Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 6: Misenus

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

Aeneas has two tasks to accomplish before he can visit the land of the dead: he needs to possess the "golden bough," and he needs to bury the body of one of his friends. But who could this be? Aeneas does not know who exactly the Sibyl is talking about. But he discovers the body, and also discovers the "golden bough" which the Sibyl commanded him to find.

Leaving the cave, Aeneas walked away,
with sad face and downcast eyes, turning their dark fate
over in his mind. Loyal Achates walked at his side
and fashioned his steps with similar concern.
They engaged in intricate discussion between them,
as to who the dead friend, the body to be interred, was,
whom the priestess spoke of.

....................................................And as they passed along
they saw Misenus, ruined by shameful death, on the dry sand,
Misenus, son of Aeolus, than whom none was more outstanding
in rousing men with the war-trumpet, kindling conflict with music.
He was great Hector’s friend: with Hector
he went to battle, distinguished by his spear and trumpet.
When victorious Achilles despoiled Hector of life,
this most courageous hero joined the company
of Trojan Aeneas, serving no lesser a man. But when,
by chance, he foolishly made the ocean sound
to a hollow conch-shell, and called gods to compete
in playing, if the tale can be believed, Triton overheard him
and drowned him in the foaming waves among the rocks.

So, with pious Aeneas to the fore, they all mourned
round the body with loud clamour. Then, without delay, weeping,
they hurried to carry out the Sibyl’s orders, and laboured to pile
tree-trunks as a funeral pyre, raising it to the heavens.
They enter the ancient wood, the deep coverts of wild creatures:
the pine-trees fell, the oaks rang to the blows of the axe,
ash trunks and fissile oak were split with wedges,
and they rolled large rowan trees down from the hills.

Aeneas was no less active in such efforts, encouraging
his companions, and employing similar tools.
And he turned things over in his own saddened mind,
gazing at the immense forest, and by chance prayed so:
‘If only that golden bough would show itself to us
now, on some such tree, among the woods! For the prophetess
spoke truly of you Misenus, alas, only too truly.’

He had barely spoken when by chance a pair of doves
came flying down from the sky, beneath his very eyes,
and settled on the green grass. Then the great hero knew
they were his mother’s birds, and prayed in his joy:
‘O be my guides, if there is some way, and steer a course
through the air, to that grove where the rich branch
casts its shadow on fertile soil. And you mother, O goddess,
don’t fail me in time of doubt.’

..................................................So saying he halted his footsteps,
observing what signs the doves might give, and which direction
they might take. As they fed they went forward in flight
just as far as, following, his eyes could keep them in sight.
Then, when they reached the foul jaws of stinking Avernus,
they quickly rose and, gliding through the clear air,
perched on the longed-for dual-natured tree, from which
the alien gleam of gold shone out, among the branches.
Just as mistletoe, that does not form a tree of its own,
grows in the woods in the cold of winter, with a foreign leaf,
and surrounds a smooth trunk with yellow berries:
such was the vision of this leafy gold in the dark
oak-tree, so the foil tinkled in the light breeze.
Aeneas immediately plucked it, eagerly breaking the tough
bough, and carried it to the cave of the Sibylline prophetess.

Meanwhile, on the shore, the Trojans were weeping bitterly
for Misenus and paying their last respects to his senseless ashes.
First they raised a huge pyre, heavy with cut oak and pine,
weaving the sides with dark foliage, set funereal cypress in front,
and decorated it above with shining weapons.
Some heated water, making the cauldrons boil on the flames,
and washed and anointed the chill corpse. They made lament.
Then, having wept, they placed his limbs on the couch,
and threw purple robes over them, his usual dress.
Some raised the great bier, a sad duty,
and, with averted faces, set a torch below,
in ancestral fashion. Gifts were heaped on the flames,
of incense, foodstuffs, bowls brimming with olive-oil.

When the ashes collapsed, and the blaze died, they washed
the remains of the parched bones in wine, and Corynaeus,
collecting the fragments, closed them in a bronze urn.
Also he circled his comrades three times with pure water
to purify them, sprinkling fine dew from a full olive branch,
and spoke the words of parting. And virtuous Aeneas
heaped up a great mound for his tomb, with the hero’s
own weapons, his trumpet and oar, beneath a high mountain
which is called Misenus now after him, and preserves
his ever-living name throughout the ages.

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

  • how did Aeneas's friend Misenus die?
  • how did Aeneas discover the golden bough?
  • what objects did they leave as markers on Misenus's tomb?

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