Friday, November 5, 2010

Dr. Maurizio Bettini : “Vertumnus: A God With No Identity”


Center for Anthropology of the Ancient World

Università degli Studi di Siena

“Vertumnus: A God With No Identity”

In this paper, I propose to explore the world of Vertumnus—a divinity known to us principally from an elegy of Propertius (4.2) and an episode of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (16.641ff.). We know essentially three forms or manifestations of Vertumnus, which can be described as follows: first, Vertumnus as statue (that set up in the Vicus Tuscus, of which Propertius speaks at some length); second, Vertumnus asfabula (the figure of Ovid’s mythological tale); third, Vertumnus as god (the “force” or vis of the god as part of the Roman pantheon). This much is known about the god: he is closely associated with “metamorphosis”. But metamorphosis of what kind?

Despite appearances, Vertumnus is different from the god Proteus. While the “old man of the sea” is capable of assuming shapes from the animal world and nature (earth, water, fire…), Vertumnus never reaches beyond the human and social sphere: at different times, he takes the form of a delicate young girl, a toga’d citizen, a reaper, a soldier, an acrobatic circus rider, a merchant, a gardener, and so on. Both Propertius’ statue of Vertumnus (a living statue? a mannequin? a talking statue?) and the Vertumnus of the Ovidian fabula are depicted with these characteristics. In other words, Vertumnus appears to be a god of changing identity—or perhaps better, of theinconsistency of identity. Most interesting, however, is that even the “force” or “power” of Vertumnus as a god presents these same characteristics. The fact of someone losing their balance or, again, their social identity (as in the case of Priscus in Horace’s Satires2.7.14ff.) is attributed to Vertumnus, just as prayers are addressed to Vertumnus in the hope of bringing about a change in the course of events.

All this brings us to the name of the god: Vertumnus. The Romans considered it to be connected with vertere (“to change, transform”) and in fact Vertumnus is precisely the god of vertere, whether considered in the form (facies) of a statue, or that of a tale (fabula), or that of a divine power (vis). In short, this god permits us to see at work a perfect combination of language, myth, and society in Roman culture.

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