The Aeneid, Book VI

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The Underworld

They finally arrived in Italy at Cumae. Aeneas headed straight for the temple of Apollo which Daedalus was said to have built, dedicating there the wings which had carried him through the air. On the temple doors was depicted the story of Minos, Pasiphae, the Minotaur, the labyrinth Daedalus had built, Theseus and Ariadne and the death of Icarus. They sacrificed seven bullocks and seven sheep and entered the cave of the Sibyl where Aeneas prayed that the gods pity the Trojans after all their sufferings, give them what was owed them by fate and allow them to settle in Latium.

Aeneas would then build Apollo a temple of solid gold and establish his oracle and priests dedicated to his service. The oracle through the Sibyl made the following prediction: that, although the Trojans had put behind them the dangers of the sea, worse dangers remained on land. They would have their kingdom in Lavinium but terrible wars would precede. Aeneas would have to fight a second Achilles, a foreign marriage would once again be the cause and Juno’s anger would not yet abate.

Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl portrayed in manuscript Vat Lat 3225 (folium 45v).

Aeneas asked the Sibyl to escort him to the Underworld so that he could see and talk to his dead father. The Sibyl told Aeneas the descent into the Underworld was easy; it was returning that was the difficulty; only those favoured by the gods had achieved it. Before going down he must first seek out and pick a golden bough as an offering to Proserpina. Only those called by fate can pick it. He must then find and bury the body of one of their men as he was polluting the fleet. Aeneas and Achates found the body of Misenus, a Trojan warrior who had fought alongside Hector and Aeneas; also a great trumpeter he had challenged the gods to play as well as he and was drowned by Triton.

Misenus was buried in a tomb on the top of Mount Misenus, named after him. As Aeneas had been cutting wood for Misenus’ pyre he saw two doves, his mother’s birds, who led him to the golden bough, which Aeneas plucked and took to the Sybil. Sacrifices were made to Hecate, Proserpina and Pluto, the gods of the Underworld. Aeneas then followed the Sibyl down into the Underworld. The entrance was dark and inhabited by personifications of terrors which afflict mortals: grief, revenge, old age, diseases, fear, hunger, poverty and death, war and discord; idle dreams beneath the leaves of a huge elm tree; terrifying monsters: Scylla, Briareus, the Hydra of Lerna, the Chimaera, Gorgons and Harpies and Geryon, all of them only ghosts who could not harm him the Sibyl warned Aeneas as he was preparing to attack them with his sword.

Aeneas’ journey through the Underworld. (c) Carlos Parada & Maicar Forlag

Next they approached the rivers of the Underworld guarded by Charon to whom the souls of the dead flocked, begging him to row them across the River Styx. The Sibyl explained that those he took across were the buried but the unburied were fated to wander there for one hundred years. Among the unburied Aeneas saw Trojan sailors who had fallen overboard during storms including his navigator, Palinurus. He told Aeneas he had reached the shore of Italy but had immediately been murdered. He begged Aeneas to free him from his present purgatory. The Sibyl told Palinurus that those living close to where he died would bury him and that place would be named after him.

Charon challenged Aeneas as he approached because he carried a sword and was obviously not dead. The Sybil told Charon that Aeneas was going to see his father and showed him the golden bough and Charon rowed them both across. Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, was drugged asleep by the Sibyl. They passed an area noisy with the tears of children who had died in infancy, of those who had been falsely accused, of those who had committed suicide and Minos was their judge. Next they passed the Fields of Mourning inhabited by those who had died unhappy in love: Phaedra, Procis, Eriphyle, Evadne, Pasiphae, Laodamia, Caenus and, to Aeneas’ great surprise and distress, Dido.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld Painting by Jan Brueghel ...
Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger.

He told her he had heard she had taken her own life. Was it because of him? He said it was not his fault he had left her and put the blame on fate and the gods. Dido refused to look at or speak to Aeneas but returned to her former husband, Sychaeus. Next they reached the area set aside for brave warriors who had died in battle. Aeneas met many Trojans who had died in the war including the mutilated Deiphobus whom Aeneas scarcely recognised. Deiphobus explained that he had been killed and mutilated by Menelaus and Odysseus after Helen, whom he had married after the death of Paris, had let them into their house.

They then passed Tartarus, surrounded by the burning river Phlegothon, from which terrible groans could be heard. Here lived those who had committed crimes when alive. They were judged by Rhadamanthus and punished in terrible ways by Tisiphone and the Furies. As they approached Elysium and The Fields of the Blessed Aeneas laid the golden bough at the gates for Proserpina. In contrast to the previous darkness and gloom everything here was bright and happy. Men were exercising, dancing, singing in honour of Apollo and feasting, all armour discarded. Aeneas asked for directions to his father and found him in a valley reviewing the souls of his descendants waiting to be born.

Procession of Augustus and the Imperial Family on the Ara Pacis Augustae.

Anchises ran towards Aeneas saying he knew he would overcome all dangers to get to him but they were unable to embrace as Anchises was a ghost. Aeneas saw countless numbers of men flitting like bees in a summer meadow waiting to drink the waters of the river Lethe and be reborn. Anchises explained how souls are reincarnated after one thousand years. He then pointed out future Romans who would bring great glory: Silvius, born to Aeneas’ future wife, Lavinia, after his death, and other Alban kings; Romulus, the founder of Rome and it’s dynasty, the Julian descendants of Iulus (Ascanius) culminating in Augustus Caesar who would bring back the Golden Age and extend Rome’s empire. After naming other great Romans Anchises set out Rome’s mission: government of the world, the bringer of peace, fair treatment of the defeated and unrelenting war against any opposition. Anchises ends his account with a panegyric of Marcellus, Augustus’ son in law and heir, who had recently died in Virgil’s time, and whom all Rome mourned.

Before Aeneas left the Underworld with the Sibyl through the Gate of Ivory Anchises told him about the wars he must still fight to secure his kingdom.

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