Of all of the gods of Rome perhaps one of the strangest and most devious was the goddess Laverna. The following example shows just how devious she could be while revealing how the great Roman poet, Virgil, answered a tricky question posed by the Emperor. It is retold here from The Unpublished Legends of Virgil by Charles Godfrey Leland.
A Tricky Question
The Roman Emporer asked Virgil what he made of the following verse from Aesop’s Fables.
"One day a fox entered a sculptor’s shop, And found a marble head, when thus he spoke: ‘O Head! there is such feeling shown in thee By art—and yet thou canst not feel at all!"
After a little thought Virgil gave the following answer, “Well now, it is very difficult for me to tell whether or not it is all introduction or all conclusion. It reminds me of those types of fish where it is difficult to know the head from the tail, or if they are all head, or all tail. Indeed, it also reminds me of the goddess Laverna of whom no one could ever tell if she was all head, or all body, or in fact both.”
The Emperor looked puzzled telling the poet he had never in his life heard of such a deity. Therefore, Virgil gave the following explanation, “Of all the ancient gods and goddesses in the history of Rome, Laverna was the most cunning, the most mischievous and the most deceitful. She was not well known by the other deities as she tended to keep herself to her own wicked ways, rarely spending time in heaven among them. Most of the time she could be found mingling with vagabonds, scoundrels, pickpockets and thieves, living in the dark and hidden places of human society.
One day it happened that she changed herself into the form of an extremely beautiful priestess and visited a great priest and proposed a bargain with him. She proposed he sell his estate to her and she would build on it within one year a great temple. Furthermore, at the end of that year she would pay in full for the estate and he would also get the temple for free. She told him that as surety for the proposal she would swear on her body.
The great priest was completely convinced. He gave her his estate thinking he would be paid its full value and get a free temple in the bargain. In that time Laverna was very busy selling up all his houses, land, livestock and assets until she had sold everything of any little worth. On the day when payment was due she was nowhere to be found and the great priest never received a penny in payment and no new temple.
Now, Laverna was not satisfied with defrauding the great priest and hatched another scheme. She went to a great lord and persuaded him to sell her a castle with a great estate. This time she promised with her head as surety to pay him in six months the full value of the castle and estate. The great lord was completely taken in by her and agreed the deal. Once again, Laverna sold the castle, the land and everything on it lock, stock and barrel, leaving nothing at all of any value.
The great priest and the great lord went together to the assembly of gods and goddesses to voice their complaints. The first before them was the priest. The gods heard his complaint and the goddess Laverna was summoned before them to answer.
Jove asked her what she had done with the property of the priest whom she had sworn with her body to repay in the allotted time. Standing before him and the other gods she answered in a very strange way which entirely astonished Jove and the assembled divinities. She cried aloud,
‘Behold! He says I swore by my body, but I have no body!’
Her body vanished leaving just her head floating in the air. Jove and the others all laughed and called upon the great lord to next make his petition to them. He told how Laverna had defrauded him and promised by her head to repay him by the allotted time. Jove demanded an explanation from her and in reply she showed her body to all present and it was indeed a very beautiful body, but it did not have a head. Then a voice came from the body saying,
‘Behold me, I am Laverna! I say this of the lord’s complaint of me. He says I swore on my head. See! I have no head, yet he calls me a thief. As you can see having no head I could not have sworn such an oath!’
Once again the gods broke into peals of laughter. At length Jove spoke and ordered her to return her head to her body. When she stood before them in full he ordered that she pay what was due to her creditors with no more tricks. Reluctantly, she complied.
Jove told her and all present that as she was of such knavish and deceitful nature from hence forward she would be the deity of all rogues, scoundrels thieves, cutthroats, vagabonds and those of similar nature.
That is why Laverna is now the patron of all of the wicked and deceitful people of the earth and a goddess of the Underworld. When such people make their wicked plans they could enter into her temple and call upon her for aid and advice and she would appear as a woman’s head. If they did their work badly and incorrectly she would appear as a female body. If they worked well and were successful she appeared before him as the whole goddess.”
Virgil then pointed out that she was as chaste as she was honest taking many lovers and bearing many children. However he hastened to add she was not entirely evil-hearted and often repented her ways but no matter how hard she tried her passions got the better of her.
The Arts of Virgil
So that was how the poet Virgil answered a tricky question he had no idea the answer to. It may be the Emperor lost track of his original question or was completely bamboozled by the brilliance of the answer. Whatever the reason he asked no more of it but this small event did not go unnoticed in history.
In the modern age, here in the UK, our elected rulers pay homage to Laverna and master the arts of Virgil from an early age.
© 08/07/2020 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright July 8th, 2020 zteve t evans