Rumor, Swiftest of All Evils in the World

Say what one will about mythology; there are times when it is an incredibly deep store of verifiable human knowledge drawn from experience and made more powerful through allegorization.

Take Virgil’s remark in Book IV of the Aeneid that as soon as Aeneas and Dido have, according to Juno, been married, immediately “Rumor flies through Libya’s great cities. Rumor, swiftest of all the evils in the world.”

Who is this Rumor? What happens if we pay attention to the mythology and not just assume we know what it’s saying because we know the English word?

As it turns out upon close inspection of Titan genealogies (how many of us ever really bother to look at those things, let alone learn the Titans as well as we know the Olympians?), Rumor is the cousin of the god Apollo, famously known as the god of Truth via prophecy. Apollo’s true words are frequently misunderstood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. By contrast, Rumor’s words are very easily understood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. Ironically, both sets of words, the true and the false, operate on already existing desires within the hearers. 

Herotodus tells us how Croesus of Lydia wants to destroy the Persians. He asks Apollo’s Oracle if he should attack and if he’ll win. The Oracle tells him cryptically, “If you attack you will destroy a great empire.”  Exceedingly happy at his divinely-given fortune, Croesus attacks, but is himself defeated by the Persians. Angry at the Oracle for supposedly lying to him, he confronts it, reminding it that it told him he would win. To which the Oracle calmly replies, “You didn’t pay attention to the words I actually said. I told you that if you attacked you would destroy a great empire. You are the one who failed to ask which empire you would destroy.”

Thus does the god of Truth subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

Likewise, Apollo’s cousin Rumor flies forth proclaiming to all of Africa that Aeneas and Dido have contracted a marriage which is now blinding both of them to their respective royal duties, and so threatening everyone with disorder. Virgil’s phraseology here is interesting: “…terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth. Now Rumor is in her glory, filling Africa’s ears withtale on tale of intrigue, bruiting her song of facts and falsehoods mingled.”

The result of her mixed song, her spreading of reports to every itching ear, is that a petty African lord, Iarbas, who was already angry at Dido for spurning him, and so is easy game for Rumor, who “stokes his heart with hearsay, piling fuel on his fire,” finds himself”driven wild, set ablaze by the bitter rumor.” Iarbas then denounces Jupiter for allowing all of this to happen, asserting that Jupiter’s own temples are merely “hollow show,” which prompts Jupiter to compel Aeneas to leave Dido in order to pursue his destiny. Distraught Dido subsequently commits suicide, cursing all of Aeneas’ future descendants to eternal war with Carthage.

Thus does the goddess of twisted words subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

The allegorized-mythological connection between truth and rumor points to surely one of the most profound human experiences. Words matter. Accurate reporting of words matters perhaps more. And in this light it is all the more interesting that Rumor is usually the Latin word “fama,” which also has the connotations of reputation and fame. Apparently the line between truth and lies can very, very thin.

It leaves the thoughtful person uncomfortably aware both of the necessity of moderating his speech and properly interpreting that of others. Human folly knows no bounds – there is no reason why even someone with “the correct worldview” in his head couldn’t easily fail to use words well or fall prey to the distortive power of Rumor while blindly believing he is only listening to the very voice of Truth Itself.

It also leaves the thoughtful person wondering whether reputations and fame are inevitably some sort of odd mixture of truth and lies – and so what that might mean for our epistemic and moral duty when we encounter fabulous reports reports, pro or con, concerning important people and events. I doubt there is anywhere that Rumor flies faster than on this great and powerful technological terror that we call the Internet.