As readers may know, I often end the day by posting a quotation on Facebook, which is prefixed with the sentence "And so to bed... quote for tonight is from X". Last night I posted one that I believed came from Catullus, a Roman poet (ca. 84 BC - ca. 54 BC), of whom Wikipedia notes:
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Roman poet of the 1st century BC. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art. Catullus invented the "angry love poem."
This is the quotation:
"I myself have seen this woman draw the stars from the sky; she diverts the course of a fast-flowing river with her incantations; her voice makes the earth gape, it lures the spirits from the tombs, send the bones tumbling from the dying pyre. At her behest, the sad clouds scatter; at her behest, snow falls from a summer's sky."
After a few comments asking about it, I decided to research the context, but I couldn't find those words anywhere else apart from the Goodreads site in 2008 - where they were attributed to Catullus, and later postings on blogs. So where did it come from? Was it made up or authentic?
I decided to search thematically for elements rather than text - "Catullus, stars, summer, clouds, snow" and found a paper from 2012 on "Latin: Advanced Higher Interpretation". Under a section on "sky", it has the following references:
Ovid 8 day overcast with cloud, moon turned bloody, blood dripped from the stars; Ovid 6 pervigil in mediae sidera noctis, Lucifer; Ovid 9 apta . sidera; Ovid 12 stars not vanish, blinding cloud, the Moon, the sun rose; Ovid 20 sun wheeling back; Catullus 22 stars; Catullus 27 cry to the moon; Propertius 29 lure the moon from heaven, draw the stars with spells; Propertius 31 moon fleeting past the open shutters, the officious moon, gentle beams, the stars are put out; Propertius 33 full stars; Tibullus 37 dog star; Tibullus 38 drawing stars from the sky, drives the clouds, hides summer skies, calls snow, clear moonlight; Tibullus 39 sun's course, nature of the moon; Horace 43 moonless night; Horace 45 insensate stars (1)
But that has the basic form of the quotation - "drawing stars from the sky, drives the clouds, hides summer skies, calls snow" attributed to the Roman poet Tibullus and not Catullus. Yet the elements are so close that it seems unlikely that they occured in both Roman poets.
So I searched for the same theme directing it this time at "Tibullus, stars, summer, clouds, snow", and sure enough I found the context - part of a poem by Tibullus. Here's a larger extract:
The numbing cold of a winter's night brings me no harm nor the rain showering its vast waters on me.
This labour won't hurt me, if only Delia unlocks the door and calls me silently with the sound of her tapping.
Hide your eyes, man or woman whom we meet with: Venus wants her thefts to be concealed.
Don't startle us with clattering feet or ask our names, nor bring the light of glowing torches near us.
If anyone has seen us unawares, let him hide it, and deny by all the gods that he remembers.
Since if any turns informer, he'll find Venus is the child of blood and angry seas.
Still, your husband won't believe them, the truthful witch promised me that, with her magic rites.
I've seen her drawing stars down from the sky:
her chant turns back the course of the flowing river.
her spells split the ground, conjure ghosts from the tomb and summon dead bones from the glowing funeral pyre:
now she holds the infernal crew with magic hissing, now sprinkling milk orders them to retreat.
As she wishes, she dispels the cloud from the sombre sky:
as she wishes, calls up snows to a summer world.
She composed a spell for me, that you can deceive with:
chant it three times, spit three times when you've done.
Then he'll not be able to believe anyone about us, not even himself if he saw us in your soft bed.
Still you must keep away from others: since he'll see all the rest: it's only me he'll see nothing of!
What? Do I believe? Surely she's the same who said she could dissolve my love with herbs or charms, and purified me with torches, and in the calm of night a mournful sacrifice fell to the gods of sorcery. (2)
The same poem is also mentioned in the 1895 book on "The Evil Eye" by Frederick Thomas Elworthy, in the appendix:
The faith in the power of magic arts was simply unbounded, as is testified by nearly all the classic writers. Tibullus (Eleg. II. i. 43) says that a certain famous enchantress could not only draw down the stars from the sky, but could change the course of a river. Further, she could make snow to fall in summer. (3)
Who was Tibullus? Wikipedia tells us that:
Albius Tibullus (ca. 55 BC - 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. Little is known about his life. His first and second books of poetry are extant; many other texts attributed to Tibullus are of questionable origins. There are only a few references to him in later writers and a short Life of doubtful authority... His status was probably that of a Roman knight(so the Life affirms); and he had inherited a considerable estate. But, like Virgil, Horace and Propertius, he seems to have lost most of it in 41 BC amongst the confiscations of Mark Antony and Octavian.
In a book entitled "The Elegies of Tibullus" by Theodore Williams in 1908, there's another translation:
Nay, even thy husband will believe no ill.
All this a wondrous witch did tell me true:
One who can guide the stars to work her will,
Or turn a torrent's course her task to do.
Her spells call forth pale spectres from their graves,
And charm bare bones from smoking pyres away:
'Mid trooping ghosts with fearful shriek she raves,
Then sprinkles with new milk, and holds at bay.
She has the power to scatter tempests rude,
And snows in summer at her whisper fall;
The horrid simples by Medea brewed
Are hers; she holds the hounds of Hell in thrall
And there is more on Tibullus in the 1881 book by James Davies - "Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius", where he writes:
Lest such encouragements should not suffice to influence his coy inamorata, or her fears of offending the so-called " husband," who withholds her from him, should become confirmed, Tibullus adduces the assurances of a witch whom he has lately consulted to show that a way may be smoothed for their interviews as heretofore. Of this witch Tibullus gives a highly poetic description : -
" Her have I known the stars of heaven to charm,
The rapid river's course by spells to turn,
Cleave graves, bid bones descend from pyres still warm.
Or coax the Manes forth from silent urn.
Hell's rabble now she calls with magic scream,
Now bids them milk-sprent to their homes below :
At will lights cloudy skies with sunshine's gleam,
At will 'neath summer orbs collects the snow.
Alone she holds Medea's magic lore :
None else, 'tis said, hath power Hell's dogs to tame :
She taught me chants, that wondrous glamour pour,
If, spitting thrice, we thrice rehearse the same."
The services of this functionary Tibullus professes to have secured to throw dust in his rival's eyes, though for the matter of that he lets fall a hint that, had he preferred it, she could have given him a spell that would enable him to forget her. But that was not his wish, the earnest desire rather of a lasting and mutual love.(5)
It's interesting to see how different all of these translations are, even though the basic structure the same - and the same elements are there - stars, rivers, graves, the dead etc. It shows just how free and loose translations of the Roman poets can be from the original text. Note the present of milk, however, an important feature in ancient Roman magical rites.
In the original Medea features, and the text conforms to that of 1881 which retains in translation the term Manes - the chthonic deities of Ancient Roman religion sometimes thought to represent souls of deceased loved ones, which has been "lost in translation" in the other versions. "Latin Erotic Elegy: An Anthology and Reader" (2002) by Paul All Miller notes that "Manes can mean either ghosts or corpses, though the former is more common".
Siquis et inprudens adspexerit, occulat ille
Perque deos omnes se meminisse neget:
Nam fuerit quicumque loquax, is sanguine natam,
Is Venerem e rapido sentiet esse mari.
Nec tamen huic credet coniunx tuus, ut mihi verax
Pollicita est magico saga ministerio.
Hanc ego de caelo ducentem sidera vidi,
Fluminis haec rapidi carmine vertit iter,
Haec cantu finditque solum Manesque sepulcris
Elicit et tepido devocat ossa rogo;
Iam tenet infernas magico stridore catervas,
Iam iubet adspersas lacte referre pedem.
Cum libet, haec tristi depellit nubila caelo,
Cum libet, aestivo convocat orbe nives.
Sola tenere malas Medeae dicitur herbas,
Sola feros Hecates perdomuisse canes.(6)
But where did the original come from? I haven't been able to trace it, but it is either a paraphrase of one of the translations extant, or possibly a fresh and extremely free and loose translation from the Latin.
How did it end up associated with Catullus and not Tibullus on Goodreads quotations? This is only a surmise, but in the history of the text, Wikipedia notes that:
Tibullus was first printed with Catullus, Propertius, and the Silvae of Statius by Vindelinus de Spira (Venice, 1472), and separately by Florentius de Argentina, probably in the same year. Amongst other editions are those by Scaliger (with Catullus and Propertius, 1577, etc.), Broukhusius (1708), Vulpius (1749), Heyne (1817, 4th ed. by Wunderlich, with supplement by Dissen, 1819), Huschke (1819), Lachmann (1829), Dissen (1835).
If the source of this was a combined Latin text, it is easy to see how the muddle arose. But the translation takes many liberties with the original Latin, so it is probably either a very loose translation or a paraphrase of a translation made from a combined source.
Very loose translations or paraphrases from translations are more common in the 20th and 21st century. Coleman Barks has produced extremely free paraphrases based on extant translations. As Wikipedia notes:
Barks does not speak or read Persian therefore his 'translations' are technically paraphrases. Barks bases his paraphrases entirely on other English translations of Rumi which include renderings by John Moyne and Reynold A. Nicholson. In addition, while the original Persian poetry of Rumi is heavily rhymed and metered, Barks has used primarily free verse. In some instances, he will also skip or mix lines and metaphors from different poems into one 'translation'.
So in conclusion, one construction of the history of the text might be as follows: (1) a combined Latin version such as that of Vindelinus de Spira, or possible a Schools Latin reader (2) translation attributed to the wrong author (3) very loose paraphrase of original text (4) placement in Goodreads.
(5) "Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius", James Davies, 1881
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