Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 6: Entering Hades

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

This done, he quickly carried out the Sibyl’s orders.
There was a deep stony cave, huge and gaping wide,
sheltered by a dark lake and shadowy woods,
over which nothing could extend its wings in safe flight,
since such a breath flowed from those black jaws,
and was carried to the over-arching sky, that the Greeks
called it by the name Aornos, that is Avernus, or the Bird-less.

Here the priestess first of all tethered four black heifers,
poured wine over their foreheads, and placed
the topmost bristles that she plucked, growing
between their horns, in the sacred fire, as a first offering,
calling aloud to Hecate, powerful in Heaven and Hell.
Others slit the victim’s throats and caught the warm blood
in bowls. Aeneas himself sacrificed a black-fleeced lamb
to Night, mother of the Furies, and Earth, her mighty sister,
and a barren heifer to you, Persephone.
Then he kindled the midnight altars for the Stygian King,
and placed whole carcasses of bulls on the flames,
pouring rich oil over the blazing entrails.

See now, at the dawn light of the rising sun,
the ground bellowed under their feet, the wooded hills began
to move, and, at the coming of the Goddess, dogs seemed to howl
in the shadows. ‘Away, stand far away, O you profane ones,’
the priestess cried, ‘absent yourselves from all this grove:
and you now, Aeneas, be on your way, and tear your sword
from the sheathe: you need courage, and a firm mind, now.’
So saying, she plunged wildly into the open cave:
he, fearlessly, kept pace with his vanishing guide.

You gods, whose is the realm of spirits, and you, dumb shadows,
and Chaos, Phlegethon, wide silent places of the night,
let me tell what I have heard: by your power, let me
reveal things buried in the deep earth, and the darkness.
On they went, hidden in solitary night, through gloom,
through Dis’s empty halls, and insubstantial kingdom,
like a path through a wood, in the faint light
under a wavering moon, when Jupiter has buried the sky
in shadow, and black night has stolen the colour from things.

Right before the entrance, in the very jaws of Orcus,
Grief and vengeful Care have made their beds,
and pallid Sickness lives there, and sad Old Age,
and Fear, and persuasive Hunger, and vile Need,
forms terrible to look on, and Death and Pain:
then Death’s brother Sleep, and Evil Pleasure of the mind,
and, on the threshold opposite, death-dealing War,
and the steel chambers of the Furies, and mad Discord,
her snaky hair entwined with blood-wet ribbons.
In the centre a vast shadowy elm spreads its aged trunks
and branches: the seat, they say, that false Dreams hold,
thronging, clinging beneath every leaf.
And many other monstrous shapes of varied creatures,
are stabled by the doors, Centaurs and bi-formed Scylla,
and hundred-armed Briareus, and the Lernean Hydra,
hissing fiercely, and the Chimaera armed with flame,
Gorgons, and Harpies, and the triple bodied shade, Geryon.

At this, trembling suddenly with terror, Aeneas grasped
his sword, and set the naked blade against their approach:
and, if his knowing companion had not warned him
that these were tenuous bodiless lives flitting about
with a hollow semblance of form, he would have rushed at them,
and hacked at the shadows uselessly with his sword.

From here there is a road that leads to the waters
of Tartarean Acheron. Here thick with mud a whirlpool seethes
in the vast depths, and spews all its sands into Cocytus.
A grim ferryman watches over the rivers and streams,
Charon, dreadful in his squalor, with a mass of unkempt
white hair straggling from his chin: flames glow in his eyes,
a dirty garment hangs, knotted from his shoulders.
He poles the boat and trims the sails himself,
and ferries the dead in his dark skiff,
old now, but a god’s old age is fresh and green.

Here all the crowd streams, hurrying to the shores,
women and men, the lifeless bodies of noble heroes,
boys and unmarried girls, sons laid on the pyre
in front of their father’s eyes: as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and despatches them to sunnier countries.
They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,
stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.
But the dismal boatman accepts now these, now those,
but driving others away, keeps them far from the sand.

Then Aeneas, stirred and astonished at the tumult, said:
‘O virgin, tell me, what does this crowding to the river mean?
What do the souls want? And by what criterion do these leave
the bank, and those sweep off with the oars on the leaden stream?'

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

  • what kind of sacrifices does Aeneas make before entering the underworld?
  • what are some of the apparitions and creatures that Aeneas sees as he enters the underworld?
  • what does the ferryman, Charon, look like?

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