Shakespeare: The Phoenix and the Turtle – An Antipapal Arcane

Until 16th century, England had made a title of glory from its Roman origins. The myth of the Latin ethno-geneses starts with Nenniusʼ chronicle Historia Brittonum (a. 796), and continues with Historia Regum Britanniae written in 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Both historians eulogize a fictional character known as Brutus of Troy, the legendary conqueror of the island and an eponym founder of Britain. As descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the founder of Rome, this fictitious king of “Brutons” has linked in a common root the British crown and the Holy See. After the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by the Pope Pius V, this ethno-genealogic myth suffered an essential retouching, the Roman foundation being abandoned and the Carthaginian origins of England descovered as a new ethno-genealogical myth. Such origins had as argument an epic poem written in the late Antiquity by the minor roman poet Avienius. In his Ora maritima (The Seashore), a poem first published in Venice in 1488, the lines 108-129 mention the Carthaginians colonization of British Island (Insula Albionum) and Ireland, “the holy island – as so was she called by the ancients (Sacram prisci insulam Dixere)”. the colonization would have happened around the year 500 B.C., when “the settlers from Carthage and the ordinary people from around the Hercules’ columns came in these seas [of Albion] (Carthaginis coloni vulgus et etiam inter agitans columnas haec adibant Herculis aequora)”[1].

Throughout the Renaissance, the official reference for the Carthaginian tradition was the chronicle of William Warner, published between 1586 and 1606 under the title Albions England. In the Dedication, the author says that the “land called Brutaine” was “more anchiantly Albion”, thus preparing the “gests of Brutons[2] from the mythical King Brutus until the epoch of Queen Elizabeth. This four-books epopee was certainly known[3] by Shakespeare, who has taken from it several themes for his works. As a very suggestive fact, the editor of Warner placed at the end of secon volume the whole Virgilian passage about Dido, the famous queen of Carthage. This unexpected insertion – I remember, in a national history – can be interpreted as a transparent reference to the common destiny of England and Carthage, “the great Romeʼs adversary (Carthaginem dico, et urbi Romae adversariam maximum)”, and as a common destiny for two queens with similar names, one being Regina Elisabetta (in Latin), betrayed by the Pope of Rome, other being Elissa, the Punic name of Queen Dido, betrayed by the founder of Rome, by Aeneas.

Proved now by archaeology, the Carthaginian roots of Albion allowed the Anglicans to build a nationalist destiny based on the prophecy of Virgil about the destruction of Rome by the descendants of the ancient Carthage. More specifically, it is about the prophetical words of dying Dido: “exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor (from my ashes will be born the avenger)”[4], a malediction transformed during The Thirty Years War in an antipapal slogan and in a national dream. Assimilated with mystical categories, the new ethno-genealogic myth echoes the Catholic side to speak about “the perfidious Albion” and to see the Dido’s revenge supporters as “a new Carthage”. As exemple, it is the pastoral letter of Bishop from Carcassonne, Félix-Arsène Billard, occasioned by the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Freemasonry: “We really see these fierce enemies of our Saviour religion passed through all the tortures and ending in pain, but they doesnʼt stop the fight without swearing revenge. Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus are multiple seems they cry and their calling is always heard. From their ashes other enemies always are rising. And thus, far to be ended, the war continues from generation to generation”[5].

The cult of English Protestants for their heroic ancestors from Carthage gave to Shakespeare the opportunity to elaborate his parable-poem titled The Phoenix and the Turtle (1601), a text considered by interpreters the most obscure and difficult work of Great Will. In our opinion, Shakespeare hides here, in a double personification, references to the mythical Carthage and to the new Albion. The both nations are portrayed here by two emblematic birds and by a single love, because the two birds are in essence a single one: So they loved, I love in twain/ Had the essence but in one.

The breviary of Robertus Stephanus Byzantinus De urbibus et populis fragmenta (first time translated into Latin in 1574) remembered to Shakespeare’s contemporaries that the ancient Carthagina was located in the North-Africa and it was “called Phoeníke[6]. As homonym of the bird, the Libyan Kingdom of Queen Dido gave to Shakespeare the opportunity to personify Carthage by Phoenix, “the bird of loudest lay” from “the sole Arabian tree”. The whith turtle have a symbolic use as well, and it must be understood as the personification of the Albion, Insula Alba being the old name of England. In this idea, Shakespeare speaks about a turtle that is very attached to its Queen, making here an explicit reference to Queen Elizabeth: “Distance, and no space was seen/ Twixt the turtle and his queen”.

About the meaning of “sole Arabian tree”, a clarification comes from the Michael Maier’s Symbola aureae (1617), where “the high oak from the forests of Arabic Sheba” becomes the tree of “Phoenix hidden nest where the bird rears its chicks and prepares its flight through the world”[7]. The Arabian nest of avis Phoenix hides here an important arcane of occult Protestantism, which claimed Arabia as the origin for a new resurrection of all European scholars (ad totius eruditos Evropae) under the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, like it said in Rosicrucian manifesto titled Confessio fraternitatis (1615). We have as hermeneutic argument the poem (aenigma) from the 5th emblemata of Symbola aurea, a treatise in which the author, Michael Maier, presumed secretary of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, hides some occult references. Dedicated to the muse of tragedy Melpomene, the Maier’s aenigma guides us to the real recipients of this treatise, who must be searched in the circle of dramatic authors met by Maier in his visit to London in 1616. They are named by the Bohemian “those false Alchemists (fucos Alchymicos)” in his preface to Examen fucorum pseudo-chymicorum (1617), and who practiced on the Thames’ bank a higher, spiritual alchemy surpassed only, as Maier said, by the poetry. Expressed by the 5th emblemata, the phoenix symbolizes in Michael Maier’s occult imagery the Rosicrucian brotherhood, an organization called to rebirth from own ashes on the Arabic realm. There, in the legendary Arabia, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, Christian Rosenkreutz, discovered and learned esoteric wisdom on his initiatory pilgrimage.

In light of this occult context, the Shakespeare poem can be presumed to have as adressee the fucos alchemicos, the circle of learned Protestants who wanted to revive the bellicose fame of Phoenicians in the time of Elizabethan Albion. Only with this esoteric perspective in mind the phoenix and the turtle can do comprehensible such ambiguous verses about the revival of both birds as a whole: “Here the anthem doth commence/ Love and constancy is dead/the Phoenix and the turtle fled/ In a mutual flame from hence”.

Thus, a metaphoric poem about the Carthage’s mythical inheritance was conceived to sustain the Anglican schism and to revive the nationalist sentiments among the great thinkers of Albion. Do not forget, the Shakespeareʼs poem can be understud only in this background opposition to Rome, as the fulfillment of an illustrious prophecy and as an incentive to pray for the luminous future of England. This is the meaning key for the verse about the two birds concerted in a common prayer: “For these dead birds sigh a prayer’. The context of turtle loyalty makes from the Phoenix nest, even if it seams to be dead now, an eternal motivation for the faith: “Death is now the phoenix ‘ nest; And the turtle’s loyal breast/ To eternity doth rest”. It is here a transparent allusion to the future destiny of Anglican Church, which is called to take forward the fight against a “devilish” Pope (viewed in the poem as a “Foul precurrer of the fiend”) whose papacy perverted the apostolic inheritance of love and tolerance.

Shakespeare made from Carthage and widow Dido an obsessive reference in his entire work. For example, letʼs see The Tempest, where the passage about “Tunis [which] was Carthage […] His word is more than a miraculous harp[8] must be understood as a connotative reference to the Phoenician tradition assumed by the Protestant elite of Albion and transliterated by the Divine Britt in his parable poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. Late, when the protestant John Dryden writes his mythological allegory Albion and Albanius (1680), where he admits (in Prologue) that his model is the Shakespeare’s masterwork The Tempest, the revenge of the Carthaginians assumed by the Anglicans seems to be ended. The superiorityʼs conscience of British nation will replace since now the mystical vengeance that animated Shakespeare’s contemporaries: “The British nation is too brave to show/ Ignoble vengeance on a vanquished foe[9].

[1] See Rufi Festi Avieni, Descriptio orbis Terrae, Ora maritima, et Carmina minora; ejustem Aratea phaenomena et prognostica. Quae notis veteribus ac novis illustravit N. E. Lemaire, Parisiis, 1825, pp. 417-419.

[2] W. Warner, Albions England, Or historicall map of the same Island, I, 1, 4.

[3] See The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, Ch. Symmons (editor), vol. IX, Chiswick, 1826, pp. 140 et 373.

[4] Virgilius, Aen., IV, 626.

[5] Lettre pastorale et mandement de Monseigneur l’Evêque de Carcassonne au Clergé et aux Fidèles de son Diocèze, portant promulgation de l’Enciclique Humanum Genus de Sa Sainteté le Pape Léon XIII relative à la Franc-Maçonnerie, Carcassonne, François Pomiès, 1884, p. 447.

[6] Stephanus Byzantinus, De urbibus et populis fragmenta, Abrahamus Berkelius Latinam interpretationem & animadversiones adjecit. Accedit Hannonis Carthaginensium Regis Periplus, Graece et Latine, Lugduni in Batavis, 1574, pp. 84-85.

[7]Quercu plicasset alte/ Nidus, suos penates,/ Pullos ut educaret:/ Rerum feracitate/ Estque apta visa sedes./ Quod cum Sabae remotis/ Sylvis eo propinquans/ Phoenix videret, inquit,/ Hic est quies parata/ Volatuum labori,/ Qui factus est per annos/ Tot, integrum per orbem)” – M. Maierus, Symbola avreae mensae dvodecim nationvm. Hoc est, Hermaea sev Mercvrii festa…,  Francofvrtis, impensis L. Jennis, 1617, p. 299.

[8] W. Shakespeare, The Tempest, II, 1, 85-88.

[9] J. Dryden, Don Sebastian (1689), Prologue, 7-8.

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