The Hermanns Lectures: Jupiter Hammon

I attended the lecture in which Dr. Margaret A. Brucia presented her paper, “Jupiter Hammon and Vergil: The Naming of an American Verna.” I was fascinated by the connection Dr. Brucia’s student made between two seemingly unrelated and paradoxical figures: the actual 18th-century poet and slave, Jupiter Hammon, and the god Iarbas (the son of Jupiter Hammon), who appears in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. Dr. Brucia’s research examines the possible origins of Jupiter Hammon’s classical name as well as the possible parallels between his relations with his master, Henry Lloyd, and the story of Iarbus and his father, Jupiter Hammon. She also mentioned that a substantial number of slaves had classical names in the 18th-century, such as Minerva, Dido, and Hannibal. I find it interesting that slaves were either given or chose for themselves classical names because Roman gods were divine entities, but their divine power somehow justified their perverse actions toward themselves and toward mortals in the mythological stories. I cannot help but draw a parallel between the Roman gods and the social death and sexual violence toward women by slave masters prevalent in American slavery.

Iarbas was the son of the nymph, Garamantis. The god named Jupiter Hammon took Garamantis away from her father, Garamas, the son of Apollo. As Dr. Brucia explained, Jupiter Hammon’s original master, Henry Lloyd, may have had “sexual relations” with one of his female slaves and may have fathered Jupiter Hammon. In this real life case, Henry Lloyd played the part of Jupiter Hammon and the poet Jupiter Hammon can be seen as Iarbas. The striking similarities between the actions of Henry Lloyd and Jupiter Hammon, I would like to add, can encompass the unfortunately very common practices of slave masters sexually harassing and raping their female slaves. In the patriarchal world operating under the system of slavery, of course, the white slave master held the dominant power position. He was, arguably, a ‘god’-like figure –not in the sense of a god worthy of respect, love, and worship, but, perhaps, as a Roman god to be awed by and to fear. Interestingly, many slave masters utilized the Bible, particularly the verse discussing the mark of Cain, to justify the horrendous institution and treatment of slaves. Although slave masters painted themselves as powerful, religious figures (much like the Roman gods were divine beings), they, like the Roman gods who were very human-like, were flawed; slave masters seemed to have no empathy toward their slaves and, instead, sexually exploited their female slaves. Just as the actions of the mythological Jupiter Hammon created a family out of perverse actions, slave masters disrupted the social relations among slaves by both raping women and separating slave families.

As Dr. Brucia claimed in her lecture, the giving of classical names to slaves recalls both the majestic power and the twisted origin stories present in Roman mythology. Perhaps Jupiter Hammon’s name acknowledges the terrible nature of his origins as a slave but also raises him to the level of an actual human being who has gone through experiences as both a demeaned slave and as an intellectual who, despite his slave status, became a successful, published poet.

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