Vergil's Aeneid, Books 2-3

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Prophecy of Helenus

Reading time: 8 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

Helenus is not only the ruler of the city of Buthrotum: he is also a prophet and a seer. Just as Odysseus had to consult the prophet Teiresias in order to find out how he could make his way home, Aeneas consults the prophet Helenus in order to learn how he can manage to get to his new home in Italy.

[...] Now day after day has gone by, and the breezes call
to the sails, and the canvas swells with a rising Southerly:
I go to Helenus, the seer, with these words and ask:
"Trojan-born, agent of the gods, you who know Apollo's will,
the tripods, the laurels at Claros, the stars, the language
of birds, and the omens of their wings in flight,
come, speak (since a favourable oracle told me
all my route, and all the gods in their divinity urged me
to seek Italy, and explore the furthest lands:
only the Harpy, Celaeno, predicts fresh portents,
evil to tell of, and threatens bitter anger
and vile famine) first, what dangers shall I avoid?
Following what course can I overcome such troubles?"

Helenus, first sacrificing bullocks according to the ritual,
obtained the gods' grace, then loosened the headband
from his holy brow, and led me, anxious at so much
divine power, with his own hand, to your threshold Apollo,
and then the priest prophesied this, from the divine mouth:
"Son of the goddess, since the truth is clear, that you sail
the deep blessed by the higher powers (so the king of the gods
allots our fates, and rolls the changes, so the order alters),
I'll explain a few things of many, in my words to you,
so you may travel foreign seas more safely, and can find
rest in an Italian haven: for the Fates forbid Helenus
to know further, and Saturnian Juno denies him speech.

"Firstly, a long pathless path, by long coastlines, separates
you from that far-off Italy, whose neighbouring port
you intend to enter, unknowingly thinking it nearby.
Before you can build your city in a safe land,
you must bend the oar in Sicilian waters,
and pass the levels of the Italian seas, in your ships,
the infernal lakes, and Aeaean Circe's island.

I'll tell you of signs: keep them stored in your memory.
When, in your distress, you find a huge sow lying on the shore,
by the waters of a remote river, under the oak trees,
that has farrowed a litter of thirty young, a white sow,
lying on the ground, with white piglets round her teats,
that place shall be your city, there's true rest from your labours.
And do not dread that gnawing of tables, in your future:
the fates will find a way, Apollo will be there at your call.

"But avoid these lands, and this nearer coastline
of the Italian shore, washed by our own
ocean tide: hostile Greeks inhabit every town.
The Narycian Locri have built a city here,
and Lyctian Idomeneus has filled the plain
with soldiers: here is that little Petelia, of Philoctetes,
leader of the Meliboeans, relying on its walls.

"Then when your fleet has crossed the sea, and anchored
and the altars are raised for your offerings on the shore,
veil your hair, clothed in your purple robes, so that
in worshipping the gods no hostile face may intrude
among the sacred flames, and disturb the omens.
Let your friends adopt this mode of sacrifice, and yourself:
and let your descendants remain pure in this religion.

"But when the wind carries you, on leaving, to the Sicilian shore,
and the barriers of narrow Pelorus open ahead,
make for the seas and land to port, in a long circuit:
avoid the shore and waters on the starboard side.
They say, when the two were one continuous stretch of land,
they one day broke apart, torn by the force of a vast upheaval
(time's remote antiquity enables such great changes).
The sea flowed between them with force, and severed
the Italian from the Sicilian coast, and a narrow tideway
washes the cities and fields on separate shores.

"Scylla holds the right side, implacable Charybdis the left,
who, in the depths of the abyss, swallows the vast flood
three times into the downward gulf and alternately lifts
it to the air, and lashes the heavens with her waves.
But a cave surrounds Scylla with dark hiding-places,
and she thrusts her mouths out, and drags ships onto the rocks.
Above she has human shape, and is a girl, with lovely breasts,
a girl, down to her sex, below it she is a sea-monster of huge size,
with dolphins' tails joined to a belly formed of wolves.

"It is better to round the point of Pachynus,
lingering, and circling Sicily on a long course,
than to once catch sight of hideous Scylla in her vast cave
and the rocks that echo to her sea-dark hounds.
Beyond this, if Helenus has any knowledge, if the seer
can be believed, if Apollo fills his spirit with truth,
son of the goddess, I will say this one thing, this one thing
that is worth all, and I'll repeat the warning again and again,
honour great Juno's divinity above all, with prayer, and recite
your vows to Juno freely, and win over that powerful lady
with humble gifts: so at last you'll leave Sicily behind
and reach the coast of Italy, victorious.

"Once brought there, approach the city of Cumae,
the ghostly lakes, and Avernus, with its whispering groves,
gaze on the raving prophetess, who sings the fates
deep in the rock, and commits names and signs to leaves.
Whatever verses the virgin writes on the leaves,
she arranges in order, and stores them high up in her cave.
They stay in place, motionless, and keep in rank:
but once a light breeze ruffles them, at the turn of a hinge,
and the opening door disturbs the delicate leaves, she never
thinks to retrieve them, as they flutter through the rocky cave,
or to return them to their places, or reconstitute the prophecies:
men go away unanswered, and detest the Sibyl's lair.

"Though your friends complain, and though your course
calls your sails urgently to the deep, and a following wind
might fill the canvas, don't overvalue the loss in any delay,
but visit the prophetess, and beg her with prayers to speak
the oracle herself, and loose her voice through willing lips.
She will rehearse the peoples of Italy, the wars to come,
and how you might evade or endure each trial,
and, shown respect, she'll grant you a favourable journey.
These are the things you can be warned of by my voice.
Go now, and by your actions raise great Troy to the stars."

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

  • why did Aeneas need to consult Helenus as a priest and seer?
  • what would be the sign of Aeneas's destined home?
  • why must Aeneas visit the Sibyl?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Vergil's Aeneid (2002). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Vergil's Aeneid freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. 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 12:52 PM