Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

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Aeneid, Book 6: Tartarus

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

Aeneas is not actually going to get to visit the really horrifying parts of hell. When he comes to a crossroads, there is one way that leads to Elysium (a good place, actually!), and the other way leads to Tartarus. The Sibyl has actually visited Tartarus, so Aeneas learns from the Sibyl what goes on in the depths of that hell. Notice that this is a story within a story: Vergil is telling us the story of Aeneas and the Sibyl, and within that story, the Sibyl tells the story of how she visited the depths of hell.

While they spoke Aurora and her rosy chariot had passed
the zenith of her ethereal path, and they might perhaps
have spent all the time allowed in such talk, but the Sibyl,
his companion, warned him briefly saying:
‘Night approaches, Aeneas: we waste the hours with weeping.
This is the place where the path splits itself in two:
there on the right is our road to Elysium, that runs beneath
the walls of mighty Dis: but the left works punishment
on the wicked, and sends them on to godless Tartarus.’

Deiophobus replied: ‘Do not be angry, great priestess:
I will leave: I will make up the numbers, and return to the darkness.
Go now glory of our race: enjoy a better fate.’
So he spoke, and in speaking turned away.

Aeneas suddenly looked back, and, below the left hand cliff,
he saw wide battlements, surrounded by a triple wall,
and encircled by a swift river of red-hot flames,
the Tartarean Phlegethon, churning with echoing rocks.
A gate fronts it, vast, with pillars of solid steel,
that no human force, not the heavenly gods themselves,
can overturn by war: an iron tower rises into the air,
and seated before it, Tisiphone, clothed in a blood-wet dress,
keeps guard of the doorway, sleeplessly, night and day.
Groans came from there, and the cruel sound of the lash,
then the clank of iron, and dragging chains.

Aeneas halted, and stood rooted, terrified by the noise.
‘What evil is practised here? O Virgin, tell me: by what torments
are they oppressed? Why are there such sounds in the air?’

Then the prophetess began to speak as follows: ‘Famous leader
of the Trojans, it is forbidden for the pure to cross the evil threshold:
but when Hecate appointed me to the wood of Avernus,
she taught me the divine torments, and guided me through them all.
Cretan Rhadamanthus rules this harshest of kingdoms,
and hears their guilt, extracts confessions, and punishes
whoever has deferred atonement for their sins too long
till death, delighting in useless concealment, in the world above.
Tisiphone the avenger, armed with her whip, leaps on the guilty immediately,
lashes them, and threatening them with the fierce
snakes in her left hand, calls to her savage troop of sisters.

' Then at last the accursed doors open, screeching on jarring hinges.
You comprehend what guardian sits at the door, what shape watches
the threshold? Well still fiercer is the monstrous Hydra inside,
with her fifty black gaping jaws. There Tartarus itself
falls sheer, and stretches down into the darkness:
twice as far as we gaze upwards to heavenly Olympus.

'Here the Titanic race, the ancient sons of Earth,
hurled down by the lightning-bolt, writhe in the depths.
And here I saw the two sons of Aloeus, giant forms,
who tried to tear down the heavens with their hands,
and topple Jupiter from his high kingdom.

'And I saw Salmoneus paying a savage penalty
for imitating Jove’s lightning, and the Olympian thunder.
Brandishing a torch, and drawn by four horses
he rode in triumph among the Greeks, through Elis’s city,
claiming the gods’ honours as his own, a fool,
who mimicked the storm-clouds and the inimitable thunderbolt
with bronze cymbals and the sound of horses’ hoof-beats.
But the all-powerful father hurled his lighting from dense cloud,
not for him fiery torches, or pine-branches’ smoky light
and drove him headlong with the mighty whirlwind.

'And Tityus was to be seen as well, the foster-child
of Earth, our universal mother, whose body stretches
over nine acres, and a great vulture with hooked beak
feeds on his indestructible liver, and his entrails ripe
for punishment, lodged deep inside the chest, groping
for his feast, no respite given to the ever-renewing tissue.

'Shall I speak of the Lapiths, Ixion, Pirithous,
over whom hangs a dark crag that seems to slip and fall?
High couches for their feast gleam with golden frames,
and a banquet of royal luxury is spread before their eyes:
nearby the eldest Fury, crouching, prevents their fingers touching
the table: rising up, and brandishing her torch, with a voice of thunder.

'Here are those who hated their brothers, in life,
or struck a parent, or contrived to defraud a client,
or who crouched alone over the riches they’d made,
without setting any aside for their kin (their crowd is largest),
those who were killed for adultery, or pursued civil war,
not fearing to break their pledges to their masters:
shut in they see their punishment. Don’t ask to know
that punishment, or what kind of suffering drowns them.
Some roll huge stones, or hang spread-eagled
on wheel-spokes: wretched Theseus sits still, and will sit
for eternity: Phlegyas, the most unfortunate, warns them all
and bears witness in a loud voice among the shades:
"Learn justice: be warned, and don’t despise the gods.”
Here’s one who sold his country for gold, and set up
a despotic lord: this one made law and remade it for a price:
he entered his daughter’s bed and a forbidden marriage:
all of them dared monstrous sin, and did what they dared.

' Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
a voice of iron, could I tell all the forms of wickedness
or spell out the names of every torment.’

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

  • who was the Sibyl's guide through the depths of hell?
  • what does Tisiphone look like?
  • what kind of punishment did the Sibyl see inflicted on Tityus?

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