Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Aeneid, Book 6: Charon and the Ferry

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

With the help if the Sibyl Aeneas sails the river on the boat of Charon, and then confronts the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guards the entrance to the land of the dead. The spirits of the dead are organized into groups: the spirits of dead infants, of those falsely executed, and of the suicides.

So they pursued their former journey, and drew near the river.
Now when the Boatman saw them from the Stygian wave
walking through the silent wood, and directing their footsteps
towards its bank, he attacked them verbally, first, and unprompted,
rebuking them: ‘Whoever you are, who come armed to my river,
tell me, from over there, why you’re here, and halt your steps.
This is a place of shadows, of Sleep and drowsy Night:
I’m not allowed to carry living bodies in the Stygian boat.
Truly it was no pleasure for me to take Hercules on his journey
over the lake, nor Theseus and Pirithous, though they may
have been children of gods, unrivalled in strength.
The first came for Cerberus the watchdog of Tartarus,
and dragged him away quivering from under the king’s throne:
the others were after snatching our Queen from Dis’s chamber.’

To this the prophetess of Amphrysian Apollo briefly answered:
‘There’s no such trickery here (don’t be disturbed),
our weapons offer no affront: your huge guard-dog
can terrify the bloodless shades with his eternal howling:
chaste Proserpine can keep to her uncle’s threshold.
Aeneas the Trojan, renowned in piety and warfare,
goes down to the deepest shadows of Erebus, to his father.
If the idea of such affection does not move you, still you
must recognise this bough.’ (She showed the branch, hidden
in her robes.)

........................Then the anger in his swollen breast subsided.
No more was said. Marvelling at the revered offering,
of fateful twigs, seen again after so long, he turned the stern
of the dark skiff towards them and neared the bank.
Then he turned off the other souls who sat on the long benches,
cleared the gangways: and received mighty Aeneas
on board. The seamed skiff groaned with the weight
and let in quantities of marsh-water through the chinks.
At last, the river crossed, he landed the prophetess and the hero
safe, on the unstable mud, among the blue-grey sedge.

Huge Cerberus sets these regions echoing with his triple-throated
howling, crouching monstrously in a cave opposite.
Seeing the snakes rearing round his neck, the prophetess
threw him a pellet, a soporific of honey and drugged wheat.
Opening his three throats, in rabid hunger, he seized
what she threw and, flexing his massive spine, sank to earth
spreading his giant bulk over the whole cave-floor.

With the guard unconscious Aeneas won to the entrance,
and quickly escaped the bank of the river of no return.
Immediately a loud crying of voices was heard, the spirits
of weeping infants, whom a dark day stole at the first
threshold of this sweet life, those chosen to be torn
from the breast, and drowned in bitter death.

Nearby are those condemned to die on false charges.
Yet their place is not ordained without the allotted jury:
Minos, the judge, shakes the urn: he convenes the voiceless court,
and hears their lives and sins.

........................................................Then the next place
is held by those gloomy spirits who, innocent of crime,
died by their own hand, and, hating the light, threw away
their lives. How willingly now they’d endure
poverty and harsh suffering, in the air above!
Divine Law prevents it, and the sad marsh and its hateful
waters binds them, and nine-fold Styx confines them.

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

  • what compelled Charon to let Aeneas get into his boat?
  • how did the Sibyl silence the three-headed dog Cerberus?
  • who were the first ghosts that Aeneas met when he entered 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