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Juturna’s Brave Lament

Juturna’s is one of the bravest laments I’ve ever read in Classical literature.

And it’s one I’d never come across until a year or so ago when I decided, after too many years of delay, to read all of Virgil’s Aeneid, from beginning to end, in Latin. Alas, my Latin was and remains very rusty. But rustiness can be an advantage. It’s slowed my reading down, forcing me to dig deeply into each passage and savor it, with the result that details stay in my mind much more firmly, and I don’t get as distracted as I might otherwise have been by the big, bravura passages: Aeneas’s account of the fall of Troy in Book II, Dido’s own laments in Book IV, Aeneas’s visit to the underworld in Book VI.

By comparison, Juturna’s troubles in the Aeneid are small change, and she herself a minor character. A pathetic nuisance, is one way of looking at her. She doesn’t appear until the finale, in Book XII, when Juno has run out of ideas for throwing the battle over the future home of Troy in favor of Turnus, who leads the Italians against the Trojan fleet, led by Aeneas. Juno has already called for help from the hideous fury Allecto, after her own powers to disrupt Aeneas’s mission to found Rome have failed. That leaves Juturna, Turnus’s sister, to thwart Juno’s designs. To be sure, Juturna is an immortal water-nymph now, raised to that status by Jupiter as compensation for his having ravished her, as gods will do. But a fighter she is not. All she can do is create diversions, which she does desperately, not out of divine spite, but out of love for her brother.

All for nothing. For unbeknownst to her, Juno and Jupiter are making a bargain high up in Olympus, the upshot of which is that Juno agrees at last to give up on her desire to prevent Aeneas’s success and the founding of Rome. So, yes, she’ll stifle Juturna at once, dismissing her not only without thanks, but also without pity. Juno handles Juturna as she would any pawn, by sending down a Dira, a monstrous bird-like messenger of doom, to frighten Juturna into submission. Overwhelmed, poor Juturna yields at once:

As for Juturna, when she knew the wings,
The shriek to be the fiend’s, she tore her hair,
Despairing, then she fell upon her cheeks
With nails, upon her breast with clenched hands.

“Turnus, how can your sister help you now?
What action is still open to me, soldierly
Though I have been? Can I by any skill
Hold daylight for you? Can I meet and turn
This deathliness away? Now I withdraw,
Now leave this war. Indecent birds, I fear you,
Spare me your terror. Whip-lash of your wings
I recognize, that ghastly sound, and guess
Great-hearted Jupiter’s high cruel commands.
Returns for my virginity, are they?
He gave me life eternal— to what end?
Why has mortality been taken from me?
Now beyond question I could put a term
To all my pain, and go with my poor brother
Into the darkness, his companion there.
Never to die? Will any brook of mine
Without you, brother, still be sweet to me?
If only earth’s abyss were wide enough
To take me downward, goddess though I am,
To join the shades below!”
                                              So she lamented,
Then with a long sigh, covering up her head
In her grey mantle, sank to the river’s depth.

This translation of Robert Fitzgerald’s is my favorite, but even he can’t do full justice to Virgil’s wordplay in moments like these. Verbal echoes of Dido’s sister Anna’s lament over the dying Dido occur here, for example. But I’m most struck by the change in tone that occurs at the beginning of l. 882 of the Latin text: immortalis ego (Fitzgerald translates “Never to die?”)

‘…immortalis ego? aut quicquam me dulce meorum   882
te sine, frater, erit? O quae satis ima dehiscat
terra mihi, manisque deam demittat ad imos?’

tantum effata caput glauco contexit amictu   885
multa gemens et se fulvio dea condidit alto.

Fitzgerald puts a question mark after “Never to die?”, the effect of which is to continue Juturna’s previous torrent of questionings—bitter ones, all directed at her ravisher, Zeus, who will never lower himself to answer her. But Virgil’s own immortalis ego carries no punctuation. (The punctuation in the Latin text above was inserted by the editor.) So how should we hear it? Literally, the phrase means, “I am immortal.” It sounds like a matter-of-fact statement, one whose brevity amid the frantic language that precedes and follows it makes it stand out. Separated from its context within Juturna’s lament, it could sound like a god’s lofty assertion of superiority to a mere mortal’s challenge. After all, the world of the Aeneid is strictly divided between mortals and immortals, with all advantages going to the higher-ups. Being mortal means being subjected to the relentlessness of trial, disappointment, pain, and death. Even half-immortals, like Aeneas himself, whose mother is Venus, must suffer these ills. Only the gods themselves are free of them, while they enjoy any mortal pleasures they wish.

But occurring as immortalis ego does within Juturna’s lament gives the statement poignant gravity. As if Juturna abruptly realizes that her immortality isn’t just another grim consequence of a bad bargain, but an annihilating blow to her happiness. True immortals can love mortals and leave them. Mortals turned immortals, like Juturna, are forever tied to their mortal loyalties. So when it dawns on Juturna that immortality not only prevents her from accompanying her brother into the land of the dead, but also deprives her of all love and companionship, she is devastated. Even her beloved brooks and streams mean nothing to her now. Immortality, presumably the height of bliss, now appears to her a kind of hell.

What to do? Forever bemoan her fate? Not at all. She imitates her own wished-for burial by wrapping herself in her mantle and plunging deep into a river. But not possibly so deep that she can meet Turnus in his lonely wanderings below.

It’s a bitter decision she makes, but it has an admirable dignity about it as well. The key word about her decision appears in the last line quoted above: condidit, here meaning “bury.” Fitzgerald dilutes the fierce energy behind her intention by translating condidit as “sank” in the passive sense. That same verb “condere” will be used a little later at the end of the Aeneid when Aeneas “… sank (condit) his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest,” where Fitzgerald restores ‘sank’s’ vigor.

So forms of condere unite sister and brother in death after all, and unite them with Aeneas too, since his mission was always, as we learn right at the beginning of the Aenead, to struggle dum conderet urbem “till he could found a city,” where condere carries the meaning of “found,” perhaps from the image of “sinking” foundations.

Juturna’s lament also suggests a kind of triumph, of sheer will over circumstance. Not unlike Aeneas’s own persistence through difficulty, perhaps. But at least a testimony to the power of love to defy the lure of mere immortality.

After getting his PhD in English literature, George Dardess taught close reading to his own students until his retirement. Since then he has been ordained a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and written several books on Muslim-Christian relations. He has also created the graphic novel Foreign Exchange.