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Erictho and Ecofeminism in Lucan’s Bellum Civile

Laura Zientek

Reed College

This paper merges ecocritical and feminist approaches to classical literature in order to perform an ecofeminist reading of Erictho, the Thessalian necromancer who appears in the sixth book of Lucan’s Bellum Civile. By using Erictho as a focal point, this paper will explore what an ecofeminist reading of the Bellum Civile brings to our understanding of the poem itself, to depictions of humans within the natural environment in the poem, and to the modern theoretical framework itself as applied to a classical source.

In Lucan’s poem, individuality and identity are in crisis: soldiers in battle and women in Rome (e.g., BC 1.678-87) are anonymous, and Rome and its power are decentralized (Bexley 2009). Lucan questions both the material and psychological stability expected at the heart of a nationalistic epic poem. Studies of women in the Bellum Civile have addressed the trope of social and ethical instability (Batinski 1993, Keith 2000, Chiu 2010, Mulhern 2017). Likewise, analyses of nonhuman elements in the epic such as landscape, environment, and nature have focused on the immanent ontological crisis Lucan depicts in his narrative of civil conflict (Lapidge 1979, Masters 1992, Spencer 2005, Zientek 2017). The theoretical approach of ecocriticism is gaining momentum in studies of the ancient world (cf. Holmes 2015; Hunt and Marlow 2019; Schliephake 2017; Bianchi, Brill, and Holmes 2019) and shares methodological practices with feminism (Alaimo 2008, Gaard 2017).

Studies of Erictho have focused on her status as a magos (Ogden 2001) and her connection to prophecy (Santangelo 2015), and she has been called an “embodiment” of her local landscape (Dinter 2012), Thessaly, which stands in as an extensive locus horridus in books 6 and 7 of the poem. In Lucan’s narrative, Thessaly has not been simply polluted by the presence of historical and mythological violence (BC 6.333-412) or the actions of its inhabitants; likewise, the violence enacted by people of Thessaly should not be attributed to their environment. Rather, environment and inhabitants are connected parts of a more comprehensive symbiosis. While Lucan also describes other Thessalian “witches” and their abilities to change and disrupt the processes of nature (cessavere vices rerum, 6.461; cf. 6.434-500), Erictho is a particularly striking product of this symbiotic system and provides a similarly memorable example of the breaking-down of binaries via necromancy (Human/Nature; Life/Death; cf. BC 6.657-830).

This paper seeks to answer questions such as: To what degree does Erictho represent the interrelationship of landscape and gender along the lines of traditional binaries? How can ecofeminism’s efforts to demolish hegemonic binaries (masculine/feminine, culture/nature, etc.) contribute to scholarship on Lucan’s Erictho? In what ways can the idea of “trans-corporeality” (Alaimo 2008) inform our interpretation of both human and nonhuman ethics in Lucan’s poem? In addressing these questions, this paper also aims to place its ecofeminist framework into the existing studies of nature and the environment in Lucan. At the same time, it bolsters the goals of contemporary ecofeminism with a sense of literary/historical deep time in its critical approach to gender, nature, and culture.

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Latin Literature and the Environmental Humanities: Challenges and Perspectives

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