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The Silent Gods of Lucretius

Noah Davies-Mason

CUNY Graduate Center

What is the relationship of music to the divine in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura? I argue that the gods are silent. Music is a human production, neither transcendent, nor a gift from the gods. To begin with, Lucretius calls upon Venus and the muses to aid in the composition of the poem (1.24-25, 6.47, 6.93-5), but there is no associated reference to sound or music. We can compare this with Hesiod’s Theogony, the invocation of which is filled with language of singing and music. Even as he draws upon traditional depictions of the muses, Lucretius is reshaping the images. 

Furthermore, at moments when Lucretius seems to reveal the true nature of the gods, the word quietus is used.  For instance, in the opening of Book 3, Lucretius experiences a visual revelation of the divine and the divine seats are described as quietae (3.18). The combination of the visual language (Lehoux 2013 for the general prominence of visual language in Lucretius) with quietus emphasizes the silence of the gods. Early on, Venus is urged to quiet (quiescant, 1.30) the works of war, making the goddess an agent of silence rather than of music.  Even in the account of Magna Mater, a passage filled with musical language, the music makers are the human worshippers, while the goddess’ silence is emphasized (munificat tacita mortalis muta salute, 2.625). Lucretius distances the gods from music and sound.

While many prior traditions considered music a gift from the gods, the Epicurean Philodemus condemns the idea (Delattre 2007 col. 148). Likewise, Lucretius finds the origin of music in the imitation of bird song (5.1379ff) and looks down on those who imagine that echoes are woodland deities (4.572-94). Hence, for Lucretius and the Epicureans, music is a natural phenomenon, not derived from divinities, but subject to the folly of superstitious thinking.

Session/Panel Title

Music and the Divine

Session/Paper Number

56.5

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