Week 7: Odysseus and Aeneas in the Underworld

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Aeneid, Book 6: Anchises, cont.

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Last week you read about Pythagoras and his theory about the reincarnation of souls. Vergil preaches something very similar here. There are spirits in the land of the dead who will be born again, after they plunge into the river of Lethe, "forgetfulness." With no memory of their past lives, they are able to return and take another bodily form. Because there are spirits who are going to be reborn in the future, Anchises is actually able to show Aeneas his own descendants who are not born yet! So Anchises provides a list of Aeneas's sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, and so on.

And now Aeneas saw a secluded grove
in a receding valley, with rustling woodland thickets,
and the river of Lethe gliding past those peaceful places.
Innumerable tribes and peoples hovered round it:
just as, in the meadows, on a cloudless summer’s day,
the bees settle on the multifarious flowers, and stream
round the bright lilies, and all the fields hum with their buzzing.
Aeneas was thrilled by the sudden sight, and, in ignorance,
asked the cause: what the river is in the distance,
who the men are crowding the banks in such numbers.

Then his father Anchises answered: ‘They are spirits,
owed a second body by destiny, and they drink
the happy waters, and a last forgetting, at Lethe’s stream.
Indeed, for a long time I’ve wished to tell you of them,
and show you them face to face, to enumerate my children’s
descendants, so you might joy with me more at finding Italy.’

‘O father, is it to be thought that any spirits go from here
to the sky above, returning again to dull matter?’

‘Indeed I’ll tell you, son, not keep you in doubt,’
Anchises answered, and revealed each thing in order.

‘Firstly, a spirit within them nourishes the sky and earth,
the watery plains, the shining orb of the moon,
and Titan’s star, and Mind, flowing through matter,
vivifies the whole mass, and mingles with its vast frame.
From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,
and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.
The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine,
so long as harmful matter doesn’t impede them
and terrestrial bodies and mortal limbs don’t dull them.
Through those they fear and desire, and grieve and joy,
and enclosed in night and a dark dungeon, can’t see the light.

' Why, when life leaves them at the final hour,
still all of the evil, all the plagues of the flesh, alas,
have not completely vanished, and many things, long hardened
deep within, must of necessity be ingrained, in strange ways.
So they are scourged by torments, and pay the price
for former sins: some are hung, stretched out,
to the hollow winds, the taint of wickedness is cleansed
for others in vast gulfs, or burned away with fire:
each spirit suffers its own:
................................................ then we are sent
through wide Elysium, and we few stay in the joyous fields,
for a length of days, till the cycle of time,
complete, removes the hardened stain, and leaves
pure ethereal thought, and the brightness of natural air.
All these others the god calls in a great crowd to the river Lethe,
after they have turned the wheel for a thousand years,
so that, truly forgetting, they can revisit the vault above,
and begin with a desire to return to the flesh.’

Anchises had spoken, and he drew the Sibyl and his son, both
together, into the middle of the gathering and the murmuring crowd,
and chose a hill from which he could see all the long ranks
opposite, and watch their faces as they came by him.
‘Come, I will now explain what glory will pursue the children
of Dardanus, what descendants await you of the Italian race,
illustrious spirits to march onwards in our name, and I will teach
you your destiny. See that boy, who leans on a headless spear,
he is fated to hold a place nearest the light, first to rise
to the upper air, sharing Italian blood, Silvius, of Alban name,
your last-born son, who your wife Lavinia, late in your old age,
will give birth to in the wood, a king and the father of kings,
through whom our race will rule in Alba Longa.
Next to him is Procas, glory of the Trojan people,
and Capys and Numitor, and he who’ll revive your name,
Silvius Aeneas, outstanding like you in virtue and arms,
if he might at last achieve the Alban throne.
What men! See what authority they display,
their foreheads shaded by the civic oak-leaf crown!
They will build Nomentum, Gabii, and Fidenae’s city:
Collatia’s fortress in the hills, Pometii
and the Fort of Inus, and Bola, and Cora.
Those will be names that are now nameless land.'

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

  • what happens to the spirits of people who committed wicked acts in their bodily life?
  • what process does a spirit go through before it can return and have another bodily life?
  • what kind of descendants does Anchises predict will be born to Aeneas?

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