Aeneas wants to get to the Underworld to see his father, but to do so, he must cross the river (the Styx) separating the mortal realm from the land of the dead. Charon ferries passengers from the earthly side to Hades' realm, but only if they have been properly buried. Because of his experience with other mortals, Charon is loath to carry over another living passenger who might steal from Pluto and Proserpine. Besides, the thieving mortals he had regrettably ferried across were Jupiter's children while Aeneas is not.
On this score, the Sibyl can assuage Charon's doubts. She says Aeneas, as son of Venus, is therefore also descended from the king of the gods. To allay Charon's fears, she shows him the golden bough Aeneas carries as a gift to Proserpine.
Charon, satisfied at last, rids the boat of its ghosts in order to carry over the heftier, corporeal pair. Upon the other side of the river is Cerberus, the snaky, three-headed watchdog whom Hercules had stolen. Cerberus poses little danger since the Sibyl has brought three tranquilizer-soaked doggie treats. From Cerberus they go past dead infants and the innocents. While still alive, the innocents had been falsely convicted of crime and executed, but in the Underworld, a severe, yet fairer judge, Minos, presides. Next are the suicides who now regret their choice. Unhappy lovers, including Aeneas' own Dido, the Queen of Carthage who had killed herself for love of Aeneas, reside nearby in the Mourning Fields (Lugentes Campi).
Ajax had turned a deaf ear to Odysseus in the Underworld, and so does Dido to Aeneas, despite Aeneas' protestations of his enduring love and "the gods made me do it."
After shedding a few tears, Aeneas goes off to the next group of shades, the warriors, who are little more than names, except for Deiphobus, Priam's son, who explains it was his wife who gave the signal to the Greeks hiding in the wooden horse. The Sibyl interrupts the reunion to urge Aeneas to move along one way or the other:
The right to Pluto's golden palace guides;
The left to that unhappy region tends,
Which to the depth of Tartarus descends;
The seat of night profound, and punish'd fiends."
From the left, Tartarus, Aeneas hears the groans of ghosts, the sounds of lashes and dragging chain in the realms of unrelenting fate where Rhadamanthus sits as judge. A Fury and the Hydra face all the condemned before they descend into Tartarus, a hole "twice as deep as earth is distant from the skies"
bis patet in praeceps tantum tenditque sub umbras,
quantus ad aetherium caeli suspectus Olympum
where the Titans reside.
The Sibyl begins to list the punishments and crimes of those condemned by Rhadamanthus but stops because the list is virtually endless. Among the crimes are incest, adultery, accepting bribes, defrauding of inheritance, and desertion. The list of individual criminals is far less detailed.
Between Tartarus on the left and Elysium (Elysian Fields) on the right is the middle, the walls of Pluto's palace where Aeneas affixes the golden bough. The ritual performed, the pair proceeds to Elysium where they find spirits engaged in pleasures like tending to horses and chariots, wrestling, and singing. This is the home of the good people, the patriots, poets, and priests.
Along a path in the bright Elysian Fields, they find Anchises moved to tears at seeing his son, the pious Aeneas, who proved worthy of his epithet by coming to visit his father after death. In a scene straight from the Odyssey, Aeneas tries in vain to hug his father (l.700).
Odysseus' mother Anticlea had told Odysseus of the family he'd left behind in Ithaca. Aeneas' father does more. He tells the future and provides civic, detailed, and philosophical information. Instead of telling Aeneas what Odysseus' mother had said about ghosts' being insubstantial, Anchises explains the cosmos, death, and the afterlife. A divine spirit sustains the universe; mortal souls are its seeds imprisoned and contaminated by the mortal body.
Nor death itself can wholly wash their stains;
But long-contracted filth ev'n in the soul remains.
The relics of inveterate vice they wear,
And spots of sin obscene in ev'ry face appear.
For this are various penances enjoin'd;
And some are hung to bleach upon the wind,
Some plung'd in waters, others purg'd in fires,
Till all the dregs are drain'd, and all the rust expires.
All have their manes, and those manes bear:
The few, so cleans'd, to these abodes repair,
And breathe, in ample fields, the soft Elysian air.
Then are they happy, when by length of time
The scurf is worn away of each committed crime;
No speck is left of their habitual stains,
But the pure ether of the soul remains.
But, when a thousand rolling years are past,
(So long their punishments and penance last,)
Whole droves of minds are, by the driving god,
Compell'd to drink the deep Lethaean flood,
In large forgetful draughts to steep the cares
Of their past labors, and their irksome years,
That, unrememb'ring of its former pain,
The soul may suffer mortal flesh again."
As the last step in purification, souls must drink from the river of forgetfulness, Lethe. They may then begin a new life. Anchises points to souls by the river of oblivion who will become the illustrious future leaders of Rome and descendants of Aeneas if only he fulfills his destiny.
Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis'd pow'r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Ceasar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis'd oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul'd of old;
Born to restore a better age of gold.
The book's climax is the meeting with Anchises and the revelations about Rome's future. When the scene is completed, Aeneas returns to his crew and resumes his journey.
While even this brief look at Aeneid Book VI must raise many questions about the view of the afterlife in Classical times, it has also answered some of those posed by Odyssey XI. For one, Elpenor may have been upset that he wasn't buried because he would have to spend a century waiting by the banks of the River Styx (as Palinurus will have to) amid such lovely creatures as Plague and Pestilence. Once properly buried Charon would willingly take him to Hades' domain where he might hope for a pleasant death-life in the Elysian Fields. The second question, about Tiresias, has a less satisfactory answer. Although many shades retain memories of their past lives, it would appear that attempts made to rid the dead of their mortal sins and habits render them less reliable than someone not purged, like Tiresias. The third question is most completely answered, because it is in providing a layout of the realm of Hades that Vergil adds a new dimension to Homer's nekuia. We now know where Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Tityos are: in Tartarus, deep under the land of the living, twice as deep as earth is from the sky. They are there together for an eternity suffering the punishment meted out by Rhadamanthus.
Line numbers refer to the Latin text.