Saturday, May 07, 2005
The Gadarene Swine
And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.Jesus performed this miracle in pagan territory, the Decapolis.
There are passages from Greek and Latin literature in which petitioners beg the gods to transfer an evil from one place to another, or from one person to another. It's almost as if the amount of evil in the world is constant, and evil cannot be destroyed but can only change location. Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Agamemnon (lines 1568-1573, tr. Herbert Weir Smyth) says:
As for me, however, I am willing to make a sworn compact with the Fiend of the house of Pleisthenes that I will be content with what is done, hard to endure though it is. Henceforth he [the Fiend] shall leave this house and bring tribulation upon some other race by murder of kin.In Aeschylus' original Greek, the fiend is a daimon.
Similarly, in one of Horace's Odes (1.21), the poet instructs maidens to pray to Diana, boys to pray to Diana's brother Apollo. The final stanza (lines 13-16) runs thus:
Moved by your prayer, he [Apollo] will drive tearful war and wretched hunger and pestilence away from our people and from our leader Caesar to the inhabitants of Persia and Britain.Apollo in his role as Averter of Evil (Latin averruncus, Greek alexeterios, alexikakos, aleximoros, apotropaios) won't do away with war, famine, and plague -- he will simply transfer them elsewhere.
hic bellum lacrimosum, hic miseram famem
pestemque a populo et principe Caesare in
Persas atque Britannos
vestra motus aget prece.
Also in Horace, Epodes 5.51-54, the witch Canidia prays:
Night and Diana, who rule the silent time when secret rites are performed, now, now be present, now transfer your anger and power to the houses of my enemies.Livy 5.18.12 records prayers of this sort invoking destruction on Rome's arch enemy, the Etruscan city Veii:
Nox et Diana, quae silentium regis,
arcana cum fiunt sacra,
nunc, nunc adeste, nunc in hostilis domos
iram atque numen vertite.
Supplications were made in the temples, and with prayers the gods were asked to ward off destruction from Rome's houses, temples, and walls and to turn that panic against Veii.The prayers were answered when Rome destroyed Veii in 396 B.C.
obsecrationes in templis factae, precibusque ab dis petitum ut exitium ab urbis tectis templisque ac moenibus Romanis arcerent Veiosque eum averterent terrorem.
In Horace's Ode 4.1, the poet asks the goddess of love, Venus, to stop tormenting him, and to bother his friend Paullus Fabius Maximus instead. Discussing this ode, Eduard Fraenkel, Horace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), pp. 410-411, wrote:
This type of prayer is based on a widespread and very ancient belief. If a daemon or god is bent on harming you -- and in the early days, before the gods became humanized, that seems to have been their favorite occupation -- it will do you little good if you just cry out 'spare me' (pheidou, parce). You have to do that as a matter of form, but if you are wise you will add some more effective bait. If you are able to point to a really attractive substitute, then, perhaps, you may succeed in diverting the god from his original object, from you and yours. An obvious candidate for such a substitute is an enemy, either your country's or a personal one; but if you do not want to be so specific, you may be content with asking the daemon to prey on 'others'.In Euripides' Alcestis, it is time for Admetus to die, unless he can find a substitute to take his place. His parents refuse, but his wife Alcestis volunteers.
Huck Finn's cure for warts, in Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, chap. 6, reflects this same folk belief that you can never really destroy an evil, but only transfer it someplace else:
"But say--how do you cure 'em with dead cats?"
"Why, you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard 'long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it's midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can't see 'em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear 'em talk; and when they're taking that feller away, you heave your cat after 'em and say, 'Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I'm done with ye!' That'll fetch ANY wart."
"Sounds right. D'you ever try it, Huck?"
"No, but old Mother Hopkins told me."
"Well, I reckon it's so, then. Becuz they say she's a witch."