Stephanie Pope essay, Terminus the Roman god of boundaries,
myth and poetry



Terminus by stephanie pope posted 10-06-06

Monument Valley Mittens Butte rockslide May 18, 2006

Recently, amateur photographer Roylene Garrett captured on film the rock weathering moment exfoliation is producing a massive and cataclysmic landslide on East Mitten Butte in Monument Valley Diné Tribal Park. “The ground shook,” she said, and the sound was like thunder!”

The photo, taken May 18, 2006 appears in September, 2006 Arizona Highways. I found a newspaper mention of the event in the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times on line. Wow! The play of beauty within that landscape must have been spectacular in that moment!  What gods belong to such open spaces? And, what beauty is this?

The People, the Diné, will have said the gods walk here, that they use the mesa tops as stepping stones when they walk the Earth. Do not think this place a dead place. Our name for this magnificence would suggest that. The Diné call this same space Tse' Bii' Ndzisgaii, or changing of the rock. When the gods walk this land, it changes. Where ever the gods walk the land, the land is and remains very much alive! The gods leave behind the beauty of the gods in the landscape as they pass. They go away, but, the beauty remains.

Some Diné suggest it is the gods who leave the rock formations as a gift until they return; they say these Monument Valley Mittens formations are handprints left behind by the gods where the gods touched the earth as a sign that they will, indeed, return one day. If you think of what you see in the background of the photos and can re imagine them as fingerprints left by the hand of god, consider what happened that was captured by the photographer as pure poetry. Yei Bi Chei danced when the gods came. wtc skylineThen the thumbs of gods poured life into the living land changing the rock. The mittens are the pour spouts and the keepers who remind us the land is alive.

The changing of the rock
expresses a transcendental beauty, beauty the one property that belongs to everything that exists. Quoting Jacques Maritain, “Everything that is, is beautiful.” Yet, you and I can not really know how the gods themselves experience beauty. So
Maritain will add that everything is beautiful in itself, but not necessarily for us.

Thusly, there is another kind of beauty called aesthetic beauty. Aesthetic beauty reminds us, therefore, that not all things are pleasing to us. Therefore, the poets aim in their poetic achievement, for an arrest that will reabsorb the aesthetic beauty into the transcendental once more, at least, according to Maritain. Given this insight, one thing the changing of the rock may mean situates the rock as that sign which marks a boundary where the forces between the worlds at work in gods and men and all things interweave what is not beautiful into what is. Where the aesthetic dissolves, the transcendental remains and evolves. The rock, coming to be this way, marks where what is at work as living world operates between the gods and the all-living. The rock serves as sign and landmark.

terminus roman god of boundariesIn mythy mind the changing rock is a boundary marker honoring the force of changes exchanging between invisible and visible worlds. Thusly, the visible artistic creation of a poem marks a terminus or circumference of an invisible world at work; spirit and nature dwell together but every poem’s architecture adorns nature in a new way and with a new thing that is no thing at all but what preceded the art expression as in-dwelling before it in spirit.  

Termini in Roman mythology began as boundary markers between wilderness settings. The termini were rural boundary stones marking property lines between fields and neighbors. There was an annual ceremony each 23rd day of February called the Terminalia when first fruits were offered and libations of oil and honey were poured over the termini to renew the power or forces within the boundary stones between properties.  Ovid presents the story as follows

When night has passed, let the god be celebrated
With customary honour, who separates the fields with his sign.
Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,

You have been a god since ancient times.
You are crowned from either side by two landowners,
Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.
An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself
Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.
The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,
And works at setting branches in the solid earth.
Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,
While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.
When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire
The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.
Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:
The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.
Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,
And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.
Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
‘You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed… 

These rural termini and feast of landmarks had their state counterpart in Terminus. The story told by Ovid about the sacred boundary stone which stood, in the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter, continues

What happened when the new Capitol was built?

The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers …  Ovid, Fasti Vol II

, meaning limit and boundary is related to the word term meaning a period of time and terminate meaning to bring to an end. The point in which something comes to its end is also where something new remains. Perhaps this very point (this de termini)  now (time) and here in this essay (place or space)  signals the end of this essay as Terminus would determine it. If so, Terminus will remind how the gods are walking now by marking the close of this essay in a poetic way. Perhaps the gods again walk here and are again using something poetic as stepping stone to mark their passing and to leave this ending open and lively.

If so, and wishing it so now, let the gods make merry and take leave and as they walk may you also walk, in beauty. With nothing above you but the purity of stars, before living language may you walk; and may you remain like the gods re-main, who in their leaving, come and in their leavings talk in all things in the living language of poetry.

Therefore, with poetic words may you give your neighbors gifts and may you pour libation like immortal gods upon living land. For like unto gods

IT is time to be old,
To take in sail:--
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Comes to me in his fatal rounds,

And says: "No more!      
                                         -Ralph Waldo Emerson, Terminus

Extended Reading

The mittens, the hand prints of wilderness gods inspired the film industry; interweaves its soul throughout the great american monomyth, the legendary and mythic cowboy.

documentary: Navajo Boy (original silent film) Synopsis: centers on a young boy sent away from his family on an overnight journey by donkey. Along the way he experiences visions-enormous costumed dancing figures superimposed on the night sky, possibly representing some supernatural event or psychological conflict. The sun rises and he continues his excursion, arriving at the camp of a medicine man. Together they return to the boy's home, and the medicine man, with the aid of an assistant, uses colored sand to create an intricate design on the ground. An old woman and another young boy sit on the sand, and an elaborate ceremony commences with the medicine man chanting while the woman and boy appear deep in concentration. After the ritual, the film climaxes with the first boy riding back into the desert, scaling a mountain, and raising his arms like a bird, silhouetted against the sun in some kind of spiritual epiphany. The ceremony filmed is the healing ceremony or Dine Windway Ceremony. (link to chant way myths regarding the windway healing ceremony)In years that follow there is much controversy among Dine (Navajo) over this filming. For the Cly (klah) Family members who are medicine people, this is a livlihood, a paid healing service.

The Return of Navajo Boy

ArtRead film review
Sundance film festival: The Return of Navajo Boy

The Searchers, 1956
Monument Valley, the mittens, Director John Ford & actor John Wayne evolve The Searchers
American Masters interview John Ford/John Wayne

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