Those of you familiar with the Catholic tradition might recognize the above Latin words, which translate as “O Happy Fall.” It refers to a notion in Catholic theology derived from Augustine of Hippo that, in comparative terms, the fall from grace of humanity in the Garden of Eden and “original sin” was a great and wonderful thing since it resulted in such an enormously joyful and beautiful redemption of humanity in the incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus. This notion is the basis for a great deal of Catholic thinking on theodicy, amongst other things…
Of course, from a polytheist and/or pagan perspective, this is not exactly sensible: there is and has been no “fall” from the grace and presence of the gods (although the level of impiety and miasma in the world today might indicate otherwise to cynics), and thus there is nothing “happy” or “fortunate” to rejoice over, even if it was a mistake.
[Stepping back for a moment, though, I suppose one could view the eclipsing of polytheistic religions in antiquity as a kind of "fall," and their re-emergence in the modern period as a wonderful and glorious thing--and while I'd agree that it is a wonderful and glorious thing that these religions and the gods to whom they are devoted have emerged against all odds, I wouldn't quite say that it is "glorious" on the level many of us would prefer, or as that term would generally seem to indicate, at this point...but, that doesn't mean they won't be that way in the future.]
However, I was thinking of this line earlier today when I was walking downtown to do a few errands, and in particular I was thinking of it in relation to Antinous.
How, you might ask?
Well, there was a “fall” involved where Antinous is concerned.
In case you don’t know which “fall” I’m speaking of (and if you guessed the Lion Hunt, you could be right…!?!), I am speaking very specifically of Hadrian’s words, as quoted in the Historia Augusta, on Antinous’ death: “He fell into the Nile.” Yes, it was a fall, no matter what–whether it was an accidental tumble, a deliberate dive, or the result of being thrown by someone else.
We could also debate about whether or not the death of Antinous was a good thing or a bad thing.
Part of me says that it was very definitely a bad thing. To lose a beloved companion, a dear friend, a cherished partner, is always difficult; to have a young person so full of promise and virtue taken “before their time” is also lamentable and a cause for great sadness, which might not have impacted others around Antinous as greatly had he been even five years older than he was at the time of his death–indeed, the same is true now (how many 25-year olds die without a great deal of public outcry, but anytime a student who has not yet graduated high school dies, entire communities come together in mourning quite often). It would have been better for Hadrian and Antinous to have lived longer and happier lives together than for Antinous to have died when he did.
And yet, because Antinous died, his cultus was born. It is very likely that if he had grown up and moved on in his life, and lived and died just as most other people did in antiquity (and as they do now), we’d have never heard of him, his statues and cultus and name would have been forgotten–or, at least, would have been far less likely to have been preserved–and amongst other things, this blog would not exist. Antinous’ death didn’t have to have sacrificial import or universally redemptive qualities to be a thing of beauty and importance; Antinous’ death didn’t have to entail the possibility of all humans becoming divine in order to be something to take notice of and wonder over. And yet, even if those matters were not of issue, all of the beauty that has resulted from that tragedy is a further foothold for divinity and beauty to have in the world, even despite the tragedy of the circumstances that lead to it. Death can be a beautiful and meaningful thing, even for a religion that focuses primarily on life and being enlivened while one is living, as many polytheistic traditions have always done.
So, one can see it both ways (and many others as well), and in fact I tend to see it as both simultaneously.
But, another thought occurred to me as I was crossing the street. O Felix Culpa, “O happy fall,” could have another meaning in relation to Antinous. He did not simply fall into the Nile; he fell into divinity. He was not merely falling from life into death, or from stable land and dry ground into a turbulent river and a watery grave: he fell into the very essence of divinity, of holiness, into (as the Obelisk of Antinous phrases it, well in accord with Egyptian tradition as a whole) “the semen of the gods.” Whether by his own self-sacrificial intent, by total accident, or by others’ malevolent machinations, Antinous fell into divinity.
Think about that phrase for a moment: Antinous fell into being a god. It’s almost as if the accidental nature of it highlights something perhaps unique and interesting about human nature from a spiritual perspective: we are more likely to be gods, or to be divine and god-like in our actions, by accident and unexpectedly than by design or intent. Someone might look back over their life and realize, after many years of devoting themselves to virtue and humility and good conduct with the gods and with others, they lived a life that was exemplary and heroic and showed them to be holy in every respect. While living one’s life in that fashion is an act of will and intention and deliberate undertaking, at the same time, one does not do it simply to be rewarded later or recognized (though some heroes of myth and cultus did exactly that–Achilleus and Cú Chulainn, among others, come to mind), one does it because it is a good and right thing to do. “Oops! I fell into divinity!”
It’s almost as if this is a kind of warning, strangely enough, and something that too many people are too careful to avoid. “Watch out–keep that up, and you might become a god!” is something no one’s parents ever warned them about…and perhaps that’s the problem. But, I’ll leave that to all of you to decide for yourselves…
In any case, it’s an interesting set of thoughts to grapple with on a grey early September afternoon, I think. What do you think?