The Origin of Sin

The Origin of Sin: An English Translation of the "Hamartigenia"

Translated and with an Interpretive Essay by Martha A. Malamud
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Origin of Sin
    Book Description:

    Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-ca. 406) is one of the great Christian Latin writers of late antiquity. Born in northeastern Spain during an era of momentous change for both the Empire and the Christian religion, he was well educated, well connected, and a successful member of the late Roman elite, a man fully engaged with the politics and culture of his times. Prudentius wrote poetry that was deeply influenced by classical writers and in the process he revived the ethical, historical, and political functions of poetry. This aspect of his work was especially valued in the Middle Ages by Christian writers who found themselves similarly drawn to the Classical tradition.

    Prudentius's Hamartigenia, consisting of a 63-line preface followed by 966 lines of dactylic hexameter verse, considers the origin of sin in the universe and its consequences, culminating with a vision of judgment day: the damned are condemned to torture, worms, and flames, while the saved return to a heaven filled with delights, one of which is the pleasure of watching the torments of the damned. As Martha A. Malamud shows in the interpretive essay that accompanies her lapidary translation, the first new English translation in more than forty years, Hamartigenia is critical for understanding late antique ideas about sin, justice, gender, violence, and the afterlife. Its radical exploration of and experimentation with language have inspired generations of thinkers and poets since-most notably John Milton, whose Paradise Lost owes much of its conception of language and its strikingly visual imagery to Prudentius's poem.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6305-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)

      (pp. 3-6)
      (pp. 7-48)

      Where does your madness hurl you, treacherous Cain,²²

      blasphemer, you who split our God in two?

      Isn’t the one creator clear to you?

      Is your divided vision darkened by mist?²³

      Your keen gaze, spoiled, pursues two different paths,²⁴

      its sight deceived by double phantom figures.

      The twofold shape of earthly things makes sport

      of you and makes you stupidly believe

      a God divided reigns above the heavens.

      But though this sordid world confuses two

      opposing elements of good and evil,

      Heaven itself submits to a single God.

      Because there are two different sorts of works

      that stir anxieties in human...


      (pp. 51-55)

      Macleish’s claim that a poem should not “mean” but “be” is profoundly paradoxical. How can a poem, an artifact of language, exist without performing language’s primary function, signification? Of what would such a poem consist? From the point of view of an early Christian reader, Macleish’s poem would be beyond understanding—available, perhaps, to be glimpsed in the imagination like a fruit gleaming, tantalizingly, on the highest branch of a tree, but forever out of reach, like the apple that Sappho describes:

      All alone a sweet apple reddens on the topmost branch,

      high on the highest branch, the apple pickers...

      (pp. 56-75)

      The literature of the fourth century reflects the dynamism and upheaval of the time. The third century appears to have been a cultural wasteland for Latin literature, remarkable for the paucity of literature, especially poetry, that has survived. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the floodgates opened: old genres were revived and new ones created. After the silence of the third century, the voices of men like Julian and Augustine, Ausonius and Claudian, Prudentius and Ambrose, Jerome and Ammianus emerge. Rhetoricians, grammarians, editors and commentators, philosophers, and historians scrutinized and revitalized many classical genres, while the rapid Christianization of the...

      (pp. 76-84)

      On the ornaments and figures of the Hamartigenia rested the burden of generating meaning in the mind of the active Roman reader. We will explore those ornaments and figures in what follows, in the hope that through the process of figuring out the figures in the text, the contemporary reader will be better equipped both to follow the logic and to enjoy the linguistic virtuosity of the poem. As the Hamartigenia is neither a well-known nor a transparent text, a brief summary of its narrative scheme may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the poem.

      Like Prudentius’s other hexameter poems,...

      (pp. 85-95)

      By opening the Hamartigenia with a typological allegory and guiding us toward its correct interpretation through personification allegory, Prudentius draws attention to the process of figural reading. But as is the case with the Psychomachia, whose preface also opens with a biblical exemplum that is interpreted for us (the story of Abraham), it turns out that more complex modes of figural reading than the one provided in the preface will be required. As the Hamartigenia progresses, the process of interpreting signs becomes less and less clear-cut, as Prudentius presents his argument through different figures—analogy, allusion, simile, exempla—whose ambiguity...

      (pp. 96-111)

      Marcion’s speech introduces the poisonous notion that the Creator God is responsible for evil:

      “unus,” ais, “tristi residet sublimis in arce,

      auctor nequitiae, scelerum Deus, asper, iniquus,

      qui quodcumque malum vitioso fervet in orbe

      sevit, et anguino medicans nova semina suco

      rerum principium mortis de fomite traxit.”

      (H. 111–15)

      “One sits on high,” you say, “inside a grim

      citadel: the author of wickedness,

      the god of vices, harsh, unjust, who sowed

      whatever ills ferment in this corrupted

      globe. Imbuing his new spawn with snaky

      poison, he struck the spark of our beginning

      from death’s combustible matter.”

      (H. 154–60)...

      (pp. 112-128)

      In the hamartigenia, cosmic collapse leads immediately to a condemnation of women’s greed and vanity, epitomized by cosmetics, and of the inappropriate clothing and disgraceful behavior of effeminate men. Although it makes little sense chronologically or causally, there is nevertheless a logic to the way in which Prudentius moves directly from describing the corruption of the cosmos to describing the sin of excessive adornment. Kosmos is the Greek word for order or arrangement, and cosmetics, inappropriate adornment, are man’s perversion of God’s creative ordering of the universe. As we will see, the excesses of which women and effeminate men are...

      (pp. 129-139)

      The allegorical figures emerging from the poison Satan sows (serit, line 391) in our veins in the mini-Psychomachia of H. 517–34 (Lat. 390–405) gesture, as it were, to the devil’s apporpriation of figural speech. His seminal role in creating them also associates Satan with the phenomenon of reproduction, a theme the poet takes up at length in lines 733–833 (Lat. 562–636). He begins his excursion on the generation of sin with the assertion that we give birth to sin from our own bodies. To illustrate this, he relates the story of David, whose son Absalom rebelled...

    • 7. SIGNS OF WOE
      (pp. 140-169)

      Perhaps the most peculiar feature of the Hamartigenia to readers brought up on the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall of mankind and influenced by a literary tradition that has been fascinated by the figure of Eve is the way in which she is minimized, almost eliminated, from the narrative of the origin of sin. In this, Prudentius’s account of original sin differs greatly from the biblical account. In Genesis, the woman’s temptation is highlighted; she takes center stage:

      Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he...

      (pp. 170-196)

      The hamartigenia begins after the beginning, starting with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel (not the story of Adam and Eve with which the story of man begins in Genesis), and it ends both before and after the end—before and after the end of the world, in the vision of the Apocalypse as imagined by John the Evangelist, and before and after the end of Prudentius himself, as he imagines his own death and afterlife in his closing prayer. The Hamartigenia displays a preoccupation with eschatology that is typical of the late antique period. Eschatology, the study of “last...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 197-212)
    (pp. 213-222)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 223-236)