Hic Sunt Dracones…

It has been rather quiet at the Corpus Newtonicum front. Basically, I am writing my pants off, a dissertation in the making: Corpus Newtonicum: Reconstructing Isaac Newton’s working practices through his chronological studies. That does not sound very sexy and exciting, but boy it is. I have spent the past six months excavating Newton’s early forays in chronology, in particular his reading and note-taking practices. Newton’s library contained well over 200 books on ancient history, many more than might be expected from someone who by his own admission amused himself with the topic when he was ‘weary with other studies’. The reading traces in Newton’s books and the thousands of notes he took from these and other volumes are testament to incredibly intensive studies. I will try to put up short posts like this one every now and then to highlight some of my finds, and my queries.

Today we will discuss dragons.

Black dragons, to be precise, and there are two of them. Amongst Newton’s notes we come across a number of pages with entries on Greek gods, the first couple of which can be seen here:

Yahuda Ms. 13.3, fol. 21r. National Library of Israel.

Newton’s list starts with Saturn, followed by Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, and others. For a full transcription of this section please follow this link and scroll down to folio 21r. At the top of the page you will also find a link to the diplomatic transcription (showing all the deletions and additions) and to the manuscript images.

As you can see from the transcription, some entries – Cadmus, Jason, Theseus – have quite a bit of text, whereas others have only a few lines. For instance, all Newton wrote down about the goddess Juno is that she was malicious. Other entries, such as the final one on Hercules, are left open. There are various interesting aspects with this list, but the one I would like to discuss has to do with its source. Where did Newton get this information from? Normally one would simply look up the references he provides with his notes. But as the careful reader will have observed, this list does not have any references. What is more, there are several mysteries among the entries. For instance, when we inspect what Newton wrote under Pluto, we find that “Pluto is drawn by two Dragons”. I have tried to find the source Newton used for this, but I have not been able to find it. That is probably because – as far as I have been able to figure out – this statement about Pluto is incorrect. Nowhere in Greek mythology is Pluto described or depicted as having a chariot with two dragons. Pluto  – or Hades – does indeed ride a chariot, but it is always drawn by four black horses. For instance, Ovid in his Metamorphoses, book V, lines 341-408, describes Pluto when he says “…that dark despot left his gloomy habitation; carried forth by soot-black horses, in his gloomy car” and “…the ravisher urged on his chariot, and inspired his steeds; called each by name, and on their necks and manes shook the black-rusted reins.”

So what is going on here? Is Newton becoming sloppy? Not really. What we have here is a rare brainstorm session. Newton wrote down what he still remembered from his grammar school and undergraduate studies of the classics. And memory can be faulty. The above lines from Ovid are part of a larger story, called The Rape of Proserpine. It is a story that tells how Pluto is struck by Cupido’s arrow and falls in love with the beautiful Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, and subsequently carries her off. When her mother find out about this, she is pretty miffed and races to Jupiter, Pluto’s brother, to seek justice. Guess what Ceres’s chariot is being drawn by? “The fertile goddess yoked two dragons to her chariot: she curbed their mouths with bits: they bore her through the air, in her light car betwixt the earth and skies…” (V: 642ff). It is clear that Newton here mixed up two descriptions of chariots that feature in the same story, one drawn by four black horses, the other by two black dragons.

From the other entries, it surprising how much details Newton did actually remember, and most of them correctly. In some passages, where he was not exactly sure of a name, he left some blank space. As the empty entries show, Newton did not continue this list, nor did he fill in the blanks. It might have prompted him though to return to Homer, Ovid, and other mythology-writers to refresh his memory.

“Is he like [other[ men?” is what the Marquis de l’Hospital allegedly asked about Newton.

Apparently, he was.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thony C. says:

    So when do we get to read the finished dissertation?

    1. I expect to hand in just before Christmas, Viva a few months later, so (fingers crossed) about a year from now.

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