Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 6: The Sibyl

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

Remember how Teiresias told Ulysses about the things that would happen to him on the way home? Well, the Sibyl does the same for Aeneas, telling him what adventures await him in Italy. Then Aeneas asks the Sibyl if he can visit the land of the dead. She tells him exactly how he can manage to do that, and return once again to the world of the living.

But the wild prophetess raged in her cavern, not yet
submitting to Phoebus, as if she might shake the great god
from her spirit: yet he exhausted her raving mouth
all the more, taming her wild heart, shaping her by constraint.

And now the shrine’s hundred mighty lips have opened
of themselves, and carry the seer’s answer through the air:
‘Oh, you who are done with all the perils of the sea,
(yet greater await you on land) the Trojans will come
to the realm of Lavinium (put that care from your heart):
but will not enjoy their coming. War, fierce war,
I see: and the Tiber foaming with much blood.
You will not lack a Simois, a Xanthus, a Greek camp:
even now another Achilles is born in Latium,
he too the son of a goddess: nor will Juno, the Trojans’ bane,
be ever far away, while you, humbled and destitute,
what races and cities of Italy will you not beg in!
Once again a foreign bride is the cause of all
these Trojan ills, once more an alien marriage.
Do not give way to misfortunes, meet them more bravely,
as your destiny allows. The path of safety will open up
for you from where you least imagine it, a Greek city.’

With such words, the Sibyl of Cumae chants fearful enigmas,
from her shrine, echoing from the cave,
tangling truths and mysteries: as she raves, Apollo
thrashes the reins, and twists the spur under her breast.
When the frenzy quietens, and the mad mouth hushes,
Aeneas, the Hero, begins: ‘O Virgin, no new, unexpected
kind of suffering appears: I’ve foreseen them all
and travelled them before, in my own spirit.
One thing I ask: for they say the gate of the King of Darkness
is here, and the shadowy marsh, Acheron’s overflow:
let me have sight of my dear father, his face: show me the way,
open wide the sacred doors. I saved him, brought him
out from the thick of the enemy, through the flames,
on these shoulders, with a thousand spears behind me:
companion on my journey, he endured with me
all the seas, all the threats of sky and ocean, weak,
beyond his power, and his allotted span of old age.
He ordered me, with prayers, to seek you out, humbly,
and approach your threshold: I ask you, kindly one,
pity both father and son: since you are all power, not for
nothing has Hecate set you to rule the groves of Avernus.
If Orpheus could summon the shade of his wife,
relying on his Thracian lyre, its melodious strings:
if Pollux, crossing that way, and returning, so often,
could redeem his brother by dying in turn – and great Theseus,
what of him, or Hercules? – well, my race too is Jupiter’s on high.’

With these words he prayed, and grasped the altar,
as the priestess began to speak: ‘Trojan son of Anchises,
sprung from the blood of the gods, the path to hell is easy:
black Dis’s door is open night and day:
but to retrace your steps, and go out to the air above,
that is work, that is the task. Some sons of the gods have done it,
whom favouring Jupiter loved, or whom burning virtue
lifted to heaven. Woods cover all the middle part,
and Cocytus is round it, sliding in dark coils.
But if such desire is in your mind, such a longing
to sail the Stygian lake twice, and twice see Tartarus,
and if it delights you to indulge in insane effort,
listen to what you must first undertake. Hidden in a dark tree
is a golden bough, golden in leaves and pliant stem,
sacred to Persephone, the underworld’s Juno, all the groves
shroud it, and shadows enclose the secret valleys.
But only one who’s taken a gold-leaved fruit from the tree
is allowed to enter earth’s hidden places.
This lovely Proserpine has commanded to be brought to her
as a gift: a second fruit of gold never fails to appear
when the first one’s picked, the twig’s leafed with the same metal.
So look for it up high, and when you’ve found it with your eyes,
take it, of right, in your hand: since, if the Fates have chosen you,
it will come away easily, freely of itself: otherwise you
won’t conquer it by any force, or cut it with the sharpest steel.
And the inanimate body of your friend lies there
(Ah! You do not know) and taints your whole fleet with death,
while you seek advice and hang about our threshold.
Carry him first to his place and bury him in the tomb.
Lead black cattle there: let those be your first offerings of atonement.
Only then can you look on the Stygian groves, and the realms
forbidden to the living.’

..........................................She spoke and with closed lips fell silent.

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

  • what are the dangers that Aeneas will face in Italy, according to the Sibyl?
  • why does Aeneas want to visit the land of the dead?
  • what does Aeneas have to do in order to gain access to the land of the dead?

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