Saturday, 9 December 2017


Last Sunday I was at a church at which Bach’s Magnificat was performed. As usual there was a booklet with the order of the service and the text of the Magnificat. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never really studied this text: for a theologian – though I did my master in comparative religion – a bit odd. What follows is not an exhaustive commentary, but some notes for understanding the text
The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel containing the Magnificat. Luke has by far the most elaborate narrative about the birth and childhood of Jesus, which may point to a fairly late date of this gospel (80-110 AD).  The setting of the Magnificat is Mary’s visit to Elisabeth: Elisabeth praises Maria and God with words partly taken from the Old Testament and Mary answers with the Magnificat. This song is a combination of various quotes also from the Old Testament. The text is of course Greek, but it is possible that the original is not taken directly from the Septuagint, but an Aramaic or Hebrew text. The origin is unknown, but it could have been an early Christian psalm or a messianic Jewish psalm. This is however speculation: the only thing sure is that Luke used this text for his narrative, may be with some adaptations. It is interesting to note that in some old witnesses (some versions of the Old Latin and an Armenian text) of the Gospel of Luke the Magnificat is attributed to Elisabeth. It must be wrong, but the question why this change is speaker is puzzling.
The hymn is clearly eschatological, despite the use of perfect tenses: it imagines the kingdom of God being already there. The Latin is not that difficult, but there are some problems due to its Semitic background and the fact that it is a translation from Greek.

Luke 1. 46-55

46 Magnificat anima mea Dominum:
47 et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
48 Quia respexit humilitatem ancillæ suæ:
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
49 quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est:
et sanctum nomen ejus,
50 et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies
timentibus eum.
51 Fecit potentiam in brachio suo:
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
52 Deposuit potentes de sede,
et exaltavit humiles.
53 Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
54 Suscepit Israël puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiæ suæ:
55 sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini ejus in sæcula.

Magnificat…meo: the structure reminds of the so-called parallellismus membrorum: saying the same thing twice in different words, a poetic technique well-known from the psalms, hence anima and spiritus are variations and do not refer to two different concepts.
salutare –is (n.): salvation (apposition to Deo)
respicio respexi respectum: to have regard for, care for
ex hoc …quia: therefore...because
timentibus eum: within the Old Testament the notion of fearing God implies awe and respect, not just fear itself.
potentiam in brachio suo: the idea of the arm as symbol of strength occurs inter alia in psalm 117.15 and Is. 59.9.
dispergo dispersi dispersum: to scatter, disperse
mente cordis sui: mens does not mean `mind’ here, but (mental) attitude, disposition
depono deposui depositum: to bring down
exalto: to raise elevate (mostly used in ecclesiastical Latin)
esurio: to be hungry
inanis –e: empty-handed
suscipio suscepi susceptum: to take, lift up
recordor recordatus: to remember ( re + cor `to put back in the heart’)
Abraham et semini ejus: note the change in construction: dative instead of ad.

And now Bach!


Monday, 4 December 2017

Legenda aurea: Diana expelled.

Tomorrow December 5, the feast of Saint Nicolas will be celebrated here in the Netherlands and part of Flanders. As a child I was a firm believer in this holy man and was convinced that it was he who brought presents himself in my shoe placed near the heating, riding with his white horse over the roofs.
This historical Nicolas (15 March 270 – 6 December 343) was bishop of Myra. He must have been an impressive figure and some of his miracles – e.g. the saving of the three innocent men and the rescue of three sisters form prostitution – might indeed go back on historical events, as often the church was the only institution helping the poor. This bishop has become one of the major saints in both the Eastern and the Western tradition and the only saint known and loved by protestant Dutch children. The following story is taken from Jacobus de Voragine’s  (1229-1298) Legenda Aurea. Cutting down sacred trees was a topos in the life of many saints and so Saint Nicolas did too, though I think that more such trees were cut down in vitae than in real life.

Iacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, Historia Sancti Nicolai, pars V.

Cum autem regio illa idolis deservisset, prae ceteris nefandae Dianae simulacrum populus coluerat adeo, ut usque ad tempus viri Dei nonnulli rustici praedictae religioni exsecrabili deservirent ac sub quadam arbore consecrata Dianae quosdam ritus gentilium exercerent. Ac vir Dei praedictum ritum de omnibus finibus expulit ipsamque arborem praecidi mandavit. Iratus ex hoc contra eum hostis antiquus oleum Mydyatum, quod in naturam in aqua et lapidibus ardet, confecit seque in formam religiosae feminae transfigurans quibusdam ad virum Dei navigantibus in quadam saginula obviavit sicque affata est eos: "Mallem ad Sanctum Dei venire vobiscum, sed nequeo. Rogo ergo vos, ut hoc oleum ad eius ecclesiam offeratis et ob mei memoriam exinde aulae eius parietes liniatis." Et statim evanuit.
Et ecce aliam cernunt naviculam cum honestis personis, inter quos erat simillimus sancto Nicolao, qui sic ait illis: "Heu quid mulier illa locuta est vobis vel quid attulit!" Illi autem cuncta per ordinem narraverunt. Quibus ille: "Haec est impudica Diana, et ut me verum dicere comprobetis, oleum illud in mare proicite." Quibus proicientibus ingens ignis in mari succenditur et contra naturam diutius in mari ardens conspicitur. Venientes igitur ad servum Dei aiebant: "Vere tu es ille, qui nobis in mari apparuisti et a diaboli insidiis liberasti;"

deservio (+ dat.): to serve,  honour
nefandus: heinous, awful
Diana: Artemis had taken over traits from the pre-Greek great goddesses worshipped in Asia Minor.
colo colui cultum: to worship
adeo, ut usque ad tempus: to such an extent that (even) till that time
viri Dei: Christians
rusticus: from the country-side (It was not unusal that people were Christians, but also performed heathen rituals at special occasions.)
praedictus: mentioned afore
exsecrabilis: accursed
vir Dei: Saint Nicolas
expello expulsi expulsum: to drive away, expel
praecidi –cidi –cisum: to cut down
ex hoc: because of that
hostis antiquus: the Devil
oleum Mydyatum: oil from Midyat (a place in Turkey). I have been unable to find out which kind of oil this is, but it might be a kind of Greek fire.
in naturam: contrary to nature
ardeo arsi arsum: to burn
saginula: boat
obvio (+ dat.): to meet (quibusdam…obviavit)
affor affatus: to address
nequeo nequivi (-ire): not to be able to
exinde: then, after that
linio: to oint, smear
paries parietis (m.): wall
evanesco evanui: to vanish, disappear
cerno crevi cretum: to perceive
navicula: ship
cuncta per ordinem: everything in succession
comprobo (-are): to prove
succendo  –cendi  -censum: to burn
diutius: for a very long time
servum Dei: Saint Nicolas
aio: to say, confirm
insidiae insidiarum: trap

Translation by William Craxton (1483, but with modernized spelling)

And in this country the people served idols and worshipped the false image of the cursed Diana. And to the time of this holy man, many of them had some customs of the paynims, for to sacrifice to Diana under a sacred tree; but this good man made them of all the country to cease then these customs, and commanded to cut off the tree. Then the devil was angry and wroth against him, and made an oil that burned, against nature, in water, and burned stones also. And then he transformed him in the guise of a religious woman, and put him in a little boat, and encountered pilgrims that sailed in the sea towards this holy saint, and areasoned them thus, and said: “I would fain go to this holy man, but I may not, wherefore I pray you to bear this oil into his church, and for the remembrance of me, that ye anoint the walls of the hall”; and anon he vanished away. Then they saw anon after another ship with honest persons, among whom there was one like to Nicholas, which spake to them softly: “What hath this woman said to you, and what hath she brought?” And they told to him all by order. And he said to them: “This is the evil and foul Diana; and to the end that ye know that I say truth, cast that oil into the sea.” And when they had cast it, a great fire caught it in the sea, and they saw it long burn against nature. Then they came to this holy man and said to him: “Verily thou art he that appeared to us in the sea and deliveredst us from the sea and awaits of the devil.”

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Ovid: iron bulls tamed.

When Jason wanted to obtain the Golden Fleece, he had to perform various deeds, including taming two iron bulls, made by Vulcan. Medea provided him with magical herbs for protection and taming the bulls. At this time she was still deeply in love with Jason.    

Ovidius, Metamorphoses VII, 104-119

ecce adamanteis Vulcanum naribus efflant
aeripedes tauri, tactaeque vaporibus herbae               105
ardent, utque solent pleni resonare camini,
aut ubi terrena silices fornace soluti
concipiunt ignem liquidarum adspergine aquarum,
pectora sic intus clausas volventia flammas
gutturaque usta sonant; tamen illis Aesone natus               110
obvius it. vertere truces venientis ad ora
terribiles vultus praefixaque cornua ferro
pulvereumque solum pede pulsavere bisulco
fumificisque locum mugitibus inpleverunt.
deriguere metu Minyae; subit ille nec ignes               115
sentit anhelatos (tantum medicamina possunt!)
pendulaque audaci mulcet palearia dextra
suppositosque iugo pondus grave cogit aratri
ducere et insuetum ferro proscindere campum:

adamanteus: made of iron
Volcanum = ignem
naris –is (f.): nostril
aeripes –edis: with feet of bronze
vaporibus: by the steam (coming from the noses)
caminus: furnace
ubi terrena silices fornace soluti concipiunt ignem liquidarum adspergine aquarum = aut (ut) silices (resonare solent)), ubi (in) terrena fornace soluti  liquidarum adspergine ignem concipiunt: or lime in an earthen furnace slaked by sprinkling of water catch heat. (What is described here is the making of slaked lime in a stone furnace. It is made by heating lime and cooling it with water. Of course the lime doesn’t catch fire, but is produces an enormous amount of steam.)
intus clausas volventia flammas: inside turning around the enclosed flames
guttur –is (n.): throat
uro ussi ustum: to burn
Aesone natus: Jason
obvius eo (+ dat.): to go towards
vertere = verterunt
trux trucis: grim, fierce (i.e. the bulls)
venientis ad ora: towards the face of the approaching man
praefixus: set up in front
ferro: descriptive ablative `made of iron’
pulvereus: filled with dust
pulso: to strike upon (pulsavere = pulsaverunt)
bisulcus: forked, cloven
fumificus: smoking, steaming
mugitus –us (m.): bellowing
derigesco derigui: to become stiff
Minyae: the Argonauts
subeo: to go up to
anhelo: to breathe
medicamen –minis (n.): magical herb
pendula palearia: down-hanging dewlaps
mulceo mulsi mulsum: to touch gently
audaci dextra (manu)
suppono –pusui –positum (+ dat.); to put under
iugum: yoke
aratrum: plough
insuetum ferro campum: the field unused to the plough (ferro = aratro)
proscindo (-ere): to plough

Translation by Brookes More (1922)

Huge brazen-footed bulls were breathing forth
from adamantine nostrils living flames,
blasting the verdant herbage in their path!
As forges glowing with hot flames resound,
or as much quick-lime, burnt in earthen kilns,
crackles and hisses as if mad with rage,
sprinkled with water, liberating heat;
so their hot throats and triple-heated sides,
resounding told of pent-up fires within.
The son of Aeson went to meet them. As
he came to meet them the fierce animals
turned on him faces terrible, and sharp
horns tipped with iron, and they pawed
the dusty earth with cloven feet, and filled
the place with fiery bellowings. The Minyans
were stark with fear; he went up to the bulls
not feeling their hot breath at all, so great
the power of his charmed drugs; and while he
was stroking their down-hanging dewlaps with
a fearless hand, he placed the yoke down on
their necks and made them draw the heavy plow,
and cut through fields that never felt the steel