Monday, May 14, 2007

Prayer against abortion

This post was composed and first published December, 2004. It still comes up in searches so I'm running it again for current readers who might not otherwise find it. Reading it again after two years, I decided not to change anything.

This line in the second poem jumped out at me.

Why strip the vine of grapes just as it starts to climb,
Not even drinking wine before its time?

Pagans wrote some pretty good poetry, no?


Here, enshrined in a poem by Ovid, is an eloquent anti-abortion pagan prayer.

According to notes that follow this source "[i]n the background are the Augustan social reforms which were designed to encourage marriage and discourage childlessness. Augustus imposed penalties on those who failed to marry or who married but remained childless. From this fact and from references to abortion in the literature (usually denouncing it), the frequent occurrence of abortion in imperial Rome can be inferred. Legislative opposition to abortion (which came later) was based on the father's right to heirs and complemented by philosophical arguments based on "nature." It is this assumption of the male prerogative which motivates these poems and which characterizes their speaker. In another body of legislation, Augustus attempted to revive old Roman religious practices. These efforts entailed the suppression of eastern religions, specifically including the Egyptian worship of Isis and Sarapis. In this regard too, when the speaker prays to Isis and Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, that Corinna survive the ordeal of her recent abortion, he appears relatively indifferent to Augustus's moral project."

In other words, the objection to abortion here is based mainly upon a male's right to an an heir, not any kind of moral objection.

For trying to unseat the burden crouched in her swelling womb, for her audacity, Corinna lies near death.
I should be furious: to take such a risk! And without telling me! But anger fails me -- I'm so afraid. You see, I'm the one who got her that way, or so I believe; I might as well be, since I could have been.

Isis! Great queen of Paraetonium, of Canopus' joyful plains, of Memphis, and of Pharos, rich in palm-trees, of the broad delta where the swift Nile spreads, and pours his waters to the sea through seven mouths, I pray, by your sacred rattles, by the venerated face of Anubis -- may faithful Osiris forever love your rites! may the unhurried snake glide always amid your offerings, and horned Apis travel at your side! -- come here, look kindly upon her, and save two lives in one: for you'll give life to her, and she to me.
She's been devout: performed each service on your festival days, observed the Gallic laurel ritual.
And you, who comfort laboring women in their time of distress, when the lurking burden strains their bodies hard, come gently now, and smile upon my prayers, Ilithyia -- she's worthy of your intervention -- please!
I myself, in white robes, will bring incense to your smoking altar I myself will offer votive gifts and lay them at your feet with the inscription, 'For Corinna's Life.' Goddess, give occasion for those words!
Corinna, listen, if you're out of danger: please don't ever go through this again!

I am not any scholar of ancient literature. But I do a lot of reading.
Here is a bit of background to Ovid:

"Ovid was born into a well-to-do equestrian family on March 20, 43 B.C.E. in Sulmo, a town in the Apennines, about eighty miles from Rome. This was the year after Julius Caesar was assassinated; almost a year before Cicero was murdered; and twelve years before the battle of Actium brought an end to the civil war between Antony and Octavian. At about the time of Actium, Ovid, like others from his class, was sent to Rome for an education in rhetoric and law....
His poetry is generally noted for its ease and wit; sometimes faulted for its rhetorical self-indulgence. He has less interest in politics per se than any other poet in this volume which is not to say that his urban sophistication, irreverence, and even mockery of old-fashioned Roman values did not have political consequences...he writes in the first person of his love for a woman, called Corinna..."

In this case I have to give credit (again) to First Things, which is to say Fr. Neuhaus. Plowing through last month's retrospective of a book published by Neuhaus twenty years ago, I came to the end, where I found the following poem.

What Good Is It That Girls/ Need Never Go To War?

What good is it that girls need never go to war
Or wear a shield or march in columns or
Bow down to Mars, if they take out a bloody knife
And blind the womb that bears a fated life?
The first who ever tried to cut away her child
Deserved to die for what she had defiled.
How could it be that stretch marks make for such disgust
That you become like killers palled in dust?
Had mankind's mothers been so selfish, mean, and base,
There never would have been a human race,
And we'd have needed, one more time, some pair to throw
Pebbles behind them, so mankind might grow.
Who would have ruined Priam if the mother of
Achilles hadn't borne her child with love?
If Ilia hadn't given Romulus his birth,
How could eternal Rome have ruled the earth?
Had Venus ripped Aeneas from her, such a deed
Would orphan us of Caesars in our need.
You, too, Corinna, born so pretty: you'd have died
If your mother had done what you just tried.
And me! (Though I'll die from romantic love's excess.)
My mother gave me life by saying yes.
Why strip the vine of grapes just as it starts to climb,
Not even drinking wine before its time?
Ripe fruit drops on its own; better a life that's late
Than death! So great a prize, so brief a wait!
And yet your weapons go on gouging out the wombs
That poisons make your children's early tombs.
We hate Medea for the blood she's splattered with -
Her babes' - and grieve for Itys in the myth.
Child killers that they were, at least they had some cause,
Ruining their men by blood that broke all laws.
Where is your Tereus? Where's the Jason who demands
You pierce your innards with a mother's hands?
Armenian tigresses won't do what women will;
No lioness will see her cub and kill,
Though girls of nineteen do - but not without a price
(Abortion doubles human sacrifice).
Then she is borne away to burn, her hair undone,
To cries of "serves her right!" from everyone.
But let my words dissolve, and heaven blow away
The awful burden of these things I say.
Dear gods, allow her - once - to sin and still survive;
Two sins, and she need not be kept alive.

Ovid's Amores 2.14, translated by Len Krisak

Look at that. "...cries of 'serves her right' from everyone..."
Doesn't that sound contemporary? I have said it before and it is worth repeating: nothing animates a human being more surely or more quickly that righteous indignation. It is the seminal impulse driving every human conflict, from family feuds and road rage to ethnic cleansing and war itself.

It is worth repeating, too (as noted above), that Ovid's objections do not derive from moral beliefs. As Christians we stand upon moral ground. But when we speak to a non-Christian world, as did Paul in Athens, it is wise to remember that Christian objections carry little weight to the unconverted. It is easier to grasp the notion, however, that even pagans suspected there was something objectionable about abortion.

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