Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 088 – The Waters of the Nile And The Sulfur Pits That Are Fatal To Birds

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Welcome to Episode Eighty-Eight of Lucretius Today. I am your host Cassius, and together with my panelists from the forum, we’ll walk you through the six books of Lucretius’ poem, and discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book, “Epicurus and His Philosophy” by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt. For anyone who is not familiar with our podcast, please visit, and let us know if you have any questions or comments.

In this Episode 88 we continue in Book Six and we will read approximately Latin lines 694-818 as we discuss the waters of the Nile and the sulfur pits that kill the birds that fly over them. Now let’s join Don reading today’s text.

Browne 1743

[694] Besides, the sea, for a great way, dashes its waves against the roots of this mountain, and then again sucks up its tide. The waters press into these caverns that lie directly under those open jaws above. This you must allow, and the flames yielding to the driving flood there force their passage out, and fly abroad, and cast the fire on high, and throw out rocks, and raise whole clouds of sand, for on the summit there are certain basins where wind is generated: the Greeks call them so; we call them mouths and jaws.

[703] There are some things, observe, for which it is not sufficient to assign one reason, but many: out of which only one is the true. As when you see the dead body of a man lying at a distance upon the ground, you are to recollect all the causes which possibly might occasion his death in order to find out the right, for you cannot correctly say whether he died by the sword, or by cold, or by disease, or perhaps by poison, though we know it was by one of these, and every one thinks so. The same method you are to observe in many other cases.

[712] The Nile, the only river in all Egypt, increases in the summer, and overflows the fields. It waters the country of Egypt about the middle of summer either because in summer the north winds are opposite to the mouths of the river, at the season when the Etesia’s blow, and beating hard against the stream stop the current, and driving the waters upwards fill the channel, and force back the flood; for without doubt those northern winds blow directly against the tide. The river flows from the warm climate of the south and divides the country of the black Aethiopians that are thoroughly sodden with the sun’s heat, and rises far in the most southern part of the world.

[724] And it may be that great heaps of sand that are raised against the stream choke the mouths of the river when the sea, by the violence of the winds, drives the sand into the channel and stops it up. By this means the passages of the river are more confined and the current of the water is slower and of less force.

[729] Or perhaps the rains are more violent near the head of the river at that season of the year when the Etesian winds blow from the north, and drive all the clouds to the more southern parts. When the clouds meet in that warm quarter they are condensed and pressed hard against the high mountains, and by that force the rain is squeezed out.

[735] Or, lastly, the increase in the river may proceed from the high mountains of the Aethiopians when the sun, that searches all things with his dissolving rays, forces the melted snow to descend into the plains.

[738] And now the nature of that place or lake we call Avernan I shall next explain.

[740] And first, it takes its name from its effect, because tis fatal to birds; for when the feathered kind fly to this place their flight is stopped, they flutter in the air, and fall with hanging wing and bended head upon the earth, if haply it be earth, or in the water if it be a lake. At Cuma there is a place like this, and on the Mount Vesuvius, which, filled with burning sulphur, throws out smoke.

[749] Another of the same there is within the walls of Athens, upon the top of that high tower near which the kind Tritonian Pallas has her temple. Here the hoarse ravens never steer their flight, not when the altars smoke with slaughtered victims. They do not shun this tower to fly the rage of angry Pallas for their officious care, as Greek poets sing, but tis the noxious nature of the place that drives them hence.

[756] They say there’s such a place as this in Syria, where beasts no sooner venture with their feet but the pernicious vapor strikes them dead, as if by sudden stroke they fell a sacrifice to infernal gods.

[760] All these things proceed from natural causes, and what these causes are will soon appear, by tracing out their principles, lest you should think in places such as these Hell-Gates are fixed, and fancy that the gods below draw through these passages departed souls into the infernal shades, as the swift deer are said by smelling to draw out the lurking serpents from their holes. But how absurd to reason are such thoughts; observe, for now I am going to explain.

[769] And first I say, as I have often said before, that in the earth are seeds of things of very shape, many that prolong the life of man, and many that inflict disease and hasten death. And I have shown that there are other seeds peculiarly disposed to serve the use of other creatures, and support their life; because these seeds are different in their nature they vary in their texture and their shape. Many hurtful seeds pass through the ears and many sharp and stinking seeds affect the nose; some are offensive to the touch, some to be avoided by the sight, and others bitter to the taste.

[781] And thus you see how many things there are deadly, distasteful, odious to the sense. Some trees are so pernicious by their shade that they affect the head with grievous pain if one lies on the grass beneath the boughs. There is a tree that grows on the high hill of Helicon, whose blossoms by their smell give present death; for in the earth are seeds of every kind, variously mixed, which she with curious art separates and applies to things, as each in its own nature most requires. A lamp, just extinguished, is by its smell so offensive to the nose that it stupefies, as if a man were struck down by a fit of apoplexy. A woman will fall dead asleep at the nauseous smell of an ointment made of the testicles of the beaver; her fine work will drop from her tender fingers, especially if she smells it when her fluors are upon her. Besides, there are many things that entirely dissolve the feeble limbs all over the body, and shake the soul within out of her place. If you stay long in a warm bath, and continue in the vessel of hot water when the belly is full, how apt will you be to faint before you get out? The suffocating power of charcoal and its stifling smell, how soon do they find a passage to the brain, unless you have drank plentifully of water before?When a burning fever has seized upon the limbs, the smell of wine is like a stroke that takes away the sense. Don’t you observe likewise that sulphur and bitumen, with its noxious smell, are generated in the bowels of the earth itself? And so when men pursue the veins of gold and silver, and with their tools dig in the very entrails of the earth, what hurtful vapors do the mines exhale? What deadly damps flow from the golden ore? How wretchedly the miners look? How wan their color? Have you not seen or heard how soon they die, how short their life is who are condemned to this sad servitude? The earth then must needs belch out these poisonous exhalations, and send them all abroad, and taint the open air.

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