The BoM and the Aeneid

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Today we tend to lump the Greeks and Romans together as “classical civilization.” But at the time, one can argue that Romans had a bit of an inferiority complex vis-a-vis Greece. Certainly not with respect to militarism, but as to things like philosophy and literature. The Greek stuff was considered the state of the art; wealthy Roman parents would often hire Greek tutors for their children, that sort of thing.

This background is one way to understand the composition of the Aeneid (“of or relating to Aeneas”) by the Roman poet Vergil between 29 and 13 BCE. This work, heavily reliant on and interacting with the much earlier Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, became a Roman version of such an epic; it became the Roman national poem.

In the first half of the work (books I-VI), the hero of the story, Aeneas, leaves Troy after it burns in search of a new home, mirroring the travels of Odysseus in return to his own home. In the second half (books VII-XII), the warfare in Italy mirrors that described in the Iliad.

The interaction with and reliance on Homer is palpable. Some examples (which I just grabbed from Wikipedia):

From the Iliad:

  • Absences of the heroes. When Aeneas is absent from the battlefield, Turnus lays waste to the Trojan army, just as Hector did to the Greek army in the absence of Achilles. Just as Hector kills Patroclus, Turnus slaughters Pallas, and to avenge the deaths of their friends, both Achilles and Aeneas slay their opponents.
  • Prophecies. From the beginning of the Iliad, readers knew that the Greeks were fated to triumph over the Trojans, as was declared by the king of the gods, Zeus. Achilles’ fate was also foretold; if he went to war he would die a hero. Similarly, Aeneas was told by the ghost of Hector in Book II that he was to leave burning Troy to found a new city. Throughout the rest of the epic, the gods include reminders that Aeneas is destined to find Italy and found Rome for future generations.
  • The Shields. In Book VIII of the Aeneid, Vulcan (the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hephaestus) forges a shield for Aeneas before he goes into battle. This is similar to Hephaestus creating Achilles’ shield in Book XVII of the Iliad. Both of the goddesses who mothered the heroes (Venus and Thetis) feared for the safety of their sons preceding war, so both went to Vulcan/Hephaestus asking for him to create armor and a shield for Aeneas and Achilles. Upon the finish of the god of fire’s creations, the poets soon followed with a detailed description of the shields, an ekphrasis. The ekphrasis of the shield of Achilles depicts everything that the world currently consisted of, as well as opposites, such as war and peace, heaven and earth, etc. The ekphrasis of Aeneas’ shield depicts Rome’s greatest glories that are to come, such as the founder of Rome, Romulus, with his twin brother Remus with the she-wolf that cared for the twins, and Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium.

From the Odyssey:

  • The Characters. Odysseus and Aeneas are both royalty, Odysseus being the king of Ithaca  and Aeneas a Trojan prince. Without the help of divine intervention though, neither hero would have met his destiny, though there were opposing gods who wanted to delay and provide hardship for the heroes along the journey. Odysseus’ antagonist was Poseidon, the god of the sea, whom he angered by blinding Poseidon’s son Polyphemus. In doing this, Poseidon’s wrath was given every chance possible, especially with storms blowing the Greek ships off course, even destroying them. Hera was the goddess who used everything in her power to delay Aeneas from ever fulfilling his prophecy since Aeneas was a Trojan, and Hera had a hatred for the Trojans ever since the Trojan prince Paris gave a golden apple to Aphrodite, stating that she was the most beautiful out of her, Athena and Hera. Storms caused by Hera also blow the Trojan fleet about and off course, which ultimately lands them at Carthage (leading to another reason for Hera to despise Aeneas and the Trojans).
  • Stories within a Story. The concept of a character narrating a story within the current story, providing subsequent layers, is seen in both the Aeneid and the Odyssey, more specifically the story of the heroes’ journey up until that point in time, since both epics start in medias res, in the middle of things. With the story of Odysseus, the Greek washes up on the shores of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, whom hospitably take Odysseus in and ask him how he has come to their land. Odysseus spends Books IX through XII recounting his journey from Troy to where he was presently. In Aeneas’ case, upon arrival in Carthage, Dido asked Aeneas to share his story, so Books II and III were narrating the fall of Troy and how Aeneas and his people arrived at Carthage.
  • The Journey. The ultimate purpose of both Aeneas and Odysseus is returning home, or in Aeneas’ case, founding a new home. Both heroes sail over the same sea, sometimes visiting the same locations and experiencing the same difficulties. In Book III of the Aeneid, Aeneas and his men come close to Scylla and Charybdis, as Odysseus and his men do in Book XII of the Odyssey, followed by the Trojans landing on the island of the Cyclopes, as Aeneas does in Book IV. Aeneas’ crew had the fortune of not having the same fate as some in Odysseus’ crew. Virgil also included an emaciated Greek named Achaemenides, who had sailed with Odysseus but had been left behind. The two heroes also make a katabasis into the Underworld to retrieve information from the deceased.
  • The Homecoming. Upon arrival in Ithaca, Odysseus is met with suitors in his home, destroying it and trying to win his wife, Penelope’s hand. Odysseus proceeds to fight off these suitors, killing them so he can have his home back. Similarly, Aeneas is supposed to found his home in Latium and marry the princess Lavinia, where he is met with the army of Turnus, who was the king of Rutuli and Lavinia’s leading suitor before Aeneas came along. Aeneas has to engage in a battle before he can finally rest in his newfound home.

When we turn from epic poetry to sacred literature, one might argue there is a similar impetus underlying the Book of Mormon. The sacred book par excellence for Christians was the Holy Bible. Where does the Bible take place? Entirely in the Eastern hemisphere. The putative Eden, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Israel, Canaan, Philistia, Moab, Samaria, Greece, Rome. The entire sacred history of Christianity takes place in the Old World. What about the Western hemisphere, America itself? Bupkis.

So the argument would be as the Aeneid is to the Iliad and the Odyssey, so the Book of Mormon is to the Bible. The BoM, though taking place in a world far away, is based on and interacts with the history and scripture of the Old World. Just as the Aeneid brings Rome within the worlds of the great epic poems (as Aeneas is portrayed as the ancestor of Romulus and Remus), so the BoM brings America within the sacred world of the Bible.[1] America goes from lacking its own scripture to being brought directly into the scriptural story and narrative of the Bible. And for many, many converts, the fact that Jesus would come and visit his people here in America provides a strong foundation to the appeal of the book. America has scripture, too.

[1] One can see Joseph improbably placing the Garden of Eden in Missouri in this same kind of light, as sacralizing the land of the New World.

[Note: I first heard this basic idea expressed by John Hamer, but I’ve never seen it actually fleshed out in writing, so I thought I would take a crack at doing so here.]

Comments

  1. Brian L Rostron says:

    The Aeneid and Book of Mormon were specifically written as mythic origin stories. Aeneas flees from Troy and is said to be the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. His encounter with Dido provides an explanation for enmity between Rome and Carthage. Lehi and his family flee Jersusalem and are said to be the ancestor of indigenous Americans. Their actions provide a justification for the condition and treatment of this people.

  2. Brian L Rostron says:

    Then there’s Brutus of Troy, said to be a descendant of Aeneas and mythical founder of Britain. He kind of sounds like Nephi – “Travelling to Greece, he discovers a group of Trojans enslaved there. He becomes their leader, and after a series of battles they defeat the Greek king Pandrasus by attacking his camp at night after capturing the guards. He takes him hostage and forces him to let his people go. He is given Pandrasus’s daughter Ignoge in marriage, and ships and provisions for the voyage, and sets sail.

    The Trojans land on a deserted island and discover an abandoned temple to Diana. After performing the appropriate ritual, Brutus falls asleep in front of the goddess’s statue and is given a vision of the land where he is destined to settle, an island in the western ocean inhabited only by a few giants.”

  3. I think that this is a very strong comparison, Kevin. The Aeneid was a necessary part of bringing the entire world of Greek mythology into Rome in a way that did not make Rome simply an extension of Greece. It gave the Romans access to a whole world of gods and heroes while preserving the notion of “Roman exceptionalism.” The Book of Mormon is very invested in doing exactly the same thing, and bring the gods and heroes of the Bible to the New World in a way that does not simply make America a spiritual colony of the Old World. Very well thought out and well argued.

  4. I find this analogy quite compelling. Thank you!

  5. Kevin, I really enjoyed this perspective and comparison. It reminds me of some of the theories regarding the creation of the OT; how surrounding stories were co-opted and integrated into an Israelite narrative that created a cohesive story of exceptionalism for that people.

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