Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lovecraft's Lactantius

My friend H.P. Lovecraft begins his excellent short story, "The Festival" (1923), with a Latin quotation:
"Efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant." - Lactantius
As a beginning Latin student I remember having trouble translating it. Now I can do that–
Demons have the ability to cause people to see things that do not exist as if they did exist.
–but I have a new difficulty. Lactantius is not one of Lovecraft's inventions. He was a Christian writer working in the time of Constantine; thanks to his eloquent Latin he became known during the Renaissance as the Christian Cicero. I want to find the place in Lactantius' writing where the sentence quoted by Lovecraft occurs. Yet, though I have access to a searchable database of Lactantius, none of my searches turns up the sentence. Why can't I find it? And where did Lovecraft find it?

Lovecraft's indefatigable editor S.T. Joshi claims that the epigraph is from book 2, chapter 15 of Lactantius' Divinae Institutiones. Not quite: that chapter of Lactantius contains nothing like our mystery sentence. But Joshi goes on to say that Lovecraft got his quotation not directly from Lactantius, but from Cotton Mather, who quoted the sentence himself in an appendix to his ecclesiastical history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Lovecraft owned a copy of Mather's history. If Joshi is right, then Lovecraft's quotation is tralatitious (*), that is, he borrowed from Mather rather than going back to the original source.

I can locate the sentence in Cotton Mather. He attributes it to Lactantius but doesn't provide any more specific citation. So where did Mather get it?

Quite possibly from his father, Increase Mather. Increase printed the same sentence on the cover page of his Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1693), a pamphlet printed together with Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World (the cover is page 219 of the document in Google Books). Increase attributes the quotation to Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 2, chapter 15. Aha! Now we have a source for Joshi's mistaken citation. But it's still mistaken. Where did Increase find the damn thing?

I think I know. We need to look into Nicolaus Remigius' Daemonolatreia, a 3-book treatise on witchcraft and demon worship published in 1595. Remigius was a judge and self-styled expert in the prosecution of witches, a topic of interest to both Mathers. Here's a passage from book 3, chapter 11 (p. 385):
iam dubium nemini esse debet, quin quoque se videndi, aut non videndi, quibus velint, copiam facere possint: Nam & quod studendum magis est, hoc praeterea efficiunt (inquit Lactantius 3.) ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant.

3. Lib. ii. de Origi erro. cap. 15

At this point no one ought to doubt that they [Demons] can also allow whomever they wish to see them, or not to see them: For they also–a thing that is even more worthy of attention–have this ability besides (as Lactantius says 3.), to cause people to see things that do not exist as if they did exist.

3. Book 2, De Origine Erroris ["On the origin of the error" = the title of the second book of Lactantius' Divinae Institutiones] chapter 15
The part in bold matches Increase Mather's tag precisely. Now, Remigius is citing Lactantius as an authority for the idea that demons can make people see things that aren't there. He isn't claiming to quote Lactantius, just to paraphrase him. Increase Mather took Remigius' paraphrase; made it a self-sufficient sentence by supplying the subject Daemones ("demons") and removing both the connective praeterea ("besides") and the anticipatory hoc ("this"); and then attributed this new, hybrid construct to the chapter from Lactantius that Remigius had cited. No wonder I couldn't find this "quotation" in Lactantius: it's a paraphrase masquerading as the author's original words.

The next step is to pinpoint what Remigius was paraphrasing. Actually there's nothing in Div.Inst. book 2, chapter 15 that resembles his summary, but the previous chapter, chapter 14, has this:
magorum quoque ars omnis ac potentia horum adspirationibus constat, a quibus inuocati uisus hominum praestigiis obcaecantibus fallunt, ut non uideant ea quae sunt et uidere se putent illa quae non sunt.

All the art and power of the mages too consists in the influences of these beings [= Demons]: when invoked by the mages, they deceive the sight of men with blinding tricks, so that they do not see the things that are there and suppose they see those things that are not.
The last part of this sentence must be Remigius' source. Since chapter 15 of Lactantius starts off with a summary reference to "all these deceits" (Quarum omnium fallaciarum), it's not so surprising that Remigius' reference was one chapter off.

The interesting thing about tralatitious quotations and citations, gentle reader, is that as they're handed off from one author to another, the precise nature of the original tends to drop out of sight, like in a game of telephone. From Increase Mather to Cotton Mather to S. T. Joshi, no one bothered to go back and verify the source. This is excusable in the colonial-period divines, less so in the modern scholar.

I don't include Lovecraft in my criticism of the Mathers and Joshi because it's just possible he knew better. In an early scene of "The Festival," the narrator looks through a pile of old books:
when I sat down to read I saw that the books were hoary and mouldy, and that they included old Morryster's wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvil, published in 1681, the shocking Daemonolatreia of Remigius, printed in 1595 at Lyons, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius' forbidden Latin translation;
Remigius is there! The narrator could have found in that book the Latin tag that opens the story he's in. (It might have warned him that Kingsport's oddly anachronistic cityscape was not what it seemed to be.)

Is it just a coincidence that Lovecraft mentions Remigius here? Or was he signaling his awareness of the true source of his Lactantius "quotation"? I have no idea, and couldn't answer without more research into Lovecraft's personal library. It doesn't seem likely that he read Remigius' Latin text cover to cover...

...and yet, the Mathers punctuate their version of the quotation with a comma between tamen and quasi, which clarifies the syntax a bit. Lovecraft's version is lacking this comma–just like Remigius. Could this agreement with Remigius in punctuation suggest that Cotton Mather wasn't Lovecraft's only source for his epigraph?

One last thing. In Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi, the Lactantius "quotation" is buried in an appendix; in Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience (published along with Cotton's Wonders of the Invisible World), it's on the title page. If Lovecraft had access to Increase's work, I'd say it's a more likely source for the epigraph than Cotton's Magnalia. Lovecraft does at least mention Wonders of the Invisible World in "Pickman's Model."

* I'm a bit surprised that "tralatitious" is not in my computer's dictionary.


  1. Great job! This quote was an ancient mistery!

  2. Bravo! I wrestled with this misattribution briefly in my article "Endless Bacchanal: Rome, Livy and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Cult" in Lovecraft Annual 5 (2011) but it was tangential and I didn't have the time to pursue it much. I just knew it was not something Lactantius, the "Christian Cicero", would have written, and suggested that Increase Mather may have gotten the quote from one of the many florilegia circulating in his time. Of course, it is also possible that Nicolaus Remigius may be quoting a florilegium as well, since inquit here may refer tro a quotation. Regardless of where got it, you are to be commended that you have gotten us back at least to the sixteenth century for the source of this misattribution!

  3. Thank you sir ! I was just looking for the English translation of the quote and ended up reading the whole article. You did a great job ! I wish there were more people like you.

  4. Hi, Deino! I'm quote-boy on the team that is editing Mather's Biblia Americana, the big 4,500 page manuscript he left unedited at his death. So my days are spent immersed in Matheri Tralaticietate. If you know what I mean. In fact, I had my nose in the fourth books of Lactantius just yesterday. I couldn't figure out the manuscript ref [L. A.] -- there is no such work by Lactantius -- but eventually found the quote in LIBER 4 of the Divine Institutes. [L. 4.] was the ref, and it was perfectly correct. I just read it wrong.
    Love to hear from other scholars, drop me a line if you like dead languages as much as I do. directing Eur. Iph. in Aul. in Nov here in San Diego...
    ----Mark Miner

  5. It has two people called Lactantius:
    1: Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius:
    2: Lactantius Placidus:
    Why do you searched only in the work of the first Lactantius and not in the work of the second one?

  6. I just geeked out so hard reading this post, thank you so much for your amazing research. I found the Latin quote to be the perfect intro quote for a dark fairytale (dare I say, weird tale) I'm currently writing, set in Puritan New England. To learn that H.P. (one of my major inspirations) may have gotten this from not just a Church Father but by way of one of the Mathers is beyond perfect. Thank you for making my night. -Lisa M