the temporary donations arising out of situational decisions by individual agents and viewed by others momentarily on the one hand, and permanent attributes on the other, are thus part of one and the same continuum; the two are hardly separable when applied to an image in a public space. It is only the later, distant observer who can draw a distinction between a contingent and temporary votive, which could be lost without any long-term effect on the one hand, and a conceptual and permanent element of an image, the loss of which might result in the end of a cult on the other. The contemporary observer would have to apply external norms to arrive at such judgments. I claim that it is the very purpose of the Propertian poem to deny the existence of such extramaterial norms.

The examples given by the text are adequate to such a strong claim. The first distinction involved is a norm regarded as fundamental in Roman religion, that is, the category of gender. Whether Vertumnus is male or female is subject to the dedicator’s decision. Fiam, “I shall become,” and the rhetorical question “Who would deny?” (quis neget, 23—24) illustrate the factuality of a temporary change that instantly becomes normative. The location of the statue (and hence the poem’s putative setting) in a “red-light district” of Rome[11] makes this even more pointed.

The strong tone is continued. In the following distich “you will swear” (iurabis, 25) is used, where a much softer wording such as crederes “one would believe” could have sufficed. The implications of these lines extend far beyond ephemeral appearances. To imagine that the statue itself could have “been cutting grass” a moment ago (26), inverts the relationship between what is seen and what is merely imagined, heightening the factual- ity of the imagination; it is the immobility of the statue that seems to be deceptive. The challenge now becomes to truly believe that the figure is a motionless statue rather than to enliven it in one’s imagination. The immovable has a moved past.

The following verses problematize the credibility of such a past. The claim that the god had gloriously carried weapons needs confirmation by the god’s own memory—I have already pointed to this instance of me- mini (27). This is supplemented by the much more plausible memory of having been a harvester by virtue of receiving a basket. I need not stress here that the position of the martial reference in the hexametric line and of the peaceful memory in the pentametric line is also part of a poetological discourse, referring to the problem and rejection (recusatio) of epic panegyric in earlier books.

The following contrast, “sober” (sobrius, 29) in court and drunk (clam- abis capiti vina subisse meo, 30) at a party, shifts the sphere of the statue’s animation into physiological details. As no dedicatory objects are named, I suggest that what might be indicated here are different media of religious representation. The text perhaps refers to transportable statuettes, such as were used in domestic contexts and brought to court appearances. This might also explain the reference to Vertumnus as a charioteer and expert horse rider, expressed by the term species, “image” (35). Statuettes of the god appeared in such forms and were used on such occasions.

The figures of a horseman and soldier do not cohere with any possible single “function” of the god. Propertius’s use of past tenses in 27—28 (tuli, eram) underlines how contingent and situational such configurations were. The identity implied here is not a theological proposition, but merely a remembered biographical identity.

Are there limits to the definitional power of the users of the image? Hardly any! It can go so far as to mistake Vertumnus for other gods, confusing him with Iacchus and Phoebus (31—32). Here, however, a norm is formulated. Such confusion is characterized as illicit. Furare speciem, “I shall steal the appearance,” implies a sharp condemnation. Thus, a limit to interpretation and ritual usage is set, even if counterfactually. This limit is not argued for on the basis of some “essence” or “nature” of the god, some identity delineated by theological discourse or a body of mythical narratives. The norm that is implied addresses ritual practice and the consequences of practices that endanger a user’s ability to identify and differentiate between deities known through their names and iconography. Furthermore, the text itself excludes the possibility that the contents of the norm could be preserved. The following couplet (33—34), as printed here, succinctly expresses the permanent transition of divine activity and divine identity in the form of tutelage over a certain activity.[12] Equipped with certain paraphernalia Vertumnus is a hunter; equipped with certain other paraphernalia he benignly supports the snaring of birds.

I have already dealt with the charioteer. Verses 35—40 offer further examples that might refer to historical evidence for the veneration of Ver- tumnus while also paying tribute to literary models.[13] I would like to point out that the statue “moves”; Vertumnus describes himself as a god in action. Consequently, the visible statue is but a snapshot, documenting a moment in a sequence of activities. And yet the god is modeled according to his statue; his appearance is extrapolated from that of the statue and its attributes as conferred in the form of votives. The sequence of verbs like “hunting,” “catching,” “fishing,” “traveling,” “bending,” and finally “carrying amidst dust” evoke scenarios that transgress the idea of a statue caught in static poses and attitudes. Potential votives—objects such as a net, arrow, sunhat, fishing rod, tunic, crook, and basket—are the point of departure in each instance. The media to be imagined, however, are not statues and statuettes but paintings, such as might be found in private houses rather than open sanctuaries. This is, as I have to admit, a hypothesis built on the presupposition that Propertius refers to a real or at least plausible range of iconographies of Vertumnus that reach far beyond the average dedication.

Against the backdrop of this enormous range of definitions, enacted historically (that is, ritually, by means of gifts), the most statistically important construction of the god comes in an understatement: “Why, pray, should I add . . . ?” (41) Since, as I claim, Propertius is interested in the variety of appropriations of the god rather than in determining a normative “essence,” this is pointed rather than ironic. It is telling that by transposing six verses (placing 13—18 after 44) from the beginning of the poem into this last field of competence (horticulture, detailed in 43—46), modern interpreters such as Stephen Heyworth add massive weight to what they imagine Propertius’s emphasis should be: on an agricultural deity. Our hidden models of how ancient religion functioned are far from innocent! Propertius himself makes an argument, if I might say so, for the mutual constitution of ritual activity and the supposed competence of the god in the deliberate ambivalence of verse 42, claiming “that the choicest gifts of horticulture are in my hands.” In manibus . . . meis could refer to fruits dedicated to the god and laid on the statue’s arms as well as to the god’s tutelage over fruits collected in the garden.

The final part of the poem presents us with the statue proper. Here, what is most important is the increasing passivity of the speaker. Vertum- nus is not credited with any agency in his many transformations. Grammatically he is merely the patient, using the passive voice vertebar (47). The god’s position shifts from center scene to the wings, from action to observation. He is bound to his location with no ability to move, and he must pray to the father of the gods—in the first and only genealogic remark of the text—to grant him even an interesting view ante meos . . . pedes, “before my feet for all time” (56). The addition per aevom (55) even removes the possibility of change over time. The speaker is entirely absorbed within the statue. The maple stump is a “poor god” (pauper deus, 60). The separation between god and statue, carefully established in the poem’s opening, is erased in the final six verses. It is unmistakably now the statue, the object that is speaking, not the god. This too is in imitation of inscriptional convention. In his edition, Heyworth suggests that we read suberunt, “written underneath,” instead of superant, “rest,” in line 57. But above all, these lines present a sophisticated mise-en-scene of the god’s lack of agency.

  • [1] I follow Hutchinson (2006, 89 ad loc.) in rejecting the interpretation of signa as mere indicators (as does Cairns 2006, 281). These lines define the topic of the poem; they do not initiateargumentation regarding ethnicity.
  • [2] See, however, for example, Heyworth 2007b, 438.
  • [3] Overlooked also by Syndikus 2010, 313.
  • [4] See Rtipke 2005b and 2007a, 59-61.
  • [5] The conjecture Vertumno (dative) of Ayrmann is followed by Hutchinson (2006, 91), whoargues that mere usual practice could hardly define the ritual in a sufficient manner.
  • [6] On such rules for the performance of ritual in sanctuaries in the Latin world, see, e.g.,Ennabli and Scheid 2007-2008.
  • [7] Thus Hutchinson 2006, 91, who suggests that the etymology is the content of the belief.
  • [8] Mauss 2002, on which see Moebius and Papilloud 2006.
  • [9] For the basic tenets of relevance theory, which does refer to religion, see Sperber andWilson 1987; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2012.
  • [10] For this characteristic of religious communication, see Rupke 2007b, 73—88, and the nextchapter.
  • [11] O’Neill 2000, 273.
  • [12] Thus I do not follow Cairns 2006 in his understanding of the transmitted (and probablycorrupt) Favor or Faunor (v. 34) as Favor (282—83, with reference to Martianus Capella), or, paceHeyworth, as Faunus (Heyworth 2007b). The text as given succinctly expresses the permanenttransition of divine activity and divine tutelage over an activity.
  • [13] In particular, Hor. Sat. 2.3.226—29; see Cairns 2006, 285.
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