Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Martianus Capella’s Fable of the Marriage of Philologia and Mercury

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Sandro Botticelli, A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts (detail), 1483–1486.

 

MARTIANUS CAPELLA, an early 5th century North African writer, is most famous for a work titled, On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii).  Virtually ignored today, this work had vast influence on education for next 1000 years and shaped the curriculum of the Middle Ages. The first two books, an introduction, present an allegorical fable involving the marriage of Mercury and Philology (love of study.).  Subsequent chapters discuss, one by one, the seven traditional liberal arts (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music), supplying a compendium of existing knowledge on each.

Even less modern attention has been given to the introductory fable than to the work as a whole.  However the former merits our attention as an imaginative and creative attempt to explain the purpose of liberal education by means of a psychological allegory.  As a work of art and an expression of the collective unconscious, the fable is not dated. Indeed, the daring style — precisely because it’s so unconventional by modern standards — deserves our attention that much more.The allegory has two parts, called the Betrothal and the Marriage. Part 1 — psychologically more interesting — is supplied below.  This is taken (in abridged and edited form) from the English translation of Stahl, Johnson and Burge.  Except for Mercury, names of the gods are changed from their Latin to Greek forms.

Readers may notice similarities to the story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Metamorphosis (Golden Ass) of Apuleius.  That is not merely coincidental, as Martianus consciously emulated his illustrious predecessor Apuleius, a fellow native of Madaura (in what is now Algeria).Philology, as already noted, means the love of study, and Mercury — known both for his role as communicator and mediator, as well as for his quickness — is a familiar symbol for the intelligence.

Rather than over-analyze the charming story, I’ll trust the author’s creative instincts and let art itself appeal to readers’ imaginations to suggest psychological meanings. Overall, the story might be understood as suggesting that education in the Seven Liberal Arts is more than merely expedient; it also serves to elevate and harmonize the mind. In that sense it (just as Plato suggests in the Republic), supports ones moral and spiritual development. Indeed, insofar as it helps realize Man’s greatest potentials, it serves the entire Universe and contributes to cosmic harmony.

[5] MERCURY was moved and excited by the reciprocity of love among the gods; at the same time he saw what was clear to many people—love and marriages are universally celebrated. So he too decided to get married. His mother had encouraged him in this inclination when, on his yearly journey through the zodiac, he greeted her in the company of the Pleiades.

[6] Because of the importance of the venture, he pondered a great deal on whom he ought to marry. He himself ardently desired Wisdom, because she was prudent and holy, and purer and fairer than the other maidens. However Wisdom was like a foster sister of Athena and seemed inseparably devoted to her, as though having espoused virginity; he accordingly decided not to marry Wisdom, as this would offend Athena, his own sister.

In the same way, the splendid beauty of Prophecy inflamed his desires. She was nobly born, being the elder daughter of Forethought, and her farsighted and penetrating wisdom commended her to him. But at that very time, as it happened, she went of her own accord to young Apollo and, unable to endure her inordinate passion, she became his lover.

[7] He wanted then to ask for Psyche, the daughter of Endelechia [World Soul] and Sol, because she was extremely beautiful and the gods had taken great care over her education. On the day of her birth the gods, being invited to a celebration, had brought her many gifts. Jupiter, in fact, had placed on her head a diadem which he had taken from his favored daughter Eternity; Juno had added a band for her hair, made from a gleaming vein of pure gold. Athena loosed from her tunic the flame-red veil and breastband and, herself a virgin holy and wise, draped the virgin in the very mantle from her own bosom. Apollo also, carrying his laurel branch, showed her with that wand of foresight and prophecy the birds, the bolts of lightning, the motions of heaven itself and the stars. Urania with gentle kindness gave her a gleaming mirror which Wisdom had hung in Urania’s rooms amongst her gifts—a mirror in which Psyche could recognize herself and learn her origins. Hephaestus kindled for her ever-burning flamelets; she would not then be oppressed by gloomy shadows and blind night. Aphrodite had given to all her senses every kind of pleasure. Mercury himself had given her a vehicle with swift wheels in which she could travel at an astonishing speed, although Memory bound it and weighed it down with golden chains. So now Mercury, his earlier hopes frustrated, sought in marriage Psyche, wealthy as she was in the gifts of heaven and richly adorned by the gods. But Virtue, almost in tears and clinging fast to him, confessed that Psyche had been snatched from her company into the hand of Cupid the flying archer, and was being held captive by him in shackles of adamant. (See ‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Apuleius):

[8] So the happiness of the destiny he had planned eluded Mercury, because of the marriages of these maidens; and there did not readily seem to be anyone else who might fittingly be chosen as Zeus the Thunderer’s daughter-in-law. Virtue therefore suggested that he give the matter further thought; he ought not decide anything without the advice of Apollo; he was not meant to wander far from his company, since, as Mercury traveled through the signs of the zodiac, Apollo never permitted him to be further than one month’s journey away from himself. And so it was decided that Mercury go to his brother, Apollo, wherever he might be.

[9] Then, as usual, he gave his caduceus to Virtue, so that she could penetrate the secret parts of the world with him, and with equal swiftness could break into the more remote quarters of heaven. He himself bound on his feet his golden sandals and they made a thorough search for Apollo. They looked for him in temples where oracles poured forth in evasive ambiguity and where, by the slaughter of animals and the separation of their entrails, the viscera declared foreordained events; and in places where it was the custom for a lottery to be drawn and for prophecies to be told.

[10] But in these leading shrines and these deserted caves they found nothing of Apollo except only a few leaves of withered laurel and half-torn fillets outside the cave of the sybil of Cumae. Even through the paths of air where Apollo usually guided the varied flights of birds and the cries they uttered, and formed omens in their fleeting wings, they looked for him without success. Indeed Apollo, patron of the Pythia, distressed by contact with those who sought his advice, had long ago given up his reputation as a prophet. They pursued him to Helicon, Delos, Lycia. In one place they found old laurel and withered ivy, in another a rotting tripod, sandals stiff with mildew, and an account of prophecies lying between them.

[11] At length they learned by rumor that the rock of Parnassus rejoiced in the presence of Phoebus, although from there too it was said that he had later moved to an Indian mountain’s secret crag, shrouded in perpetual clouds. Yet Mercury and Virtue visited the Delphic temple (by way of Cirrha on the Gulf of Corinth) and the sacred cave’s prophetic hollows. In it there stood about all the impending vicissitudes of the ages, in their order: the fortunes of cities and nations, of all their kings, and of the entire human race.

[20] When Pythian Apollo saw them approach from afar, conversing thus, and realized from the first glance the reason for their coming, he rose from the throne on which he was sitting and bade the Muses meet them. Although they seemed to hasten in service to Mercury, they moved with measured pace. When his brother had been brought to sit with him and join him in his work, Apollo first began:

[21] “When their minds tremble with apprehension in perilous times, or their destiny is unknown and unsettled with the future insecure, let the race of men consult the gods, because anxiety without knowledge of the truth makes them hesitant, uncertain prospects weary them; but to us foreknowledge is permitted, for us there is no hesitation. What the gods decide is law; heaven’s decisions cause us no wistfulness, for necessity is whatever is pleasing to us. But because you have not yet settled upon a choice, you want to have my advice. You thus associate me with all your desires, and you make up your mind with my advice.

[22] “There is a maiden of ancient lineage, highly educated and well acquainted with Parnassus; upon her the constellations shine in close proximity; no hidden region can conceal from her the movements of the stars through Tartarus, nor can thunderbolts hide from her the will of Zeus: she beholds under the sea the nature of wave-born Nereus. She knows your circuits through the several kingdoms of your brothers: ever watchful, with unsparing toil she penetrates the secrets of knowledge, so that with her patient learning she can anticipate all that it is given to gods to foreknow. Indeed, very often she has rights over us, impelling gods under compulsion to obey her decrees; she knows that what no power of heaven can attempt against Jove’s will, she can attain. Sublimity may cost dear: and the crowning consideration is that either of you is a fitting match for the other.”

[23] Virtue was delighted at these words of Apollo, recognizing that he proposed for marriage a paragon of a maiden; nevertheless, to be sure that there was no detraction from the dignity of the prospective brides mentioned earlier, she asked this one’s name. When she learned that it was Philologae whose espousal Apollo was urging, she was seized with such joy and enthusiasm that she behaved with less severity of deportment than was her wont. She called to mind that Philologae was her own kinswoman, a patroness of Prophecy, who had been so well commended, and most generous to Wisdom in giving her valuable ornaments. In addition, said Virtue, Psyche, who at first lived a primitive sort of existence, has been so refined by Philologae that whatever beauty and embellishment Psyche had she acquired from the polish Philologae gave her; for the maiden had shown Psyche so much affection that she strove constantly to make her immortal. Therefore they must not delay— and indeed she knew that the Cyllenian was swift in action. Having heard the words of Apollo, Mercury replied:

[24] “Lord of the laurel, splendor of the gods, certain it is that our concord comes from our kinship, and that you, my fellow-god, bring to pass whatever you and I together find to approve. I am never more ready to give up my own will, more happy to obey orders than when your caution and judgment prompt me to obey the Delian oracle. “I think it is sacrilege to regard the Delian utterances as ambiguous, and I forgo my own decision, whatever it was. It is therefore all the more appropriate that the I gladly obey these celebrated pronouncements when he is ordered to enter into matrimony. Try then, Delian Apollo, to ensure that Zeus should give the same decision, that he should give willing approval; for you are used to moving his will, you are alert to influence his predispositions; get him to approve your commands; I pray that his holy will has shone upon what has begun.”

Book I continues, informing us that Zeus not only confirms the choice of Philologae as Mercury’s bride, but is overjoyed at the prospect. He duly commands all the Olympian gods to commence festivities and prepare gifts. Book II continues with an elaborate description of the marriage ceremony. Accompanying the bride are her handmaids, the seven Liberal Arts, to which the remaining books are devoted.

Bibliography

Apuleius. Cupid and Psyche. William Addington (tr.); John Uebersax (ed.). 2018.

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. Vol. 2. University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. (Ch. 8. Martianus Capella, pp. 597−646.)

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 24 Mar 2020

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