The Great Myths #50: Aeneas in the Underworld (Roman)

Read the other Great Myths Here

In an immensely moving scene, after traveling to the underworld, Aeneas encounters his deceased father there:

But in the deep of a green valley, father
Anchises, lost in thought, was studying
the souls of all his sons to come – though now
imprisoned, destined for the upper light.
And as it happened, he was telling over
the multitude of all his dear descendants,
his heroes’ fates and fortunes, works and ways.
And when he saw Aeneas cross the meadow,
he stretched out both hands eagerly, the tears
ran down his cheeks, these words fell from his lips:

“And have you come at last, and has the pious
love that your father waited for defeated
the difficulty of the journey? Son,
can I look at your face, hear and return
familiar accents? So indeed I thought,
imagining this time to come, counting
the moments, and my longing did not cheat me.
What lands and what wide waters have you journeyed
to make this meeting possible? My son,
what dangers battered you? I feared the kingdom
of Libya might do so much harm to you.”

Then he: “My father, it was your sad image,
so often come, that urged me to these thresholds.
My ships are moored on the Tyrrhenian.
O father, let me hold your right hand fast,
do not withdraw from my embrace.” His face
was wet with weeping as he spoke. Three times
he tried to throw his arms around Anchises’
neck; and three times the Shade escaped from that
vain clasp – like light winds, or most like swift dreams.

Meanwhile, Aeneas in a secret valley
can see a sheltered grove and sounding forests
and thickets and the stream of Lethe flowing
past tranquil dwellings. Countless tribes and peoples
were hovering there: as in the meadows, when
the summer is serene, the bees will settle
upon the many-colored flowers and crowd
the dazzling lilies – all the plain is murmuring.
The sudden sight has startled him. Aeneas,
not knowing, asks for reasons, wondering
about the rivers flowing in the distance,
the heroes swarming toward the riverbanks.
Anchises answers him: “These are the spirits
to whom fate owes a second body, and
they drink the waters of the river Lethe,
the careless drafts of long forgetfulness.
How much, indeed, I longed to tell you of them,
to show them to you face to face, to number
all of my seed and race, that you rejoice
the more with me at finding Italy.”

“But, Father, can it be that any souls
would ever leave their dwelling here to go
beneath the sky of earth, and once again
take on their sluggish bodies? Are they madmen?
Why this wild longing for the light of earth?”
“Son, you will have the answer; I shall not
keep you in doubt.” Anchises starts and then
reveals to him each single thing in order.

“First, know a soul within sustains the heaven
and earth, the plains of water, and the gleaming
globe of the moon, the Titan sun, the stars;
and mind, that pours through every member, mingles
with that great body. Born of these: the race
of men and cattle, flying things, and all
the monsters that the sea has bred beneath
its glassy surface. Fiery energy
is in these seeds, their source is heavenly;
but they are dulled by harmful bodies, blunted
by their own earthly limbs, their mortal members.
Because of these, they fear and long, and sorrow
and joy, they do not see the light of heaven;
they are dungeoned in their darkness and blind prison.
And when the final day of life deserts them,
then, even then, not every ill, not all
the plagues of body quit them utterly;
and this must be, for taints so long congealed
cling fast and deep in extraordinary
ways. Therefore they are schooled by punishment
and pay with torments for their old misdeeds:
some there are purified by air, suspended
and stretched before the empty winds; for some
the stain of guilt is washed away beneath
a mighty whirlpool or consumed by fire.
First each of us must suffer his own Shade;
then we are sent through wide Elysium –
a few of us will gain the Fields of Gladness
until the finished cycle of the ages,
with lapse of days, annuls the ancient stain
and leaves the power of ether pure in us,
the fire of spirit simple and unsoiled.
But all the rest, when they have passed time’s circle
for a millennium, are summoned by
the god to Lethe in a great assembly
that, free of memory, they may return
beneath the curve of the upper world, that they
may once again begin to wish for bodies.”

Anchises ended, drew the Sibyl and
his son into the crowd, the murmuring throng,
then gained a vantage from which he could scan
all of the long array that moved toward them,
to learn their faces as they came along….

– Virgil, Aeneid Book VI, tr. Allen Mandelbaum

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