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“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This popular saying, paraphrased from William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride, was written nearly 1600 years after Vergil’s Aeneid. Even so, the quote speaks to the Aeneid’s exploration of the relationship between female characters and the emotion of furor. In his epic, Vergil often chooses to portray his female characters as being possessed by furor. Be they prophetic, love-struck, insane, or filled with martial rage, the mortal females portrayed in the Aeneid embody various emotions all, surprisingly, expressed with the same Latin word. An exploration of selected mortal women from Vergil’s epic displays the myriad meanings of the term “furor,” as well as the almost complete power that this emotion is shown to have over mortal women.
The Sibyl, a prophetess who narrates and guides Aeneas’ destined trip through the underworld, is possessed by a prophetic fury that serves as the source of her knowledge and power. The frenzy that ultimately captures “awful Sibyl” is in stark contrast to the calm and collected nature of “pious Aeneas,” thereby increasing the impact (6.11,14). The prescient furor which makes the Sibyl terrifying and powerful is not initially forced upon her. Rather, she instructs Aeneas as to the necessary sacrifices and vows to summon the god Apollo. The furor that fills the virgin Sibyl manifests itself outwardly in several ways; “[H]er face / and color alter suddenly; her hair / is disarrayed; her breast heaves, and her wild / heart swells with frenzy” (6.67-70).
More stunningly, being possessed by furor increases the Sibyl’s outward appearance of power: “[S]he is taller now; / her voice is more than human” (6.70-71). While she initially accepts Apollo’s use of her, she later struggles against the power that he wields over her. Indeed, “[s]he has not yet given way to Phoebus: / she rages, savage, in her cavern, tries / to drive the great god from her breast” (6.109-112). No longer does the Sibyl invite or encourage the presence of furor, as controlled by Phoebus. This change is understandable, especially when Apollo’s treatment of his prophetess is elaborated. The god “tires out her raving mouth” and “shapes by crushing force” her “wild heart” (6.112-113). The physical and mental changes which furor enacts within the prophetess Sibyl clearly establish the dominance of this emotion over its host, even when it initially is sought willingly.
Like the Sibyl, Dido at first accepts, even embraces, the power that passionate furor has over her. Rather than ignoring or controlling the feelings that she develops for Aeneas, the Queen instead chooses to speak of the issue with her sister, Anna. She confides that “Aeneas is the only man to move / my feelings, to overturn my shifting heart. / I know too well the signs of the old flame” (4.25-27). Through her discussion with her sister confidant, Dido augments and rationalizes her emerging attachment to Aeneas. For her part, Anna only increases the Queen’s ardor. “These words of Anna fed the fire in Dido. / Hope burned away her doubt, destroyed her shame” (4.74-75). As with the Sibyl, once Dido accepts furor into her bosom, the emotion becomes uncontrollable and frantic. In a frenzy, she implores the higher powers—Ceres, Phoebus, Bacchus, and Juno—to bring Aeneas and her together. It is at this point that the previous, subtle pleasure that Dido gleaned from her frenzy falls away:
How / can vows and altars help one wild with love?
Meanwhile the supple flame devours her marrow;
Within her breast the silent wound lives on.
Unhappy Dido burns. Across the city
She wanders in her frenzy…
…[I]nsane, she seeks out that same banquet,
Again she prays to hear the trials of Troy,
Again she hangs on the teller’s lips. (4.86-91,102-104)
The goddess Juno, seeing the plight of frenzied Dido, uses her power to contrive Aeneas’ and Dido’s union in a deserted cave during a sudden and powerful storm. Living together in decadence satisfies both lovers for some time, but Jupiter is unwilling to allow Aeneas to stray from his destined founding of the Romans.
Therefore, as Dido’s zeal for Aeneas comes to be met with pious determination to fulfill his fate, the furor which initially made her so desire Aeneas is transformed into furious anger and rage, another aspect traditionally associated with the word. When Dido learns of her lover’s clandestine departure, hysteria once again consumes her, as “Her mind is helpless; raging frantically, / inflamed, she raves throughout the city” (4.402-403). This frenzy turns into furious anger against Aeneas, heaping threats upon him. She says,
I hope / that you will drink your torments to the lees
Among sea rocks and, drowning, often cry
The name of Dido. Then, though absent,
I Shall hunt you down with blackened firebrands…
Depraved, you then will pay your penalties. (4.523-527,530)
Very quickly, the furor which up until now has been characterized within Dido as passionate and loving, as well as furious and angry, transforms once again. The frenzy within the Queen takes on a new air of madness and raving insanity when she resolves to commit suicide. By tricking her sister, Dido constructs a pile of objects—Aeneas’ clothes, sword, and other personal belongings—which are closely related to her affair with Aeneas. Once the pile is completed, Dido takes her life with the sword, but death is slow in coming because “she died / a death that was not merited or fated, / but miserable and before her time / and spurred by sudden frenzy” (4.958-961).
It was the furor within Dido that spurred her to rashly commit suicide; mania made her incapable of moving on after Aeneas’ departure. Vergil’s perspective is clearly shown when Dido pays the ultimate price for knowing that mutable frenzy, with its fierce and powerful passions, is impossible to control. Dido is shown to be at the mercy of an ever-changing furor that she is unable to restrain, even to the point of death.
Similar to Queen Dido, Queen Amata of Laurentum abandons herself to passionate love, furious anger, and finally raving insanity, forcing her to deal with the consequences that furor brings to her and her kingdom. However, unlike Dido, Amata in no way desires or provokes frenzy to overtake her. Instead, Juno, in her desire to prolong Aeneas’ struggles, calls upon Allecto to poison the Queen’s mind in order to begin a war between Aeneas and Turnus, her daughter’s promised suitor. “Then from her blue-gray hair the goddess cast / a snake deep in Amata’s secret breast, / that, maddened by the monster, she might set / at odds all of her household” (7.458-461).
The furor that overcomes Amata is metaphorically compared to an “infection” that penetrates “with damp poison” into her mind and body (7.468). Immediately, Amata, like Sibyl and Dido, displays physical signs of emotional upheaval. The delirium “gripped her senses and entwined her bones / in fire,” as well as provoking “the force / of flame throughout her breast” (7.469-471). The madness that Allecto sparks in the Queen induces her to quarrel with her husband, King Latinus, who only gives way after her hysteria has caused her to rage throughout the entire city. Her frenzied behavior renders her no less than barbaric:
She pretends / that Bacchus has her; racing to the forest,
Amata now tries greater scandal, spurs
To greater madness. She conceals her daughter
In leafy mountains, stealing from the Trojans
That marriage, holding off the wedding torches. (7.511-516)
The madness and mania that Queen Amata personifies after being poisoned by furor is particularly tragic because of the dire consequences it has for the soldiers who fight in the ensuing war. This stands in stark contrast to the effects that furor has on the Sibyl and Dido, who, although they invite it into their heart willingly, do not cause others pain. Queen Amata, a victim of Juno’s vindictive whims, is the cause of not only her own death, but also to some extent of all the battle deaths that accompany Aeneas’ conquest of her kingdom. When it becomes clear to Amata that Turnus and his troops are not going to be victorious “she cries out / that she herself is guilty, is the source / of their misfortunes” (12.805-807).
Because she earlier promised Turnus that “whatever waits for you waits for me,” her perceived knowledge of Turnus’ death makes her own suicide inevitable. (12.85). “[I]n moaning frenzy; she is ready / to die and tears her purple robe and fastens / a noose of ugly death from a high beam” (12.808-810). While the furor that posses Queen Amata is not as varied as that which afflicts Queen Dido, the way in which it is forced upon her makes a necessary point about the nature of furor and the unrelenting hold that Vergil portrays it to have over women.
The effect that furor has on mortal women within the Aeneid is, therefore, uneven. While it causes the Sibyl to have violent, prophetic visions, within Queen Dido it is the source of everything from fervent love to unabashed rage. Consistent, however, is the inability that mortal women have to control their frenzy once it has taken hold, even to the point of death. This characterization of furor emphasizes the weak will of women and their susceptibility to being controlled.
Vergil clearly believes that the passions that accompany the varying aspects of furor are simply incapable of being conquered. Although it is impossible to deny that the mortal women of the Aeneid are filled with fury—be it furious prophecy, love, anger, or insanity—it is not because of some previous scorn, like Congreve wrote, but rather because of the omnipotent power of furor.
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