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The Underworld Adventure of Aeneas in The Aeneid

Book VI Aeneid

By

Aeneas carrying Anchises. Attic black-figure oinochoe, c. 520–510 B.C.

Aeneas carrying Anchises. Attic black-figure oinochoe, c. 520–510 B.C.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol.
"Virgil imbues his Hades, as well as his Elysium, with a substantiated and understandable raison d'etre , and in the process corrects the notions of his predecessor [Homer in the Odyssey]. For Virgil, the Underworld must be categorized and organized as well as justified: thus the grouping of the souls of his Hades by reason or nature of punishment."
Interaction and Reaction in Virgil and Homer

Underworld Issues

Here are some of the unanswered questions about the mythology of the Underworld that are left at the end of the nekuia (Underworld scene) of Book XI of the Odyssey, by Homer:

  • Why was Elpenor upset that he hadn't been buried?
  • Why was it said that Tiresias, of all mortals, was permitted to keep a clear head about mortal matters?
  • Why were the shades of the eternally tortured, Sisyphus, Tityos, and Tantalus, near each other?

The view of the Underworld presented in the nekuia is alien from modern views of death. It's hard to understand what went on when one adheres strictly to Judaeo-Christian visions of Hell.

On this page and the next are some insights into the Homeric Underworld, based on references to Vergil. The Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil), was written many centuries after Homer's Odyssey. Despite a few centuries, Vergil is chronologically closer to Homer than we are. Vergil is a good model also because he deliberately patterned his work on Homer and elaborated on it, and he lived in a milieu where Homer's writing was still very much a part of the common culture, since Homer was at the heart of the routine education of children. Therefore, Vergil tells us something about the Greco-Roman (pagan) Underworld that we should know to understand Homer's nekuia.

"The striking similarities and close contrasts between the Underworlds of the two poets make it painfully obvious that Virgil was strongly affected by the ideas instilled in Homer's text. How exactly he reacted to this "burden," however, and how he attempted to justify his own work and separate it from that of Homer: these are the difficult yet ever-important questions. In re-creating Homer's Hades, and in the process facing up to his predecessor, Virgil exhibits clearly his desire to re-work Homer, to complete and perfect the vision of the earlier poet."
Interaction and Reaction in Virgil and Homer

Reasons for Going to the Underworld

Homer

Odysseus goes to the Underworld for help getting home.

Vergil

Aeneas goes to pay a duty call on his dead father Anchises.

Underworld Guidance

Homer

The help Odysseus seeks comes from the prophet, Tiresias, in the Underworld and the sorceress, Circe, among the living.

Vergil

Among the living, Aeneas seeks the guidance of the Sibyl at Cumae, a priestess of Apollo who speaks inspired prophetic utterances. Among the dead, he seeks the counsel of his father.

Warnings

Homer

Circe calms his fears and instructs Odysseus on how to travel.

Vergil

The Sibyl tells Aeneas how to proceed but warns him that while the trip to Hades is easy, the return voyage is limited to the select favorites of Jupiter. Aeneas must be divinely chosen if he is to return. This isn't all that terrifying a caveat, however, since he will know in advance whether he will be able to make the trip. In order to start the journey, the Sibyl says he must find a golden bough sacred to Proserpine. Should the gods not want him to proceed, he will fail to find it, but he does find it. In the guise of two doves, Venus, Aeneas' mother, guides him.

Unburied Dead

Like Odysseus, Aeneas has a dead companion to bury, but unlike his predecessor, Aeneas must bury him before proceeding to the Underworld because the death has contaminated Aeneas' fleet (totamque incestat funere classem). Aeneas does not initially know which of his companions has died. When he finds Misenus dead, he performs the necessary ceremonies.

Misenus lay extended on the shore;
Son of the God of Winds: none so renown'd
The warrior trumpet in the field to sound;
With breathing brass to kindle fierce alarms,
And rouse to dare their fate in honorable arms.
He serv'd great Hector, and was ever near,
Not with his trumpet only, but his spear.
But by Pelides' arms when Hector fell,
He chose Æneas; and he chose as well.
Swoln with applause, and aiming still at more,
He now provokes the sea gods from the shore;
With envy Triton heard the martial sound,
And the bold champion, for his challenge, drown'd;
Then cast his mangled carcass on the strand:
The gazing crowd around the body stand.
162-175

Slightly different from Odysseus, Aeneas has 2 men for whom he must provide funeral rites, but he doesn't find the second until the Sibyl has taken him to the shores of the River Styx, past the companions of Death: Famine, Pestilence, Sleep, Strife, and Disease (Curae, Morbi, Senectus, Metus, Fames, Egestas, Letum, Labos, and Sopor). There, on the shore, Aeneas finds his recently deceased helmsman, Palinurus, who cannot cross over until he is given a proper funeral rites. Proper burial is impossible since he was lost at sea.

Next page: Aeneas Descends to Hades' Realm Page 1, 2

Line numbers refer to the Latin text.

Book VI of The Aeneid by Vergil - Glossary Entries
Aeneas
Anchises
Cerberus
Charon
Deiphobus
Dido
Elysium/Elysian Fields
Furies
Hercules
Jupiter
Lethe
Misenus
Palinurus
Priam
Proserpine
Rhadamanthus
Sibyl
Sisyphus

Odyssey XI - Nekuia
Aeneid Book VI
(English)
Aeneid Book VI
(Latin)
Vergil (or Virgil)
Hades and the Underworld
Table of the Roman Equivalents of Greek Gods
Ghost Stories
Persephone
in the Underworld
Perithous
A Goddess For Men (Hercules and Cerberus)

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