Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?


Cannibal Chic

The Question of the Week from my last post was whether the advice from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— was equally appropriate for men and women. He tells his son how to “be a man”, but would the same qualities (level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort) make his daughter a woman? I suspect that modern feminists would agree that all humans, regardless of sex, are made great or virtuous by the same virtues. Although this seems like a departure from traditional evaluation of the sexes, this view is in line with a much older philosophical tradition.

In his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil Montaigne writes:

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold, and that, education and usage excepted, the difference is not great. Plato indifferently invites both the one and the other to the society of all studies, exercises, and vocations, both military and civil, in his commonwealth; and the philosopher Antisthenes rejected all distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much more easy to accuse one sex than to excuse the other; ’tis according to the saying ‘The Pot and the Kettle.'”

So we see that from antiquity, certain philosophers recognized that men and women have the same virtues, capacities and inherent rights. (Even if political rights are not meted out equally.)

Montaigne, however, can be a tricky author to nail down. This statement of equality seems somewhat at odds with his glorification of the natives of Brazil, whose “ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives.” These virtues are specifically masculine since in their culture war and wife taking are for men alone. The only real mention of women’s role in Of Cannibals is the preparation of the beverages. Personally, I think that sounds like the most noble of all occupations.

Beer of the Week: Xingu Black Beer – True story: the first words out of my mouth after I tasted this Brazilian dark lager were “Come on Brazil, get your act together!” Judging by the copious carbonation and the sticky, sweet taste, I suspect that there was a translation problem and what was meant to be a cola came out as a beer or vise versa. I am not sure which is worse, but this beer is that one. As a man of science, I always try a beer twice before writing up an official review. Upon trying it a second time, I did detect some of the familiar flavors one gets from a dark roasted malt, but I still didn’t finish my glass. I simply do not like this beer. According to their website, it is based in part on a drink brewed by the natives of Brazil. If the native women had served this to the men of the tribe, I suspect that they would have ended up being served as the next dish at the cannibal feast.

Reading for the Week: Of Cannibals by Montaigne – In this excerpt, Montaigne describes the daily lives and living situation of the Brazilian natives. He also (with the natives and the Scythians) comes down pretty hard on false prophets. He writes: “such as only meddle with things subject to the conduct of human capacity, are excusable in doing the best they can: but those other fellows that come to delude us with assurances of an extraordinary faculty, beyond our understanding, ought they not to be punished?”

Question for the week: “Love for your husband” is a straight-forward female analog for “love your wife.” Is there such an analog for “be resolute in war” if women are not warriors?


Don’t leave me, she says. Or if you must leave, wait a month, a week, a day, a minute. Each and every extra second together is worth my very life.

No, I must go now.

And so, Aeneas abandons Dido. He will not tarry even for a moment. He loves her, “but the firm purpose of his heart remains.”


What would it look like for a person to have such a sense of destiny? A real person. We come to expect this sort of grand purpose in characters like Aeneas and Napoleon, but for anybody else it comes across as disillusions of grandeur. Still, this is the idea that is sold every day as the heroic archetype. From sports stars to politicians, the story goes: “he knew he was destined for greatness.”

Well what if there actually are a lot of people with Aeneas’s “firm purpose” of heart? If such people exist, it seems that only a very small percent could ever achieve anything that looks like greatness. Greatness is, by definition, exceptional. As a rule, people are not great. So if there are many people of “great resolve”, some must leave their Didos on the shore for naught. These people must give up real, tangible goods in search of their destiny. How many men have sailed off only to find that there was nothing waiting for them on the other side of the sea? How many people “knew” they were destined for great things, but things beyond their control kept them down. “Unfilled destiny” is an oxymoron; if a man is truly destined for greatness, he achieves it.

On the other hand, how many lands have gone undiscovered because it is easier to settle than it is to explore? How many men missed out on greatness because they wavered in their purpose?

In short, destiny seems to do more with conviction and effort than any supernatural guiding force. So I am destined to drink beer; the firm purpose of my palate remains.  Beer of the Week: Birra Moretti – If not for Aeneas, the whole history of Italy would have changed, and this beer would never have been brewed. The bottle says that Birra Moretti is “The Beer in Italy.” I would have put “The” in italics, but I am sure that they know what they are doing. The head is nice and fluffy, but it does not last very long at all. The smell is pretty standard for an adjunct lager and the taste is fairly bland, but it is certainly a drinking beer. All things considered  “The Beer in Italy” probably doesn’t stand up to well against “The Wine in Italy.”

Reading of the week: Aeneid by Virgil, Book IV – Dido sends her sister to beg for Aeneas to stay. She doesn’t go herself. Sounds pretty middle school to me.

Question of the week: Was Dido as destined to die as Aeneas was destined to leave?