De Vergilio & Gnomais

(On Vergilius and the Gnomes)

In the course of their education Vergilius gave his apprentices Gnômai: which is Greek for proverbs or sentences (proverba, sententiae), which he said would help when they were are their own. What he did not tell them was that by learning these sentences and repeating them, they were calling on spirits (daemones), the Gnomai, who would come to their aid, for each Gnômê is a female spirit of wisdom. They are said to have come from Gnossos [=Knossos] in Crete, where the most famous was Ariadne, called Gnosis . They were said to dwell in the labyrinthine passages of the earth, and so Paracelsus said (De Nymphis) their name means "Earth-dweller" (Gê-nomos). (Even in English, the word Gnome means both an Earth Elemental and a Proverb.) Vergilius taught the dictum (itself a powerful Gnômê):

Gnosce Gnosidem Gnômên Gnoscentem!
Know the Knowing Gnome of Knossos!

Furthermore, to empower a Gnômê he gave them this spell (incantamentum), for he said that if a Gnômê were to live, the Spiritus (Breath) must be made to move through it:

Tu Spirite Gnomes!
Te infigere precor
Accurate Gnomen
Semper in mentem meam.
Adiutare precor
Ut sit talis semper
Sic felicitatis causa.

Thou Spirit of the Gnome!
Impress, I pray to Thee,
The Gnome with accuracy
Forever on my mind.
I pray that Thou wouldst help
That it might always be
A cause of true felicity.

A close friend of Vergilius was Gaius Asinius Pollio [76 BCE - 4 CE], whom he called Pullus [= a sprout, recall "Virgilius" from virgula = a shoot]. Pollio was knight (eques) and later the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, a friend of the republic, and a wise man, who founded the first public library in Rome and wrote many books, especially in history. He was a friend of Vergilius (see especially his Fourth Eclogue) and introduced him to the Emperor [Octavius]. Earlier he had convinced M. Antonius to restore to Vergilius his farm, which had been confiscated [41 BCE]. In earlier days Pollio was a student of Vergilius, who gave him a Gnômê:
Ne respondeas tu sine
certe auscultato fine.

Reply thou not before
the end is surely heard.

Some time after, when Pullio was traveling alone to Florentia [Florence], he was passing through a forest he discovered a stone on which the following letters were carved: LEVE [LIFT]. He raised it and found a golden ring engraved with many magical signs, which he put on his right hand. Proceeding further, he came at dusk to a granary (horreum), and found therein a place to sleep behind a partition. But soon thereafter two brothers came in, but didn't see him. The first one said, "On the one hand, brother, it is very good that before he died, our father Gyrinus [Tadpole] told us he had hidden his ring under a stone marked LEVE, but on the other it is very unfortunate that he died before he could tell us where it might be found." The other agreed and suggested they continue searching at daybreak.

Pullus heard this and was about to call out that he had found the ring, when Vergilius' Gnômê came to him, and reminded him that he should listen to what else they might say. Then the first asked the second what he would do with the ring, and the second replied, "I would use it to change my teacher (magister) into an ass, so that I could beat him into pulp, because he punished me for getting drunk." Then the first said, "Well I would use it to turn that beautiful daughter of the Comes ("Count") into a bitch in heat, because she spurned my attentions. Then I would beat her and violate her and keep her as a dog until she consented to my wishes."

They both had a good laugh, but Pullus thought it was just as well he had obeyed the Gnômê and kept silent. After the brothers had left, he returned to the stone and placed under it a tablet saying that the ring had been taken into the custody of an Earth-spirit (Gnomus), who would bring the evil brothers what they deserved.

Some time later Pullus was travelling to Verona to visit Gaius Valerius Catullus [c. 57 BCE] and encountered a magician (magus) named Dianus, who displayed great skill. Eventually they came to the villa of a rich Senator (eques), where they offered to show him what they could conjure. The Senator's daughter was very attracted to Pullus, as he was to her, and they shared long, hungry glances. Although the Senator was satisfied with their magic, he was nevertheless unhappy, for he explained that he had been promised a lion by a prince of Byzantium, and had in turn promised it to his Praetor (Governor), but it had never been delivered. Now the Praetor thought he had lied, which is what the Senator's enemies were telling the Praetor. Pullus offered to help the Senator, who said that if he were successful, he could have whatever he wanted. Pullus said that it would be sufficient reward if could please the daughter, whereat the Senator promised his daughter as wife if she were willing (for he had seen how they looked at each other). Indeed, his daughter smiled happily when she heard his promise.

Therefore, Pullus had the Senator invite the Praetor to come and receive his lion. When he had arrived with all his retainers, Pullus asked the Senator to show him all his enemies, which he did. Then Pullus used the magic ring to change Dianus into a lion, who was led into the Praetor's presence. Suddenly the lion broke loose and, jumping the wall that protected the spectators, tore the Senator's enemies limb from limb. Then he ran off into the woods and was never seen again (for Pullus later restored Dianus to his proper form). Thus the Praetor was forced to admit that the Senator had not lied, and the Senator was relieved of his enemies. Pullus was allowed to marry the daughter, and they were very happy.

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Last updated: Sat Nov 2 17:41:34 EST 1996