E Pluribus Unum and The Unrecognized Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean


Stuart WordPress photoE pluribus unum (‘EPU’), which first began to be used by the U.S. in the 18th century, comes from a poem entitled Moretum that until well into the 19th century was generally attributed to Vergil.  During those centuries Latin would have been studied from what was the equivalent of today’s elementary school through at least high school.  Because Vergil is to the study of Latin what Shakespeare is to the study of English, Moretum would have been read by anyone lucky enough to receive formal education in those centuries–mostly boys–including the white sons of slave owners.

Those boys, however, would have been motivated not just to read, but to memorize Moretum.  That is because Moretum, through a variety of clues, encourages allegorical interpretations, one of which is that it celebrates the sexual intercourse of a single white farmer and his sole companion, his black female slave.  Such an interpretation requires ignoring the clues that the author thinks of such sex as rape (as anyone other than a male slave owner would); those clues lead me to think the author may have been a woman.

Illustration of Moertum (1558 Edition of Vergil's works)

Illustration of Moretum from a 1558 edition of the works of Vergil available here.

EPU is lifted from the narration of the ‘climax.’  The farmer is using a pestle to ‘mix’ cheese with herbs (one of which is ‘rigid rue’) in a mortar (which his slave provided him–upon his demand to do so) that is in his lap (near his ‘hairy groin’).  The ‘mixing’ produces a spread with one color from many (color est e pluribus unus).  That line would have been ‘remembered’ (repeatedly) by such boys.

Given that context it is perhaps not surprising the use of EPU by the U.S. seems to have originated as a prank.  For EPU is a slightly tweaked version of the Latin of Moretum, with the words ‘color est,’ important particularly to the sexual meaning, dropped.  That this was a prank (and not even American) is a fair inference from the earlier (and continued) use of EPU as a motto for the British publication,“Gentleman’s Magazine.”  In a collection of its 1734 editions that magazine published a light-hearted poem on the appropriateness of EPU as its motto.  The poem applauds the magazine’s policy of including works where “artful expressions gild scandal or smut,” and a few lines later concludes with what is plainly an allusion to the ‘food’ mixing imagery of Moretum.

For at least a century after it began to be used by the US men who studied Latin as schoolboys probably often smirked when they saw EPU, especially when in 1873, only eight years after the Civil War, a law was passed requiring it on every coin minted by the US Treasury.  There had to be some still then that viewed it wistfully as a legacy of when it could be anticipated that being a racist and rapist would be rewarded eventually with a temple near the Potomac modeled on the Roman Pantheon–originally built during the reign of Augustus, when Moretum was composed.

If any temple deserves to be built in honor of what Moretum really means (and not what such men wanted it to mean) it would be a temple for the goddess Cybele.  That is because the farmer’s ‘slave’ is not a slave.  She is called ‘Scybale’ and in some manuscripts ‘Cybale.’  Because of when Moretum was composed the sound similarity to ‘Cybele’ must be intentional and intended to be recognized.  Although traditionally deemed a foreign import to Italy, as Cybele became assimilated with indigenous goddess worship she became the goddess of Rome, the great mother (Mater Magna) (with a temple, where her statue had a mysterious (probably meteoric) black stone for a face, next door to Augustus’s palace).

This is one of many indications Moretum is the work of no ordinary poet.  That its quality as a poem has been appreciated in the past is evidenced by the fact that the 18th century British poet William Cowper translated Moretum as one of the last literary works of his life.  Cowper had mastered both Latin and Greek in a manner few then or now could claim to have.  He was also a favorite poet of Jane Austen (though she did not know him personally).

Precisely because of how good a poet Cowper was and how well he knew Latin, by omitting and modifying the clues of the sexual meaning of Moretum (such as EPU) his translation ironically confirms that meaning is there.  Undue reliance on his translation helps explain the general silence on the sexual meaning of Moretum.  But Cowper used a version of the text that had the variant spelling ‘Cybale’ for the slave’s name.  I have thus been particularly surprised not to be able to find English language scholarship at least suggesting she is Cybele.  The only such suggestion I have found was made in 2005 by a German scholar, Regina Höschele.

Yet, the sound similarity is hardly the only basis for the identification of her.  In addition to the fact that the slave is black and never speaks in the poem (Cybele was known for her sacred silence), the cheese spread the farmer makes is known to have been used by Romans as a vegetarian (i.e., non-violently produced) food offering to Cybele.  That is essential to understanding Moretum as a type of theoxenia.  This theme of ancient literature plays upon the belief that any person (or animal) might actually be a god or goddess and how recognition (or lack thereof) of any such being as such has karmic consequences.

The farmer curses as he finishes making the spread.  He does not share it with his slave: he does not recognize her as Cybele.  There is thus implied an ominous prophecy of his future.  But there is another prophecy implied by Moretum.  The recognition (or lack thereof) of the mystical meaning of its language implies a prophecy for its readers, not to mention those who obscure such meaning by manipulating its language for purposes of propaganda.  The legitimacy of understanding Moretum in this way can best be supported by appealing to evidence it has been and continues to be prophetic.  It is indeed uncanny how much of American history can be characterized as the karmic consequence of failing to recognize in Moretum the black goddess that is its focus (a word etymologically related to one of the symbols of that goddess).

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/

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Categories: Black Feminism, Divine Feminine, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Paganism, Poetry, Race and Ethnicity, Rape, Rape Culture

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20 replies

  1. Thanks Dean.

    Sent from Outlook

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  2. I have not read this text, but I am aware that Apuleius in The Golden Ass makes a lot of “hidden references” to his theology in the long section that precedes the vision of the Goddess.

    What is shocking about your blog is that this text, as read and understood, is another example of the fact that our “higher” educational system teaches us that “rape, genocide, and war” as long as committed by “the right” dominant individuals are “just fine.”

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    • Thanks Carol:

      “Shock” fairly characterizes my own reaction as I researched this–which only began about a month ago. There is more to come from that research.

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  3. “From many one.” As regards the black goddess, thanks Stuart, two things come to mind — first the Song of Songs where the woman sings “I am black but beautiful,” and also, more importantly, the long history of the highly mystical Black Madonna, which appeared in many medieval paintings and sculptures throughout Europe and especially in France. For more background and illustrations of art works depicting the black goddess, see the article here at FAR by Judith Shaw —
    feminismandreligion.com/2012/10/25/why-are-we-drawn-to-the-black-madonna-by-judith-shaw/

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  4. Thank you Sarah–the Black Madonna connection is one reason I am shocked (to pick up on Carol’s comment) that there is so little scholarship on this poem. I have reached out via email to several scholars seeking reactions and/or information on this and intend to write more about it.

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  5. I do think we often, probably subconsciously in the case of most people and consciously by poets, use food as a metaphor for sex- all that hunger and satisfying desires talk. Thing is, when conservative religious people start getting worked up about food- particularly meat and whether it is ritually pure/sanctified- I often drift off and start wondering “What are they REALLY talking about here?”

    Thanks for sharing your meticulous scholarship with us on this forum. You have a unique perspective that finds uncommon depth in subjects and symbols we often overlook.

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    • Thank you. There is much that can and should be said about how this poem relates to food. Just a few teasers on where that leads: the lunch the farmer prepares is in effect the ancestor of the pizza; the word ‘mix’ and its cognates derives from the Latin and Greek verb that regularly was used to mean to have sex; the terminology used to describe the circular shape of the flatbread, the cheese, the mortar and the spread mixed in it echoes the terminology of used by Empedocles and Parmenides to characterize the sphericity of the cosmos.

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  6. Thank you, Stuart. You are a true scholar-sleuth. Your meticulous detective work (de text-ive work) is much appreciated!

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    • Thanks. I like the word play ‘de text-ive’: Google books has opened a whole new world in historical research that I think few people exploit to the degree it can be. It has stunned me over the past few years to realize that by using a Latin phrase (that by itself acts as powerful filter) and narrowing the field to full/preview books you actually pull up books that only a few years ago you needed to go to a special rare book room to view. Google’s scans are not very reliable for books published prior to 1700 but with some work and using alternative search terms even books from the late 1400s can be viewed.

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  7. Great Balls of Zeus (as a character in one of my novels often exclaims)–is this an eye-opener, or what?? Thanks for writing this. I am enchanted by the idea of Cybele as a ghostwriter for Vergil. She was indeed a great goddess and Magna Mater. And I agree with Carol’s comment, too. Those old Romans were a sly bunch. But I’m not sure a goddess would promote rape. Maybe the ghostwriting went the other way? Vergil was behind Cybele? I’d like to hear more about this research. (I stopped at Latin II in high school.)

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    • Thanks. Cybele is actually quite important in the Aeneid (though not emphasized until an article about her in 1988) and that alone makes the case for Vergil’s authorship of Moretum seem difficult to dismiss. The past month has been an unfolding revelation for me and I will have much more to say on this. Suffice it for now to say that the identity, gender and sexual orientation of the author ultimately cannot be known but ultimately should not be relevant. Using the dichotomy comparative linguists apply to ancient poetry between “language of the gods vs. language of humans” I think this can fairly be characterized as the language of the goddess.

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  8. If “the use of EPU by the U.S. seems to have originated as a prank,” who would you surmise was behind the prank? And if it was among “some still then that viewed it wistfully as a legacy of when it could be anticipated that being a racist and rapist would be rewarded eventually with a temple near the Potomac modeled on the Roman Pantheon,” why not disclose the explicit suspicion that the admirers of Thomas Jefferson were behind it?

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    • The use of EPU is a matter of laws (as a seal in 1782 and on the coinage in 1873). Without getting too juridical about it, I think it is fair to impute to those who approved such laws a knowledge of the meaning of the language for which they voted. It is sadly all too obvious that TJ was not exceptional in how he ‘treated’ his female slaves and therefore approval of EPU would not necessarily equate with admiration of TJ. As for that meaning: there is plausible deniability in its vagueness. Today we can all play it straight no matter how much an Eric Idle might nudge us. Yet, given the history I do think the continued use of EPU and the continued worship of TJ can arguably be compared to waving the confederate flag.

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  9. Thank you, Stuart, for this fascinating post. I look forward to the “more” that is to come based on your current research.

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  10. Very interesting, Stuart. Thanks.

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  11. What if these writings were a version of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” in their day? You
    seem to be over-egging the interpretations. Reads like field-hand porn to me.

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  12. “the great mother (Mater Magna) (with a temple, where her statue had a mysterious (probably meteoric) black stone for a face, next door to Augustus’s palace)”

    any known relation to Islam and Kaaba?

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    • Thank you for reading my post and taking time to comment on it. I am not familiar with whether any scholar has attempted to connect the black stone associated with Mater Magna with Kaaba (which based on what little I just read of it seems very similar) or Islam generally. The connection of the spiritual tradition evidenced by Moretum with ancient African female spirituality generally seems to me deserving of far greater scrutiny than it has received to date (which is to say, hardly any).

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