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Virgil and the underworld.

Aeneas in the Underworld (credit ; museumwales.ac.uk)

Last week we reached book five of Virgil’s Aeneid. This week we cover Book six and explore the underworld. We also start reading ‘Ovid’. This is the last week of lectures on the coursera course from The University of Pennsylvania.

I have separated the lectures on the Aeneid and Ovid. These are my course notes as usual. The options are rational are those of Peter Struck, the most excellent lecturer.

In Book VI, we see one of the most well-known parts of Virgil’s Aeneid, the trip to the underworld. We saw a similar scene in the Odyssey before but Virgil’s is quite different.

Virgil’s Underworld 

Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl Entering the Infernal Regions (Credit : metmuseum.org/)

Firstly Virgil’s underworld has a different function Homer’s. When Homer talks about Odysseus’ trip to the underworld he goes there to find what he did wrong and how he might right the wrong that is causing him all this suffering. He tries to find Tiresias for this information. Odysseus’ underworld is a giant holding cell where dead spirits go. There are a few famous sinners, who are being punished for eternity, but mostly everyone is grey and they all wish they were alive.

In Virgil’s underworld ethical scores are settled. Those that have done well in life get beautiful afterlives, joyful and happy things surround their eternity. Those that have been evil in their lives are physically punished. Virgil works from intervening traditions to help him build this notion of what the afterlife is like, based on precedents in Roman theological ideas about the gods. He also turns to some Greek materials, especially in Pythagorean philosophy. An example of this approach to the underworld shows up in Plato’s Republic in book ten back in classical Athens. It’s not at all a normal belief at the time Plato is talking about it, but after Virgil makes the underworld look like this, it becomes very normal in the west. It’s adopted into Christian theology. The idea of the afterlife as a place where ethical scores are settled, is very much a regnant idea. We see it in Virgil’s Aeneid in its most powerful mythical form.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Credit : metmuseum.org)

Virgil is very specific about what happens, he brings his rationalizing brain to bear, on this question of the underworld. Homer was pretty foggy. Odysseus went far away, landed and the spirits came out of a cave to come talk to him. With Virgil we see a full architecture and the way that everything works. The underworld is easy to get to but it’s very hard to come back.

“The way downward is easy from Avermus, Black Dis’s door stands open night and day. But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air, There is the trouble, there is the toil”

Aeneas has to figure out a way to disrupt the regular order of things to make his way there but then somehow also come back. The Sibyl tells him that there is a way for him to do this. He has to find a special piece of foliage called the Golden Bough. This is a wonderfully resonant poetic image in Virgil, which has been made famous in contemporary circles by James George Frazier who decided to name a seminal work in the study of mythology, in the early 1900’s, Golden Bough. The Sibyl tells Aeneas that he has to find this bough. She tells him that

Sybil with the Golden Bough (Credit ; telegraph)

“It will come willingly, easily if you are called by fate. If not, with all your strength you cannot conquer it, cannot lop it off with a sword’s edge”

Aeneas finds the bough.

“So bright amid the dark green ilex shone. The golden leafage, rustling in light wind. Aeneas at once briskly took hold of it and though it clung, greedily broke it off, then carried it to the Sibyl’s cave.”

Virgil gives us a middle way between the two distinctive and mutually exclusive possibilities that the Sibyl gave us. It doesn’t fall off in Aeneas’s hand, but he’s not foiled in his attempt to yank the thing off. We are given a possibility that the Sibyl seems to rule out. It’s a classic moment of Virgil, taking a circumstance that he’s already set up and giving us very clear possibilities, and then he finds a middle way through to say, actually, something else   happened. He leaves it in there as a point of incongruity in the story. This way of leaving shadows in his text, blank spaces, spots that don’t seem like they make sense according to the parameters that he himself set up. We saw this in the case of Dido’s marriage to Aeneas in the cave. We don’t hear if Aeneas was fated to go to the underworld or not.

There are invocations of underworld gods that Virgil gives us as we move down, descending into the cave, we hear about Hecate, and Night, and Earth, and Proserpina, who is our Roman name for Persephone. Virgil shows us an architecture that is very elaborate and detailed and has a strong downward trajectory. Sadness and death are personified around us. We see scary things happening, but Virgil reassures us.

“How feint these lives were – empty images hovering bodiless- he had attacked and cut his way through phantoms, empty air”

In the underworld there is no substance of things. They’re just shades. This is Virgil as a rationalizing, scientific mind, looking at his fantasy of what the underworld is all about.

Charon – Litovchenko, Alexander (Credit :allart.biz)

Aeneas and the Sybil cross the River Styx and move into limbo and other stages of the underworld. They run into a Palinurus who was mentioned at the end of the last book. He was on the tiller, guiding the ship away and he died unnoticed. This is very much parallel to the role that Elpenor played in the Odyssey. In Homer’s telling of the tale, Elpenor died. In the underworld Elpenor tells them that the dead want to be buried. After the underworld they bury Elpenor. Palinurus doesn’t fulfill the full story here. Palinurus tells them that he’s dead and wants to be buried, but we learn from the Sibyl that he’ll be buried by the locals where he died.  The carried on move forward but later, on the other side, we have the story of Misenus who is already dead and had to be buried to enter the underworld. In a typical Virgilian spin he takes one character of Elpenor and splits him into two, both Misenus and Palinurus play different parts of Elpenor’s role for us.

Through the Sibyl’s encouragement and using the golden bough, he gets across the River Styx on Charon’s boat. The boat creaks and lets water in under the weight showing Virgil again as a rationalizer, working out what would happen if an embodied human being went down to the underworld and took a boat meant for shades.  They then get across the river and meet the three headed dog Cerberus, who guards the underworld. They give him some honey and drugged meal that keeps him quiet and allows them to get across. At that point they enter the realm of Limbo where we see the untimely dead. These are figures like infants, those who have been unjustly condemned, suicides, those who died for love, and they meet Dido there. It’s a sad place it’s a spot that’s reserved for people who have not necessarily done wrong things, it’s just that they died in a way that circumstances did not allow them to experience the full pleasure, that’s possible in an afterlife.

Turner, Aeneas and the Sibyl: Lake Avernus, 1798 (Credit : monm.edu)

We see judges operating down there; Minos is making judgement on souls and sending them in one direction or another. Eventually they reach down to Tartarus where all the very worst sinners are. Aeneas is curious, he wants to go see this, but the Sibyl says “no pure soul may cross the sill of evil”.  Rhadamanthus acts as judge down there and awful things get dealt with in awful ways. She describes some of the awful things that happen.

We hear a description from Virgil that dawn crosses the meridian. Then the Sybil warns that night is coming and they have to move on Dawn is crossing the meridian. These two things don’t seem possible. It could be that Virgil is talking about the, is the topsy-turvy world that they are in. If dawn is crossing the meridian up in the upper spheres then it could be that night is arriving in the lower spheres. They will see night arrive in the underworld as dawn is crossing the upper Meridian. The Sibyl is anxious and ready to move on. Virgil gives some clues with dawn across the meridian, and night arriving. They move away from this nasty place where people are getting punished and start to move into a different world where it’s brighter and lighter. The figure that they see first is Anchises, Aeneas’s father. He introduces us to what’s happening over here and explains a lot of the things that we’ve seen so far in the underworld.

 Themes in the underworld

Venus and Anchises (Credit : Wikimedia)

They meet Anchises in the underworld and we see the larger point of why Aeneas had to go down there. Anchises tells him about how the universe works, about the larger structure of the Cosmos from a scientific standpoint.

Virgil works from multiple precedence not necessarily Homeric. Some are Homeric antecedents but there are closer ones in the second part of Book six that come from other literary sources. Plato’s Republic in Book Ten had talked about an underworld, the famous Myth of Er. This is a long narrative story about a soldier that dies. During his death it is revealed to him, in his trip to the afterlife, the whole structure of the Cosmos and how everything works. Then in Cicero in the famous part of his own republic, his final book called the Dream of Scipio.  Cicero talks in the same way about someone going to the afterlife and their being brought there as a visitor, at that point it’s revealed to them the whole structure of the Cosmos and how everything works. It’s likely also that Virgil was familiar, by this time, with a genre of literature that was emerging out of the ancient

(credit : haranyahya.com)

Near East that was called Apocalypse. Some ancient Apocalypses talk about the end of the world, a very famous one, The Book of Revelations, that closes off the Christian Bible. Not all Apocalypses talk about the end of the world, they had literature based on Revelation or Unveiling. The Greek term, apocalypse comes from a root, ‘apo’, meaning away from or un and ‘Kalypso’ means hide. So, an apocalypse is an unveiling of some hidden truth. In this genre of literature, it always happens that someone has a, hidden truth about how the universe works unveiled to him or her. Usually, what happens is there is a dream, a visitation from a senior person, either in one’s family, or in one’s city who takes the person in the dream to either a mountain top or some vista where they can see the structure of the whole cosmos. The whole history is read out at that point and the workings of the Cosmos are unveiled. These precedents are likely also to be behind Virgil’s Book six in addition to the materials from Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s Dream of Scipio.

We hear from Anchises who leads us along, and he begins a series of observations on how the whole universe works. Aeneas asks his father to tell him it all works. Anchises replies

“First, then, the sky and lands and sheets of water, The bright moon’s globe, The Titan sun and stars are fed within by Spirit, and a Mind Infused through all the members of the world makes one great living body of the mass. From Spirit come the races of man and beast. The life of birds, odd creatures the deep sea contains beneath her sparkling surfaces. And fiery energy from a heavenly source belongs to the generative seeds of these so far as they are not poisoned or clogged by mortal bodies, their free essence dimmed by earthiness and deathliness of flesh. This makes them fear and crave, rejoice and grieve”.

Augustus (Credit ;Wikipedia)

Anchises from the standpoint of the start of scientific observation talks about the elements and the planets and the Cosmos, and a divine mind and spirit that flow through everything borrowing from different philosophical schools of his time including Stoicism. He builds up a picture of the universe. Aeneas becomes educated on how the whole cosmos functions. This is the message that Aeneas gets in the underworld.

As the story continues and Anchises continues to reveal the basic structure of things he soon enough gets to Augustus. There’s a pretty seamless movement from a discussion of scientific observation on how the universe is structured into an historical one, from cosmology and science into history. We hear about Augustus from Anchises.

“He will extend his power beyond the Garamants and Indians, over far territories north and south of the zodiacal stars, the solar way, where Atlas, heaven-bearing, on his shoulder turns the night-sphere, studded with burning stars. At that man’s coming even now the realms of Caspia and Maeotia tremble, warned by oracles and the seven mouths of Nile go dark with fear. The truth is even Alcides never traversed so much earth.”

Alcides is a name for Hercules it means descendent of Alcaeus. Virgil is telling us something that is undoubtedly true, and that is a stunning thing to be true. If we take the most glorious fantastic mythical legends of Heracles the Roman Hercules, his dominion over the over the earth, how far he travelled, the amazing things he did, and all the labours that he completed far beyond what any human being is capable of. Virgil is saying that we live in a time where real historical figures are doing things that are even grander than myths. Fact and historical truth is outdoing mythological fantasy. Augustus is doing something that even Hercules could never have imagined doing.

He continues with further discussion of this Roman-ness and then about avenging the Trojan ancestors by eventually conquering Greece. Although the Greeks beat the Romans back in Troy eventually, Rome gets its dominance. They get revenge for the theft of the Palladium and the rape of Cassandra.

At the end of Anchises’s speech he makes it very clear what Aeneas is on the verge of creating. Anchises lays it out for him exactly what the idea of Rome is.

“Others will cast more tenderly in bronze, their breathing figures, I can well believe. And bring more life-like portraits out of marble, argue more eloquently, use the pointer to trace the paths of heaven accurately and accurately foretell the rising of stars. Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples – for your arts, are to be these:  To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”

At the beginning of our discussion of the Aeneid, we talked about an historical tumult that was happening during Virgil’s time. The Romans might have been a little bit worried about what Roman-ness was all about. Here they hear from Anchises, in this moment of revelatory truth about the way the whole Cosmos is structured, bleeding into history, moving into an identity of Rome, this is what it is to be Roman. The point of all of this, you Romans, is to make the Earth work right. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

The historical importance of this message is extremely powerful. Virgil, through Aeneas and his story, succeeds in giving the Romans a new identity, a sense of self that they can hang on to. Virgil never gives us anything straight without taking a little bit away. He has given a wonderful picture of the center of what Romanist is and a clear discussion of Rome’s power, its way, and its ability to bring peace to people. Right at the end of the book Ancises talks about two gates of Sleep

“One of horn, whereby the true shades pass with ease, The other all white ivory agleam, Without a flaw and yet false dreams are sent, Through this one by the ghosts of the upper world.”

He then leads Aeneas and Sybil though the Ivory Gate. This is classic Virgil, Giving us some sense of surety then taking it away. It’s not exactly clear and scholars have never had any settled opinion on this statement of Virgil’s, having Aeneas exit through the Gate of False Dreams. It’s a destabilizing gesture.

Vergil and the theories of Myth.

Virgil was writing as a person fully engaged in the ideas of myth of his time. We don’t know that that was true of Homer or the tragedians, it probably wasn’t. Virgil was a scholar of the ideas of myth in his time and to see him build this myth with reference to theories of myth is an interesting exercise.

Virgil’s rationalizing spirit.

He took what seems to be strange and mysterious happenings in myth, the most mysterious ones, and gives us multiple ways of trying to understand what’s happening. Something will seem like a visitation from a God, but really it’s a dream, which we know to be a representation of the dreamer’s fantasy. There is a stirring up of love sent by a divine force focusing Dido into recognizing the joy between Aeneas and his young son. These aspects show Virgil’s rationalizing spirit.

Virgil’s reliance on allegory.

English: Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus...

English: Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can see this in the connection between Juno, the Greek goddess, Hera, and her connection with the air. Virgil strongly identifies Juno with the air based on a scholarly precedent looking at links between the goddess Hera, and the element of the air, a strong current in allegorical reading. Also Jupiter, the Greek Zeus, is associated with the Aether, they are strongly connected in Virgil’s treatment of the topic. The gods are mapped onto features of the cosmos in a way an allegorist might do it.

With Iopas’ song at the close of book one Virgil takes his chance to represent what poetry is all about, in that same way that Homer used Demodicus . Knowing the scholarship that preceded him and, just like in his case of allegory, he has Iopas sing a song about the whole structure of the cosmos, again inviting us to read his tale as a large allegory.

Virgil as a Proto-functionalist.

Virgil writes during a time when Rome has a desperate need for a new sense for what it is to be Roman. Virgil seems to be aware of this. Functionalism hadn’t been invented but he could be a proto-functionalist. He was fully aware of the power of myth to instill and legitimize certain kinds of social norms. He does that with his mythic storytelling in order to instill and legitimize certain senses of what it is to be what it is to be Roman.

Modern ideas on Virgil’s myth are really interesting to pull out. There is a very rich set of possibilities and we can only scratch the surface.

The Sibyl of Cumae Leading Aeneas to the Under...

The Sibyl of Cumae Leading Aeneas to the Underworld (enhanced image) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Starting off with what contemporary functionalists might make out of Virgil’s story. Earlier we looked at one way to look at how Virgil casts the relationship between Dido and Aeneas. There we have a powerful sense of a new social and cultural value of pietas, or duty on a collision course with an old, traditional, and very Homeric anchoring cultural value of xenia. Virgil was well aware of how powerful xenia was in Homer’s world and there’s no doubt that he structured his epic in such a way as to create a collision course between these two fundamental cultural values. In telling the story in the way he did he made sure that pietas won that struggle. From a functionalist reading we have a strong endorsement of this new central cultural value, so strong that it’s made purposefully to have a collision course with and trump what might have counted as the old central cultural value in the Mediterranean.

A psychoanalyst reading

According to Freud, myths are there to dramatize the events of any individual’s development of their mental or intellectual, or psychological life. This is how dreams operate, we should look at myths as the dreams of an entire culture. Myths are a culture’s attempt to reflect, to dramatize, the developments that they see in their own emergent collective psychological life. In the case of Rome, there are many directions we could go with this, but at the time of Virgil’s writing there was a culture dominant across the Mediterranean. Some sense of the joy and pleasure of being top dog in the universe married with certain guilt at what it took to get there, Including figures like Dido and all the people who get chewed up in the machinery of fate as it grinds forward toward the production of Rome and all the human suffering. That again, Virgil never turns a blind eye to, he doesn’t paper over any of this. All these things seem to be built into and offloaded onto these mythological characters. The Romans watched Aeneas go through this whole process of acquiring and gathering power for Rome through his pietas and all the good things that he does. Dreams and fantasies that Romans might have of a great dominance over others are offloaded onto an acceptable substitute onto Aeneas, who is a mythic character He’s the Greek founder of what it is to be Rome

A structuralist reading

Wenceslas Hollar - Aeneas and Dido in the unde...

Wenceslas Hollar – Aeneas and Dido in the underworld (State 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a structuralist reading we need to go binary hunting. When we looked at Athenian tragedy, and especially the Oresteia, we talked about how there was a possible structuralist binary at work there. On the one hand we have organizing human societies via blood relations, on the other hand of societies by voluntary associations. In the case of this new democratic Athens, we talked about the Oresteia as underwriting this sense of voluntary associations being a critical and important way to talk about the structure of human society and here with voluntary associations versus blood relations, voluntary associations were winning in that earlier model.

Once we get to Rome using that same binary of voluntary associations versus blood relations, but here blood relations are winning out again. It’s a renewal of a traditional way of looking at things that it seemed the Oresteia was overturning, the critical organizing piece of human society is these blood relations. Blood relations are very important in the story. There’s Aeneas and his connection with his father, Anchises and with his son that he’s guiding by the hand, who represents the future. We have the eschewing of the connection with Dido. That voluntary association is shown to be treacherous and to be avoided. As we get into book six in the Underworld, there is a strong endorsement of blood relations. Anchises tracks all the family trees and talks about how they will be the governing way which will make this future work in the larger Roman society. The embrace of blood relations over voluntary associations as a way of anchoring in the society, would be one way that a structuralist could look at this. The binary opposition here is intention. Balanced in classical Athens on the voluntary association side, in Rome back on the blood relations side of the scale but we see the value and importance of both of these ideas. The two come into conflict in our intention. This is one possible way a structuralist would read our amazing epic of Virgil’s Aeneid.



  1. Monalisa says:

    Its very interesting to explore the Quest For The Underworld as it has been a subject of constant inquisitiveness among the ancient ages of mythological references…….The Underworld is kept as a secret Chalice unravelled to the Chosen few as it is described in all Ancient mythological texts of The Greek s to The Romans, The Druids, The Hindus, The Buddhist, The Bon and most importantly The Eygptians…… Virgil’s lyrical verses makes one translate this Other World more vividly as it is depicted in his poetic tales, his mastery of the skills of literary art is unique and transcendental makes one visualise and spiritually enlightens one mind…….Undoubtedly Virgil is one of The Greatest Epic Poet. Thank you Louise for such a detailed work explaining all the important mythical events in a concise precision……. I nurtured my knowledge reading it!

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you for your comment Monalisa. I am glad that you enjoyed my exploration of the underworld according to Virgil. These courses are a voyage of discovery all round for me. I haven’t read many of the great classics but I am certainly catching up.

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