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Gigantomachic Imagery and Autochthonous Growth in Vergil’s Georgics

Zack Rider

In his discussion of lucky and unlucky days in the first Georgic, Vergil instructs the farmer to avoid the fifth as a day of especially ill omen, claiming it as the birthday for a rogues’ gallery of mythical figures, including Orcus, the Eumenides, the Titans Coeus and Iapetus, the monster Typhoeus, and the Aloidae Otus and Ephialtes (1.277-280).  Despite this common date of creation, the poet is careful to indicate that the method of creation was not the same for all these creatures; in a striking agricultural metaphor whose importance has not been fully explored, Orcus and the Eumenides are said to have been sown (satae), while the others appear to be autochthonously produced (partu Terra nefando).  Further, this latter group consists entirely of creatures commonly depicted in terms of gigantomachic imagery (Hardie 1989, 85).  Scholarship on this passage has emphasized Vergil’s divergence from his primary model for this passage, Works and Days 802-804, in including this group of giant-like figures (cf. Thomas 1988 ad 1.278-83; Farrell 1991, 124).  Yet there has been little discussion as to why Vergil would include these particular figures or make such a distinction between methods of generation.

In this paper, I argue that the inclusion of these figures, and their varied geneses, are part of a larger program in the Georgics, linking autochthonous growth to the imagery of gigantomachy.  Both are features of an earlier age where the Earth regularly produced creatures, such as the Titans and Typhoeus, which were obstacles to Zeus’ reign, and which had to be overcome for his order to be established and maintained.  This struggle, I argue, is also reflected in the Georgics, as the farmer is regularly shown attempting to maintain order against the chaotic natural forces which continually encroach upon him; while the farmer may not have to subdue a Typhoeus, he does have to restrain the wild growth of weeds, which will otherwise overcome his fields and leave him hungry (1.152-159). 

Such imagery becomes especially prominent in book 2, and it is here where I concentrate my discussion.  As the book’s primary didactic concern is arboriculture, the distinction between wild and cultivated plants is of great importance, and the poet spends a great deal of time showing his reader how to put wild growth to proper agricultural use.  Thus the potential farmer is told to prop his vines in an existing oak tree—particularly one whose branches raise as far into the sky as its roots do to Tartarus (2.291-292).  Here Vergil likens the newly-domesticated oak to Hesiod’s description of the Titans’ prison in Tartarus (Hes. Th. 720-721), presenting the tree as, in a sense, a check on gigantomachic threats.  Yet further study of this gigantomachic imagery may also serve to complicate such a reading, for Vergil’s description of the oak also recalls the poet Lucretius’ portrayal of impossible giants in his discussion of spontaneous growth (multa virum volvens durando saecula vincit, Geo. 2.295; multaque vivendo vitalia vincere saecla, DRN 1.202). Recent work on such imagery in the Aeneid has argued that “Gigantomachic imagery, like so much else in the poem...makes conflicting suggestions and pulls the reader in two different directions” (O’Hara 1994, 218).  I argue this same trend can be seen at work in the Georgics. As in the Aeneid, the reader is often presented with contrary, or even incompatible, depictions; this paper will not explain away these conflicting depictions, but will show where they occur, and provide an understanding of the complicated, often contradictory forms that gigantomachic imagery in the Georgics can take.

Session/Panel Title

Monsters and Giants

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