The Politics of Elissa

The evolution of a story can be explained through the context in which it is retold. The context is one of six components identified by Roman Jakobson that make up a message. In the development of the story of Elissa, the founding queen of Carthage, all six components have changed. The Aeneid by Virgil informs its audience that Rome was destined for greatness by the king of the gods, Jupiter. To demonstrate just how heroic and noble the hero Aeneas is, Virgil presents his conquests of foreign lands and hearts before founding the future empire of Rome. Virgil’s timing in producing this epic was not inconsequential but rather was instigated by the recent transition of Rome from a republic to an empire. The Aeneid captured the spirit of the new Rome and represents a national founding epic connecting the Empire to the heroes of Troy, the founding of Carthage, and of course the desires of Jupiter. At a much later time and across the Mediterranean, Fawzi Mellah reconstructed the same founding of Carthage story as seen in the Aeneid but without Aeneas. For Mellah the story represented the need for a national heritage of the newly independent country of Tunisia. Between Mellah and Virgil, Chaucer used the same story to identify the attributes of a good woman while Dante reminded his readers that Carthage’s founding queen still lays beneath the earth for her love of the hero of Rome. Yet earlier than any of these examples of Elissa’s story came the original Greek version, remembered now only through other references. This version exemplified the early concepts of “otherness” in order to help define the culture of Greece. From a version of orientalism to a Roman version of imperialism and concluding as an example of postcolonial nationalism, the story of Elissa has changed as much as the political message it carries.

            The original references to Elissa come from a Greek source from the third century B.C.E. Mary Louise Lord identifies the Greek historian, Timaeus of Tauromenium, as being the oldest account of Elissa (Lord 30).[1] Timaeus’ account describes Elissa as the sister of Pygmalion, the king of Tyre. Timaeus also outlines many of the key elements important to Mellah’s version. Timaeus’ Elissa founds Carthage, leaves after her husband is killed by her brother, is proposed to by the king of the Libyans and commits suicide to remain faithful to her dead husband (Lord 33). Lord suggests that Greek writers preserved Timaeus’ story of Elissa because it was an example of a woman using deceit to save her country. One reference to the story comes from a Greek tractate entitled “Women Intelligent and Brave in Warfare” (Lord 33). Lord continues by identifying several other references to the story Elissa all in Latin and many by early Christian thinkers. In each example presented by Lord Elissa’s story is described without reference to Aeneas, save the Aeneid by Virgil. What is emphasized instead is her ability to outwit Pygmalion, negotiate land grants from Libya, and her unyielding devotion to her dead husband (Lord 34). Elissa becomes a noble example for the developing Christian community as a chaste woman who successfully salvaged her culture and founded Carthage. The Latin versions of Elissa, in terms of Jakobson’s diagram, have a different code and context from the original Greek version along with a different addresser and addressee but the contact and message have stayed relatively the same.

            The context for which this message is being sent shifts from an audience interested in “Women Intelligent and Brave in Warfare” to one liking her to an “Example of Chastity.” For a Greek audience governed by the pursuit of knowledge and the reality of warring states such a figure was inspirational and encouraging. But for an audience struggling to establish its religious culture in a Roman dominated world, Elissa was an icon of their noble message, chastity. In both cases the character of Elissa, a Phoenician, is being used as an example of how to better themselves, Greeks or Christians. Edward Said relates the concept of Orientalism to this very idea. Said suggests that the perceived study of Orientalism, the study of the east, is in reality a study of the west. Though at the time Timaeus was writing down the story of Elissa, Carthage was to the west of Greece, the concept of Orientalism remains relevant. Carthage was not part of Greece and was later destroyed by Rome in the Punic Wars, thus for both Timaeus and the later Greek writers, Carthage represented a foreign land. In describing the modern version of Orientalism, Said suggests that “Orientalism responded more to the culture that produced it than to its putative object, which was also produced by the West” (Orientalism 33). If we take Greece and the later Christian writers to be the West in this situation, we can identify the Carthage of both Timaeus’s and the Christian writers’ version as a fictional creation of those authors. Elissa’s Carthage is not representative of the real Carthage. In both cases the goal was to make a value judgment on the actions of Elissa and to liken those actions to the ideal of the author’s culture. This similarity resulted in the message staying relatively the same with the emphasis shifting based on the context. In the Aeneid, however, the message is altered to allow for a sense of nationalism to be added to the message.

            Virgil’s Aeneid uses the original Elissa story by Timaeus to place Aeneas above Elissa. He achieves this by altering the story to connect Elissa’s founding of Carthage with Aeneas’ voyage from Troy to Italy. On the way from Troy Aeneas is forced to make port in Carthage due to actions taken by gods not happy with his future success. This alteration to the story assists the presentation of Aeneas as a noble, conquering hero. Virgil has set Aeneas up as the hero of defeated Troy who will carry the torch of the Trojans to Italy and found Rome which will than become the Empire envisioned by Jupiter. The story begins with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and the hospitality he is welcomed with by the founding queen, Dido (Elissa).[2] Aeneas is grateful for the hospitality and stays in Carthage until Jupiter sends for his return to the sea, in order to continue the voyage to Italy. During his stay in Carthage, Elissa, stricken by Cupid’s arrow, falls madly in love with Aeneas and seeks his hand in marriage to unite the Trojan exiles with the new Carthaginians. The wedding scene as described by Virgil is somewhat confusing and concludes with conflicting beliefs as to what transpired. Aeneas does not believe he has consented to marriage while Dido does. This discrepancy makes it all the more easier for Aeneas to leave when the time comes. Furthermore when he does finally leave it is because he has been called upon to do so by the gods. Thus “Father Aeneas” neither leaves Elissa by his own free will nor breaks any marital vow in leaving. These small details to the story allow Aeneas to be free of any responsibility for his actions and the consequences they entail. Dido’s role in the Aeneid ends with her death at the end of book four. Instead of dying to perserve her devotion to her dead husband, she commits suicide in the Aeneid because she cannot have Aeneas for a husband. Virgil described her death as “not merited or fated, / but miserable and before her time / spurred by sudden frenzy” (Virgil 102). What Virgil is describing is that she took her own life for no good reason, thus ending before her time and through an action that is irrational. By placing Dido as acting irrationally, Virgil further separates her from the “Pious Aeneas.”

In regards to Jakobson’s diagram we find that with the Aeneid has changed the message as well as the context and code in which this story is being transmitted from addresser to addressee. The code shift is from Greek to Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The context changes from being a story about a foreign culture to that of a story using a conquered culture to pay homage to the dominating culture. The Aeneid can be described as work of nationalism before the time of nationalism. By connecting the Roman Empire with a divine past, it establishes the credibility of the new empire. Furthermore it achieves this nationalism through Rome’s imperialistic past as the conquered of Carthage. This part of the Aeneid does not describe the history of the nation per se but rather describes how the founders of Rome conquered the hearts of a foreign nation they later physically defeated. Virgil is creating what in hindsight Stephen Greenblatt identified as the “reaffirmation of a shared and stable culture that is, as Mr. Will puts it, “the nation’s social cement” (Greenblatt 290). Greenblatt is describing the canon that George F. Will, a columnist, sees as being attacked by professors of literature. For Virgil and the Roman Empire this “social cement” must include their power over the Carthaginian state. Bringing in the context of which the Aeneid was written illuminates the reasons for the alterations made to the Greek story by Virgil. As the story travels through time more alterations will be made as the context for communicating the story changes.

Dante Alighieri cites the story of Dido very briefly in Inferno, the first book of the Divine Comedy. Dido is seen in hell and has been destined to spend eternity there for her betrayal to her dead husband, Sychaeus.[3] But more specifically Dante identifies her reason for being there with her love driven suicide (Dante 43). By making this comparison, Dante is validating the story of Dido as told by Virgil. Though Dante’s reference to the story is not a representation of the story itself but its similarities with Virgil’s version of the story can be explained through Jakobson’s diagram. Virgil and Dante share the same contact (text), code (Latin), and message (Dido’s death for love of Aeneas). The context can be seen as different based on the historical moment at which each version was written but the audience is of the same nationality (Roman/Italian) thus lending itself to continuing the imperialistic message created in the Aeneid.

Writing a few years later and in another part of Europe, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the story of Dido as an example of good woman in The Legend of Good Women. Chaucer’s Dido dies pregnant and betrayed by Aeneas. Chaucer describes Aeneas as lying traitor who betrays his marriage vows to her and sneaks away in order to marry again in Italy (Chaucer 643). The Aeneas presented here is not the “Pious Aeneas” Virgil created but rather is a traitorous Aeneas who has betrayed this good woman, Dido. Every subtle detail Virgil added to heighten the innocence and piety of Aeneas has been removed by Chaucer in favoring Dido as the victim of a deceitful opportunist. Looking at Jakobson’s diagram these differences can be attributed to the differences in the message characteristics. Again the message is relatively the same; Aeneas arrives at Carthage on his way to found Rome, he spends time there, Aeneas and Dido have the marriage seen together, Aeneas must leave and Dido kills herself for her love of him. What changes is how these events are interpreted; Aeneas’ departure is viewed negatively, Chaucer confirms the wedding did happen, and Dido dies with a child. The interpretation is indicative of the difference in addressee and context for these two writers. While Dante is building off of the founding epic for his nationality, Chaucer is using a foreign epic to help create his national identity.

During Chaucer’s time England was still in the process of forming a national heritage, using works such as Chaucer’s to help define what is to be expected of English women. Therefore for Chaucer there was no desire to stay true to the Aeneid as the Aeneid did not represent his cultural heritage. Along with reinterpreting the character of Dido, Chaucer also translated the story from Latin into Middle English, thus altering the code as well. The act of translating the Latin epic into an English example work is reflective of a trend in translation identified by Susan Bassnett. In looking at the development of the Czech literary tradition, Bassnett cites Josef Jungmann’s idea of translation as “a significant part of the development of the new Czech literature,” Jungmann goes on to argue that “the point of origin of a text was less important than what happened to that text in the process of translation” (Bassnett 14).  If we apply this idea to Chaucer’s work we see that Dido is becoming an example of a good woman for English standards as her story becomes English, through being read in English. Therefore the act of translation aids the developing English literary tradition in forming its “social cement.”

Fawzi Mellah’s version applies Bassnett’s idea on translation with Said’s theory of imperialism leading to nationalism. In defending his own work, Said describes how the imperialistic influence of the European colonial powers gave birth to the nationalistic ideas that lead to colonial revolutions across the globe. Said eloquently demonstrates that “Today a fantastic emphasis is placed upon a politics of national identity, and to a very great degree, this emphasis is the result of the imperial experience” (Politics of Knowledge 196). Mellah’s version of Elissa’s story, that is a version based largely on the original version rather than Virgil’s version, represents this national identity. Mellah introduces his text with a short description of its voyage through translation. According to Mellah the text as he has it originally appeared on stelae[4] in Punic characters and was later translated into Arabic by his grandfather. Mellah himself took over the labor and completed translating all of the stelae into French. He discovered that they made up a letter from Elissa to her brother, Pygmalion, who killed her husband and took over Tyre from her. In describing the task of translating the letter, Mellah admits that he “altered things to such an extent that I can no longer claim in all honesty that this letter is Elissa’s; it is also somewhat mine” (Mellah 4).  Mellah is very clever here in how he is presenting the work. He has suggested that a discovery from antiquity was modernized into Arabic (the dominant language of Tunisia) and was then later translated into French (the former colonial power of that region) by himself (a Tunisian). This translational voyage complete with the numerous historical inaccuracy best describes the translational trend described by Bassnett. Tunisia as a post-colonial nation is searching for its own unique national heritage and has found it by reclaiming one taken from it a long time ago by the Romans. It is just as Bassnett describes, “emergent nations had to establish a tradition and a canon” (Bassnett 14). The last part of Mellah’s admission is the conclusion of the translational voyage; Mellah has made it his own. And since Mellah is Tunisian and writing as a Tunisian he has made the story Tunisian, thus returning it to its home.

The fundamental story contains all the elements of the original Greek version as presented by Timaeus, but is greatly expanded in detailing Elissa’s journey from leaving Tyre and founding Qart Hadasht.[5] Much of this expanded quest establishes Elissa as the first individual in history to consider the ambiguity behind language, the power of music on a civilization, and the pros and cons of polygamy versus polyandry. Through the letter she writes, the reader is introduced to an Elissa that is a strong and wise leader who has put the future of her people far above her own happiness. She demonstrates her cunning in planning the future of her people while also presenting her incredible accuracy in predicting the future of her people and her own story.

Another remarkable claim made by Mellah is that this version of the story originates from the story itself; it is the first version to be presented from Elissa herself rather than about Elissa. Again this returns to the idea of nation building after colonialism. In studying the influence of the industrialization of print, Nelly Furman suggests that “Print culture molded individuals into a collectivity with people they actually did not know but with whom they were sharing information at a distance” (Furman 68). This concept behind the influence of print can be applied to the potential influence of Mellah’s work. He has constructed a shared identity for Tunisia, one that individuals of different backgrounds can agree upon.

Looking at Mellah’s work in terms of Jakobson’s diagram we find that the message, though expanded, contains the same fundamental actions while the code, context, and addressee are greatly changed. The context for Mellah is the establishment of a national epic. This context is similar to what Virgil set out to do but instead of it using a foreign nation to establish the national heritage, Mellah is writing about his own nation. A second difference in regards to the context is that this version is also responding to imperialism from the point of view of the colony rather than that of the colonizing nation. These differences in context explain the difference in story arch between the two national epics. Virgil starts and ends his story around the actions of Aeneas while Mellah focuses on the actions of Elissa, starting his version with her departure from Tyre. The code is also drastically different. Virgil’s code was Latin and the original story was presented in Greek, here we are given it in French but told it was first in Punic characters and then Arabic. Arabic’s place as being mythically the code reflects its connections with the native lands rather than the European empires. Lastly the addressees in Mellah’s version are Tunisians. This addressee is the first addressee in the history of this story’s development to be connected to the character herself. In the Greek, Latin, and Middle English versions the addressees were all European and thus regarded the story of Carthage as being a story of an “other” land. But with Mellah’s addressees the story is of their “own” land. This fact gives greater significance to the nation building potential of Mellah’s epic.

Beginning with a Greek writer describing a foreign land to highlight intelligence and war, Elissah was created in order to fulfill the needs of other cultures seeking to define themselves against Carthage. This tendency has been greatly explored by Said in his work with Orientalism from which Said was able to conclude that the Orient of was “an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (Orientalism 20). This Orientalism was adapted to affirm the imperialistic conquests of the Roman Empire through Virgil’s use of Dido as a resting point for the hero of Rome, Aeneas.Virgil took just the essence of the original message in order to fulfill the needs of a drastically different context. He was engaged in a large scale nation building exercise and utilized the defeat of a foreign power to highlight the superiority of the new empire. From Virgil’s work came the reference in Dante’s Inferno to reaffirm Carthage’s place in hell for their weakness and defeat against the might Rome. Chaucer on the other hand interpreted the story differently to help define his own culture while hinting at the weaknesses of a rival culture, Italy. Chaucer highlights the noble attributes of Rome’s enemy while emphasizing the sinister attributes of Rome’s hero. The journey of the story ends with Mellah’s version which brings Elissa back to Tunis and connects the story to an Arabic past. Each of these authors have taken the same story and have used relatively the same actions to achieve drastically different ends. Said has looked at how literature and politics connect and has concluded that “works of literature are not merely texts. They are in fact differently constituted and have different values, they aim to be different things, exist in different genres, and so on” (Knowledge 202). The text is more than just the text and therefore a text when placed in different context and different codes achieves drastically different ends. Ultimately Said concludes that “it is probably correct to say that it does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read” (Knowledge 202). Today we can read Mallah’s Elissa as an example of a mythical epic being returned to its home to become a modern national epic. The story has traveled the path of orientalism, imperialism, and nationalism as much as the cultures that used it have.

Works Cited:
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum.
Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: a Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Legend of Good Women. 1380.
Furman, Nelly. French Studies: Back to the Future. 1998.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Politics of Culture.” Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford Books, 1994. 288-290.
Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT P, 1960.
Lord, Mary Louise. “Dido as an Example of Chastity: the Influence of Example Literature.” Harvard Library Bulletin 17 (1969): 30-35.
Mellah, Fawzi. Elissa. Ed. Howard Curtis. London: Quartet Books, 1990.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: a Reader. Ed. Padmini Mongia. 1996. 20-36.
Said, Edward W. “The Politics of Knowledge.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. 1994. 193-203.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Ed. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004.

[1] Timaeus (c. 356-260 B.C.E) wrote in Greek and gave Elissa the name Theiosso which according to Lord is a form of Elissa (Lord 33).

[2] Dido is the name given to Elissa by Virgil. Timaeus explains that Dido was given to her by the Libyans due to her long wandering. Lord, however, concludes that Dido has no etymological association with wandering.

[3] Sychaeus is the Latin name given to her husband by Virgil. Her husband goes unnamed in the original Greek reference and shows up as Acherbas in some of the alter Christian references, also written in Latin (Lord 34).

[4] A stelae is a Greek word used to describe a stone or slab of wood designed for funerary or commemorative purposes and is almost always inscribed with text and sometimes images.

[5] Qart Hadasht is introduced by Mellah and literally means New City in Arabic. The linguistic relationship between this word and Carthage is not hard to imagine and it is very possible that Mellah is creating this new word to further connect the story of Elissa with Tunisia through the use of Arabic.


2 responses to “The Politics of Elissa

  1. I doubt you even look at this site anymore, seeing as how there aren’t any new posts, but I have to ask if you attended Washington university in St. Louis and took a course on comparative literature from dr. Kafalenos. The reason I ask is because this essay on Dido/Elissa is precisely the one I am writing right now and you are using all the texts we have read. It would be crazy coincidence if you didn’t go there. Anyway, nice essay, Qart Hadast is phoenician by the way not arabic, its actually where the name carthage comes from.

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