Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 6: Palinurus

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

Charon will not let all the ghosts into his boat, and among the ghosts that are kept away from the boat, Aeneas meets Palinurus who was swept overboard from his ship. Palinurus explains that his body lies unburied, and he begs Aeneas to help him (remember the dead Elpenor in Ulysses's story? it is a similar situation!).

The ancient priestess spoke briefly to him, so:
‘Son of Anchises, true child of the gods, you see
the deep pools of Cocytus, and the Marsh of Styx,
by whose name the gods fear to swear falsely.
All this crowd, you see, were destitute and unburied:
that ferryman is Charon: those the waves carry were buried:
he may not carry them from the fearful shore on the harsh waters
before their bones are at rest in the earth. They roam
for a hundred years and flit around these shores: only then
are they admitted, and revisit the pools they long for.’

The son of Anchises halted, and checked his footsteps,
thinking deeply, and pitying their sad fate in his heart.
He saw Leucaspis and Orontes, captain of the Lycian fleet,
there, grieving and lacking honour in death, whom a Southerly
overwhelmed, as they sailed together from Troy on the windswept
waters, engulfing both the ship and crew in the waves.

Behold, there came the helmsman, Palinurus,
who fell from the stern on the Libyan passage,
flung into the midst of the waves, as he watched the stars.
When Aeneas had recognised him with difficulty
sorrowing among the deep shadows, he spoke first, saying:
‘What god tore you from us, Palinurus, and drowned you
mid-ocean? For in this one prophecy Apollo has misled me,
he whom I never found false before, he said that you would be safe
at sea and reach Ausonia’s shores. Is this the truth of his promise?’

But he replied: ‘Phoebus’s tripod did not fail you, Anchises,
my captain, nor did a god drown me in the deep.
By chance the helm was torn from me with violence,
as I clung there, on duty as ordered, steering our course,
and I dragged it headlong with me. I swear by the cruel sea
that I feared less for myself than for your ship,
lest robbed of its gear, and cleared of its helmsman,
it might founder among such surging waves.
The Southerly drove me violently through the vast seas
for three stormy nights: high on the crest of a wave,
in the fourth dawn, I could just make out Italy.
Gradually I swam to shore: grasped now at safety,
but as I caught at the sharp tips of the rocks, weighed down
by my water-soaked clothes, the savage people
attacked me with knives, ignorantly thinking me a prize.
Now the waves have me, and the winds roll me along the shore.
Unconquered one, I beg you, by the sweet light and air of heaven,
by your father, and your hopes in Iulus to come,
save me from this evil: either find Velia’s harbour again
(for you can) and sprinkle earth on me, or if there is some way,
if your divine mother shows you one (since you’d not attempt to sail
such waters, and the Stygian marsh, without a god’s will, I think)
then give this wretch your hand and take me with you through the waves
that at least I might rest in some quiet place in death.’

So he spoke, and the priestess began to reply like this:
‘Where does this dire longing of yours come from, O Palinurus?
Can you see the Stygian waters, unburied, or the grim
river of the Furies, Cocytus, or come unasked to the shore?
Cease to hope that divine fate can be tempered by prayer.
But hold my words in your memory, as a comfort in your hardship:
the nearby peoples, from cities far and wide, will be moved
by divine omens to worship your bones, and build a tomb,
and send offerings to the tomb, and the place will have
Palinurus as its everlasting name.’

........................................................His anxiety was quelled
by her words, and, for a little while, grief was banished
from his sad heart: he delighted in the land being so named.

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

  • who are the people that Charon refuses to let on board his boat?
  • what was the actual cause of Palinurus's death?
  • how does the Sibyl calm the anxiety of Palinurus's ghost?

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