Aeneas’ Trip to the Underworld

Seven years after the fall of Troy, Aeneas’s foot finally touched the Italian soil. The first thing he did was visiting the famous oracle, the Sibyl of Cumae. As he had been instructed back in Epirus, he asked the Sibyl to foretell his future with her own words and not just trust her verses to leaves, as was her habit at the time, because those leaves had a tendency to get mixed up. So, the Sibyl made the prophecy for which she was asked. She prophesized hard times for Aeneas. A terrible fight caused once again by a wife from a foreign tribe. But she also promised that the hero’s endurance would bring him to a happy ending.

Aeneas seized the opportunity and asked the Sibyl about the entrance to the underworld. Sibyl proved to be a knowledgeable oracle. She was very clear about what needed to be done. Entering the realm of the dead was not supposed to be easy. Only a handful of heroes could claim that had entered the underworld alive and even less of them made it back safely. Aeneas was asked to accomplish a few tasks in order to be allowed to make such a journey. Firstly, he was asked to prepare a proper burial for his recently deceased soldier. This was kind of tricky because Aeneas was not aware he had a recently deceased soldier. It turned out he did. A guy called Misenus had been so confident in his abilities as a trumpeter that he had challenged gods for a musical battle. The contest didn’t last long – the trumpeter was immediately punished for his arrogance and drowned. The remaining tasks were something different entirely.  Aeneas had to prove that he was really chosen by the gods to enter the underworld. A means to prove this was a golden brunch in a nearby forest. If Aeneas indeed had been chosen and worthy, he would find this branch and break it off the tree easily. If not, he would fail to find the branch or it would be impossible to get it off the tree. Aeneas was fairly sure that he had the right to enter, he had been invited after all. But how to find that one little branch? Again, his connections with the gods helped him. His beloved mum Venus sent a pair of doves that guided him. With such help, Aeneas did not encounter any more problems. The underworld was suddenly open to him.

“Open” does not necessarily mean “welcoming” though. The entrance was still an ugly dark cave, frightening for everyone who saw it. Aeneas did not go alone, the Sibyl kept him company. Just after entering, they spot the ugliest inhabitants. They saw Age, Fear, and Huger, but also spirits of dead monsters – Chimera, Gorgons (the sisters of Medusa, a creature so ugly, that anybody who saw her immediately turned to stone) or the Harpies. But they did not stop to admire or fight these monsters. Instead, they run to Charon, a guy although not overly handsome too, but in control of a ferry that could get them further.

But Charon was obviously very busy. There were long queues of souls waiting for his ferry. He didn’t automatically take everybody, oh no. Only the souls of those properly buried were allowed to cross the river. All the others were left to wait there for a hundred years.   Aeneas noticed the first familiar face – one of his men, Palinurus. He had been killed not that long before when he ended up in the see. Having been drowned in the see is hardly a proper burial, so he was one of those not allowed to the ferry. He begged Aeneas to bury his body, or even better to somehow smuggle his soul to a nicer part of the underworld. Aeneas couldn’t comply but promised a proper burial to ease his worries. 

It required some explaining, but finally, Charon agreed to take Aeneas and Sibyl to the other side. There they found a guard worthy of that place – the three-headed giant hound Cerberus. Aeneas had a sword in his hand but was not asked to use it. Sibyl obviously knew what a dog liked and bribed him with a delicious honey cake that even a monstrous beast could not refuse. When the dog finished the cake and fell asleep, they just passed by.

They entered another part of the underworld. The one for the souls of suicide victims. There Aeneas recognized one of the souls. It belonged to Dido. He had broken her heart and left her in Carthage to pursue his fate. He didn’t know that she ended her life. He tried to explain why he had to go and that he was in fact very sad to do so. But Dido was not forgiving at all. She just stood there for a while and then turned her back on him a went to find the soul of her former fiancé instead. This love story certainly didn’t end by “happily ever after”.

Nevertheless, Aeneas and Sibyl continued their journey and entered the field of deceased warriors. Here they found Deiphobus, the son of the Trojan king Priam, who had married the beautiful Helen of Troy after her husband Paris had died. Deiphobus told them how he was eventually betrayed by Helen, but didn’t keep them for long and let them continue. They passed the most horrible part of the underworld – Tartarus, where the eternal punishments were carried out on the worst of the worst.  

After all this, they finally found who they came for – Aeneas’ father Anchises. They found him in the happiest of places – the green fields of Elysium, where the souls of the just and sinless enjoyed eternal happiness.   Before they could finally discuss the reason why Aeneas was asked to come, they witness an extraordinary thing. Some of the souls, having been cleaned from all sins, returned to the world of the living where new bodies were waiting for them. This meant that heroes not yet born could be seen there.

On that place, Anchises revealed the reason for his invitation. He had a prophecy to make about the descendants of Aeneas. He really had many things to say and man unborn heroes to show:

  • There was Silvius, Aeneas’ future sun. Several of his descendants, set to rule in Alba Longa.
  • There was Romulus, the man who was destined to found the glorious city of Rome. And that city was destined to rule the whole world.
  • There were the kings of Rome and Brutus who ended their reign.
  • There were Camillus, Torquatus and other heroes of the Roman republic. Even Cato, the Gracchi, and Scipio.
  • There was Caesar and even Augustus, his adopted son. He would expand the Roman empire and establish a golden age for his people. (this is probably a good place to mention that Virgil wrote his Aeneid in times of Augustus and with his generous support).
  • There was Marcellus, the hope of the Romans. Hero stronger and taller than any other, but destined to die young. (This was a reference to Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus and his expected heir. This potential was not fulfilled as we know Marcellus died young and without any significant accomplishments.)

Seizing the opportunity to give his son not just prophecies for a distant future, Anchises gave his son also a handful of tips how to avoid or overcome the hardships waiting for him in the upcoming months and years. After all, in order to plant the seeds of the glorious empire, he first needed to survive his encounters with the people of Italy. It was clear at this point, that not all of them would be welcoming.

After hearing and seeing all this, Aeneas and the Sibyl finally left the underworld through an ivory gate. I was much nicer looking than the one he had come there, but used frequently by the deceiving spirits of the dead and not curious tourists such as Aeneas.  Nevertheless, the way back was quite uneventful and he and returned to his people.


Virgil – Aeneid

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