Why do the gods disguise themselves?

When the gods speak to us, they often change their faces, divesting themselves of obvious divinity in favor of a more familiar human form. Why?

I ask because, based on the evidence of the Aeneid, the strategy is ineffective, at least at a first glance. Three examples illustrate this.

Book I. Aeneas, having landed at Carthage, encounters his mother, Venus, “wearing a girl’s shape and a girl’s gear” (I.426). Aeneas immediately spots her divinity (though not her identity): “Your look’s not mortal, / Neither has your accent a mortal ring. / O Goddess, beyond doubt!” (I.444-46). She denies the charge (“Be sure I am not fit / For any such devotion”; I.456-57) and proceeds to tell him Dido’s backstory. Aeneas entirely ignores her denial (I.510), and Venus lets the matter drop. Only when she leaves does she reveal her true identity:

On this she turned away. Rose-pink and fair
Her nape shone, her ambrosial hair exhaled
Divine perfume, her gown rippled full length,
And by her stride she showed herself a goddess.
Knowing her for his mother, he called out
To the figure fleeting away:
…………………………………..“You! cruel, too!
Why tease your son so often with disguises?
Why may we not join hands and speak and hear
The simple truth?” (I.552-61)

Book V. When Juno sends Iris to convince the Trojan women to burn the ships, Iris disguises herself as an old Trojan woman, Beroë. (For more on this episode see this post). She urges them to burn the ships, forcing the Trojan refugees to remain in Sicily, but is quickly found out by Pyrgo, who recognizes that she is a goddess and not the true Beroë, who is ill: “Just observe / What traits she has of more than mortal beauty, / Her blazing eyes, her audacity, her face, / Her voice, her stride” (V.837-40). The women are undecided, torn between comfort and hope. Only when Iris reveals herself is their indecision resolved, in favor of burning the ships:

The goddess on strong wings went up to the sky
Traversing a great rainbow under clouds.
Now truly wrought upon by signs and wonders,
Wrought to a frenzy, all cried out together,
Snatching up fire from hearths, despoiling altars,
Taking dry foliage, brush, and brands to throw.
And Vulcan, god of fire, unbridled raged
Through rowing thwarts and oars and piney hulls.

Book VII. Allecto, charged by Juno with the task of inciting war between the Trojans and the Latins, visits Turnus in the form of Calybë, a priestess of Juno’s temple: “Allecto sripped / Her savage mask off and her Fury’s shape, / To take on an old woman’s face” (VII.572-74). She attempts to convince Turnus to protest, not verbally but violently, Latinus’ decision to marry Lavinia – once pledged to Turnus – to Aeneas. But Turnus is unmoved, not because her appeal is unpersuasive, but because it is not hers to make: “Your mind should be / On the gods’ images and on their shrines. / Men will make war and peace, as men should do” (VII.611-13). Allecto rages at this dismissal, takes off her disguise, and incites Turnus to war by more direct means:

Being so dismissed, Allecto blazed in wrath,
And sudden trembling ran through the man’s body
Even as he spoke, his eyes in a rigid stare,
For now the Fury hissed with all her serpents,
All her hideous faces. (VII.614-18)

With this she hurled a torch and planted it
Below the man’s chest, smoking with hellish light.
Enormous terror woke him, a cold sweat
Broke out all over him and soaked his body.
Then driven wild, shouting for arms, for arms
He ransacked house and chamber. Lust of steel
Raged in him, brute insanity of war,
And wrath above all… (VII.629-36)

These three cases reveal two modes of ineffectiveness that beset attempts by the gods to cloak themselves in human form. First, in the examples from Books I and V, the disguises are ineffective as disguises. Aeneas immediately recognizes Venus for a goddess (though not as Venus specifically). Iris fails equally dismally to delude Pyrgo. Turnus does not immediately recognize Allecto, though this can perhaps be chalked up to Allecto, as a fury, lacking the superhuman beauty that gave away both Venus and Iris.

But Allecto’s disguise is ineffective in another way, namely rhetorically. Allecto, in her adopted form, wholly fails to persuade Turnus. She is laughed off. Less drastically, Iris-qua-Beroë fails to persuade the Trojan women. She gets halfway there, but her speech leaves them undecided, torn between her appeal and Pyrgo’s counter-appeal. In both cases, it is only with the revelation of divinity that their targets’ resistance gives way. In Iris’ case, it is the revelation itself that persuades, while Allecto forgoes persuasion altogether, choosing instead to act more directly.

(Exegetical note: the Fitzgerald translation quoted above is ambiguous on this point: “with this” can be read as implying that Allecto’s speech, lines 623-628, is itself the “torch” she plants in Turnus. In the Fagles and Mandelbaum translations, however, the hurling of the torch is more clearly separated off as a second act, distinct from her speech. This is consistent with the episode just prior, when Allecto visits Amata and wordlessly – at least no words are mentioned – brings her to madness by sending a snake into her heart. Thus, though poetically I prefer Fitzgerald’s ambiguity, in this instance I will side with numerical majority and read the torch-throwing otherwise than as a metaphorical description of Allecto’s rhetorical powers of persuasion.)

So I ask again: why do the gods disguise themselves, when it is so manifestly ineffective? I cannot pretend to give a full answer, but I hope you will indulge me a few speculations.

In the first case, Aeneas’ frustration provides a hint. He asks Venus why she cannot advise him directly, why they cannot together frankly speak the simple truth. Perhaps that is just it: gods and mortals – even mortals half-sprung from gods – cannot communicate directly. The gods must, as Dickinson would say, tell the truth slant. Aeneas, as the son of a mortal father and immortal mother, is thus doubly an exile. He is not only cut off from Troy, his homeland, but also from his mother.

The second case suggests a second explanation. Perhaps the rhetorical failure of Iris’ disguise is merely apparent. Perhaps what persuades the women to burn the ships is not her divinity in itself, but her transition from a frail old woman to a majestic goddess. I think here of something an old friend of mine once said: “Power… resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf…” Would Iris’ ascension have “wrought to a frenzy” the Trojan women had she not first appeared as Beroë? I suspect not, though the true answer will be forever lost in murk.

But – if I am correct in my assumption that the ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s translation is absent in Virgil’s Latin – neither of these explanations accounts for Allecto’s decision to disguise herself when appearing before Turnus. In the end she does not persuade him at all, but rather inflames him at a sub-rhetorical level. There is thus in this instance no question of telling the truth slant, nor of an especially potent rhetorical trick. One last time, why does Allecto hide her true form? This time I must leave the question open.


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