Catullus Poem 35 Unraveling a Puzzle

Castration and the cult of the mother goddess

The thirtyfifth poem in Catullus’ collection of verse has been read for centuries as a friendly invitation to come over to the poet’s residence for a visit . It seems to have been taken as a simple and fairly innocuous poem suitable for young Latinists to peruse, since we find it appearing on the internet with notes and vocabulary aids for High School Advanced Placement Examination texts. It is true that Catullus did like to invite a friend for dinner, if he can furnish . . . . as in this very different Poem 13:

You will dine well at my house, Fabullus,
in a few day, if god favors you,
if you bring along a nice big
dinner, and a pretty girl, and wine
and wit and lots of laughter. . .

Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me
paucis, si tibi di fauent, diebus,
si tecum attuleris bonam atque magnam
cenam, non sine candida puella
et uino et sale et omnibus cachinnis.

That is a fun poem which has amused the world for centuries, wit and imagination and good spirits. But Poem 35 is entirely different:

My sheet of paper, I would like you to say
to the poet, sweet Caecilius my good friend,
come to Verona, leaving the walls
of Comum and the Larian lakeshore,
because I want him to receive some thoughts
of mine and also of our friend.

If he is smart he will go gobble up the road
though his pretty lady call him back
a thousand times, throwing both hands
on his neck begging him to stay with her.
She, if the truth was told to me,
has ruined him with an uncontrolled love.
For when she had -read the just begun
“Lady of Dindymus”, since that time
fired has flamed in her inner marrow bones.

I forgive you, girl more learned than
the Sapphic muse. . . . In fact the Great Mother
herself, has begun just beautifully with Caecilius.

Poetae tenero, meo sodali,
uelim Caecilio, papyre, dicas
Veronam ueniat, Noui relinquens
Comi moenia Lariumque litus.
nam quasdam uolo cogitationes
amici accipiat sui meique.
quare si sapiet uiam uorabit,
quamuis candida milies puella
euntem reuocet, manusque collo
ambas iniciens roget morari.
quae nunc, si mihi uera nuntiantur,
illum deperit impotente amore.
nam quo tempore legit incohatam
Dindymi dominam, ex eo misellae
ignes interiorem edunt medullam.
ignosco tibi, Sapphica puella
musa doctior; est enim uenuste
magna Caecilio incohata mater.

This is a strangely disjointed little poem, there are several segments which are apparently only loosely connected, if at all. First there is an invitation to come to Verona, which is a long trip to central north Italy from the lake resort at Comum in the upper west verging on the Alps, and this would be a hard trip unless there were a compelling reason. Coming in haste, eating up the highway, is hardly explained unless possibly as a refuge from a desperate and impossible love affaire.

There is a problem with the line about the Cogitations and exactly whose they really are. The words “cogitationes / amici accipiat sui meique” have been taken in two ways by critics over the years, as either “thoughts of his and my friend”; or it could be “of his friend and of me” , since the final word mei-que is also the genitive singular of pronoun ego. Are there two or three persons involved in the sharing of these un-named “thoughts”? If two persons, it has been suggested that the friend is the Attis of the poem, with whom Caecilius seems to have identified himself as less male than his girl wishes. But it is Catullus who invites to Verona, and who logically has thoughts to share with him, and I have preferred to include him in this line in the translation. Since the friend and his role is not defined, the argument could go either way without damaging the poem.

Then there is the fair girlfriend entreating him to stay, embracing and begging. Is there here a reason for his precipitous flight? It seems that she had read some of the draft of Catullus’ Poem 63, which would end up as the famous and frightening Cybele and Attis Poem 62 which now have as completed. This seems to have excited her into a flaming and sexually uncontrollable disposition, downn to her marrow. As a parallel we find the same passionused in Poem 45 of the young girl Acme boasting about the warmth of her sexual feelings, with the same word for marrow ‘medulla’:

as much greater and sharper for me
the fire burns in my inner marrow

ut multo mihi maior acriorque
ignis mollibus ardet in medullis.

There are two places in the poem in which Cybele is mentioned. First is the reading of the poem, where the girl had read the start of the ‘Lady of Dindymus’. Second, at the end, it is the goddess herself as a real personage, the Great Mother, who been activated and begins her dominance on Caecilius who is being drawn into the fringe of her ritual. In each case there is a reference to the dominating power of Cybele, first on the girl and then ion an opposite direction onto her man. The poem turns the girl to a frenzy of compulsive lovemaking, of possessing through love and of controlling her sexually inadequate lover, whom Catullus urges to flee.

It might seem surprising that a woman would be sexually excited by reading the a poem about Cybele the Magna Mater, who inspires the self-castration of young Attis in the throes of a cult ritual. But it is this very act of dominance which has a special meaning for the girl, since her love-making is not normal love-making but control through her driving sexuality. When her man is unable to reciprocate emotionally he turns in his impotence to the cult of Attis. dominated by and devoted to his goddess Cybele. The circle is complete for each of them in quite different ways.

The cult of Cybele had been founded in Rome after 200 BC and was a part of the Roman undercurrent of imported religious life in Catullus’ time. Coming from Asia Minor it found an audience in the changing mores of mid- first century BC, a time when the world was in general social turmoil. There are many things happening which would shock a serious old-line republican citizen. The politician Claudius renaming himself Clodius to change his social status for elections, had entered the forbidden rituals of the Bona Dea in December 62 BC dressed as a woman; he was reported to have had sex with his sister the infamous Clodia who poisoned her husband continuing a wild life with various lovers including Catullus. Described in Catullus’ words as “Lesbia” or the poetic lady and furthermore as “docta” or literary, Clodia became a well known figure in Roman history and at the same time in Catullus’ world of verse.

In this poem we find the girl associated with the words ‘Sapphica’ and ‘docta’, which were regularly associated with Catullus’ lady Clodia. We should have a second look at her identity, could this be the lady Clodia herself, residing with an unknown Caecilius at the well known Roman resort area at Como? There are no sure historical evidences for such a connection, and the fact that modern tourist Como has a Clodia Street and several Clodia hostelries only means that Italian readers of Catullus over the last centuries made the assumption that the girl of this poem was in fact Clodia, but without philological exactitude. Yet it is strange that modern philological readers who have perused this poem in detail for decades have never mentioned this curious suggestion, even as a possibility arising from Catullus’ actual words.

If we are tempted to think about Clodia at Comum, then what about Caecilius, who is usually noted as an unknown poet ? But we find the Caecilii well established in Comum in the time of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus and his uncle a century later, when the Gens Caecilia was prominent in that region. It does not surprise that a Caecilius of that gens could have been there in the previous century, since the name Caecilius turns up in many other dates and places in Roman society as well.

Among the politically dominant Caecilii Metelli of the first century BC we find the name of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, the husband of Clodia, who died in 59 BC perhaps poisoned by his wife. And by a strange chance we find this same man engaged in conversation with his wife Clodia and Catullus in poem 83 of Catullus, with the poet’s curious remark:

Lesbia in her husband’s presence speaks bad of me
This is great pleasure to him. . . . the fool.
You mule, you sense nothing?

She is burning with ire and also with passion for Catullus, the husband has no idea of what this means, and when Catullus calls him “mule”, a non sexual animal unable to reproduce, he touches upon something critical for this impossible marriage. He may be wealthy and politically important, but if he is sexually incompetent, his relationship to this highly charged woman is impossible. His death from whatever cause in 59 BC is a relief and a release for her to continue her life in her own way. It is not a good or proper way, but it responds to her fervid personality and to her needs.

Now was this Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer possibly also a dilettant amateur poet? Then as now anyone who had a college education could write a few lines and fancy himself a poet of sorts. And could he be the same person who was vacationing at Comum before his death with his wife Clodia, the lady considered more literary than the muse of Sappho? There is certainly no proof of this, but there is one detail with is very interesting. It is odd that Catullus tells his friend to come to Verona “eating up the highway”, literally ‘viam vorabit’, considering that the man’s name includes the adjective ‘celer’ meaning swift. Puns are always interesting, but there must be an interesting connection of some sort or the pun falls flat. This curious one cannot be without an interior meaning, which has to be explained.

Consider further the cult of Cybele, which needs full background explanation to show its various dimensions and religious connections in Rome of this period. In a separate essay I have sketched out much material about Cybele’s religious cult with a translation of Poem 63 text and and accompanying scenario for a dramatic production. There is good background material here, especially about the modern Indian status of the castrated hijras on India who constitute a semi-religious sect which provides a social status for them as inter-sex persons.

But the cult at Dindymus was certainly based on deeper psychological considerations, the wish of some males to become feminized, even at the cost of dangerous surgery, as part of a release from male-dom while entering an inter-sex role as sexually preferable and probably in some degree erotically stimulating. Urges of this sort have become apparent in our time, both in the l9th century European tradition and in the post millennium Western world at large. The name Cybele has been replicated by the hundreds of minor cults in every major city with rites of domination of males by virtual Magnae Matres, whether iconic or psychologically keyed to a man’s questionable sexual identificatios.

More can be said about this, here it is enough to note in summary that the girl in Poem 35 of Catullus has been reading the Attis of our poet, that she is stimulated to sexual contolling love by the poem’s mention of castrating a man. She responds with a degree of erotic fantasy which she turns on her lover, who is incapable of dealing with her. Catullus having a sense of the situation, surprisingly tells the man to get away from her, advising him to rush down the road to Verona where he can share the “cogitation” and insights of Catullus and of his un-mentioned “friend”.

Who is the friend? Why, it is no other than the literary figment of Catullus’ poetic imagination, it is the handmaiden of Cybele, it is Attis the devotee of the dominant and dominating woman god. But to Catullus who must have entered for the writing into the psychological spirit of the poem, verging in imagination into the sphere of Cybelean influence, the idea of a sexual re-identification must have seemed for the moment quite real. It had to be involving or the poem could not have been written. And on the other side, for poor Caecilius, pathetic and impotent and faced by an over-sexual wife who is greatly excited by the mere idea of castrating her lover, this is an impossible situation. And where is better to flee to that the man who had concocted this religious castration ritual in his poen, even if he may know he has been be the lover of his real-life wife Clodia ?

“Yes, I will come quickly down the road to Verona, I will come now even as my name is Celer.”

And the poet Catullus watching the struggling man from a cool psychological distance, remarks at the end of the poem:

The Great Mother goddess has now begun her role most beautifully. . . with Caecilius..

. . . . .. . . .est enim uenuste
magna Caecilio incohata mater.

“procul a mea tuos sit furor omnis, hera, domo.
alios age incitatos, alios age rabidos.” Poem 63

There are things in history which are to be clouded with the mist of time forever. But this poem cannot stand as a coherent piece of writing if taken in a literal way. There must be something else to it or the clever Catullus would not have put it into his carefully manicured and adjusted little book. Unless we find a reasonable pattern from beginning to end, we cannot regard this poem as the finsihed composition of a first-rate poet like Catullus.

Some factual history does seem to be involved here, and it would be unwise to dis-approve that automatically as not completely documentable. But in any case, I do not believe that we can go back to this poem as a pleasant piece of friendly verse, suitable for our amused perusal in the study, or for for high school students’ word-by-word reading while preparing for their Advanced Placement Exams. There are deep, if black and disturbing currents in this little poem of just eighteen lines.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College

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A Greek magical gemstone from the black sea

Nearly thirty years ago Oleg Neverov republished an agate gemstone from the Historical Museum of Anapa,1 a Russian city that lies on the north coast of the Black Sea, about fifty miles east of the entrance to the Sea of Azov. The gem dates to the Roman imperial period and was presumably found among the nearby ruins of ancient Gorgippia, a Greek city that flourished for more than half a millennium between the third century BCE and the third century CE.2 The gem is of great interest, as it differs from most magical gems in its spherical shape (see Fig. 1-2), its large size (3.5 cm in diameter) and its contents: it begins with a reference to traditional Greek expulsion rituals and ends with a list of the parts of the human head similar to that found in a Hippocratic medical handbook.


Posted in Equipment, Magic, Materiality, Ritual and Magic, Uncategorized, Wards | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Two articles on Ossian

Those Scotch Imposters and their Cabal Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment  – PDF

Ossian, the European National Epic (1760-1810)

by Gauti Kristmannsson Original in English, displayed in English
Published: 2015-11-09 Print E-mail XML Metadata

The Poems of Ossian are a unique phenomenon in European literary history. They have been referred to as a “pseudotranslation” and effectively discarded from the canon, to which they undoubtedly belonged to for a hundred years, yet their monumental influence on literature, visual art and music is undeniable. The poems were certainly not a translation of one single text but an editoral construct which on its own shook the literary system of the late 18th century to its foundations and helped usher in Romantic notions of poetry, in addition to turning the focus definitely to the native productions of the people in each country or area. The number of translations and imitations of several degrees underlines the huge creative impulse of the poems, which can be seen as a major paradigm shift in the outlook of what is called high culture literature.

  1. “The Poems of Ossian” and the New National Epic
  2. Ossian in Literature: Translation and Imitation
  3. Intermedial influences: Ossian in Visual Art
  4. Ossian in Music
  5. The Ossianic Paradigm Shift
  6. Appendix
    1. Sources
    2. Literature
    3. Notes


“The Poems of Ossian” and the New National Epic

When James Macpherson (1736–1796)  published his small volume, Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse Language1 in the summer of 1760 he may have had a young man’s hopes of becoming known as a man of letters, at least in Scotland. Nothing could have been more wrong, since he became famous, infamous, lionised and detested in the course of a few years, and not only in his own country, Great Britain, but all over Europe and beyond. Moreover, his financially rewarding rise from poor schoolteacher in the Highlands of Scotland to intellectual, servant of the empire and MP is more reminiscent of a modern celebrity than the career of a “man of letters” in the 18th century.2

The success of his poems was much greater and enduring, however. After the publication of the Fragments, which paved the way for romanticist, lyrical poetry, the Edinburgh elite composed of figures such as Adam Smith (1723–1790) , David Hume (1711–1776) , Hugh Blair (1718–1800)  and Adam Ferguson (1723–1816)  became excited about the possible existence of an epic from the Scottish Highlands. After funds had been raised, the young man went into the country where he collected folk poetry as well as manuscripts and transcribed and translated oral poetry. After the journey, he worked on his translation under the supervision of Hugh Blair, among others. Fingal, the first epic, was published in late 1761 and another edition followed in early 1762.3 In the following year, the second epic Temora4 was published, with new full editions appearing in 1765 and 1773).

The poems caused an instant controversy in the British Isles which was of a twofold nature. The first outcry came from Irish intellectuals who accused Macpherson of cultural theft since the poems, on which the epic was based, had been recited and written in Ireland for generations.5 South of the border, the response was much more furious, undoubtedly because of the importance of a grand national epic for Scotland at a time when the Scottish Lord John Stuart of Bute (1713–1792)  was at the helm of government and anti-Scottish feeling was widespread in the capital.6 There, the accusation was that the translation was a hoax and no such epic had ever existed.7 The controversy simmered on for years and even led to a personal feud between Macpherson and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) , which remains an anecdote gleefully recounted by in many an encyclopaedia article.8

This view has come to dominate the literary and scholarly discourse on the subject of Macpherson’s works and has since overshadowed all debates on the phenomenon linked with Ossian and its influence on European literature, which in the latter part of the 18th and well into the 19th century is probably second only to William Shakespeare (1564–1616)  . A prime example is the work of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) , a major philosopher of national literature. He was absolutely taken by The Poems of Ossian and convinced these works held the key to a new vision of popular poetry in the North.9 His famous Von deutscher Art und Kunst opens with an essay on ancient poetry in which he also mentions Ossian and the Eddic poetry of the North10 while the next essay is aboutShakespeare .11 This slim volume, with a contribution from the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)  among others,12 is often seen as the manifesto of the Sturm und Drang period and remained influential well into the 19th century.

Herder’s fascination with Ossian was above all based on the fact that Macpherson had collected the material for the epics from folk tradition and then used it to construct his own version of an epic to the best of his ability, in line with what was considered to be textual criticism at the time.13 That Macpherson used sources which had long been in existence for his epics has been shown many times, first in the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society14 in 1805. In 1952 Derick Thomson (1921–2012)  published his The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s “Ossian” in which he was still able to trace source material related to the Ossianic poems published some 200 years earlier. Recent scholarship has also highlighted that Macpherson worked from a variety of sources, oral and written.15

Herder and Goethe may have been the pioneers in reception of Ossian in Europe, in the sense that they drew inspiration from it almost instantly (Herder even prior to seeing the English original version). Goethe used the Songs of Selma in his Die Leiden des jungen Werthers 16 and for Herder, Ossian was the chief inspiration for his highly influentialVolkslieder which later were called Stimmen der Völker in Liedern. Both of them even tried to translate directly from the Gaelic with the aid of a dictionary.17

Ossian in Literature: Translation and Imitation

It is sometimes said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The response in the British Isles was, hostility in many quarters notwithstanding, also positive in parts. Many contemporaries, even among those who condemned The Poems of Ossian, started collecting and editing folk poetry themselves. The result was a flurry of publications in Ireland, Wales and indeed England, where bishop Thomas Percy (1729–1811) published his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry  in 1763. To this translation of Eddic poetry Percy wrote a remarkable preface, calling the Nordic skalds the ancestors of the British minstrels.18 Two years later he published a collection of British ballads under the titleReliques of Ancient English Poetry,19 which confirmed that Macpherson’s works had effectually helped to change the perspective on the folk ballad and poetry tradition. Formerly an element of “low” culture, it had now become a feature of “high” culture. This trend was established all over Europe within the course of the following century and produced epics, collections of folk poetry, folk tales and other historical material largely ignored by the elites hitherto.

Translation  and criticism of the Poems of Ossian indeed spread out in a sort of transnational wildfire throughout Europe in the latter part of the 18th century and beyond. According to the Timeline of Ossian’s European Reception by Paul Barnaby the first French translation from the Fragments appeared already in 1760, done by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) . Immediately the year after Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (ca. 1734–1817)  and Denis Diderot (1713–1784)  followed suit. This was only the beginning of a long series of translations and critical debates on Ossian in Europe. The pace of translation picked up in the following years after the epics had been published. It may be surmised from the voluminous reception, through direct translation, critical debate and also creative reception, that these poems had touched a raw nerve among European intellectuals.

The first Dutch translation by Egbert Buys (1725–1769)  appeared 1762 as well as a first anonymous one in German. Melchiorre Cesarotti (1730–1808)  published his influential Italian translation of Fingal in 1763,20 only a year after it appeared in English. The same year Rudolf Erich Raspe (1736–1794)  published a few extracts from it in German. Swedish translations of selections from the poems by Johan Gothenius (1721–1809)  appeared in a journal 1765–1766 and in Austria21Michael Denis (1729–1800)  was the first to publish a full translation of the works of Ossian, and in hexameter, too. By doing so, the alignment with the Homeric epics became obvious. The number of languages into which Macpherson’s works were translated continued to grow throughout the 19th century and is indeed still growing. Few texts in the English language have been translated more often and as widely than The Poems of Ossian.22

Part of the poems’ appeal is the fact that they were received by most intellectuals and poets in Europe as a kind of prototype or model for their own budding national literatures at the time. This was certainly Herder’s point of view and indeed of many others who translated, commented or rewrote Ossianic material. As a literary “earthquake” Macpherson’s works positively shook the foundations of the old classical literary system and marked a paradigm shift by offering a viable alternative for the “new” nations north of the Alps.23


Intermedial influences: Ossian in Visual Art

The Poems of Ossian also influenced works of visual artists and composers of music. The transnational circulation and impact of The Poems of Ossian was not limited to the field of literature but inspired artists working in other media, too. This “translation” into other art forms is perhaps the best argument for counting the poems among the realm of “world literature” (Weltliteratur).24


In the visual arts, several important artists have applied Ossianic themes. Not only in Britain, but also in Denmark, Germany, and France. The British creative reception (including Ireland) was in accordance with the discourse of the day. The Scotsman Alexander Runciman (1736-1786) , who chose literary and mythological subjects very much en vogue at the time, rendered the Scottish national hero appropriately in drawings and in a ceiling painting in Penicuik House, Edinburgh, which was destroyed by fire in 1899.


James Barry (1741–1806)  also interpreted Ossian as a national bard in his series The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, but since he was Irish, the bard to him was also an Irishman.25 Furthermore he sets Homer (ca. 8th century BC)  and Ossian up as equals, a notion propagated by many of the greatest authors and thinkers in the latter part of the 18th century.26 Indeed, Ossian became a transnational figure by providing two parts of the United Kingdom with a national bard comparable with the greatest of them all. Other artists in Britain, either British or foreigners living there, also took up Ossianic topics, for example Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807) , and John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) .27On the whole, however, Ossian did not have a major impact on British art in the second half of the 18th century, owing to the controversy which surrounded the poems.28


Nevertheless, painters from other countries were fascinated by the image of the northern bard, but perhaps for different reasons. In the northern parts of Europe Ossian became the symbol for a new national subject. The Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809)   , who, like many of his contemporaries, merged influences of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in his work, was very fond of both classical and Nordic literary motifs. Ossian played a major part in his work, and his Ossian Singing his Swan Song has almost become the defining image of the blind bard. One of Abildgaard’s students,Asmus Jacob Carstens (1754–1798)  , was inspired by Ossian as well, as were many other Danish artists.29


Just as the literary reception in Germany, or rather the German speaking part of Europe, and France was lively for decades after the publication of The Poems of Ossian, the same was true for the visual arts.30 In Germany Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810)   may be the best known artist who used Ossian as an inspiration, but the Austrian Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839)   was no less active. Furthermore Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)  and the Englishman Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)  show the influence of the supposedly typical Ossianic landscape with its melancholy fog and strange light effects.31 Although Friedrich never painted any actual figures from Macpherson’s works, he was regarded by contemporaries as one of the “leading Ossianists in painting” because of the atmosphere in his work.32


In France The Poems of Ossian were a favourite text of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)  and commissions for works from Ossian at the time gave the subject “imperial support”. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767–1824)  painted his famousOssian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes  at the beginning of the 19th century, a work which was destined for one of Napoleon’s residences, the ChâteauMalmaison. This highly nationalistic work, with French fallen heroes almost embracing Ossian, Fingal and other characters from the poems, highlights once more in how far the Celtic bard could be used to foster the subjective nationalism of another culture. The two other most famous French painters inspired by Ossian were François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770–1837)   and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) . The former’s painting was also commissioned for Malmaison, whereas Ingres’s The Dream of Ossian  was especially painted to embellish Napoleon’s quarters in Rome.33


In Scottish contemporary art Ossian has lately resurfaced. One reason for this burgeoning interest in Macpherson’s works may be found in a newly established political context in Great Britain. Since the late 1990s devolution has begun changing the British political landscape and subsequently left its mark on the arts, too. The sculptor Alexander Stoddart (*1959)  has created a “heroic scale” bust of Ossian and his version of “Ossian singing” on a smaller scale. The art photographer Calum Colvin (*1961)   has created a series of portraits based on an etching by Runciman which was exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 2002 to 2003.34 Despite having been dismissed from the academic literary canon, Ossian appears to play an important role again in what might be perceived as a new Scottish search for cultural identity. As Sebastian Mitchell (*1959)  puts it: “… we have just lived through the most significant period of Ossianic visual interpretation since the early nineteenth century…”35


Ossian in Music

While The Poems of Ossian had a great impact on the visual arts, in particular during the Romantic period, the influence on European (and American) musical composers appears to be even greater and of a much longer duration. 36 Both well-known and lesser-known composers drew inspiration from Macpherson’s works. Franz Schubert (1797–1828) set several passages to music; Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847)  was inspired by a visit to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa to write his celebrated overture Die Hebriden(The Hebrides, 1830). Jean-François Le Sueur (1760–1837)  wrote the most important opera based on Ossian (Ossian, ou Les bardes, 1804), much to the delight of Napoleon.37The Danish composer  Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817–1890)  made his name with the overture Efterklange af Ossian (1840), a work which became part of the Danish national heritage.38 The Frenchman François-Hippolyte Barthélemon (1741–1808) , who lived in England, drew on Ossian for Oithona, a “dramatic poem” in three acts (1768).39 Among the many other musicians to adapt the material, some composed only one small piece, others whole ballets and operas. Composers such as Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) , Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) , John Wall Callcott (1766–1821) , Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) , Georges Bizet (1838–1875) , Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)  and even Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951)  belong to the illustrious circle of artists inspired by Ossian. Apparently these intermedial approaches show how the bard took on a life of his own within the musical world. The Poems of Ossian proved not only to be transnational but also transdisciplinary.


The Ossianic Paradigm Shift

Macpherson’s works thus led to a paradigm shift in European literature and, what is more important, this effect was achieved by doing exactly what Macpherson was most criticised for: by combining the gathered material into the epic form. The theoretical basis to his work might have been laid by the 18th-century scholar, Thomas Blackwell (1701–1757)  fromAberdeen, whose important work An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer went into four editions between 1735 and 1761 in Britain alone.40 Blackwell’s work opens with a question:


By what Fate or Disposition of things it has happened, that None have equalled [Homer] in Epic-poetry for two thousand seven hundred Years, the Time since he wrote; Nor any that we know, ever surpassed him before.41

Blackwell’s answer to his “research question” is centred on the “Progression of Manners”, a combination of three factors: “Thus we find that the Fortunes, the Manners, and theLanguage of a People are all linked together, and necessarily influence one another”.42


This meant that the Homeric epics consisted of a combination of influences and sources which were brought together in one work by one man. Blackwell’s theories were given a new form in the so-called Homeric question of Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824)  in hisProlegomena ad Homerum (1795) that undoubtedly was also related to the previous three decades of Ossianic controversy.43 Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805)  and Goethe saw it that way and asked Herder to contribute an essay to their journal Die Horen, titled Homer und Ossian. Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817)  is sometimes cited as being the first to use the phrase “Homer of the North”, although this has been disputed.44


The continous comparison of Ossian with Homer, which began with Hugh Blair’s influentialA Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763), aims perhaps at more than mere questions of greatness.45 The causes for this juxtaposition may also be found in the nature of the epic itself. Keeping the definition of “national epic” in mind, Macpherson’s construction proved to be so influential because it effectually took the epic tradition in the West “back to basics”. Usually national epics are defined as renderings of traditional epics which have their origins in oral tradition; Homer is always the case in point when referring to an epic passed on orally. Virgil’s (70–19 BC)  Aeneid and Edmund Spenser’s (ca. 1552–1599)  The Faerie Queene are some examples from the large number of authors who wrote so-called “national epics”.


Macpherson, however, collected oral and written sources to construct his version of a national epic. In a sense, it was an attempt to create a traditional epic which instantly was defined as a “national epic”. As an effect intellectuals all over Europe began to perceive their own traditions in a different light. They ceased imitating the classical models and began using sources in their own countries or areas outside the classical sphere. In Britain itself the Welshman Evan Evans (1731–1788)  published his Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards (1764); Charles Henry Wilson (ca. 1757–1808)  presentedSelect Irish Poems Translated (1782) and Charlotte Brooke (ca. 1740–1793)  herReliques of Ancient Irish Poetry (1789; with Thomas Percy’s encouragement), to name just a few. Antiquaries and poets such as Joseph Ritson (1752–1803) , John Pinkerton (1758–1826)  and Walter Scott (1771–1832)  collected and published ballads and folk songs. Extensive explanatory paratexts were added in an attempt to support the construction of a unique national heritage. In the 19th century national epics were simply written with that aim in mind. The Finnish national epic Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884)  is perhaps the most important work in this vein, since Lönnrot used largely the same means of collecting sources as Macpherson did.


As this overview shows, the much-derided comparison of Homer and Ossian is perhaps not as absurd as some modern commentators like to claim. Although scholars and poets at the time had published “native” sources and used them for their own creations, as had happened often before, these works were not “ennobled” by the epic form which Macpherson gave the ballads and folk poetry of his people. He literally translated a specific culture to the “higher sphere” of classical culture. That Macpherson’s works were removed from the canon of the most important works of European, and, indeed, world literature, might thus be regarded as a matter of nationalist narrow-mindedness and dogmatic notions on translation and textual criticism.


Gauti Kristmannsson, Reykjavík

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Jacques-Louis David and the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility

Ellen Atkinson, translator


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Hauntology and occult music Dump topic

Weird Britain in Exile: Ghost Box, Hauntology, and Alternative Heritage weird_britain_in_exile


Bands and websites
English heretic
Folklore tapes
Psychogeographical commission
Ghostbox (focus group, advisory board etc)

Ian Humberstone
A year in the country

Phil Legard (Pneumatic Consort, Xenis Emputae Travelling Band)

Okok Society / OKOK research group

current 93

The Anti Group

genisis p orridge projects

Small Labels

Mega dodo
Invisible city

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Illustration titles

this circle exists in every dimensyon. stare into it’s segments and see yourself as initiate in a fractal sub universe

gaze into the portal. try to astral project

attempt channelled communications here.

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PDFs on ANZAC as Civil religion




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