There is a very, very peculiar moment in the fourth book of Ovid’s poem Fasti, his poetic calendar that describes the rituals of the Roman year. The goddess Ceres (also known as Demeter) is searching for her daughter Persephone, who has been kidnapped by Hades and carried off to his grim domain in the Underworld. In the course of her quest Ceres arrives at Eleusis, near Athens, and a young woman and her father ask her why she is there. The goddess explains and then “like tears – for gods can never cry – / a gleaming drop fell onto her warm bosom. Soft of heart, the old man and girl weep with her” (Fasti 4.521–3).
What on earth, we may ask, is happening here? Ceres is not crying, because gods don’t cry (as Ovid helpfully informs us), and yet whatever is falling from her eye looks a lot like a tear. And if she isn’t weeping, who are the man and his daughter weeping with?
Ovid enjoys presenting his readers with paradoxes, and here is a good example: gods cannot cry but this one apparently does. Let’s start, though, by investigating Ovid’s claim that GODS CAN’T CRY. (Ovid’s Latin could mean both that they physically can’t, or they morally shouldn’t.) At first sight it may seem simply untrue. In Homer’s Iliad, the goddess Artemis cries after a scolding from Hera at 21.493–6, for example. And in Virgil’s Aeneid, while maybe not literally crying, Venus has tears welling up in her eyes when she asks her father Jupiter why her son Aeneas is suffering so miserably (1.228–9).
On the other hand, in Euripides’ play Hippolytus, Artemis says she is forbiddden to cry even when she sees that Hippolytus, her favourite, is terribly wounded and close to death (1.396). The truth is that literary conventions like GODS CAN’T CRY can gain currency without being 100% observed in practice: we’ll see Virgil himself using this one later, and Callimachus, a Greek poet who was a big influence on Ovid, plays with the same idea (Hymn 6.17). This isn’t the only occasion that Ovid reminds us of it, either. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s brilliant collection of tales about change, the god Apollo kills his lover Coronis, and immediately regrets it: “Then indeed he groaned – for heavenly faces may not be / bedewed with tears – from the very depths of his heart” (2.621–3).
Big of him, needless to say. But before we see how Virgil exploits this convention, it’ll help us to understand it better if we trace its source.
A key notion in Greco-Roman literature is that the life of the gods is infinitely happier than that of humans. In Homer’s Iliad, the gods have an important role in the story, and in fact the direct involvement of the gods in the plot of the poem comes to be one of the defining features of epic, the poetic genre that Homer inspires. But Homer also uses his divine characters as foils for the heroes that are the real focus of his poem. The gods of his poem live an essentially carefree existence on Olympus, while the heroes suffer and die, and their fate seems all the more tragic for the contrast.
But the Trojan ally Sarpedon adds another dimension, in a pep talk to his comrade Glaucus (Iliad 12.322–8):
“Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle
we were for ever to be ageless and immortal,
neither should I myself fight among the foremost,
nor should I send you into battle where men win glory;
but now – for in any case fates of death threaten us,
fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid –
now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.”
If we were like the gods and could live for ever, Sarpedon says, there would be no need for us to do what we do, fighting and risking our lives. But as it is, the only way we can win immortal glory, the only kind of immortality that mortals can aspire to, is to fight in the frontline. It is their fundamental inferiority to the gods that makes the heroes as great as they are, we might say.
Virgil does something very beautiful with this constellation of ideas. We’re in Book 10 of the Aeneid and Pallas, the young Arcadian warrior and Aeneas’ protegé, comes to blows with Turnus. Turnus will kill him easily, and this is a critical moment in the poem: Pallas’ death provides Aeneas’ major motivation for the rest of the Aeneid, and in particular for its dramatic, disturbing conclusion. As Pallas approaches Turnus for his final battle, he prays for success to Hercules, who had once rescued Pallas’ people from a monster called Cacus (events described in Book 8) and in the meantime had been raised to heaven as a god.
But Pallas’ death is fated, and there is nothing that Hercules can do (10.464–73):
Hercules heard the youth, and deep in his heart
stifled a heavy groan, and shed useless tears.
Then with kindly words Jupiter addresses his son:
“Each has his day appointed; short and irretrievable is the span
of life for all: but to lengthen fame by deeds –
that is valour’s task. Under Troy’s high walls
fell those many sons of gods; indeed, with them fell
my own child Sarpedon. For Turnus too his own
fate calls, and he has reached the goal of his allotted years.”
So Jupiter speaks, and turns his eyes away from the Rutulian fields.
Jupiter recalls a moment in the Iliad (16.419–61) when he had been unable to protect his son Sarpedon from Patroclus; but we might also notice here that Virgil is reminding us of what Sarpedon himself had told Glaucus about heroic life: Jupiter delivers the same message about the heroic life – that human life is limited, but great deeds can bring mortals immortality. The purveyors of this immortality through fame are epic poets like Homer and Virgil, of course.
But what I’m interested in are the “useless tears” that Hercules sheds. Virgil knows as well as Ovid (and Callimachus and Euripides) that gods don’t cry, but here in the most delicate way he is characterising Hercules – a new god, just recently a mortal human, who hasn’t yet learned what a god should know, that human troubles are of no real concern to them. Jupiter shows Hercules the way by turning his gaze elsewhere.
Back to Ceres, though.
Ovid is a poet much more interested in poetry than any other topic, and this can irritate some readers. (I rather like it, needless to say.) One thing that he’s doing in both Fasti and Metamorphoses is playing with conventional literary categories. Fasti is an “elegiac” poem in the metre of that name (associated with love poetry), while Metamorphoses is an epic in heroic metre (like the Iliad and Aeneid), and this establishes Metamorphoses as a grander literary exercise than Fasti. But Ovid is nothing if not mischievous, and he rejoices in not doing what an elegiac or epic poem is supposed to do. So Metamorphoses is an epic but mainly concerned with love stories, which is seriously wrong, while the subject of the elegiac Fasti is the religion and history of Rome, a much more elevated topic, intrinsically, than the subject matter of Metamorphoses. So in each case Ovid establishes a tension between the form of the poem and its content; or, to put that another way, Fasti is an elegy always threatening to become an epic, while Metamorphoses is an epic perpetually in danger of turning into elegiac love poetry.
How then does Ceres’ “tear” relate to all this? Well, here Fasti features one of those higher beings more commonly found in epic, the more ambitious literary form. But Ceres in Fasti is a strange, compromised deity, a god who experiences human emotions and almost, all-but, to all appearances does that thing that mortals do, and immortals should never do, which is crying. In other words, Ceres’ pseudo-tear encapsulates the complex character of the poem in which she features, a poem where there are gods and which seems like epic, but where the gods seem to act just like humans, which is thoroughly elegiac.
Most people would probably prefer what Virgil does with this idea than what Ovid does. Perhaps the most important difference, though, is that Virgil uses it for very serious purposes, creating a deeply poignant moment, while Ovid instead directs our attention to his own literary trickery and brilliance.
The text of the Fasti can be explored in greater detail Latin here and in translation here. For more on the Roman calendar, and the significant changes made by Julius Caesar, see Denis Feeney’s accessible survey Caesar’s Calendar (Berkeley, 2007). For more on the Greco-Roman gods in general, the authoritative treatment remains Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion (transl. John Raffan; Cambridge, MA, 1985).
|⇧1||… ut lacrimae (neque enim lacrimare deorum est) / decidit in tepidos lucida gutta sinus. / flent pariter molles animis virgoque senexque.|
|⇧2||For broader context, the Greek text of this passage can most conveniently be read, with interlinear English translation, via the Chicago Homer project.|
|⇧3||The text of this passage, and of Virgil’s Aeneid as a whole, can be explored with plenty of supporting material via the Virgil Project.|
|⇧4||κατ᾽ ὄσσων δ᾽ οὐ θέμις βαλεῖν δάκρυ: this passage can be read most conveniently here.|
|⇧5||The Hymn to Demeter can be read in Greek here and in translation here.|
|⇧6||tum vero gemitus (neque enim caelestia tingi / ora licet lacrimis) alto de corde petitos / edidit. The broader context can be read, in Latin and English, at the foot of this page.|
|⇧7||Again, this passage is most easily explored online via the Chicago Homer.|
|⇧8||This passage can be studied further via the Virgil Project.|