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Virgil’s Fama and the Merkabah: Potential Semitic Sources for Personified Divine Rumor

Angela Zielinski Kinney

University of Vienna

Virgil, Aen. 4.173-197 contains a famous description of the goddess Fama, who is imagined as an amalgam of body parts. She is a singular creature created out of pluralities: a plethora of wings, eyes, tongues, mouths, and ears. She grows to span the distance from earth to heaven, moves with unfathomable speed, and is ever-vigilant.

Certain Semitic angels possess corporeal characteristics similar to those of Fama—namely the hybrid “living creatures” described in Ezekiel 1 and named as “cherubim” in Ezekiel 10. (The seraphim of Isaiah 6 are a separate type of angelic entity, but the seraphim and cherubim are often confused or “contaminated” by each other in apocalyptic texts.) Cherubim in particular share a number of physical characteristics with personifications of divine rumor. They are associated with fire and lightning, are covered in eyes, and possess multiple mouths, ears, and wings. Both cherubim and seraphim are swift, insomniac, and noisy entities; much is made of their praises and sound in Qumran texts, Hekhalot literature, and exegetical material.

These angelic figures play a role in the dissemination of divine messages. Divine pronouncements intended for mass circulation issue forth from between the cherubim, which adorn the temple and mercy seat (e.g., Exodus 25.18-21). Both types of angels accompany direct divine revelation, which the human prophet is then ordered to circulate on earth. The divine messages transmitted by prophecy culminate in a universal, incessant praise – a liturgy uniting heaven and earth. The collaboration of heaven and earth in praise of a deity may be envisioned as an analogy, the “ultimate” divine rumor: a prophetic truth intended for circulation until all of heaven and earth has participated in it.

The personification of Fama is the subject of several monographs, articles, and dissertations (e.g., Guastella 2017, Kyriakidis 2017, Syson 2013, Hardie 2012, Hejduk 2009, Clément-Tarantino 2006), but these studies focus primarily on her geneaology, her iconological development, or the metapoetic/linguistic connection to fame. An examination of Fama against a cross-cultural religious backdrop has not yet been undertaken, nor have Semitic sources for her literary depiction been explored. It has been shown that Virgil was acquainted with certain Jewish writings (Bremmer 2009, 2011, 2013; Horsfall 2012, 2014), and an acrostic reference to Isaiah has been discovered in the fourth Georgic (Hejduk 2018).

This contribution explores the possibility of Semitic influence on Virgil’s portrait of Fama and Jewish analogues to divine rumor in general. I begin by examining the physical similarities between Fama and Jewish angelic creatures. Using both philological and comparative religious methodologies, I discuss the significance of their shared meteorological associations and communicative functions. Ultimately, I hope to lay the groundwork for a heretofore unnoticed connection between Virgil’s conception of divine rumor in Aen. 4.173-197 and Semitic hybrid angelic creatures, and to raise the question of whether Virgil consciously uses Semitic material to construct his portrait of Fama.

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Virgil and Religion

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