Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 5: Aeneas and his Pilot Palinurus

Reading time: 2 minutes. Word count: 400 words.

As the story begins, Aeneas is on his way to Italy. The city of Troy has been destroyed by the Greeks, and Aeneas has set sail with a group of Trojans in order to found a new city in Italy. Now he and his companions are sailing towards Italy where they will find their new home. But the steersman, Palinurus, is about to die - and in many ways, this character has a function similar to that of Elpenor in Ulysses's story, since Aeneas will soon meet the dead Palinurus when he, like Ulysses, journeys to the land of the dead.

And now dew-wet Night had just reached her zenith
in the sky: the sailors relaxed their limbs in quiet rest
stretched out on the hard benches beneath the oars:
when Sleep, gliding lightly down from the heavenly stars,
parted the gloomy air, and scattered the shadows,
seeking you, bringing you dark dreams, Palinurus,
though you were innocent: the god settled on the high stern,
appearing as Phorbas, and poured these words from his mouth:

'Palinurus, son of Iasus, the seas themselves steer the fleet,
the breezes blow steadily, this hour is granted for rest.
Lay down your head and rob your weary eyes of labour.
For a little while, I myself will take on your duty for you.'

Palinurus, barely lifting his gaze, spoke to him:
'Do you tell me to trust the sea’s placid face,
the calm waves? Shall I set my faith on this monster?
Why should I entrust Aeneas to the deceptive breeze,
I whom a clear sky has deceived so often?'

So he spoke and clinging hard to the tiller
never relaxed his hold, and held his sight on the stars.
Behold, despite his caution, the god shook a branch,
wet with Lethe’s dew, soporific with Styx’s power,
over his brow, and set free his swimming eyes.
The first sudden drowse had barely relaxed his limbs,
when Sleep leant above him and threw him headlong
into the clear waters, tearing away the tiller
and part of the stern, he calling to his friends often, in vain:
while the god raised his wings in flight into the empty air.
The fleet sailed on its way over the sea, as safely as before,
gliding on, unaware, as father Neptune had promised.

And now drawn onwards it was close to the Sirens’s cliffs, tricky
of old, and white with the bones of many men, (now the rocks,
far off, boomed loud with the unending breakers) when the leader
realised his ship was wallowing adrift, her helmsman lost,
and he himself steered her through the midnight waters,
sighing deeply, and shocked at heart by his friend’s fate:
“Oh, far too trustful of the calm sea, and the sky,
you’ll lie naked, Palinurus, on an unknown shore.'

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what job did Palinurus have on the ship?
  • what made Palinurus fall off the ship?
  • how did Aeneas react to the loss of Palinurus?

Homer's Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler (1898). Website: The Odyssey.
Vergil's Aeneid, translated by A.S. Kline (2002). Website: Vergil: The Major Works.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM