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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces one of the
Carmina Minora


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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The Magnet


[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Whosoever with anxious thought examines the universe and searches out the origin of things — the reason of the sun's and moon's eclipse, the causes of comets' red and baneful fires, the source of the winds, the motion that makes the earth to quake, the force that splits the heavens in twain, the noise of the thunder, the brilliance of the rainbow, let this man (if man's mind has any power to conceive the truth) explain to me something I would fain to understand.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] There is a stone called the loadstone; black, dull, and common. It does not adorn the braided hair of kings nor the snowy necks of girls, nor yet shine in the jewelled buckles of warriors' belts. But consider the marvellous properties of this dull-looking stone and you will see that it is of more worth than lovely gems and any pearl sought of  p237 Indian amid the seaweed on the Red Sea's shores. It lives on iron and feeds on its inflexible nature; iron is its food and nourishment; from iron it recruits its strength. This seemingly inedible food, circulating throughout its body, renews its hidden powers. Without iron the loadstone dies; its bulk wastes away from lack of nourishment and thirst parches its emptied veins.​a

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Mars, who strikes cities with his bloody spear, and Venus, who changes human cares to ease, share a common shrine and temple built of gold.​b Each deity has his own image; Mars, a polished iron statue, Venus, one fashioned of the loadstone. The priest duly celebrates their union. The nuptial torch precedes the choir; myrtle wreaths adorn the portals, the couches are piled with roses, while cloth of scarlet dye, as befits a marriage, adorns the bridal chamber. But, lo, a prodigy: Cytherea, without quitting her station, attracts her husband to her, and recalling the scene of which heaven was once witness, clasps Mars to her bosom with amorous breath. There she holds him suspended; her arms enfold the helmet of the god and clasp his whole body in a lifelike embrace. He, stirred by the far-compelling influence of her breath, is drawn towards her by the secret chains of his third-hand. Nature presides over the divine marriage; a binding breath woos the steel to wedlock; suddenly two deities are mated in secret union.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] What hidden warmth infuses mutual sympathy into these twin metals? What harmony makes one their stubborn souls? The stone sighs and burns, and smitten with love recognizes in the iron the object of its desire, while the iron experiences a  p239 gentle attraction for the stone. It is thus that Venus often holds the fierce god of war in check and softens his fiery glance when the angry blood boils within him and with drawn sword he whets his warmth. She alone can face his fierce steeds and appease the tumult of his heart, calming his anger with gentle flame. Peace and quiet are restored within his soul; he abjures the heat of battle and bends his head, helmed with ruddy plumes, to kiss the goddess.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Cruel boy, is aught beyond thy powers? Thou dost master the mighty thunderbolt; thou canst force the Thunderer to leave the sky and bellow amid the waves. Now thou showest that thou canst smite cold rocks and shapes not instinct with feeling or life, that stone can be wounded by thine arrows. Rocks are stirred by a passion of their own; iron is obedient to thy blandishments; thy flames exercise dominion over hardest marl.

Thayer's Notes:

a For a doctor's detailed view of the many curious myths and errors, both medical and not, to which the magnet gave rise in Antiquity and yes, thru modern times (as in: magnets cure gout), the gentle reader is referred to Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica II.3.

b Nothing is known of such a shrine in the ancient world, and obviously, Claudian could not have seen what he describes. The tale need not be completely imaginary, however, and just might be based on a very garbled third-hand account of some remote shrine where a magnetic stone would have been worshipped: meteorites are known or suspected in many pagan shrines, as the black stone of Cybele the Great Mother at Pessinus (transported to Rome in 204 B.C.) and that of the Syrian god Elagabal (transported to Rome by Elagabalus in A.D. 223), or the black stone that is still now embedded in the Kaaba in Mecca. As an Egyptian, Claudian would have been more likely to hear such a story, since meteorites are best preserved and stand out most in deserts and their worship therefore tends to be associated with the Near East.

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Page updated: 26 Sep 21