Category Archives: Translations

The Last Bit of Sisibut’s “On Eclipses”

Didn’t post it yesterday because my Internet connection was not working.

But because you figure out wonderful things —

Why, when the greatest power of the Sun
is reputed to be twice-nine times greater
than that of the terrestrial orb,
does he not overwhelm the terrestrial cones
with light?

Take up the reckoning work of reason.

On the other hand, gaze upon Phoebus
who travels through the sublime vaults of the world
and may illuminate every lowly land
from his high passages.

This is remarkable however one may touch on it:
in that whether he should have strewn his fires
or have beamed them on a slanting axis,
they are crushed at the Earth’s radius.

The rest of the lights of the Sun,
by which radiant darts he becomes more visible,
spread through the vast voids
unhindered by the [Earth’s] globe
as long as the pyramid’s peak may complete
its residing shadow.

By which neighbors’ shadows,
when damp Phoebe drives her icy yoked team
deepest through them, sometimes
she is discolored.
She misses her absent brother,
and lacks her bloodless face.

But why is only the Moon plundered of light?

Indeed, it is not wonderful.

Of course another light warms
those needing her light;
for when the nearest part of the cone begrudges it,
she badly hopes for the sky rays of her brother.

But the remaining choir of stars
is not touched by shadows,
and their brightness is their own,
nor are they reddened by the Sun.

Yet rush up to the lofty astral rays
far beyond the Sun; clear and bright,
it is dragged off,
attached to the vertex of the sky.

Besides, why would it not always be paled
by the orb every six months?
The curved passages come around
by a slanting track.

On the other hand, when by wandering,
the curved thing amasses twisted deviations
from what is fixed, the sun leaves the cone
beyond reach, and twists the robe of night,
and shines upon his sister.

These things are the reason for it:
where the red-gold brightness of the august Sun
is crushed by sudden shadows, lacking light,
Luna passes between Earth and Sun
with the nourishing wheel of her body,
protecting her brother from straight obstructions.

I’m not as sure about the translation of this part of the poem. I also haven’t read “De Natura Rerum,” so I’m not sure if St. Isidore touched on any of these topics. There are also various terms used for “curved” which have different connotations. So I’m not sure I get this entirely, although obviously Sisibut is inquiring about orbital mechanics, and why we can see anything at all during lunar eclipses at night.

The king and the bishop had sort of a frenemy relationship. Part was because Sisibut believed in just ordering his still-Arian Visigoths, and the local population of Spanish Jews, to convert or be forced. (Standard for your barbarian king, but not appreciated in a guy who presumably should know better. Sisibut didn’t get any sainthood attributions.) Part was because Sisibut was learned enough to fund Isidore’s book projects, and then to write reviews of them with his own sharp questions.

(When you are Isidore of Seville and probably the most learned man in Europe (except for your dead brother and the dead pope, Gregory the Great), you may have just a tad bit of alpha male pride to lose.)

Anyway, it’s a bit fun to see Sisibut alternating between scientific principles of astronomy and poetic conventions drawn from mythology. The Sun is Phoebus (Apollo), the Moon is his sister Phoebe (another name for Artemis as Selene). The chariot of Phoebe’s Moon is drawn by a team of pure white animals (Sisibut doesn’t make a choice between deer, crescent-horned oxen, or horses, just calling them “gelidos”). The Earth is Tellus.

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More Excerpts from King Sisibut’s Eclipse Poem

(Of course, at its nearest border, the aether separates the turbid
from the pure; the inviolate may pass through.)

But Tellus, with the shading cone of her vast body
(Which holds a middle axis deep within)
holds back the light of [the Moon’s] brother {the Sun];
moreover, she pales [the Moon] to uselessness,
as a star, until her swift wheel’s smooth shadow
should cross past [the Moon’s] threshold’s
heaped moundworks and, as a rotating mirror,
the freedwoman [Moon] renews his fraternal blazings
through the sky.

Which of course is exactly how a lunar eclipse works. The earth’s shadow does block the sun’s rays, and moonlight is just reflected sunlight.

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King Sisibut of the Visigoths: Excerpt from “On an Eclipse of the Moon.”

After receiving St. Isidore of Seville’s book De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), which included an explanation of several lunar and solar eclipses in 611 and 612 (for the benefit of the people, and at King Sisibut’s urgent request), King Sisibut sent back a very interesting and learned Latin poem. (Possibly to show that he had read the book.) It’s called various things: “De Eclipsis,” “De Eclipsis Lunae,” and “Sisebuti Epistola: Ad Isidorum.”

Here’s the beginning, which gives some interesting insight into Visigoth mythology or legends still being alive among the people.

You, perhaps, in a sacred grove
slowly give birth to a wandering song
Among melodious springwaters
And musical breezes;
You pour forth a clear-flowing mind
with Pierian nectar.

But a confused mess of things
clouds up our heads,
And cares pursue with
thousands of sword-bearing soldiers.

Heralds crack the ear, law courts bark,
trumpets awaken,
And we are brought across the Ocean,
even as far as the snowy Basque-country
when it may hold,
nor does cringing Cantabria spare us.

Lo! what things you point out —
how they wreathe Phoebus’ hair with leafy ivy;
They would shade his rays
more reverently!

Lo! you may order one to fly about
through the enflaming aether!

But, o magus, as the calamity-eagles outran
the slow elephant-strength
And the tortoise, weakened by the Molossian flyer;
so we have followed the dew-spraying moon with our song.

Yet I, struggling under an earthborn burden,
will tell these things: why the curved circle
May bruise the tired orb dark red,
And why its snowy face’s glow may be wasted away.

It is not (as the people believe)
That totally hateful woman
Howling in the murky shadows
Of underworld caves,
Who draws it down with her high-roving mirror.

Nor has she conquered it with a charm,
Nor with Stygian dew, nor with earth-herbs
Does she attack with an air-cracking
and binding clang.

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St. Columbanus Refutes Genghis and Conan

What is best in the world?

To please one’s Maker.

St. Columbanus. Instructiones variae, “Instructio III: De sectando mundi contemptu et coelestium bonorum amore.” Migne, Patrologiae Latinae, vol. 80, 235.

UPDATE: St. Columbanus may be riffing off the philosopher Seneca, in his creepy Epistle LXX to Lucilius, on the topic of why suicide is a good plan if you’re a Stoic:

“Optima est, quae placet.”

The best [means of suicide] is what pleases [oneself].

If it really is a reference, it is pretty bold. It’s basically a big swipe at Seneca, turning his entire point on its head. We aren’t here to please ourselves and especially not in a destructive way; we should be trying to please God.

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St. Ephrem’s Dragons

St. Ephrem, Epiphany Hymn 8, verse 16:

“In the beginning, the Spirit of fruitfulness
brooded on the waters,
and they conceived and gave birth
to dragons, fish, and birds.
The Holy Spirit brooded on the waters of Baptism,
which gave birth to mystical eagles —
pure virgins and guides of the Church;
and mystical fish —
celibates and mediators, of course;
and mystical dragons —
those clever ones, of course,
who are made as simple as doves.”

This Syriac hymn takes advantage of both the Genesis translation of sea creatures as “dragons,” and the Greek notion that giant serpents are dragons.

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Heavenly Warrior Dragons

More good Christian dragons! This one is sort of a punishing one, however. It sounds like the Irish kenning of “dragon” for “great warrior” has crept into the story, and they’re talking about a warrior angel.

However, this is from the Vita S. Kannechi, the Life of St. Cainneach of Aghaboe. He was a busy guy — hung out with St. Columba, became famous in Scotland as St. Kenneth or St. Canice, and bopped around the continent a bit before coming home. This was pretty typical for a roaming pilgrim Irish monk back in the day. However, this life was written in the 8th century, so the dragon story is not necessarily anything contemporary to the guy. (The Life of Columba that mentions Cainneach is very contemporary, however.)

Vita S. Kannechi, c. 9:

“Therefore St. Cainneach promised to spend the future, his sepulture, and his resurrection in this offered city with the above-mentioned king. But having frequently visited the saint, the angel of God who had predicted his resurrection in Ireland, rebuked him for the incautious promise. So then St. Cainnech was in anguish, between his promise and the angel’s word.

“But the Lord, the True Judge, helped him. For a fiery dragon descended from Heaven and cut off the outside toe of St. Cainneach’s right foot. St. Cainneach left his toe there, fulfilling his promise; and obeying the angel’s word, he went back to Ireland. Indeed, this above-mentioned king was afterwards a wonderful man and a bishop.”

Only the Irish would link dragons and pinkie toes.

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St. Ammon’s Dragon Guards

St. Ammon or Amun was an early Christian monk who lived in Nitria, Egypt. He and his wife were forced into an arranged marriage while young. On their wedding night, they agreed to remain celibate together, and kept the vow for eighteen years. After that, they mutually consented to get away from their families’ plans: his wife keeping the house and inviting other vowed virgins to stay there, and him heading out to the desert to be a hermit. Other people heard of his holiness, and tons of other hermits camped out in his area, just as with the popular St. Anthony of Egypt. This caused St. Anthony to invent monasteries for men, and he passed the idea along to St. Ammon for keeping a dull roar among his several thousand hermits. It all went well, and his feast day is October 4.

In this story, we see a bit of the Greek “dragon = big python snake” and a bit of a more Western approach. We also learn that Egyptian desert dragons are scary, but not always bad, and that snakes listen better than people do (as St. Martin of Tours also complained).

Anyway, this story is from St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.):

I don’t believe that what we heard about Ammon, from a certain holy man we saw in the wilderness in the place in which he had lived, should be omitted. And so when, having parted from the blessed Apollonius, we proceeded to the part of the wilderness opposite Meridianum, we saw a dragon’s huge dragging tracks across the sand; his size had appeared so great that it looked like some treetrunk had been drawn through the sand. So that as we looked, we were struck with huge terror.

But the brothers who had escorted us encouraged us to dread nothing at all, but to rather to take hold of faith and follow the dragon’s track. ‘For you will see,’ they said, ‘how much faith may prevail, when you would have quenched it out of us. For we kill many dragons and snakes and vipers* with our hands; for as we read it written that the Savior allows those believing in Him “to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.”‘ (Lk. 10:19) But with them saying this, we dreaded more and more because of the fragility of our faithlessness, and we asked them not to want to follow the dragon’s tracks, but rather that we might proceed straight on the road. Yet one of them, impatient, had followed the dragon with alacrity. And when he had found its cave not far off, he called us so that we might have gone to him and seen the end of the business.

Yet another of the brothers who dwelt nearby in the desert hurried to meet us, and forbade us to follow the dragon, saying we could not endure his appearance, especially because we were not used to seeing anything such as that. Truly, he said that he himself frequently saw that same beast of incredible devastation, and that it was fifteen cubits long. And when he had advised us against approaching the place, he hurried himself to pull away, recall, and turn back the brother who had awaited us, prepared for the beast’s killing and unwilling to depart unless he had killed it.

When he would have come to us, he refuted our faintheartedness and faithlessness. So arriving at his little cell, we rested, received by him with much love. Truly, he told us that in this place where he always stayed had been a certain holy man named Ammon, whose disciple he had been; through Ammon, the Lord had done many things of power. And so he told us this one, among others.

“Frequently,” he said, “thieves came to him, carrying off the bread from him which was the only thing he ate, and was what he stored for his most continent way of living. And when he had suffered this annoyance frequently, on a certain day he proceeded into the desert; and coming back from there, he ordered two huge dragons to accompany him; and then he ordered them to stay at his monastery door, and they went in and guarded him. The thieves came according to custom, and saw what the guards on the threshold were, so that the dragons saw them; and [the sight] made them unable to move or think; they lost the power to speak and they collapsed immediately. When the old man realized this, he went out and found the thieves half-dead, and coming near and rousing them, he rebuked them, saying, ‘You see how much stubborner you are than these beasts; for they obey us according to God, but you neither fear God nor go blush to disturb the life of God’s servants.’

“Nevertheless, bringing them into the cell, he set the table and asked that they take food. Truly, with pricked hearts and their whole minds, they turned away from brutality; in short, they did better than many who began to serve the Lord earlier. For they did such great penance that after a few seasons, they also could do the same signs and the same works of power [as Ammon].

“Afterwards, at a different time, with a certain most immense dragon having laid waste to the neighboring regions and killed many, the inhabitants of that place came to the above-mentioned Father, asking him that he might kill the beast for their region; and at the same time, that they might persuade the old man to mercy, they brought a shepherd’s young son with them who had been terrified out of his mind by only a sight of the dragon, and had felled and been carried off, unable to move and swollen, from only the dragon’s breath. Then he restored health to this boy, indeed by anointing him with oil.**

“Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything. But rising early, he went off to the beast’s sleeping place, and fixed his knees to the earth, begging the Lord. Then the beast began to come against him with a huge attack, sending out foul snorting and hisses and rattles. But fearing nothing of this, he said, turning toward the dragon, ‘May Christ, the Son of God, Who shall destroy the great whale, destroy you.’*** And when that old man spoke, immediately that direst dragon also vomiting poison with every breath, blew up, bursting down the middle.

“But when the neighboring inhabitants would have gathered and wondered at it, unable to bear the violence of the stink, they got together an immense mass of sand over it — with Father Ammon still standing by, because not even when the beast was dead did they dare approach it without him.”

* Vipers: literally, “horned serpents,” a translation of the Greek “cerastes”. It all means “vipers.” There’s a specific species in Egypt that has little scales standing up above its eyes and looking like horns.

** Anointing him with oil: Presumably, oil of the sick. The Anointing of the Sick is plenty ancient.

*** “Who destroyed the great whale” — Isaiah 27:1. “In that day the Lord, with his hard and great and strong sword, shall visit Leviathan the bar serpent, and Leviathan the crooked serpent, and shall slay the whale that is in the sea.” Also, since Christ compared Himself to Jonah, and since He was in the belly of Sheol for three days and nights when He was dead, Hell is the “great whale,” and Hellmouth has often been portrayed looking like a stylized whale mouth, in pictures of Jesus leading out the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

There is such a thing as a Nubian Spitting Cobra and a Red Spitting Cobra, both of which are found in Egypt. Maybe that’s what’s meant by the poison breath?

Here’s a translation of all of The History of the Egyptian Monks. Unfortunately I didn’t find it until after I did mine!

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