Episode 23

The Shugborough Inscription Part 2 – Dis Manibus

Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about codes attached to monumental meditations on death and the myriad theories just a few letters can produce if you have a little bit of imagination and way too much time.

I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and this week is the second part of the story of the Shugborough inscription. Last week we talked about what we know of the man who owned Shugborough and was behind the development of the estate and its gardens, Thomas Anson. Anson had many monuments of varying types installed across the estate, including one known as the Shepherd’s Monument, which contains an unsolved ten-letter inscription. This particular monument drew on Greek architectural styles to create a surround for a central feature of a bas relief of a painting by Nicolas Poussin. This relief was sculpted by a Flemish artist, Peter Scheemakers, and there are several differences between the original painting and Sheemaker’s relief. I’m sure at this point it will be wholly unsurprising to you that those differences often form part of various theories about what the inscription on the monument means. But let’s put that aside for now and remind ourselves of what the relief looks like, and what the inscription is.

The relief depicts four figures in the countryside clustered around a stone tomb, on which is carved the words ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. On top of the tomb is what I can best describe as a funereal casket. Three of the figures on the relief are men, at least two of them are shepherds. One shepherd is crouching, staring intently at the inscription on the tomb, finger tracing the R in ‘Arcadia’, whilst the second man stands behind him, leaning on the tomb fairly nonchalantly. A third man is looking back over his shoulder toward a woman standing to the left of the group, pointing out the inscription to her. She stands there, rather serenely, one hand resting on his shoulder.

On this plaque below the relief are ten letters. The letters are split across two rows. The upper row has eight letters: O, U, O, S, V, A, V, V, whilst the second row has two letters – D and M – where the D is placed to the left of the letters on the line above and the M is placed out to the right of them.

     O · U · O · S · V · A ·  V · V
D ·                                  M · 

No one knows what it means, and therefore nearly everyone has an opinion about it. Today we’re going to look at one of those theories. Or the first half of one of those theories. Because some people had enough opinion about what this inscription means that they managed to write an entire book about it.

Spoiler alert for my opinion on this theory: had I owned a physical copy of this book, I would not have tossed it aside lightly. I would have thrown it with great force. Unfortunately, I was forced to read it on my kindle, which a) means there are no page numbers to cite, and b) means that I had to restrict myself to putting in down gently and then glaring at it every now and then. And look, I could just very briefly tell you what this theory is, and very briefly discuss why I think it holds very little water, but I want to spend more time on it than that, because it’s a good case study for critical analysis of an argument, and being able to engage with media in that way is kind of super important. So whilst this is a light-hearted topic, we’re not gonna be intellectually lazy about it.

This theory is by Dave Ramsden, published in his book, Unveiling the Mystic Ciphers: Thomas Anson and the Shepherd's Monument Inscription. Ramsden starts with a very brief summary of Thomas Anson’s life, highlighting the travelling and the influential men of society he had access to through one connection or another, mentioning the fact that he was a member of some societies, that he renovated Shugborough, had a bunch of monuments built in the grounds, and then died, leaving behind the inscription on the Shepherd’s monument without telling anyone what it meant.

The connections he might have made through figures such as his uncle, who was one of the pallbearers at Isaac Newton’s funeral, are something I didn’t bother to go into last episode because of the lack of evidence for specific influences. Obviously, Anson himself didn’t leave a lot of records, but – fully admitting here that this was very cursory research – I didn’t find anything about him in research done by those going through the documents of those more famous people’s lives. And I do mostly trust that Andrew Baker would have, at this point, uncovered such evidence if it existed. Given that most men of a certain status in society would be able to find a connection to people like Isaac Newton with notably less than six degrees of separation, it doesn’t seem like something that should be highlighted as if it’s an extraordinary detail or defining feature of his life without any evidence of this being the case.

Anyway. Next, Ramsden gives a brief description of the monument itself. A rather shockingly brief description, given that the monument is the focus of his book. And this is the point at which I started to have concerns. Here’s the entire description he gives of the monument:

The monument consists of a rustic stone archway that has the appearance of a grotto, itself enclosed within stylized pillars and a stone entablature. Within the rustic arch are set two marble tablets, which are the work of the prominent sculptor Peter Scheemakers. The upper tablet contains a frieze of the famous Nicholas Poussin painting, Les Bergers d’Arcadi, or The Shepherds of Arcadia The dimensions of the sculpture have been modified to make the tablet much narrower than the original painting. In addition, a number of unique elements have been added to the scene on the frieze, such as the image of a sepulchre and a small pyramid. Moreover, the marble has been sculpted depicting a reverse image of the original painting. Below the Poussin frieze is the second marble tablet, which contains the mysterious inscription: eight letters separated by seven punctums, and below them two broadly spaced letters, each with a punctum of their own.

So here are the things that worry me, apart from the brevity and lack of detail: firstly, he happily implies that Scheemakers was also responsible for the inscription, and that it was thus added at the same time as the relief, and had always been intended to contribute to its meaning; secondly, I have no idea what he’s talking about with the sepulchre and pyramid; and thirdly, he calls the interpuncts ‘punctum’.

I think the first point is fairly self-explanatory, but let me explain two and three a little more. First, the sepulchre and the pyramid. This is part of the problem of his description of even the relief part of the monument being super brief. I haven’t encountered any other description of the relief that claim that there’s an extra sepulchre and a pyramid Now, the primary definition of a sepulchre is a tomb or a grave. It can be categorically stated that there is no extra tomb in this relief. I can only assume that the “sepulchre” is what pretty much everyone else calls the ‘sarcophagus’ on top of the tomb, and I find it pretty irritating that he doesn’t describe what’s on the relief at all, and then uses a misleading term. In his defence, there are pictures in the book, but that doesn’t absolve him from the responsibility of providing an actual description of it. Neither the photos of the painting nor of the relief are detailed enough for you to be able to make out the ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ on the tomb. The fact that his description is unclear is even more concerning when later in the book, he comes to discussing how the details he has identified support his interpretation of the inscription.

But what about the pyramid. Like… pyramids are… big. It’s kinda’ hard to miss one. So… after looking at the relief for a while, the only conclusion I can reach is that the “pyramid” is the lid of the sarcophagus. This would have been a really simple thing for him to explain. Missing it out is lazy at best, and deliberately disingenuous at worst. Calling it a pyramid certainly sounds more mysterious that calling it the ‘lid of a sarcophagus that happens to be shaped like a pyramid’.

I have more to say about the “pyramid”, but let’s leave it for now and talk about the other thing that concerned me: the “punctum”. The point about ‘punctum’ versus ‘interpunct’ might strike you as somewhat trivial, but what it tells me is that he has not done any research into funerary inscriptions. Interpuncts are simply not punctums. When the entire focus of your book is about what you’re going to claim is part of a funerary inscription, that’s very concerning. So I went and flipped back to his acknowledgements to see what experts he consulted. Apart from our man Andrew Baker, he consulted an expert in cryptography, and an expert in Neoplatonism. No expert in Latin, or Latin inscriptions, or funerary monuments. Hm. So I went and flipped forward to the bibliography. Or… I tried to. Only to find there is no bibliography. This is… not great. But there are forty endnotes, so obviously my next step is to check those.

Thankfully, I find two books that are at least related to funerary practices in the Classical world: a book called Sculptured Tombs of Hellas, which he cites once, and a book called Death and Burial in the Roman World which he cites twice. Not thankfully, the publication dates of those two books are 1896 and 1971. Why do those dates matter? Well. Usually, when you’re researching, you want to look at the most up-to-date research on the matter. Just like in… basically every field of research, more recent material is very likely to be more detailed and comprehensive. And recent research is… also just… the stuff you’re way more likely to come across if you search an academic library for these topics. Now sometimes it genuinely is the case that the most recent research on some super obscure topic is something from the early 1900s or late 1800s. I’ve been there. It’s frustrating. But funerary customs in the ancient world is not one of those topics. There’s a lot of very good recent research on the topic, and I’m genuinely baffled as to why a book from 1896 is the one he chooses to cite. It doesn’t exactly suggest he spent much time researching this topic.

Anyway. Checking out the actual citation for the first book, Sculptured Tombs of Hellas, I discover that the reference is for a point about Greek beliefs on the importance of performing some sort of burial rite for the dead, even when the body couldn’t be recovered (Gardner 1896: 2). So at least it’s not a claim that has been superseded by more recent research, but… it’s also not at all related to inscriptions.

What about the second book - Death and Burial in the Roman World? The first reference to this book is about the structure of Roman stelae – the fact that there’s generally a panel for an inscription and a carved relief of the deceased engaged in some activity or other. So, we’re getting there, but it’s still too vague.

The final reference is, finally for a quote that discusses an actual element of funerary inscriptions (Toynbee 1971: 35). Ramsden uses it to support how he wants to interpret the D and M on the second line of the inscription. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll talk more about this later.

After describing the monument, Ramsden turns to talk about what the meaning of the monument is, starting with its name. And in order to discuss that, he turns to a source we’ve met already:

Most modern day sources refer to the subject of our study as the Shepherd’s Monument. However, unpublished manuscripts from associates of the Ansons refer to it as the “shepherdesses Tomb”. This is evidenced in an anonymous poem written by an associate of the Ansons and presented to Thomas Anson in 1767.

Surprise! It’s the return of our 1767 anonymous poem. We have gone from a theory by someone who wants to pretend this poem is fake, to someone who wants to base waaay too much of this theory on its meaning and importance, and the problems with that approach have already started to emerge in what Ramsden just said: how can he claim that the author is ‘an associate of the Ansons’ if he doesn’t know who wrote it?

As an immediate response, you might think, ‘well, it’s got to have been written by someone who knew the house and grounds, so it has to be someone he knew, right?’ Wrong. See, domestic tourism was growing in popularity during the 1700s. People today visit the splendid country houses and mansions to look around them, and… people did the same thing back then, too. Improvements in transport infrastructure began to make travel far easier. This, combined with the fact that touring your own country was cheaper than going abroad, started to open up travel as a pursuit of the middle class as well as the rich. And although one’s destination might be a specific town or city, a big part of the attraction of these journeys was getting to visit all the cool fancy houses along the way. Discussing that culture, Rosemary Sweet explains:

The country house was central to the experience of domestic travel… Houses such as Wilton, Chatsworth, Kedlestone or Stourhead could be viewed, generally under the guidance of a housekeeper, who would expect to be suitably rewarded… Owners were not obliged to open their houses to the public; they did so from a sense of noblesse oblige – but allowing visitors to view one’s house and one’s collections was also a means of demonstrating the taste and learning that underpinned the landed elite’s claims to cultural and political leadership. Those who closed their doors against visitors could expect to be heavily criticised by the tour writers of the day. (Sweet 2017)

And this means that Ramsden has no way of knowing whether the author of the poem ever even met the Ansons. And that is a huge problem for his argument going forward. But at least in the case of what the name of the monument might have been, Ramsden has another source. It’s another poem. But this time we do know the name of the author, and it is someone who knew Thomas Anson. It’s by William Bagot of Blithfield, and was written in 1772. It’s only a few lines long, and to crudely summarise it, it’s ‘here are a bunch of the different flowers that grow around the ‘Shepherdesses Tomb’.

So we’ve got two sources, both poems, calling this thing the ‘Shepherdesses Tomb’. These two sources are the basis for Ramsden’s subsequent claim that this is definitively what Thomas Anson’s peers understood the monument to be. But in other sources, it isn’t named as such. Thomas Pennant, a friend of Thomas Anson in his later years, wrote a book documenting the journey between Chester and London. He describes the grounds of Shugborough in it, and simply refers to our monument as ‘the beautiful monument in the lower end of the garden.’ He identifies the figures in the relief as two lovers and two shepherds, and explains that the overall meaning of the piece, taking into account the ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ on the tomb, is that no matter how perfect a situation or place may seem, it is not immune from the touch of death (Pennant 1783: 71). This passage is quoted by Anson’s neighbours, the two Cliffords, in their book about Tixall, and the only comment they make on it is that Pennant forgot to mention the inscription (Clifford & Clifford 1817: 65). They don’t disagree with his interpretation of the monument and they don’t give it a name. It’s not given this name when referred to in other letters. It’s not given this name in Anne Seward’s poem, or the letter Lady Anson’s brother wrote to his father. That’s already twice as many sources that fail to mention it being called or thought of as the ‘Shepherdesses Tomb’.

But he does have another source for why we should interpret it as a tomb of woman. There’s a book, written by a guy called Jean-Baptiste Dubos, called – in translation – Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting and Music, which describes it as a monument to a young maid. And, Ramsden, points out, Thomas Anson had a copy of this book in his library. Q.E.D, I guess.

However. There are two observations to be made in regards to this point. First: owning a book does not mean you agree with everything contained within its pages. As is demonstrated by the fact that I have Ramsden’s book. I’m pretty sure that there are very few of the non-fiction books I own where I agree with every single thing written in them. And I submit that this may well be the case – nay, probably was the case – when it comes to Thomas Anson and this book. And I base this suggestion on the second observation we should note about this book: that Dubos’s description of Poussin’s painting is wrong. Dubos describes the painting as showing a tomb of a ‘young maid’ because he thinks there’s a statue of a deceased young maid on top of the tomb. There most emphatically is not. He also claims that there are two young men and two young women in the painting (Dubos 1760: 51-52; 1748: 45). There are not. There are three men and one woman. Clearly, if Anson read this book, he would know that this was wrong. Which makes it very poor evidence for a claim that he himself thought that the tomb was the monument to a young woman. And, once again, I find Ramsden’s failure to mention this problem with his source poor practice at best, especially since Ramsden presents Dubos’s interpretation of Poussin’s work as ‘the period interpretation’ of the painting. This is an infuriating claim on several levels – a single source cannot be used to make any claim about what the period interpretation was. That is nonsense of the highest order. And it’s even more nonsense when the author of the claim apparently doesn’t even accurately remember what the damn painting looks like.

These three sources are the foundations on which Ramsden builds his claim about how we should interpret the inscription, and, as we have seen, these are very shaky foundations indeed.

But it’s only going to get worse from here, because Ramsden’s primary source for the next bit of interpretive acrobatics is not the Shepherd’s Monument itself, but the anonymous poem. The one he has asserted, without any grounds to do so, was written by an “associate” of the Ansons. So, since it’s going to play an unfortunately key role in his theory, let’s remind ourselves of what the poem actually says:

Observe you rising hillock’s form,
Whose verdant top the spiry cypress crowns,
And the dim ilex spreads her dusky arms
To shade th’ARCADIAN Shepherdesses tomb:
Of PARIAN stone the pile: of modern hands
The work, but emulous of ancient praise.
Let not the Muse inquisitive presume
With rash interpretation to disclose
The mystic ciphers that conceal her name.
Whate’er her country, or however call’d
Peace to her gentle shade.
The Muse shall oft
Frequent her honour’d shrine, with solemn song
Lyric, or elegiac: oft when eve
Gives respite from the long days weary task,
And dewy HESPER brightens in the west,
Here shall the constant hind, & plighted maid
Meet, & exchange their tokens, & their vows
Of faith, & love.
Here weeping Spring shall shed
Her first pale snowdrops, bluebells, violets,
And Summer’s earliest roses blossom here.

Okay, now that that’s fresh in your memory, hark back a couple of minutes to when we were looking at what sources Ramsden had used for information about Roman funerary monuments. He used a book, Death and Burial in the Roman World, as a citation for a description of the structure of Roman stelae. Ramsden provides a quote from the book, and it’s worth repeating so you know exactly where he’s coming from:

More elaborate are the stones on which the text is confined to a die or panel specially reserved for it, while the field or fields above or below it, or both above and below, are occupied by figure scenes showing the deceased fighting on horseback or hunting or reclining at the funerary meal, or presenting some other group or episode or a set of objects appropriate to his career. Here the picture element very often dominates the epigraphical. (Toynbee 1971: 246-47)

Based on this, Ramsden claims that:

The scene captured on the frieze properly depicts the Shepherdess in life, identifying her role and revealing her connection to the tomb of another.

Can you see where this is going yet? If not, I’ll let you maintain that blissful state for a bit longer, whilst we talk about what’s wrong with this claim. On funerary stelae it is nearly always obvious by just a glance which figure – or figures – on the relief represent the deceased. They’re the only person, or people, or they’re the ones doing the action, or they’re bigger than the other figures. They’re central, and prominent. You don’t need the inscription to figure out which of the figures on the relief are the ones the stele is for. I’ll post some photos on twitter so you can see what they look like. Link in the show notes.

On the Shepherd’s Monument, if you operate on the assumption that you should interpret the image very literally as a funeral stele then one of the figures on the relief represents the person to whom the monument is dedicated. Obviously, Ramsden thinks it’s the woman, but, if you want to interpret this image literally as a funeral stele then there should be something in the image that indicates who the subject is supposed to be. There is not. And neither the two poems nor Dubos’s opinion change that fact. There is no convincing argument for any particular figure in the relief being the subject of a funeral stele.

You might be tempted to argue that, of course there wouldn’t be a clue on the monument itself, it’s a secret. And, sure. That’s fine. But in terms of people who might actually therefore know what the monument is supposed to be about, there’s only one source who refers to it as the ‘Shepherdesses Tomb’ that we know for sure actually knew Thomas Anson, so if you want to go that route you need to provide some sort of evidence as to why we should take this as the definitive statement on the monument when so many other, and closer, friends and family never referred to it as such.

Obviously, I’ve been highlighting the things I think are problems with Ramsden’s argument and understanding, but there are things I agree with him about – there is definitely a sense that this structure mimics a funerary altar or stele. Further, I think his proposal for how we should understand the D and M is perfectly reasonable, and stands on its own without any need to refer to anything beyond the monument itself. If it’s mimicking a funerary monument in design, then it’s reasonable to understand the inscription as a funerary inscription. So when Ramsden suggests that the D · M stands for Dis Manibus, which is what you would expect it to stand for on a stele, I’m prepared to accept that as a sensible proposal. We even have examples of inscriptions where the D and M are placed on opposite sides of the inscription, as they are on the Shepherd’s monument (Fishwick 2012: 90). Now, much like Ramsden, I am not an expert on Roman funerary monuments. Luckily, I managed to get in touch with someone who knows far more about this type of source than I do, and checked with her that what I’m about to explain is indeed reasonable. So thank you to Dr Hannah Cornwell for checking this for me, and thank you to Doctor Fiona Mitchell for facilitating communication. Doctor Cornwell also pointed out that usually you expect to see the D · M at the top of the inscription. And even in the example I found where the D and M are on opposite sides of the text, they are indeed at the top. However, she did say we know of at least a few where the D · M comes at the end. So yes, let’s accept Ramsden’s proposal of D · M meaning Dis Manibus as reasonable.

The problem comes with the next part:

The recognition of D.M. as a common epitaph on the stone memorials of the Romans throughout Europe is consistent with the architectural design of the monument, leading one even closer to the recognition of the memorial as a funerary altar. It also leads the decoder to consider the remainder of the inscription, the eight letters above, as representative of the name of the deceased. This is necessary, because the name is not only the common inscription which accompanies these initials, but the name is also (quite logically) required to grammatically complete the memorial phrase.

We need to talk about this ‘quite logical’ assertion about the ‘grammar’ requiring a name. I’m going to try and keep this as simple as possible, but we need to understand some stuff about Latin grammar here. Dis Manibus means something like ‘to the spirits of the dead’, but how exactly you translate it can depend on the rest of the inscription. Latin is an inflected language, which means instead of using lots of little prepositions like ‘to, of, from’ etc., that information can be contained in the noun, by changing the ending of the word. Obviously if you don’t speak an inflected language this is a bit weird, but, as a very simply example, we still have a remnant of what’s called the ‘genitive case’ in English: when you add an apostrophe + S to the of a word to indicate possession: ‘Silvie’s podcast’ means ‘the podcast of Silvie’. We understand that the addition of the apostrophe + S to the noun indicates that that noun is in possession of another noun elsewhere in the sentence. When you bear in mind that in inscriptions, words can be shortened to just the first letter, you can understand why even Latinists might want to avoid trying to read inscriptions.

Some understanding of this, and of the specific grammar of inscriptions, would have been useful to Ramsden, because he asserts that Dis Manibus means ‘to the Manes (Shades) [of]’, requiring you to then supply the name of the person to whom the shades belong. If you remember, the meaning of D · M is something that Ramsden actually quotes a source for. Unfortunately, I don’t think he fully understood what he was quoting. Here’s the relevant bit of that quote:

Of this belief in the survival beyond the grave of a person’s identity the earliest known evidence in Rome dates from the first century BC, when Cicero, Livy, and Virgil used Manes of the souls of individuals; while from the Augustan age onward tomb inscriptions combine the traditional formula of collectivity, D(is) M(anibus) or D(is) M(anibus) S(acrum), with the personal name or names of the deceased in the nominative, genitive or dative case. (Toynbee 1971: 35)

What this quote says is that in the first century, Manes was used to refer to the soul of an individual. But from the Augustan age onward, the inscriptions on tombs using ‘Dis Manibus’ can refer to spirits plural. Even when the dedication is to a single deceased person. Secondly, the fact that the name of the deceased can appear in the nominative, genitive or dative case means that you can’t know exactly what the full meaning of the Dis Manibus is without knowing the case of the name. To quote Lawrence Keppie – someone who actually understands Roman inscriptions in depth – this is what that means:

The name of the deceased can be given in the genitive case (so that the invocation is made to the spirit of the departed individual). The name can also appear in the dative case – there the dedication is both to the spirits of the departed in general, and to the particular individual. The name is found also in the nominative case, so that the phrase Dis Manibus serves solely as an introductory invocation. (Keppie 1991: 107)

That ‘serves solely as an introductory invocation’ is a problem for Ramsden, because it means he’s wrong in claiming that you need the name of the deceased to complete the phrase ‘to the Manes (Shades) [of]’. The grammar does not require it.

Now, obviously, regardless of that, once you’ve decided that the monument is a type of Greco-Roman funerary monument, and that the D · M stands for Dis Manibus, you would indeed usually expect to see the name of the deceased somewhere on a memorial to that person, and there is a notable absence of something easily identifiable as a name in the Shugborough inscription.

Faced with this fact, there are several avenues you could pursue. First: the name has been reduced to a single letter. I don’t want to get into it too much, but in Latin inscriptions, even parts of a super common name might be abbreviated to a single letter – like, ‘Q’ might mean ‘Quintus’ and everyone will be able to figure out what it means. But there are also multiple parts to Roman names, so even if part of it was represented by a single letter, other parts would be written out more fully. Now, there are some Roman funerary inscriptions that are so heavily abbreviated using uncommon abbreviations that we still can’t actually decipher them. As Roger Tomlin points out, despite the fact many abbreviations are still obvious, a handful would have been intelligible only to the person who commissioned the dedication, and perhaps their inner circle of friends or family (Tomlin 2018: intro. x). On this model, were there no evidence that the inscription was there in Thomas Anson’s lifetime, you might well reasonably suggest that some of the letters could stand for names, titles, and places. So I guess that was why A. J. Morton’s theory seemed surface-level plausible to him, and led him to try and force explanations for all the letters once he’d decided ‘Viscount Anson Vernon-Venables’ made sense.

So, ‘names are single letters’ is one option, which you could pursue more reasonably than Morton did. The second option is that the letters stand for something other than the initials of a name – a phrase, a verse (if you had enough money you might well get a whole verse inscribed on your monument – rich people both ancient and modern do that). If that’s your course of action, you might want to start looking at lists of books that were in Anson’s library, to see if any of them offered up convincing lines. Or… maybe just trying to think up of Latin phrases that would fit and make sense, based on what we know about Thomas Anson. Which would be super ineffective, but would make some sort of sense, I guess.

OR you could go for option three: throw all the rules of inscription writing out the window, ignore all the interpuncts between the eight remaining letters, and cite a single verse from an anonymous poem as proof that these eight letters are an encrypted eight letter name for the identity of a mysterious shepherdess.

This was one of the most frustrating parts of the book for me. Just… the idea that you’d give priority to an anonymously written poem over the evidence from the literal actual literal inscription on the literal actual monument you’re writing about, when you’re trying to decide how to interpret the inscription is just… it’s bonkers. It’s utterly bloody bonkers.

But here we are. So we know Ramsden is taking these eight letters to be an encryption of a dead woman, represented on the monument by the figure he has identified as the shepherdess. But he’s got some more interpretive mileage to get out of some of these verses before we get to looking at the actual cypher. So let’s examine what else he has to say about this poem:

First, the poem exhibits a devotional tone. It does this by using laudatory phrasing, such as ‘emulous of ancient praise’, ‘honour’d shrine’, and ‘solemn song’. This tone subsequently imbues upon the Shepherdess a divine persona. [PAUSE] Furthermore, when the author states, “whate’er her country, or however call’d”, he or she draws reference to the syncretic tradition of the mother-goddess [PAUSE], called by many names in many countries, but united as one feminine deity. And the allusion to the syncretic tradition cements the concept of the Shepherdess as representative of a feminine goddess type, with similar traits across cultures, though her name may be different in each.

A little later, he adds:

The syncretic phrasing in the Shugborough poem parallels one of the best-known historical records of this tradition. It lies in one of the second century writings of Apuleius, himself a priest who had been initiated into several mystery schools. The writing is titled The Metamorphosis, and it is through this work that scholars have gained much of their knowledge of the Egyptian mystery cult of Isis.

Sooooooo. So. Hmm. Yeah. Here are some things you need to know about this “historical record”, The Metamorphosis. First: The Metamorphosis is not its only name. It’s not even its predominant name. It is equally commonly known as The Golden Ass. That would be ‘ass’, as in ‘donkey’, because one of the metamorphoses that happens in the book is the main character getting turned into a frickin’ donkey.

Secondly: It is a novel. Which is absolutely not to say that there is nothing of historical value in there – there absolutely is – but the nature of the source is really important to acknowledge. Like… just show you understand what genre this source is. Just say, ‘our evidence lies in a second century novel by Apuleius that contains some very obviously fictional elements as well as interesting historical detail’. That’s it. That’s all you needed to do. The Golden Ass comprises 11 books in total. The first ten have nothing to do with syncretic mystery cults. All of the stuff Ramsden is interested in is in the final book. Now, I could spend a lot of time giving a more nuanced explanation of syncretism, the sources we use for mystery cults in general, the state of the cult of Isis in Rome, etc. All of which is super, super interesting. But. Ultimately, that would be kind of pointless. Because Ramsden is saying something useful, but… getting to the right answer from the wrong starting point? See, it doesn’t actually matter whether what he’s saying is true in relation to the modern state of classics. What matters is what people thought about this is the 1700s. There were a lot of sources we have now that they didn’t have back then. Our understanding, the way we analyse sources, how we can contextualise data, are all far more advanced now. So… essentially, he has the same level of understanding of some of the concepts as someone from the 1700s might have, and that’s actually what we need to know.

However. What he seems to have very little understanding of, even in comparison to someone in the 1700s, is how to analyse poetry. The entire argument for syncretism is based on the line ‘whate’er her country, or however call’d’. This, according to Ramsden is a “clear” allusion to a passage in Apuleius. That passage starts with ‘Oh Queen of heaven!, be thou Ceres…’ and then goes on to list a bunch of other thous that the queen of heaven might be – Venus, Diana, Proserpina.’ And after this list of possible names, he includes the phrase ‘by whatever name, with whatever rite, in whatever face it is fitting to call upon you…’.

Ramsden’s interpretation is premised upon the idea that the anonymous author fully understands the meaning of the inscription on the monument. As in, they don’t just “know” it’s a funerary altar to a woman, or that the text is a cypher, they “know” that the letters represent the name of a goddess or figure who is part of a syncretic tradition.

However, there is literally no evidence to support that notion. The author is anonymous. Ramsden has no idea who they are. He has assumed that they are an “associate” of Thomas Anson, when in fact all he knows is that it’s someone who has visited the garden at least once. “Associate” implies a far closer relationship with Thomas Anson than Ramsden has any right to presume. And without any proof that the author knew what the monument really meant, or any proof that anyone else knew what the inscription meant, then an interpretation of the meaning of ‘whatever her name and wherever she’s from’ as ‘she’s part of a syncretic tradition and can be referred to using multiple names’ becomes fairly tenuous.

In the Golden Ass, context makes it very clear that the statement ‘by whatever name, with whatever rite, in whatever face it is fitting to call upon you’ refers to a single figure who has multiple known names. The invocation is addressed to goddess, the ‘Queen of Heaven’, and then lists of a bunch of names that she might be known by – Ceres, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, and then finishes by saying, essentially ‘however I should be addressing you right now.’ He is giving a list of names that all apply to a single figure, and then saying ‘whichever name of yours I should use.’

In the 1767 poem, our anonymous author is talking about a mortal, who is dead, who’s identity is concealed. There is no evidence – either within the poem or elsewhere – that our anonymous author knows who the figure is, and without that, it’s far more reasonable to interpret the poet’s meaning as ‘dunno her name, but whoever she was, may she rest in peace’.

‘But Silvie,’ you might say, ‘it’s poetry. Surely you can interpret it however you want’. Sure. You absolutely can. What you can’t do is interpret it however you want and then claim that’s what the author intended. If Ramsden wants to interpret it in such a way that means that the lines he’s dealing with mean that this unknown woman is part of a syncretic tradition and some sort of mystery cult and that the inscription represents her name, he is perfectly welcome to do that. But his interpretation won’t magically change whatever Thomas Anson had in mind when he had the inscription made. What he can’t do, is make a claim like this:

The Shepherd’s Monument then, as understood by Anson’s peers, clearly functions within the same syncretic tradition that Apuleius communicated thousands of years earlier. Whatever the country, and whatever she may be called there; be it Ceres, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Hekate or Isis, she is understood to be one single divine being. While the eight-letter inscription may not bear the name of Isis, it is clear that the Shepherdess is a spiritual type, representative of the same ancient goddess figure.

That is absolutely not a claim Ramsden has earned the right to make.

Now, in his defence, Ramsden does provide some justification for the fact that the author is aware of syncretism. It’s from an earlier part of the poem:

Nor shall the learned eye deem here misplaced,
O smooth ADONIS, thy transcendent form.
How shall the Muse address Thee, lovely Youth,
How celebrate? a mortal or a God,
Doubtfull! for wide extended thy renown,
And various: through mysterious EGYPT’S bounds
In temples, & with sacrifice adored,
OSIRIS! while on TYRE’S resplendent shore
With annual obsequies, & plaintive song
SIDONIAN virgins mourn their TAMMUZ slain.
But every GRECIAN Muse, thro’ DORIC land,
Thro’ SICILY’S resounding vales, still chaunts
ADONIS’ fate & CITHEREA’S woe.
Thus varying they record Thee: but thy grace,
And matchless beauty, under every name,
In every situation, all extoll,
In life, in death, in action, or repose,
Or sleeping in PROSPERINA’S cold lap,
Or walking in CIPRIGNA’S rosy arms.

Aaaand in his not defence, that formulation is a way closer match to the passage from the Golden Ass.

It starts with one name – Adonis. Then asks how this figure should be addressed, suggesting Osiris and Tammus as alternatives, before commenting that ‘under every name, in every situation’ it’s the same. If that is how our anonymous author deals with syncretism then the verses about the Shepherd’s monument really don’t look like that’s what they’re aiming at.

But Ramsden puts aside the discussion of syncretism for now, so we’ll do the same. But his takeaway from the discussion so far is that the ‘Shepherdess possesses a divine persona, and as such her name itself is a sacred thing’. And the fact that it’s sacred is the explanation for why it has to be concealed.

It is certainly true that the names of divinities can be – and very often are – considered sacred. In and of itself, that is not a sufficient explanation for concealing it. Nor is belonging to a syncretic tradition – otherwise Apuleius’ character wouldn’t have been able to reel off a list of names of the goddess.

So according to Ramsden, the anonymous author’s failure to refer to the shepherdess by her name, and instead saying ‘whate’er her country, or however call’d’’ is proof that she belongs to a syncretic tradition, and the fact that she belongs to a syncretic tradition means her name is sacred, and the fact that her name is sacred is why it can’t be revealed, which must mean that it’s even more sacred or special somehow that all the other names used for the same figure, whicharen’t concealed. Or, as Ramsden puts it:

The inscription hides a name, and that name belongs to the Shepherdess. Moreover, the name is regarded as having sacred properties. Nevertheless, the tradition of syncretism demonstrates the use of many names for the same goddess. Thus, one must wonder what the significance of this one, hidden name may be. In order to understand the answer, we must examine the ciphers used in the inscription of the name.

Well, if we must, we must. But not until next episode. Because that’s it for this week.

So thanks for listening. If you like the show, please subscribe on whatever podcatcher you’re using. Rate and review the show, especially on iTunes. Tell your friends about the show. If every single one of you got one person to subscribe, then I would have a grand total of one more listener. And I would appreciate them very much.

If you have questions, comments, corrections, feedback, want to suggest a topic, etc. You can find the podcast on twitter @poisonroompod, or send an email to: poisonroompodcast@gmail.com

Alternatively, write an anonymous poem that’s maybe about me but doesn’t mention my name but does imply that you had access to some secret sacred knowledge.

Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.

You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast about cows.

The voice of the anonymous poet was: Leilah Porter
The voice reading extracts from Ramsden’s book was: Inari Porkka
The voice in your ears has been:

BOREAS, tyrant of the northern blast,
Known by his surly frown, & weathered shell,
Trump of the howling tempest.


Baker, A. (2019) Thomas Anson of Shugborough and the Greek Revival, (unpublished, available online).

Clifford, T. & Clifford, A. (1817) A Topographical and Historical Description of the Parish of Tixall, in the County of Stafford, M. Nouzon.

Dubos, J-B. (1748) Critical reflections on poetry, painting and music Vol. 1 (Trans. Nugent, T.), John Nourse.

Dubos, J-B. (1760) Réflexions critiques sur la pöesie et sur la peinture Vol. 1, Jean Mariette.

Gardner, P. (1896) Sculptured Tombs of Hellas Macmillan & Co.

Keppie, L. (1991) Understanding Roman Inscriptions, John Hopkins University Press.

Pennant, T. (1783) The Journey from Chester to London, Luke White.

Ramsden, D. (2014) Unveiling the Mystic Ciphers, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Sweet, R. (2017) ‘Domestic Tourism in Great Britain’, Picturing Places, British Library Online.

Tomlin, R. (2018) Britannia Romana: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain, Oxbow Books.

Toynbee, J. M. C. (1971) Death and Burial in the Roman World, Cornell University Press.