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Arma virumque cano – “Of arms and the man I sing”
From the beginning of the universe to the time you were born, everything had to happen exactly as it did to create you. You are the culmination of thousands of years of struggle.
Simply because you are alive, you are part of an unbroken chain that goes back to the beginning. Perhaps you can trace your line to some great king or hero. However, all of us have ancestors that were defeated, enslaved, or humiliated. Yet ultimately, just because we’re alive, we know we had ancestors that endured.
However, how do we relate to those ancestors? How can we identify with empires, nations or tribes whose very names have been lost to history? How can we determine who we really are?
Identity is defined by two things. First, identity is defined by those things you have which can’t be reduced to a commodity. The second thing that defines identity is will. A tribe, a people, and a cult can endure beyond defeat. They can keep their identity even when Power tries to stamp it out. They just need the will to continue, even under the most difficult circumstances. And sometimes, they need to adapt their tradition into new forms to meet new circumstances.
In the classical tradition, the hero Aeneas was one of the great fighters in the Trojan War. Of course, he fought the for the losers. His city was destroyed, his king killed, his people all but wiped out.
However, this wasn’t the end for him or his tribe. He gathered a group around him, including his father and son. He also carried with him the statues representing the gods of Troy, thus continuing the sacred cult which defines identity.
The image of Aeneas leading his son and carrying his father (who in turn carries the gods) has echoed throughout Western art. It is a powerful representation of the chain of identity that binds all of us.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas leads his small group from the ruins of Troy into exile. He has a passionate romance with the Carthaginian queen Dido, and Aeneas is tempted into staying with her. However, he is reminded by the gods that he has a greater destiny. Dido swears eternal enmity and then kills herself. This presages the later wars between Rome and Carthage.
After all, it is Aeneas’s destiny to found Rome. He leads his group to Italy and ultimately to victory over the Latins. Virgil portrays Aeneas as the legendary ancestor of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, sanctifying the ruling dynasty.
Scholars argue whether the Aeneid is imperial propaganda or a clever, subversive text that is about the horrors of war and the abuses of power. Both views are wrong.
Virgil was a Roman pagan, and he had the pagan worldview very few share today. The pagan view of life is a tragic one. This doesn’t mean life is depressing. It means we are bound by fate and that our choices can’t be reduced to an abstract morality of “good” and “evil.” We operate within the context of an honor culture.
The pagan Virgil knew that Aeneas was not an autonomous individual who can just do whatever he wants. If he was, he would have stayed with Dido. Instead, he must fulfill his destiny. He has a Need (symbolized by messages from the gods) that he must fulfill, no matter what the cost. He must fight and conquer so that he can continue the Trojan legacy. He ultimately lays the foundation for Rome, which in turn conquers Greece. The past, the present, and the future are all united in one chain of existence and they all affect each other simultaneously.
Aeneas went from being an exile from a defeated, defunct city-state to becoming a progenitor, the founder of something new. Yet that new thing he founded was still related to that older Trojan tradition. It was an eternal way of existence that adapted itself to new forms.
The universal longing for continuity and for Identity, to know one’s place and roots, is why the Aeneid had such power in so many diverse cultures. Snorri Sturluson, a Christian Icelandic political leader and historian, wrote in his Prose Edda that Thor was a Trojan prince.
Historically, this makes no sense, and is probably even further removed from the truth than the Greek or Roman tales. Yet it served a mythic role, inserting the Norse peoples and their supposed progenitors into the classical history so prized by many early Christians. It was an attempt to claim legitimacy, to say that the Norse weren’t on the margins, but had always been at the center of the Western story.
The temptation is to link ourselves to some glorious past, to make ourselves something more than we are. This is what Snorri did and it’s very understandable. Yet ultimately, such efforts betray a certain inferiority complex. If your only accomplishment is to be born from a great line, then the chain ends with you. Ultimately, you must carry it forward, not rest on the laurels of your ancestors.
Consider again the statue of Aeneas. His father is not carrying him, he is carrying his father. Aeneas shoulders the burden of the past. Yet he does this willingly. In turn, his father holds the gods, the archetypes of primordial identity and ultimate aspirations. Aeneas is fleeing defeat, but his destiny is to create a new beginning.
It may seem like the chain is broken and that we are rootless and alone. It may seem easier to abandon the past altogether, to let it drop to the ground and seek pleasure and contentment.
But that’s not how heroes are made. We must take up the burden of the past. Yet we go forward to a new destiny rather than looking backwards to past defeats and dead institutions. We are the progenitors of a new line, a new tradition, a new cult that is rooted in the deepest and most ancient of primordial truths.
It’s already happening. We have it in our power to create a new rising culture out of the ruins of Empire. Those of you reading this can become more than just a link in the chain. You can become progenitors, founders, the creators who give rise to a new people, culture, and way of existence.
As we look back, we see the chaos of Empire, the grey of a dead world, the insanity of a ruined culture. So we go forward, carrying the sacred flame with us, walking the path of ascent, and paving the way for the new Age of Heroes.