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34.1.Holm

In this paper, I examine an implicit reference to the myth of Ceres in Lucretius’ poem and its didactic relevance to his philosophical program. To illustrate the principle that invisible atomic particles may “look” different, Lucretius offers a surprisingly vivid and emotional depiction of a cow searching for her lost calf, who, unbeknownst to her, has already been killed at the sacrificial altar (DRN 2.352-366). Other scholars have noted rightly that this passage is an example of Lucretius’ “sustained attack upon religio” (Segal 104, and cf. Amory), but beyond the fact of the sacrifice, it is the cow’s search and her expressions of grief which capture the reader’s attention and beg our consideration. Considering these elements, the cow passage becomes irresistibly similar to the myth of Ceres. The image of the cow’s grief, “pierced through with longing for her calf,” desiderioperfixa iuvenci (DRN 2.360), reflects the sadness of Demeter, “wasting away with longing for her deep-breasted daughter,” πÏŒθῳ μινύθουσα βαθυζÏŽντοιο θυγατρÏŒς (H.Dem.201). And like Demeter, Lucretius’ cow abstains from food and drink (DRN2.361-3; H.Dem. 49-50) and continues to grieve amid other calves, the sight of whose happy frolicking does not ease her maternal anguish:

nec vitulorum aliae species perpabula laeta
derivare queunt animum curaquelevare
usque adeo quiddam proprium notumquerequirit

nor can the different faces of other calves throughout the happy fields divert her mind and lighten her sadness, so earnestly does she seek the one she recognizes as her own (DRN2.364-366).

In this detail, Lucretius’ scientific exemplum recalls the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, when the goddess arrives at Eleusis and her grief cannot be lightened by the Daughters of Keleos (H. Dem. 181-182), who are themselves described as happy calves (H.Dem. 174-175). Demeter’s grief holds as long as her own daughter is lost, and with the same dejected apathy Lucretius’ cow grieves before actual calves leaping about their happy pastures. Ovid helps to confirm for us Lucretius’ intention to echo the myth within this naturalized setting, when, in his own version of the Ceres myth in the Fasti (4.459-464), he likens the goddess to a cow, incorporating themes and language that conspicuously imitate the Lucretian passage: inde puellaris nacta est vestigiaplantae | et pressam noto pondere vidit humum (Fasti4.459-464); atmater viridis saltus orbata peragrans | nanquit humi pedibus vestigia pressabisulcis (DRN 2.355-356).

I propose that Lucretius invites his reader to see Ceres inhis scientific exemplum as an “implicit” or “latent” myth (Lyne 139-44, Gale156-207), designed to add to the poem’s surface argument an undercurrent of association that furthers the poem’s larger philosophical goal of naturalizing myth. In this case, the thrust of the book in which this passage appears is to assert the earth’s insentience (DRN 2.589-599) and to move its reader away from notions of a provident “Mother Earth” (DRN 2.655-660). Later in the book, Lucretius will attack the Magna Mater, another Roman instantiation of the Earth-goddess figure, by describing her violent and terrifying rites in acritical vein (DRN 2.600-43). In the cow passage, he allows the latent myth to address this rival cult by implicitly reducing Ceres’ divine status to the natural and the animal. Again, Ovid provides a test case. As a reader, Ovid seems to have grasped the mythological undercurrent running beneath Lucretius’ scientific exemplum. Some questions about intention must inevitably remain, but by adopting Lucretian themes and vocabulary in his retelling of the Ceres myth, Ovid reacts to Lucretius’ passage as we might expect. Lucretius’ implicit reference inspired him to assimilate the goddess and Lucretius’ cow, creating within his ostensibly reverential version of the myth an explicitly naturalizing allegory that simultaneously subverts it.

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