Nonfiction > Francis Bacon > Of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Francis Bacon (1561–1626).  Of the Wisdom of the Ancients.  1857.
XXIX. Proserpina
Or Spirit
THEY say that when Pluto upon that memorable partition of the kingdoms received for his portion the infernal regions, he despaired of gaining any of the goddesses above in marriage by addresses and gentle methods, and so was driven to take measures for carrying one of them off by force. Seizing his opportunity therefore, while Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, a fair virgin, was gathering flowers of Narcissus in the Sicilian meadows, he rushed suddenly upon her and carried her off in his chariot to the subterranean regions. Great reverence was paid her there: so much that she was even called the Mistress or Queen of Dis. Meanwhile her mother Ceres, filled with grief and anxiety by the disappearance of her dearly beloved daughter, took a lighted torch in her hand, and wandered with it all round the world in quest of her. Finding the search fruitless, and hearing by chance that she had been carried down to the infernal regions, she wearied Jupiter with tears and lamentations, praying to have her restored; till at last she won a promise from him that if her daughter had not eaten of anything belonging to the under world, then she might bring her back. This condition was unfortunate for the mother; for Proserpina had eaten (it was found) three grains of a pomegranate. But this did not prevent Ceres from renewing her prayers and lamentations; and it was agreed at last that Proserpina should divide the year between the two, and live by turns six months with her husband and the other six with her mother.  1
  Afterwards a very daring attempt to carry away the same Proserpina from the chamber of Dis was made by Theseus and Pirithous. But having sate down to rest by the way on a stone in the infernal regions, they were unable to rise again, and continued sitting there for ever. So Proserpina remained Queen of the under world: where a great and new privilege was granted in honour of her; for whereas they who went down to the under world were not permitted to go back, a singular exception was made in favour of any who should bring a certain golden branch as a present to Proserpina; such present entitling the bearer to go and return. It was a single branch growing by itself in a vast and dark wood; neither had it a stock of its own, but grew like misseltoe upon a tree of different kind; and as soon as it was plucked off, another came in its place.  2
  The fable relates, as I take it, to Nature, and explains the source of that rich and fruitful supply of active power subsisting in the under world, from which all the growths of our upper world spring, and into which they again return and are resolved. By Proserpina the ancients signified that ethereal spirit which, having been separated by violence from the upper globe, is enclosed and imprisoned beneath the earth (which earth is represented by Pluto); as was well expressed in those lines,—
        Whether that the Earth yet fresh, and from the deeps
Of heaven new-sundered, did some seeds retain,
Some sparks and motions of its kindred sky.
This spirit is represented as having been ravished, that is suddenly and forcibly carried off, by the Earth; because there is no holding it in if it have time and leisure to escape, and the only way to confine and fix it is by a sudden pounding and breaking up; just as if you would mix air with water, you can only do it by sudden and rapid agitation: for thus it is that we see these bodies united in foam, the air being as it were ravished by the water. It is prettily added that Proserpina was carried off while in the act of gathering flowers of Narcissus in the valleys: for Narcissus takes its name from torpor or stupor; and it is only when beginning to curdle, and as it were to gather torpor, that spirit is in the best state to be caught up and carried off by earthy matter. It is right too that Proserpina should have that honour, which is not conceded to the wife of any other God,—to be called the Mistress or Queen of Dis: for the spirit does in fact govern and manage everything in those regions, without the help of Pluto, who remains stupid and unconscious.
  The air meanwhile, and the power of the celestial region (which is represented by Ceres) strives with infinite assiduity to win forth and recover this imprisoned spirit again; and that torch which the air carries—the lighted torch in Ceres’s hand—means no doubt the Sun, which does the office of a lamp all over the earth, and would do more than anything else for the recovery of Proserpina, were the thing at all possible. But Proserpina remains fixed where she is; the reason and manner whereof is accurately and admirably set forth in those two agreements between Jupiter and Ceres. For with regard to the first, most certain it is that there are two ways of confining and restraining spirit in solid and earthy matter: one by constipation and obstruction, which is simple imprisonment and violence; the other by administering some suitable aliment, which is spontaneous and free. For when the imprisoned spirit begins to feed and nourish itself, it is no longer in a hurry to escape, but becomes settled as in its own land. And this is what is meant by Proserpina’s tasting of the pomegranate; which if she had not done, she would have been long since carried off by Ceres as she traversed the globe with her torch in quest of her. For though the spirit which is contained in metals and minerals is prevented from getting out chiefly perhaps by the solidity of the mass, that which is contained in plants and animals dwells in a porous body, from which it could easily escape if it were not by that process of tasting reconciled to remain. As for the second agreement,—that she should stay six months at a time with either party,—it is nothing else but an elegant description of the division of the year; since that spirit which is diffused through the earth does (in regard to the vegetable kingdom) live in the upper world during the summer months, and retires to the under world in the winter months.  4
  Now for that attempt of Theseus and Pirithous to carry Proserpina away, the meaning is that the subtler spirits which in many bodies descend to the earth often fail to draw out and assimilate and carry away with them the subterranean spirit, but contrariwise are themselves curdled and never reascend again, and so go to increase the number of Proserpina’s people and the extent of her empire.  5
  As for that golden branch, it may seem difficult for me to withstand the Alchemists, if they attack me from that side; seeing they promise us by that same stone of theirs not only mountains of gold, but also the restitution of natural bodies as it were from the gates of the Infernals. Nevertheless for Alchemy and those that are never weary of their wooing of that stone, as I am sure they have no ground in theory, so I suspect that they have no very good pledge of success in practice. And therefore putting them aside, here is my opinion as to the meaning of that last part of the parable. From many figurative allusions I am satisfied that the ancients regarded the conservation, and to a certain extent the restoration, of natural bodies as a thing not desperate, but rather as abstruse and out of the way. And this is what I take them in the passage before us to mean, by placing this branch in the midst of the innumerable other branches of a vast and thick wood. They represented it as golden; because gold is the emblem of duration; and grafted, because the effect in question is to be looked for as the result of art, not of any medicine or method which is simple or natural.  6

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