I argue that the phrase purior electro…amnis at Georgics 3.522 alludes to the myth of the Heliades’ grief for Phaethon as the source of amber. The allusion fits the context: the ox that cannot be consoled by “a river purer than amber” is grieving for his brother’s death. The implied comparison between the ox’s mourning and the Heliades’ insists on the pathos of the animal’s undeserved suffering: it not only resembles but surpasses human grief.
In the account of the plague that closes Georgics 3, Virgil blurs the distinctions between human and animal suffering, using language that evokes mourning within a human family (cf. Gale 1991, esp. 416-18 and 422-23; Johnston 1980, 104; Morgan 1999, 108-10; Thomas 1988, 2: 138). At the same time, the ox’s grief closely recalls Lucretius’ description of the intensely personal grief of a cow who has lost her calf (DRN 2.361-65); this parallel, as Farrell argues (1991, 91), reinforces that the ox’s grief is “an unselfish love…which transcends the boundaries of genus and species,” and so “emphasizes intergeneric similarity.” A mythical reference in the epithet purior electro, I argue, further aligns the ox’s experience with that of human – and divine – beings.
In Greek myth, amber was said to come from the tears that Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, ceaselessly wept for him after they were turned into poplars along the river Eridanus where he fell. By comparing a river to amber, purior electro not only introduces the image of amber but also recalls the origin of amber in a river – and thus the story that it was distilled from the grief of the Heliades. As with other allusions to myth throughout the Georgics, the reader familiar with Alexandrian poetic techniques may be expected to recognize an underlying story from the use of a single mythical term (cf. Frentz 1967, 133). At the same time, Virgil’s insertion of a mythic allusion into a passage modeled on Lucretius’ depiction of the cow’s grief is consistent with his strategy of “remythologizing” where Lucretius has rationalized myth (Gale 2000, 124-42; cf. Lucretius’ explicit disbelief in the story of Phaethon at DRN 5.396-405).
A further parallel between the myth of Phaethon and the ox’s grief shows the plague’s intensity. Both brothers are killed by excessive heat. Phaethon, who almost destroyed the world by fire, was stopped by Jupiter’s thunderbolt, while the first ox dies “steaming” (G. 3.515 fumans) from a plague that originates in heat (G. 3.479 incanduit aestu) and ultimately parches even the rivers (G. 3.554-55; cf. Ross 1990). Whereas the world was saved from fire when the river Eridanus received Phaethon’s burning body (still smoldering at Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.596-603), in Georgics 3 there is no relief from the “sacred/accursed fire” (G. 3.566 sacer ignis).
The comparative purior asserts that the river where the ox mourns surpasses amber in its purity or clarity, the quality prized in both amber and river water. Since amber is equated with the tears of Heliades and thus with their grief, the greater purity of the river at Georgics 3.522 may also imply that the ox’s mourning along its banks is more intense than the proverbial grief of the sisters who mourn along the Eridanus. Moreover, purior recalls that the ox (unlike Phaethon) did not bring his destruction on himself (cf. G. 3.526-30). Thus, by a dramatic inversion, the animal’s suffering is not less but more than human in its intensity and injustice. The parallels between the disasters of the plague and the Roman civil wars (G. 1.464-514; cf. Miles 1980, 217-25, and Morgan 1999, 105-49) further suggest that this brief but intense focus on grief for a dead brother, expressed in its purest and most universal form (uniting human, animal, nymph, tree, and mineral), may reflect a keenly contemporary experience.