Places of Myth

41 The Underworld

Persephone seated and Hades lounging holding a dish.
Persephone and Hades, red-figure kylix, ca. 430 BCE (British Museum, London)


God of the Underworld

Hades was a son of Cronus and Rhea and brother to Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Hestia, and Demeter. After the Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy, when Zeus became the ruler on Mount Olympus, Hades was allotted control over the underworld, which came to bear his name. So Hades refers both the god who is ruler of the underworld and to the underworld itself. As such, he is not one of the twelve Olympian gods, but along with his wife, Persephone, is known as a chthonic god, or a god of the earth.

In addition, Hades had many names and epithets that related to his role. He was called Aidoneus, which means “the unseen one” and Plouton, which means something like, “the wealthy one”, since Hades was lord of all the riches and bounties of the earth (the soil, precious metals and stones). His epithets included “The Ruler of Many” or “The Lord of Many Hosts” because he ruled over every person who had ever lived and died. He was also called “The One Who Carries Away All” and “Zeus of The Underworld.” The Romans called him Pluto, taken from Pluton. They also called him Dis or Dis Pater and Orcus. The Romans would also refer to the underworld itself as Dis.


Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 5 (trans. C. H. Oldfather, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek geography, 1st century BCE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]

[68] To Cronus and Rhea, we are told, were born Hestia, Demeter, and Hera, and Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Of these, they say, Hestia discovered how to build houses, and because of this benefaction of hers practically all men have established her shrine in every home, giving her honours and sacrifices. And Demeter, since the grain still grew wild together with the other plants and was still unknown to men, was the first to gather it in, to devise how to prepare and preserve it, and to instruct mankind how to sow it.  Now she had discovered the grain before she gave birth to her daughter Persephone, but after the birth of her daughter and the rape of her by Pluton, she burned all the fruit of the grain, both because of her anger at Zeus and because of her grief over her daughter. After she had found Persephone, however, she became reconciled with Zeus and gave Triptolemus the grain to sow, instructing him both to share the gift with men everywhere and to teach them everything concerned with the labour of sowing. And some men say that it was she also who introduced laws, by obedience to which men have become accustomed to deal justly with one another, and that mankind has called this goddess Thesmophoros after the laws which she gave them.[1] And since Demeter has been responsible for the greatest blessings to mankind, she has been accorded the most notable honours and sacrifices, and magnificent feasts and festivals as well, not only by the Greeks, but also by almost all barbarians who have partaken of this kind of food.

[69] There is dispute about the discovery of the fruit of the grain on the part of many peoples, who claim that they were the first among whom the goddess was seen and to whom she made known both the nature and use of the grain. The Egyptians, for example, say that [pb _glossary id=”351″]Demeter[/pb_glossary]and Isis are the same, and that she was first to bring the seed to Egypt, since the river Nile waters the fields at the proper time and that land enjoys the most temperate seasons. Also the Athenians, though they assert that the discovery of this fruit took place in their country, are nevertheless witnesses to its having been brought to Attica from some other region; for the place which originally received this gift they call Eleusis, from the fact that the seed of the grain came from others and was conveyed to them. But the inhabitants of Sicily, dwelling as they do on an island which is sacred to Demeter and Kore, say that it is reasonable to believe that the gift of which we are speaking was made to them first, since the land they cultivate is the one the goddess holds most dear; for it would be strange indeed, they maintain, for the goddess to take for her own, so to speak, a land which is the most fertile known and yet to give it, the last of all, a share in her benefaction, as though it were nothing to her, especially since she has her dwelling there, all men agreeing that the Rape of Kore took place on this island. Moreover, this land is the best adapted for these fruits, even as the poet also says:

“But all these things grow there for them unsown

And even untilled, both wheat and barley.”[2]

This, then, is what the myths have to say about Demeter.

As for the rest of the gods who were born to Cronus and Rhea, the Cretans say that Poseidon was the first to concern himself with sea-faring and to fit out fleets, Cronus having given him the lordship in such matters; and this is why the tradition has been passed along to succeeding generations that he controls whatever is done on the sea, and why mariners honour him by means of sacrifices. Men further bestow upon Poseidon the distinction of having been the first to tame horses and to introduce the knowledge of horsemanship (hippikê), because of which he is called “Hippius.” And of Hades it is said that he laid down the rules which are concerned with burials and funerals and the honours which are paid to the dead, no concern having been given to the dead before this time; and this is why tradition tells us that Hades is lord of the dead, since there were assigned to him in ancient times the first offices in such matters and the concern for them.


Taken from:*.html


Location and Topography

The topography of the underworld, called Hades or Erebos (meaning “the place of darkness”) was organized primarily around rivers: the Styx, the Acheron, the Cocytus, the Phlegethon, and the Lethe. Those who died first had to cross the river Styx in order to enter Hades. To do so, they had to pay the ferryman, Charon, an obol (a small coin), which would have been placed in the mouth of the deceased by their relatives or friends. The most powerful oaths, for gods and humans, were sworn on the River Styx. The River Lethe held the water of forgetfulness and, according to some accounts, the souls of the dead would drink from it to forget their previous life on earth.

Hades also contained a deeper level, called Tartarus (“the pit”), a place of punishment, where all the worst people and creatures were held. Tartarus was where Zeus locked up the Titans and the Giants after the Titanomachy and Gigantomachy. Another part of the underworld held the Elysian fields (or Elysium) and the Island(s) of the Blessed, where all the best, most heroic mortals went after death.

We do not get a clear map of the underworld from ancient literary or visual sources and different writers and artists depicted the underworld in slightly different ways. Generally it was understood to exist in a separate metaphysical realm under the earth. However, there were certain places on earth, usually situated near lakes or caves in sites with volcanic activity, that were considered to be entrances to the realm of the dead (Lake Avernum in Campania, Lake Pergusa in Sicily, the Ploutonion of Hierapolis, the temple of Poseidon at Taenarum, and the Necromantion of Ephyra).


Sections & Primary Sources


Hades and Persephone (called Proserpina by the Romans) were the king and queen of Hades. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus and the niece of Hades. He abducted her against her will and forced her to become the queen of the underworld (see chapter 10).


Persephone and Hades sit in a temple structure eating a feast. Around them are scenes from the Underworld: veiled Megara sitting with her two sons; Orpheus with a lyre; 2 Erinyes; Sisyphus pushing his boulder; Hermes with Heracles leading Cerberus; 3 Danaids carrying water; the judges of the dead; and Pelops, Myrtilos, and Hippodamia with a chariot wheel.
Persephone and Hades in the Underworld, tracing from pottery vessel


Charon, a bearded man with a tunic over one shoulder and a rounded hat, stands on a barge. He holds a punting pole, and his boat approaches a patch of reeds.
Charon, white-ground lekythos, 5th century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Charon, with domed hat and tunic, stands in a barge. His hand reaches out to welcome a woman who approaches from the left. She is veiled, and a small winged shade flies above her head.
Charon, with a woman and her shade, white-ground lekythos, ca. 450 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)
















There were two gatekeepers of the underworld. The first was Charon, the old ferryman, who shuttled dead souls across the River Styx (provided they had received a proper burial and had the obol to pay him). The second was the three-headed dog Cerberus, one of the notorious monsters of the ancient world.


Charon, a bearded man in a tunic and hat, stands on a boat and holds a punting pole. He holds his hand out to a small winged figure of a shade, that flies towards him with its arms extended.
Charon and a shade, white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BCE (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
Charon, in a hat and red tunic, stands on a barge, leaning over the side with a punting pole. Around the side of the lekythos, Hermes stands with his winged sandals.
Charon (with Hermes), white-ground lekythos, ca. 440 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)



The three judges of the underworld, Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus, meted out punishments and rewards to the dead. They were all legendary kings who gained their status as judges of the dead after their own deaths. Aeacus was a king of Aegina and Rhadamanthus and Minos were both kings of Crete.


There were several infamous criminals in the underworld, who all faced their own particular eternal punishments. We give a few of them here, though there are more.


Tityus attempted to rape the goddess Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis (recounted in chapter 13). The twins killed him and his punishment was to have his liver devoured by a vulture for eternity.


Tantalus fed his son Pelops to the gods in a stew. For the crimes of kin slaying and cannibalism he was punished with eternal hunger and thirst. He stood in the underworld in a shallow pool, with loaded fruit branches hanging about his head. Whenever he bent his head down to drink the water and quench his thirst, the water would recede from his grasp and whenever he would reach up to take the fruit, the branches would retract away from his hands.


Sisyphus was the founder and king of Ephyra (ancient Corinth). He cheated death twice, so as his punishment he had to push a rock up a hill, which would never quite reach the top before rolling down again endlessly.

The Erinyes

The Erinyes, called the Furies by the Romans, were goddess of retribution and punishment. They primarily went after people who broke their oaths and those who murdered their own family members. They were born from the blood of the castrated genitals of Uranus that landed on the earth (whereas the goddess Aphrodite was born from the severed genitals themselves when they landed in the sea). They were three goddesses (sometimes depicted as more) with snakes for hair and snakes twined around their bodies. The Erinyes guarded the entrance to Tartarus and meted out punishments to those who were confined within the pit. They could also journey up to the surface of the earth to pursue and punish guilty mortals.

Descent to the Underworld

katabasis, literally a “going down” to the underworld, is an important part of the mythology of certain Greek and Roman heroes. What makes these descents different from those of other mortals is that the heroes make these journeys while alive and they are permitted to return to the earth and the world of the living.


For his twelfth labour, Heracles has to go to Hades to fetch the three headed dog Cerberus. He does so successfully, freeing his friend Theseus at the same time, who had gotten stuck down there on his own katabasis. After presenting Cerberus to his cousin Eurystheus, Heracles returns the dog to Hades.

For further discussion of Heracles’ Labours, see chapter 17.


Heracles, carrying a club and wearing his lion skin, leads the three-headed dog Cerberus on a leash. Hermes, with petasos hat and cadduceus, stands beside Cerberus. Persephone, in decorated robes and holding a sceptre, stands to the right.
Heracles leading Cerberus (with Hermes and Persephone), black-figure amphora, ca. 490 BCE (British Museum, London)


Theseus takes a journey down to the underworld along with his buddy Pirithous to try to steal Persephone so that she can be Pirithous’ wife. The friends are caught by Hades and Persephone and are forcibly stuck by their seats to a stone bench. Theseus, who carried less blame since he was not trying to get Persephone for himself, is eventually freed by Heracles, but Pirithous remains stuck in the underworld for eternity. See chapter 22 on Theseus.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 10.1-85 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin epic poem, 1st Century CE

The tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice opens the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his epic poem about mythical transformations that starts with the origins of the cosmos and ends with the deification of Julius Caesar. Orpheus was a mythic Greek hero, known for his ability to play the lyre (a guitar-like stringed instrument) better than anyone else. He could tame wild beasts and even moved Persephone, queen of the dead, with his music. In this passage, he must make a katabasis to the underworld to try to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, who has died on their wedding day from the bite of a poisonous snake.


[1-85] Hymen, called by the voice of Orpheus, departed, and dressed in his saffron robes, made his way through the vast skies to the Ciconian coast: but in vain. He was present at Orpheus’ marriage, true, but he did not speak the usual words, display a joyful expression, or bring good luck. The torch, too, that he held sputtered continually with tear-provoking fumes and no amount of shaking contrived to light it properly.[3] The result was worse than any omens. While the newly wedded bride, Eurydice, was walking through the grass with a crowd of naiads as her companions, she was killed by a bite on her ankle from a snake sheltering there. When Thracian Orpheus, the poet of Rhodope, had mourned for her greatly in the upper world he also dared to go down to Styx, through the gate of Taenarus, to see if he might not move the dead.

Through the weightless throng and the ghosts that had received proper burial, he came to Persephone and the lord of the shadows, he who rules the joyless kingdom. Then striking the lyre-strings to accompany his words, he sang: ‘O gods of this world, placed below the earth, to which all who are created mortal descend! If you allow me, and it is lawful, to set aside the fictions of idle tongues and speak the truth, I have not come here to see dark Tartarus, nor to bind Cerberus, Medusa’s child, with his three necks, and snaky hair. My wife is the cause of my journey. A viper she trod on diffused its venom into her body and robbed her of her best years. I longed to be able to accept it and I do not say I have not tried: Love won.

‘He is a god well known in the world above, though I do not know if that is so here; though I imagine him to be here, as well, and if the story of that abduction in ancient times is not a lie,[4] you also were wedded by Amor. I beg you, by these fearful places, by this immense abyss, and the silence of your vast realms, reverse Eurydice’s swift death. All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race. Eurydice, too, will be yours to command, when she has lived out her fair span of years to old age. I ask this benefit as a gift; but, if the fates refuse my wife this kindness, I am determined not to return: you can delight in both our deaths.’

The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water; Ixion’s wheel was stilled; the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’ liver; the Belides, the daughters of Danaus, left their water jars; and you, Sisyphus, perched there on your rock. Then they say, for the first time, the faces of the Furies were wet with tears, won over by his song. The king of the deep and his royal bride could not bear to refuse his prayer and called for Eurydice.

She was among the recent ghosts and walked falteringly because of her wound. The poet of Rhodope received her and, at the same time, accepted this condition: that he must not turn his eyes behind him, until he emerged from the vale of Avernus, or the gift would be null and void.

They took the upward path, through the still silence, steep and dark, shadowy with dense fog, drawing near to the threshold of the upper world. Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turned his eyes. In an instant, she dropped back and he, unhappy man, stretching out his arms to hold her and be held, clutched at nothing but the receding air. Dying a second time, now, there was no complaint to her husband (what, then, could she complain of, except that she had been loved?). She spoke a last ‘farewell’ that, now, scarcely reached his ears and turned again towards that same place.

Stunned by the double loss of his wife, Orpheus was like that coward who saw Cerberus, the three-headed dog, chained by the central neck and whose fear vanished with his nature, as stone transformed his body. Or like Olenos, and you, his Lethaea, too proud of your beauty. He [Olenos] wished to be charged with your crime, and seem guilty himself. Once wedded hearts, you are now rocks set on moist Mount Ida.[5]

Orpheus wished and prayed, in vain, to cross the Styx again, but the ferryman fended him off. Still, for seven days, he sat there by the shore, neglecting himself and not taking nourishment. Sorrow, troubled thought, and tears were his food. He took himself to lofty Mount Rhodope, and Haemus, swept by the winds, complaining that the gods of Erebus were cruel.

Three times the sun had ended the year in watery Pisces and Orpheus had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys and enjoy their brief springtime and early flowering this side of manhood.[6]


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved


Line drawing of over 50 figures in different scenes of the Underworld, including Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, Tityus having his organs eaten by a bird, Teiresias, Anticleia, and Agamemnon. On the far left, Odysseus' crew members bring animals to be sacrificed.
Reconstruction of the Nekyia of Polygnotus depicting Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld, by Carl Robert and Hermann Schenck

Homer, Odyssey, Book 11 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek epic poem, 8th century BCE

In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseys travels down to the underworld to speak to the profit Tiresias. He is given directions and instructions for how to get down there by the divine witch, Circe.
[content warning for the following source: sexual assault (225-332), suicide (225-332), graphic description of death (385-464)]

[1-50] ‘On reaching the shore we dragged the vessel down to the glittering sea and set up mast and sail in our black ship. Then we hauled the sheep aboard and embarked ourselves, weeping, shedding huge tears. Still, Circe of the lovely tresses, dread goddess with a human voice, sent us a good companion to help us, a fresh wind from astern of our dark-prowed ship to fill the sail. And when we had set the tackle in order fore and aft we sat down and let the wind and the helmsman keep her course. All day long with straining sail she glided over the sea until the sun set and all the waves grew dark.

So she [the ship] came to the deep flowing Ocean that surrounds the earth, and the city and country of the Cimmerians, wrapped in cloud and mist. The bright sun never shines down on them with his rays neither by climbing the starry heavens nor turning back again towards earth, but instead dreadful Night looms over a wretched people. There we beached our ship, and landed the sheep, and made our way along the Ocean stream, until we came to the place Circe described.

Perimedes and Eurylochus restrained the sacrificial victims while I drew my sharp sword from its sheath and with it dug a pit two foot square, then poured a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water sprinkled with white barley meal. Then I prayed devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when I reached Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer in my palace, the best of the herd, and would heap the altar with rich spoils and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. When with prayers and vows I had invoked the hosts of the dead, I led the sheep to the pit and cut their throats so the dark blood flowed.

Then the ghosts of the dead swarmed out of Erebus – brides, and young men yet unwed, old men worn out with toil, girls once vibrant and still new to grief, and ranks of warriors slain in battle, showing their wounds from bronze-tipped spears, their armour stained with blood. Round the pit from every side the crowd thronged, with strange cries, and I turned pale with fear. Then I called to my comrades and told them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. I myself, drawing my sharp sword from its sheath, sat there preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood until I could question Teiresias.’

[51-89] ‘The first ghost to appear was that of my comrade Elpenor. He had not yet been buried beneath the broad-tracked earth, for we left his corpse behind in Circe’s hall, unburied and unwept, while another more urgent task drove us on. I wept now when I saw him and pitied him and I spoke to him with winged words, “Elpenor, how did you come here to the gloomy dark? You are here sooner on foot than I in my black ship.”

At this he groaned and answered me, saying, “Odysseus, man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, some god’s hostile decree was my undoing and too much wine. I lay down to sleep in Circe’s house and forgetting the way down by the long ladder fell headlong from the roof. My neck was shattered where it joins the spine and my ghost descended to the House of Hades. I know as you go from here, from Hades’ House, your good ship will touch again at Aeaea’s Isle and I beg you, by those, our absent ones we left behind, by your wife [ Penelope ], by your father [ Laertes ] who cared for you as a child, by your only son Telemachus forsaken in your halls, I beg you, my lord, remember me. When you sail from there do not leave me behind unwept, unburied and turn away so that I do not become a source of divine anger against you. Burn me with whatever armour I own and heap up a mound for me on the grey sea’s shore in memory of a man of no fortune, so that I may be known by those yet to be. Do this for me and on my mound raise the oar I rowed with when I was alive and among my friends.”

He spoke, and I replied, “Man of no fortune, all this I will remember to do.” So we sat exchanging joyless words, I on one side of the trench, holding my sword above the blood, my friend’s ghost on the other, pouring out his speech.

Then there appeared the soul of my dead mother, Anticleia, daughter of noble Autolycus: she who was still alive when I left to sail for sacred Troy. I wept at the sight of her, and my heart was filled with pity, yet I could not let her approach the blood, despite my grief, until I had questioned Teiresias.

[90-149] Then the ghost of Theban Teiresias appeared, carrying his golden staff, and he recognized me, and spoke,“Odysseus, man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, how now, luckless man? Why have you left the sunlight to view the dead in this joyless place? Move back from the trench and turn aside your blade so I may drink the blood and prophecy truth to you.”

At this, I drew back and sheathed my silver-embossed sword. When he had drunk the black blood, the infallible seer spoke and said, “Noble Odysseus, you ask about your sweet homecoming, but the god [ Poseidon ] will make it a bitter journey. I think you will not escape the Earth-Shaker, who is angered at heart against you, angered because you blinded his son. Even so, though you will suffer, you and your friends may yet reach home when you have sailed your good ship to the island of Thrinacia and escaped the dark blue sea and found there the cattle and the fat flocks of Helios, he who sees and hears everything, if only you can control your own and your comrades’ greed. If you keep your hands off them and think only of your homeward course, you may yet reach Ithaca, though you will suffer. But if you lay hands on them, then I foresee shipwreck for you and your friends, and even if you yourself escape, you will come unexpectedly to your home in sore distress, losing all comrades, in another’s vessel, to find great trouble in your house, insolent men who destroy your goods, who court your wife and offer gifts of courtship.

Yet, I speak truth, when you arrive there you will take revenge on them for their outrages. When, though, you have killed the Suitors in your palace, by cunning or openly, with your sharp sword, then pick up a shapely oar and travel on until you come to a race that knows nothing of the sea, that eat no salt with their food, and have never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings. And let this be your sign, you cannot miss it: that meeting another traveler he will say you carry a winnowing-fan on your broad shoulder. There you must plant your shapely oar in the ground, and make a rich sacrifice to Lord Poseidon: a ram, a bull, and a breeding-boar. Then leave for home and make sacred offerings there to the deathless gods who hold the wide heavens, to all of them and in their due order.

And death will come to you far from the sea, the gentlest of deaths, taking you when you are bowed with comfortable old age and your people prosperous about you. This that I speak to you is the truth.”

He finished and I replied, saying, “Teiresias, no doubt the gods themselves have spun this fate for me. Come tell me the truth of this now. Here I see my dead mother’s ghost; she sits beside the blood silently and cannot look at her own son’s face or speak with him. Tell me, my lord, how she knows that it is I.”

Swiftly he answered my words, “It is a simple thing to explain to you. Whoever of the dead departed you allow to approach the blood will speak to you indeed; but whoever you deny will draw back.”’

[150-224] With this, the ghost of Lord Teiresias, its prophecy complete, drew back to the House of Hades. But I remained, undaunted, until my mother approached and drank the black blood. Then she knew me and in sorrow spoke to me with winged words, “My son, how do you come, living, to the gloomy dark? It is difficult for those alive to find these realms, since there are great rivers and dreadful waters between us, not least Ocean, which no man can cross except in a well-made ship. Do you only now come from Troy, after long wandering with your ship and crew? Have you not been to Ithaca yet, not seen your wife and home?”

To this I replied, “Mother, necessity brought me to Hades’ House, to hear the ghost of Theban Teiresias and his prophecy. No, I have not yet neared Achaea’s shores, not set foot in my own country, but have wandered constantly, burdened with trouble, from the day I left for Ilium, the city famous for horses, with noble Agamemnon, to fight the Trojans. But tell me now, in truth, what pitiless fate overtook you? Was it a wasting disease or did Artemis of the Bow attack you with her gentle arrows and kill you? And what of my father and son I left behind? Does my realm still rest with them, or has some other man possessed it, saying I will no longer return? And tell me of my wife, her thoughts and intentions. Is she still with her son and all safe? Or has whoever is best among the Achaeans wedded her?”

So I spoke and my revered mother swiftly replied, “Truly, that loyal heart still lives in your palace and the days and night pass sadly for her, weeping. No man has yet taken your noble realm and Telemachus holds the land unchallenged, feasting at the banquets of his peers, at least those it is fitting for a maker of laws to share, since all men invite him. But your father lives alone in the fields, not travelling to the city, and owns no bed with bright rugs and cloaks for bedding, but sleeps where peasants sleep, in the ashes by the hearth all winter through, and wears only simple clothes. When summer comes and mellow autumn, then you will find his humble beds of fallen leaves scattered here and there on the vineyard’s slopes. There he lies, burdened with age, grieving, nursing great sadness in his heart, longing for your return. So too fate brought me to the grave. It was not the clear-sighted Goddess of the Bow [ Artemis ] who slew me in the palace with gentle arrows, nor did I die of some disease, one of those that often steals the body’s strength and wastes us wretchedly. No, what robbed me of my life and its honeyed sweetness was yearning for you, my glorious Odysseus, for your kindness and your counsels.”

So she spoke and I wondered how I might embrace my dead mother’s ghost. Three times my will urged me to clasp her and I started towards her, three times she escaped my arms like a shadow or a dream. And the pain seemed deeper in my heart. Then I spoke to her with winged words, “Mother, since I wish for it, why do you not let me embrace you, so that even in Hades’ House we might clasp our arms around each other and satisfy ourselves with cold mourning? Are you a mere phantom royal Persephone has sent, to make me groan and grieve the more?

My revered mother replied quickly, “Oh, my child, most unfortunate of men, Persephone, Zeus’ daughter, does not deceive you: this is the way it is with mortals after death. The sinews no longer bind flesh and bone, the fierce heat of the blazing pyre consumes them, and the spirit flees from our white bones, a ghost that flutters and goes like a dream. Hurry to the light with all speed; remember these things so that you can speak to your wife of them.”’

[225-332] ‘So we talked together and then the women, the wives and daughters of heroes, came, sent by royal Persephone. They thronged around the black blood in a crowd and I considered how best to question them, and this was my idea: to draw my long sword from its sheath and prevent them from drinking of the blood together. Then each came forward, one by one, and declared her lineage, and I questioned all.

Know then, the first I saw was noble Tyro, who told me she was peerless Salmoneus’ daughter, and wife to Cretheus, Aeolus’ son. She fell in love with the god of the River Enipeus, most beautiful of Earth’s rivers, and used to wander by its lovely waters. But the Earth-Shaker, Earth-Bearer Poseidon, took Enipeus’ form, and lay with her at the swirling river-mouth. A dark wave, mountain-high, curled over them and hid the mortal woman and the god. There he unclasped the virgin’s girdle, and then he sealed her eyes in sleep. When he had finished making love to her, he took her by the hand, and said: “Lady, be happy in this love of ours and as the year progresses you will bear glorious children, for a god’s embrace is not without power. Nurse them and rear them, but for now go home and keep silent and know I am Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker.” With this he sank beneath the surging sea. Tyro conceived, and bore Pelias and Neleus, two mighty servants of great Zeus. Pelias, rich in flocks, lived in spacious Iolcus, while Neleus lived in sandy Pylos. This queen among women bore other children to Cretheus: Aeson, Pheres and Amythaon, filled with the charioteer’s delight in battle.

Next I saw Antiope, Asopus’ daughter, who claimed she had slept with Zeus himself. She gave birth to two sons, Amphion and Zethus, who founded Seven-Gated Thebes, ringing it with walls, since powerful as they were they could not live in a Thebes vast but unfortified.

Then came Alcmene, wife of Amphitryon, who conceived Heracles, lion-hearted, fierce in fight, when she lay in great Zeus’ arms. And I saw Megara, proud Creon’s daughter, who married that same indomitable son of Amphitryon.

Then Oedipus’ mother came, the beautiful Jocasta, who unknowingly did a monstrous thing: she wed her own son. He killed his father and married his mother; only then did the gods reveal the truth. By the gods’ dark design despite his suffering he still ruled the Cadmeans in lovely Thebes, but she descended to the house of Hades, mighty jailor, tying a fatal noose to the high ceiling, hung by her own grief, leaving endless pain for Oedipus, all that a mother’s avenging Furies can inflict.

And lovely Chloris I saw, youngest daughter of Amphion, son of Iasus once the great Minyan King of Orchomenus. Neleus wooing her gave her countless gifts, marrying her because of her beauty: and she was Queen in Pylos. She bore her husband glorious children, Nestor, Chromius, and noble Periclymenus, and the lovely Pero, she a wonder to men, so that all her neighbours tried for her hand, but Neleus would only give her to the man who could drive great Iphicles’ cattle from Phylace: a broad and spiral-horned herd, and hard to drive. The infallible prophet, Melampus, alone, agreed to try, but the gods’ dark design snared him, and the savage herdsmen’s cruel bonds. Only when days and months had passed, the seasons had altered, and a new year came, did mighty Iphicles release him, since he had exhausted all his prophecies, and Zeus’ will was done.

Leda, I saw, Tyndareus’ wife, who bore him those stout-hearted twins, Castor, the horse-tamer, and Polydeuces, the boxer. Though they still live, they have even been honoured by Zeus in the underworld, beneath the fruitful Earth. Each alternately is alive for a day, and the next day that one is dead: they are honoured as if they were gods.

Next I saw Iphimedeia, Aloeus wife, who claimed she had slept with Poseidon. She too bore twins, short-lived, godlike Otus and famous Ephialtes, the tallest most handsome men by far, aside from great Orion, whom the fertile Earth ever nourished. They were fifteen feet wide, and fifty feet high at nine years old, and threatened to sound the battle-cry of savage war even against the Olympian gods. They longed to add [Mount] Ossa to Olympus, then Pelion and its waving woods to Ossa, and scale the heavens themselves. They would have done it too, if they had already reached manhood, but Apollo, Zeus’ son, born of lovely Leto, slew them both, before the down had covered their faces, and their beards began to grow.

And Phaedra too I saw, and Procris, and fair Ariadne, daughter of baleful Minos. Theseus tried to carry her off from Crete to the sacred hill of Athens, but had no joy, for Artemis, warned by Dionysus, killed her on sea-encircled Dia.

And Maera came, and Clymene, and hateful Eriphyle, who sold her own husband’s life for gold.

I cannot count or name all the wives and daughters of heroes I saw there, or all this immortal night would be gone. And it is time for me to sleep, here in the palace, or with my crew by the swift ship. My journey home is in your hands, and in the hands of the gods.’

[333-384] So Odysseus spoke. Spellbound at his words, all had fallen silent in the darkened hall. White-armed Arete was the first of the gathering to speak: ‘Phaeacians, what do you think of this man’s looks, his stature, and judgement? He is my guest, as well, though you all share in that honour. So don’t be in a hurry to send him on his way, nor fail in generosity to one who stands in need, for favoured by the gods your homes are full of treasures.’

Then a Phaeacian elder, the aged hero Echeneus, said: ‘Friends, our wise queen’s words are fitting and match our thoughts. Respond to them, though words and actions here are still subject to Alcinous.’

‘Her word is good,’ Alcinous replied, ‘as long as I live and rule the sea-loving Phaeacians. Yet our guest must stay until tomorrow, despite his longing for home, while we add to our gifts. The men shall concern themselves, all of them, with his passage, I most of all, since the power here rests with me.’

Then resourceful Odysseus replied: ‘Renowned Alcinous, my lord, if you further my passage and offer me glorious gifts, though you commanded me to stay, even for another year, I would accept it. It would be better to reach my country with full hands. I would win more honour and love from those who witness my return to Ithaca.’

Again Alcinous spoke: ‘Odysseus, when we gaze at you, we certainly do not think of you as one of those liars and cheats the black earth breeds in such numbers among the ranks of humankind, men who fashion falsehoods out of things beyond experience. You have a wise and eloquent heart, and have told us your adventures and of the Argives’ sad misfortunes with the skillfulness of a bard. But tell me the truth of this, in Hades did you see any of your godlike comrades, warriors who travelled to Troy with you, and met their death there? The night is long, and it cannot be time to sleep yet, not on such a marvelous night as this. Tell me the wondrous things you have done. I could stay awake till shining dawn, listening as long as you are willing to speak of your misfortunes.’

To this resourceful Odysseus answered: ‘Lord Alcinous, most renowned of men, there is a time for words, and a time for sleep. But if you long to hear I cannot refuse to speak of a sadder thing than these, the fate of friends who escaped the dread ranks of the Trojans only to die later, to die on their return through an evil woman’s wiles.’

[385-464] ‘When sacred Persephone had dispersed the female spirits, the ghost of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, came grieving, and other ghosts were gathered round him, those who met their fate alongside him, murdered in Aegisthus’ palace. Drinking the black blood he knew me, and wept loudly, shedding great tears, stretching his hands out in his eagerness to touch me. But all his power and strength was gone, all that vigour his body one possessed.

I wept when I saw him, and pitied him, and spoke to him with winged words: “Agamemnon, king of men, glorious son of Atreus, what pitiless stroke of fate destroyed you? Did Poseidon stir the cruel winds to a raging tempest, and swamp your ships? Or perhaps you were attacked in enemy country, while you were driving off their cattle and fine flocks, or fighting to take their city and its women?”

He answered my words swiftly: “Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, Poseidon stirred no cruel winds to raging tempest, nor swamped my ships, nor was I attacked in enemy country. It was Aegisthus who engineered my fate, inviting me to his palace for a feast, murdering me with my accursed wife’s help, as you might kill an ox in its stall. I died wretchedly, and around me my companions were slaughtered ruthlessly, like white-tusked swine for a wedding banquet in the hall of some rich and powerful man, or at a communal meal, or a great drinking session. You yourself have witnessed the killing of men, in single combat or in the thick of the fight, but you would have felt the deepest pity at that sight, the floor swimming with blood where our corpses lay, by the mixing bowl and the heavily-laden tables. But the most pitiful cry of all came from Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, whom treacherous Clytemnestra killed as she clung to me. Brought low by Aegisthus’ sword I tried to lift my arms in dying, but bitch that she was my wife turned away, and though I was going to Hades’ Halls she disdained even to close my eyelids or my mouth. Truly there is nothing more terrible or shameless than a woman who can contemplate such acts, planning and executing a husband’s murder. I had thought to be welcomed by my house and children, but she with her mind intent on that final horror has brought shame on herself and all future women, even those who are virtuous.”

To this I answered: “Indeed, from the very beginning, Zeus the Thunderer has tormented the race of Atreus, through women’s machinations! So many men died for Helen’s sake while Clytemnestra plotted in your absence.” I spoke, and he made answer swiftly: “So don’t be too open with your own wife, don’t tell her every thought in your mind, reveal a part, keep the rest to yourself. Not that death will come to you from wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, she who is so tender-hearted, and cautious. A newly wedded bride she was when we left for the war, with a baby son at her breast who must be a man now and prospering. His loving father will see him when he returns, and he will kiss his father as is right and proper. But that wife of mine did not even allow me to set eyes on my son before she killed me. Let me say this too, and take my words to heart, don’t bring your ship to anchor openly, when you reach home, but do it secretly, since women can no longer be trusted.

Come tell me, in truth, have you heard if my son is still alive, maybe in Orchomenus or sandy Pylos, or in Menelaus’ broad Sparta: that my noble Orestes is not yet dead?” To this I answered: “Son of Atreus, why ask this of me? I cannot tell if he is dead or living, and it is wrong to utter empty words.”’

[465-540] ‘So we stood, exchanging words of sadness, grieving and shedding tears. And now the spirit of Achilles son of Peleus appeared, and the spirits of Patroclus and peerless Antilochus, and Ajax who for beauty and stature was supreme among the Danaans, save only for Peleus’ flawless son. And the ghost of swift-footed Achilles, grandson of Aeacus, knew me, and spoke through the tears: “Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, what could your resolute mind devise that exceeds this: to dare to descend to Hades, where live the heedless dead, the disembodied ghosts of men?”

So he spoke, and I replied: “Achilles, son of Peleus, greatest of Achaean warriors, I came to find Teiresias, to see if he would show me the way to reach rocky Ithaca. I have not yet touched Achaea, not set foot in my own land, but have suffered endless troubles, yet no man has been more blessed than you, Achilles, nor will be in time to come, since we Argives considered you a god while you lived, and now you rule, a power, among the un-living. Do not grieve, then, Achilles, at your death.”

These words he answered, swiftly: “Glorious Odysseus: don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead. Give me news of my son, instead. Did he follow me to war, and become a leader? Tell me, too, what you know of noble Peleus. Is he honoured still among the Myrmidons, or because old age ties him hand and foot do Hellas and Phthia fail to honour him? I am no longer up there in the sunlight to help him with that strength I had on Troy’s wide plain, where I killed the flower of their host to defend the Argives. If I could only return strong to my father’s house, for a single hour, I would give those who abuse him and his honour cause to regret the power of my invincible hands.”

To this I answered: “Truly, I have heard nothing of faultless Peleus, but I can tell you all about Neoptolemus, your resolute son, since you command me. I myself brought him from Scyros, in my well-made hollow ship, to join the bronze-greaved ranks of the Acheans. When we debated our plans before Troy he was always first to speak and his words were eloquent: only godlike Nestor and I were more so. And when we fought with our bronze spears on the plains of Troy, he never lagged behind in the crowded ranks but always advanced far in the lead, yielding to no one in skill. Many were the men he killed in mortal combat. I could not count or name them, all those victims of his, killed as he fought for the Argives, but what a warrior that hero Eurypylus, son of Telephus was, who fell to his sword, and Eurypylus’ Mysian comrades slain around him, all because of a woman’s desire for gain.

Next to noble Memnon, he was the handsomest man I ever saw. Then again, when we Argive leaders climbed into the [Trojan] Horse that Epeius made, and it fell to me to open the hatch of our well-made hiding place, or keep it closed, the other Danaan generals and counsellors kept on wiping the tears from their eyes and their limbs trembled, but he begged me endlessly to let him leap from the Horse, toying with his sword hilt and his heavy bronze spear, eager to wreak havoc on the Trojans. And when we had sacked Priam’s high city, he took ship with his share of the spoils and a noble prize, and never a wound, untouched by the sharp spears, unmarked by close combat, something rare in battle, since Ares, the God of War, is indiscriminate in his fury.”

When I had spoken, the spirit of Achilles, Aeacus’ grandson, went away with great strides through the field of asphodel, rejoicing at my news of his son’s greatness.’

[541-592] ‘The other ghosts of the dead departed stood there grieving, and each asked me about their dear ones. Only the spirit of Ajax, Telamon’s son, stood apart, still angered over my victory in the contest by the ships for Achilles’ weapons. Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis, had offered them as a prize, with the Trojan prisoners and Pallas Athena herself as judges. I wish I had never won the reward for that debate, that armour that caused the earth to close over so noble a head as that of Ajax, who in beauty and martial action was supreme among the Danaans, save for that faultless son of Peleus. I spoke to his ghost in calming words: “Ajax, son of faultless Telamon, even in death can you not forget your anger with me, over those fatal weapons? The gods themselves must have cursed the Argives with them. In you a tower of strength was lost to us, and we Achaeans never cease to share as great a grief for you, as we do for Achilles, Peleus’ son. But Zeus alone is to blame whose deadly hatred for the Danaan host hastened your doom. Come closer to me, my lord, so you can hear my speech. Curb your wrath: restrain your proud spirit.”

He chose not to give a single word in answer, but went his way into Erebus to join the other ghosts of the dead departed. For all his anger he might still have spoken to me, or I to him, but my heart desired to see other ghosts of those who were gone.

Know that I saw Minos there, Zeus’ glorious son, seated with the golden sceptre in his hand, passing judgement on the dead as they sat or stood around him, making their case, in the broad-gated House of Hades.

I next saw great Orion, carrying his indestructible bronze club, driving the phantoms of wild creatures he once killed in the lonely hills over the fields of asphodel.

I saw Tityus, son of glorious Gaia, spread out over a hundred yards of ground, while a vulture sat on either side tearing his liver, plucking at his entrails, his hands powerless to beat them away. He is punished for his rape of Leto, Zeus’ honoured consort, as she journeyed to Pytho through lovely Panopeus.

I saw Tantalus in agonising torment, in a pool of water reaching to his chin. He was tortured by thirst, but could not drink, since every time he stooped eagerly the water was swallowed up and vanished, and at his feet only black earth remained, parched by some god. Fruit hung from the boughs of tall leafy trees, pears and pomegranates, juicy apples, sweet figs and ripe olives. But whenever the old man reached towards them to grasp them in his hands, the wind would sweep them off into the shadowy clouds.’

[593-640] ‘And I saw Sisyphus in agonising torment trying to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. He would brace himself, and push it towards the summit with both hands, but just as he was about to heave it over the crest its weight overcame him, and then down again to the plain came bounding that pitiless boulder. He would wrestle again, and lever it back, while the sweat poured from his limbs, and the dust swirled round his head.

Then I caught sight of mighty Heracles, I mean his phantom, since he enjoys feasting among the deathless gods, with slim-ankled Hebe for wife, she the daughter of great Zeus and golden-sandalled Hera. Around Heracles a clamour rose from the dead, like wild birds flying up in terror, and he dark as night, his bow unsheathed and an arrow strung, glared round fiercely as if about to shoot. His golden shoulder-belt was terrifying too, where marvelous things were wrought, bears, wild boars, lions with glittering eyes, battle and conflict, murder and mayhem. I hope that whatever craftsman retained the design of that belt he never made another, and never will.

When he saw me, he in turn knew me, and weeping spoke in winged words: “Odysseus of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, wretched spirit are you too playing out your evil fate such as I once endured under the sun? A son of Zeus, Cronus’ son, I still suffered misery beyond all measure, since I served a man far inferior to me, and he set me difficult tasks. He even sent me here to bring back the Hound of Hades, unable to think of a harder labour. I carried off the creature too, and led him away. Hermes and bright-eyed Athena were my guides.”

With this he departed into Hades’ House, but I stood fast, hoping some other heroic warrior of ancient times might still appear. And I might have seen those men of the past I longed to see, Theseus and Pirithous, bright sons of the gods. But long before that the countless hosts of the dead came thronging with eerie cries, and I was gripped by pale fear that royal Persephone might send up the head of that ghastly monster, the Gorgon, from Hades’ House.

So I hurried to the ship, and ordered my friends to embark, and let loose the cables. Swiftly they climbed aboard, and took their seats at the oars, and as we rowed the force of the current carried her down the River of Ocean, until afterwards a fair breeze blew.’


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved



In Book VI of the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas travels to the underworld to speak to his father Anchises.


Virgil, Aeneid, Book 6 (trans. A.S. Kline)

Latin epic poem, 19 CE

At the start of book VI, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans, fleeing the destruction of Troy after the end of the war, have arrived in Italy. Before they start fighting with the native Italians for control of the land, Aeneas takes a trip to the underworld to speak to his dead father. Here we see the priestess, the Sybil showing him the way the underworld, where he will speak with his father and see images of the future Romans that will be his descendants

[1-55] So Aeneas spoke, weeping, gave his fleet full rein, and glided

at last to the shores of Euboean Cumae. They turned

their prows to the sea, secured the ships’ anchors,

by the grip of their flukes [anchors], and the curved boats

lined the beach. The youthful band leapt eagerly

to the Hesperian shore: some sought the means of fire

contained in veins of flint, some raided the woods

the dense coverts of game, pointing out streams they found.

But pious Aeneas sought the summits, where Apollo

rules on high, and the vast cavern nearby, the secret place

of the terrifying Sibyl, in whom the Delian prophet

inspires greatness of mind and spirit, and reveals the future.

Soon they entered the grove of Diana, and the golden house.

Daedalus, so the story goes, fleeing from Minos’ kingdom,

dared to trust himself to the air on swift wings,

and, gliding on unknown paths to the frozen North,

hovered lightly at last above the Chalcidian hill.

First returning to earth here, he dedicated his oar-like wings

to you Phoebus, and built a gigantic temple.

On the doors the Death of Androgeus: then the Athenians,

Cecrops’ descendants, commanded, sadly, to pay annual tribute

of seven of their sons: there the urn stands with the lots drawn.

Facing it, rising from the sea, the Cretan land is depicted:

and here the bull’s savage passion, Pasiphae’s

secret union, and the Minotaur, hybrid offspring,

that mixture of species, proof of unnatural relations:

the artwork here is that palace, and its inextricable maze:

and yet Daedalus himself, pitying the noble princess

Ariadne’s love, unravelled the deceptive tangle of corridors,

guiding Theseus’ blind footsteps with the clue of thread.

You’d have shared largely in such a work, Icarus, if grief

had allowed, he’d twice attempted to fashion your fate

in gold, twice your father’s hands fell. Eyes would have read

the whole continuously, if Achetes had not arrived

from his errand, with Deiophobe [the Sibyl ], Glaucus’ daughter,

the priestess of Phoebus and Diana, who spoke to the leader:

‘This moment doesn’t require your sightseeing: it would

be better to sacrifice seven bullocks from a virgin herd,

and as many carefully chosen two-year old sheep.’

Having spoken to Aeneas in this way (without delay they sacrificed

as ordered) the priestess called the Trojans to her high shrine.

The vast flank of the Euboean cliff is pitted with caves,

from which a hundred wide tunnels, a hundred mouths lead,

from which as many voices rush: the Sibyl’s replies.

They had come to the threshold, when the virgin cried out:

‘It is time to question the Oracle, behold, the god, the god!’

As she so spoke in front of the doors, suddenly neither her face

nor colour were the same, nor did her hair remain bound,

but her chest heaved, her heart swelled with wild frenzy,

she seemed taller, and sounded not-human, for now

the power of the god is closer. ‘Are you slow with your

vows and prayers, Aeneas of Troy, are you slow?’

she cried. ‘The great lips of the House of Inspiration

will not open without.’ And so saying she fell silent.

An icy shudder ran to the Trojans’ very spines,

and their leader poured out heartfelt prayers:

[56-97] ‘Phoebus, you who always pitied Troy’s intense suffering,

who guided the hand of Paris, and the Dardan arrow,

against Achilles’ body, with you as leader I entered

all those seas, encircling vast lands, and penetrated

the remote Massilian tribes and the fields edged by Syrtes:

now at last we have the coast of elusive Italy in our grasp:

Troy’s ill fortune only followed us as far as here.

You too with justice can spare the Trojan race, and all you gods

and goddesses to whom the great glory of Ilium and Dardania

was an offence. O most sacred of prophetesses,

you who see the future, (I ask for no lands not owed me

by my destiny) grant that we Trojans may settle Latium,

with the exiled gods and storm-tossed powers of Troy.

Then I’ll dedicate a temple of solid marble to Phoebus

and Diana Trivia, [7] and sacred days in Phoebus’ name.

A noble inner shrine waits for you too in our kingdom.

There, gracious one, I will place your oracles, and mystic

utterances spoken to my people, and consecrate picked men.

Only do not write your verses on the leaves, lest they fly,

disordered playthings of the rushing winds: chant them

from your own mouth.’ He put an end to his mouth’s speaking.

But the wild prophetess raged in her cavern, not yet

submitting to Phoebus, as if she might shake the great god

from her spirit: yet he exhausted her raving mouth

all the more, taming her wild heart, shaping her by constraint.

And now the shrine’s hundred mighty lips have opened

of themselves, and carry the seer’s answer through the air:

‘Oh, you who are done with all the perils of the sea,

(yet greater await you on land) the Trojans will come

to the realm of Lavinium (put that care from your heart):

but will not enjoy their coming. War, fierce war,

I see: and the Tiber foaming with much blood.

You will not lack a Simoeis, a Xanthus, a Greek camp:

even now another Achilles is born in Latium,

he too the son of a goddess: nor will Juno, the Trojans’ bane,

be ever far away, while you, humbled and destitute,

what races and cities of Italy will you not beg in!

Once again a foreign bride is the cause of all

these Trojan ills, once more an alien marriage.

Do not give way to misfortunes, meet them more bravely,

as your destiny allows. The path of safety will open up

for you from where you least imagine it, a Greek city.’

[98-155] With such words, the Sibyl of Cumae chants fearful enigmas,

from her shrine, echoing from the cave,

tangling truths and mysteries: as she raves, Apollo

thrashes the reins, and twists the spur under her breast.

When the frenzy quietens, and the mad mouth hushes,

Aeneas, the Hero, begins: ‘O Virgin, no new, unexpected

kind of suffering appears: I’ve foreseen them all

and travelled them before, in my own spirit.

One thing I ask: for they say the gate of the King of Darkness

is here, and the shadowy marsh, Acheron’s overflow:

let me have sight of my dear father, his face: show me the way,

open wide the sacred doors. I saved him, brought him

out from the thick of the enemy, through the flames,

on these shoulders, with a thousand spears behind me:

companion on my journey, he endured with me

all the seas, all the threats of sky and ocean, weak,

beyond his power, and his allotted span of old age.

He ordered me, with prayers, to seek you out, humbly,

and approach your threshold: I ask you, kindly one,

pity both father and son: since you are all power, not for

nothing has Hecate set you to rule the groves of Avernus.

If Orpheus could summon the shade of his wife,

relying on his Thracian lyre, its melodious strings:

if Pollux, crossing that way, and returning, so often,

could redeem his brother by dying in turn – and great Theseus,

what of him, or Hercules? – well, my race too is Jupiter’s on high.’

With these words he prayed, and grasped the altar,

as the priestess began to speak: ‘Trojan son of Anchises,

sprung from the blood of the gods, the path to hell is easy:

black Dis’ door is open night and day:

but to retrace your steps, and go out to the air above,

that is work, that is the task. Some sons of the gods have done it,

whom favouring Jupiter loved, or whom burning virtue

lifted to heaven. Woods cover all the middle part,

and Cocytus is round it, sliding in dark coils.

But if such desire is in your mind, such a longing

to sail the Stygian lake twice, and twice see Tartarus,

and if it delights you to indulge in insane effort,

listen to what you must first undertake. Hidden in a dark tree

is a golden bough, golden in leaves and pliant stem,

sacred to Persephone, the underworld’s Juno, all the groves

shroud it, and shadows enclose the secret valleys.

But only one who’s taken a gold-leaved fruit from the tree

is allowed to enter earth’s hidden places.

This lovely Proserpine has commanded to be brought to her

as a gift: a second fruit of gold never fails to appear

when the first one’s picked, the twig’s leafed with the same metal.

So look for it up high, and when you’ve found it with your eyes,

take it, of right, in your hand: since, if the Fates have chosen you,

it will come away easily, freely of itself: otherwise you

won’t conquer it by any force, or cut it with the sharpest steel.

And the inanimate body of your friend lies there

(Ah! You do not know) and taints your whole fleet with death,

while you seek advice and hang about our threshold.

Carry him first to his place and bury him in the tomb.

Lead black cattle there: let those be your first offerings of atonement.

Only then can you look on the Stygian groves, and the realms

forbidden to the living.’ She spoke and with closed lips fell silent.

[156-182] Leaving the cave, Aeneas walked away,

with sad face and downcast eyes, turning their dark fate

over in his mind. Loyal Achates walked at his side

and fashioned his steps with similar concern.

They engaged in intricate discussion between them,

as to who the dead friend, the body to be interred, was,

whom the priestess spoke of. And as they passed along

they saw Misenus, ruined by shameful death, on the dry sand,

Misenus, son of Aeolus, than whom none was more outstanding

in rousing men with the war-trumpet, kindling conflict with music.

He was great Hector’s friend: with Hector

he went to battle, distinguished by his spear and trumpet.

When victorious Achilles despoiled Hector of life,

this most courageous hero joined the company

of Trojan Aeneas, serving no lesser a man. But when,

by chance, he foolishly made the ocean sound

to a hollow conch-shell, and called gods to compete

in playing, if the tale can be believed, Triton overheard him

and drowned him in the foaming waves among the rocks.

So, with pious Aeneas at the front, they all mourned

round the body with loud clamour. Then, without delay, weeping,

they hurried to carry out the Sibyl’s orders, and laboured to pile

tree-trunks as a funeral pyre, raising it to the heavens.

They enter the ancient wood, the deep coverts of wild creatures:

the pine-trees fell, the oaks rang to the blows of the axe,

ash trunks and fissile oak were split with wedges,

and they rolled large rowan trees down from the hills.

[183-235] Aeneas was no less active in such efforts, encouraging

his companions, and employing similar tools.

And he turned things over in his own saddened mind,

gazing at the immense forest, and by chance prayed so:

‘If only that golden bough would show itself to us

now, on some such tree, among the woods! For the prophetess

spoke truly of you Misenus, alas, only too truly.’

He had barely spoken when by chance a pair of doves

came flying down from the sky, beneath his very eyes,

and settled on the green grass. Then the great hero knew

they were his mother’s birds, and prayed in his joy:

‘O be my guides, if there is some way, and steer a course

through the air, to that grove where the rich branch

casts its shadow on fertile soil. And you mother, O goddess,

don’t fail me in time of doubt.’ So saying he halted his footsteps,

observing what signs the doves might give, and which direction

they might take. As they fed they went forward in flight

just as far as, following, his eyes could keep them in sight.

Then, when they reached the foul jaws of stinking Avernus,

they quickly rose and, gliding through the clear air,

perched on the longed-for dual-natured tree, from which

the alien gleam of gold shone out, among the branches.

Just as mistletoe, that does not form a tree of its own,

grows in the woods in the cold of winter, with a foreign leaf,

and surrounds a smooth trunk with yellow berries:

such was the vision of this leafy gold in the dark

oak-tree, so the foil tinkled in the light breeze.

Aeneas immediately plucked it, eagerly breaking the tough

bough, and carried it to the cave of the Sibylline prophetess.

Meanwhile, on the shore, the Trojans were weeping bitterly

for Misenus and paying their last respects to his senseless ashes.

First they raised a huge pyre, heavy with cut oak and pine,

weaving the sides with dark foliage, set funereal cypress in front,

and decorated it above with shining weapons.

Some heated water, making the cauldrons boil on the flames,

and washed and anointed the chill corpse. They made lament.

Then, having wept, they placed his limbs on the couch,

and threw purple robes over them, his usual dress.

Some raised the great bier, a sad duty,

and, with averted faces, set a torch below,

in ancestral fashion. Gifts were heaped on the flames,

of incense, foodstuffs, bowls brimming with olive-oil.

When the ashes collapsed, and the blaze died, they washed

the remains of the parched bones in wine, and Corynaeus,

collecting the fragments, closed them in a bronze urn.

Also he circled his comrades three times with pure water

to purify them, sprinkling fine dew from a full olive branch,

and spoke the words of parting. And virtuous Aeneas

heaped up a great mound for his tomb, with the hero’s

own weapons, his trumpet and oar, beneath a high mountain

which is called Misenus now after him, and preserves

his ever-living name throughout the ages.

[236-263] This done, he quickly carried out the Sibyl’s orders.

There was a deep stony cave, huge and gaping wide,

sheltered by a dark lake and shadowy woods,

over which nothing could extend its wings in safe flight,

since such a breath flowed from those black jaws,

and was carried to the over-arching sky, that the Greeks

called it by the name Aornos, that is Avernus, or the Bird-less.

Here the priestess first of all tethered four black heifers,

poured wine over their foreheads, and placed

the topmost bristles that she plucked, growing

between their horns, in the sacred fire, as a first offering,

calling aloud to Hecate, powerful in Heaven and Hell.

Others slit the victim’s throats and caught the warm blood

in bowls. Aeneas himself sacrificed a black-fleeced lamb

to Night, mother of the Furies, and Earth, her mighty sister,

and a barren heifer to you, Persephone.

Then he kindled the midnight altars for the Stygian King [ Hades ],

and placed whole carcasses of bulls on the flames,[8]

pouring rich oil over the blazing entrails.

See now, at the dawn light of the rising sun,

the ground bellowed under their feet, the wooded hills began

to move, and, at the coming of the Goddess, dogs seemed to howl

in the shadows. ‘Away, stand far away, O you profane ones,’

the priestess cried, ‘absent yourselves from all this grove:

and you now, Aeneas, be on your way, and tear your sword

from the sheathe: you need courage, and a firm mind, now.’

So saying, she plunged wildly into the open cave:

he, fearlessly, kept pace with his vanishing guide.

[264-294] You gods, whose is the realm of spirits, and you, dumb shadows,

and Chaos, Phlegethon, wide silent places of the night,

let me tell what I have heard: by your power, let me

reveal things buried in the deep earth, and the darkness.

On they went, hidden in solitary night, through gloom,

through Dis’ empty halls, and insubstantial kingdom,

like a path through a wood, in the faint light

under a wavering moon, when Jupiter has buried the sky

in shadow, and black night has stolen the colour from things.

Right before the entrance, in the very jaws of Orcus,

Grief and vengeful Care have made their beds,

and pallid Sickness lives there, and sad Old Age,

and Fear, and persuasive Hunger, and vile Need,

forms terrible to look on, and Death and Pain:

then Death’s brother Sleep, and Evil Pleasure of the mind,

and, on the threshold opposite, death-dealing War,

and the steel chambers of the Furies, and mad Discord,

her snaky hair entwined with blood-wet ribbons.

In the centre a vast shadowy elm spreads its aged trunks

and branches: the seat, they say, that false Dreams hold,

thronging, clinging beneath every leaf.

And many other monstrous shapes of varied creatures,

are stabled by the doors, Centaurs and bi-formed Scylla,

and hundred-armed Briareus, and the Lernean Hydra,

hissing fiercely, and the Chimera armed with flame,

Gorgons, and Harpies, and the triple bodied shade, Geryon.

At this, trembling suddenly with terror, Aeneas grasped

his sword, and set the naked blade against their approach:

and, if his knowing companion had not warned him

that these were tenuous bodiless lives flitting about

with a hollow semblance of form, he would have rushed at them,

and hacked at the shadows uselessly with his sword.

[295-336] From here there is a road that leads to the waters

of Tartarean Acheron. Here thick with mud a whirlpool seethes

in the vast depths, and spews all its sands into Cocytus.

A grim ferryman watches over the rivers and streams,

Charon, dreadful in his squalor, with a mass of unkempt

white hair straggling from his chin: flames glow in his eyes,

a dirty garment hangs, knotted from his shoulders.

He poles the boat and trims the sails himself,

and ferries the dead in his dark skiff,

old now, but a god’s old age is fresh and green.

Here all the crowd streams, hurrying to the shores,

women and men, the lifeless bodies of noble heroes,

boys and unmarried girls, sons laid on the pyre

in front of their father’s eyes: as many as the leaves that fall

in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds

that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year

drives them abroad and dispatches them to sunnier countries.

They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,

stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.

But the dismal boatman accepts now these, now those,

but driving others away, keeps them far from the sand.

Then Aeneas, stirred and astonished at the tumult, said:

‘O virgin, tell me, what does this crowding to the river mean?

What do the souls want? And by what criterion do these leave

the bank, and those sweep off with the oars on the leaden stream?

The ancient priestess spoke briefly to him, so:

‘Son of Anchises, true child of the gods, you see

the deep pools of Cocytus, and the Marsh of Styx,

by whose name the gods fear to swear falsely.

All this crowd, you see, were destitute and unburied:

that ferryman is Charon: those the waves carry were buried:

he may not carry them from the fearful shore on the harsh waters

before their bones are at rest in the earth. They roam

for a hundred years and flit around these shores: only then

are they admitted, and revisit the pools they long for.’

The son of Anchises halted, and checked his footsteps,

thinking deeply, and pitying their sad fate in his heart.

He saw Leucaspis and Orontes, captain of the Lycian fleet,

there, grieving and lacking honour in death, whom a Southerly

overwhelmed, as they sailed together from Troy on the windswept

waters, engulfing both the ship and crew in the waves.

[337-383] Behold, there came the helmsman, Palinurus,

who fell from the stern on the Libyan passage,

flung into the midst of the waves, as he watched the stars.

When Aeneas had recognised him with difficulty

sorrowing among the deep shadows, he spoke first, saying:

‘What god tore you from us, Palinurus, and drowned you

mid-ocean? For in this one prophecy Apollo has misled me,

he whom I never found false before, he said that you would be safe

at sea and reach Ausonia’s shores. Is this the truth of his promise?’

But he replied: ‘Phoebus’ tripod did not fail you, Aeneas,

my captain, nor did a god drown me in the deep.

By chance the helm was torn from me with violence,

as I clung there, on duty as ordered, steering our course,

and I dragged it headlong with me. I swear by the cruel sea

that I feared less for myself than for your ship,

lest robbed of its gear, and cleared of its helmsman,

it might founder among such surging waves.

The Southerly drove me violently through the vast seas

for three stormy nights: high on the crest of a wave,

in the fourth dawn, I could just make out Italy.

Gradually I swam to shore: grasped now at safety,

but as I caught at the sharp tips of the rocks, weighed down

by my water-soaked clothes, the savage people

attacked me with knives, ignorantly thinking me a prize.

Now the waves have me, and the winds roll me along the shore.

Unconquered one, I beg you, by the sweet light and air of heaven,

by your father, and your hopes in Iulus to come,

save me from this evil: either find Velia’s harbour again

(for you can) and sprinkle earth on me, or if there is some way,

if your divine mother shows you one (since you’d not attempt to sail

such waters, and the Stygian marsh, without a god’s will, I think)

then give this wretch your hand and take me with you through the waves

that at least I might rest in some quiet place in death.’

So he spoke, and the priestess began to reply like this:

‘Where does this dire longing of yours come from, O Palinurus?

Can you see the Stygian waters, unburied, or the grim

river of the Furies, Cocytus, or come unasked to the shore?

Cease to hope that divine fate can be tempered by prayer.

But hold my words in your memory, as a comfort in your hardship:

the nearby peoples, from cities far and wide, will be moved

by divine omens to worship your bones, and build a tomb,

and send offerings to the tomb, and the place will have

Palinurus as its everlasting name.’ His anxiety was quelled

by her words, and, for a little while, grief was banished

from his sad heart: he delighted in the land being so named.

[384-416] So they pursued their former journey, and drew near the river.

Now when the Boatman [ Charon ] saw them from the Stygian wave

walking through the silent wood, and directing their footsteps

towards its bank, he attacked them verbally, first, and unprompted,

rebuking them: ‘Whoever you are, who come armed to my river,

tell me, from over there, why you’re here, and halt your steps.

This is a place of shadows, of Sleep and drowsy Night:

I’m not allowed to carry living bodies in the Stygian boat.

Truly it was no pleasure for me to take Hercules on his journey

over the lake, nor Theseus and Pirithous, though they may

have been children of gods, unrivalled in strength.

The first came for Cerberus the watchdog of Tartarus,

and dragged him away quivering from under the king’s throne:

the others were after snatching our Queen [ Persephone ] from Dis’ chamber.’

To this the prophetess of Amphrysian Apollo[9] briefly answered:

‘There’s no such trickery here (don’t be disturbed),

our weapons offer no affront: your huge guard-dog

can terrify the bloodless shades with his eternal howling:

chaste Proserpine can keep to her uncle’s threshold.

Aeneas the Trojan, renowned in piety and warfare,

goes down to the deepest shadows of Erebus, to his father.

If the idea of such affection does not move you, still you

must recognise this bough.’ (She showed the branch, hidden

in her robes.) Then the anger in his swollen breast subsided.

No more was said. Marvelling at the revered offering,

of fateful twigs, seen again after so long, he turned the stern

of the dark skiff towards them and neared the bank.

Then he turned off the other souls who sat on the long benches,

cleared the gangways: and received mighty Aeneas

on board. The seamed skiff groaned with the weight

and let in quantities of marsh-water through the chinks.

At last, the river crossed, he landed the prophetess and the hero

safe, on the unstable mud, among the blue-grey sedge.

[417-439] Huge Cerberus sets these regions echoing with his triple-throated

howling, crouching monstrously in a cave opposite.

Seeing the snakes rearing round his neck, the prophetess

threw him a pellet, a soporific of honey and drugged wheat.

Opening his three throats, in rabid hunger, he seized

what she threw and, flexing his massive spine, sank to earth

spreading his giant bulk over the whole cave-floor.

With the guard unconscious Aeneas won to the entrance,

and quickly escaped the bank of the river of no return.

Immediately a loud crying of voices was heard, the spirits

of weeping infants, whom a dark day stole at the first

threshold of this sweet life, those chosen to be torn

from the breast, and drowned in bitter death.

Nearby are those condemned to die on false charges.

Yet their place is not ordained without the allotted jury:

Minos, the judge, shakes the urn: he convenes the voiceless court,

and hears their lives and sins. Then the next place

is held by those gloomy spirits who, innocent of crime,

died by their own hand, and, hating the light, threw away

their lives. How willingly now they’d endure

poverty and harsh suffering, in the air above!

Divine Law prevents it, and the sad marsh and its hateful

waters binds them, and nine-fold Styx confines them.

[440-476] Not far from there the Fields of Mourning are revealed,

spread out on all sides: so they name them.

There, those whom harsh love devours with cruel pining

are concealed in secret walkways, encircled by a myrtle grove:

even in death their troubles do not leave them.

Here Aeneas saw Phaedra, and Procris, and sad Eriphyle,

displaying the wounds made by her cruel son,

Evadne, and Pasiphae: with them walked Laodamia,[10]

and Caeneus, now a woman, once a young man,

returned by her fate to her own form again.[11]

Among them Phoenician Dido wandered, in the great wood,

her wound still fresh. As soon as the Trojan hero stood near her

and knew her, shadowy among the shadows, like a man who sees,

or thinks he sees, the new moon rising through a cloud, as its month

begins, he wept tears and spoke to her with tender affection:

Dido, unhappy spirit, was the news, that came to me

of your death, true then, taking your life with a blade?

Alas, was I the cause of your dying? I swear by the stars,

by the gods above, by whatever truth may be in the depths

of the earth, I left your shores unwillingly, my queen.

I was commanded by gods, who drove me by their decrees,

that now force me to go among the shades, through places

thorny with neglect, and deepest night: nor did I think

my leaving there would ever bring such grief to you.

Halt your footsteps and do not take yourself from my sight.

What do you flee? This is the last speech with you that fate allows.’

With such words Aeneas would have calmed

her fiery spirit and wild looks, and provoked her tears.

She turned away, her eyes fixed on the ground,

no more altered in expression by the speech he had begun

than if hard flint stood there, or a cliff of Parian marble.

At the last she tore herself away, and, hostile to him,

fled to the shadowy grove where Sychaeus, her husband

in former times, responded to her suffering, and gave her

love for love. Aeneas, no less shaken by the injustice of fate,

followed her, far off, with his tears, and pitied her as she went.

[477-534] From there he laboured on the way that was granted them.

And soon they reached the most distant fields,

the remote places where those famous in war

crowd together. Here Tydeus met him, Parthenopaeus

glorious in arms, and the pale form of Adrastus:

here were the Trojans, wept for deeply above, fallen in war,

whom, seeing them all in their long ranks, he groaned at,

Glaucus, Medon and Thersilochus, the three sons of Antenor,

Polyboetes, the priest of Ceres, and Idaeus

still with his chariot, and his weapons.

The spirits stand there in crowds to left and right.

They are not satisfied with seeing him only once:

they delight in lingering on, walking beside him,

and learning the reason for his coming.

But the Greek princes and Agamemnon’s phalanxes,

trembled with great fear, when they saw the hero,

and his gleaming weapons, among the shades:

some turned to run, as they once sought their ships: some raised

a faint cry, the noise they made belying their gaping mouths.

And he saw Deiphobus there, Priam’s son, his whole body

mutilated, his face brutally torn, his face and hands both, the ears

ripped from his ruined head, his nostrils sheared by an ugly wound.

Indeed Aeneas barely recognised the quivering form, hiding its dire

punishment, even as he called to him, unprompted, in familiar tones:

Deiphobus, powerful in war, born of Teucer’s noble blood,

who chose to work such brutal punishment on you?

Who was allowed to treat you so? Rumour has it

that on that final night, wearied by endless killing of Greeks,

you sank down on a pile of the slaughtered.

Then I set up an empty tomb on the Rhoetean shore,

and called on your spirit three times in a loud voice.

Your name and weapons watch over the site: I could not

see you, friend, to set you, as I left, in your native soil.’

To this Priam’s son replied: ‘O my friend, you’ve neglected

nothing: you’ve paid all that’s due to Deiphobus

and a dead man’s spirit. My own destiny,

and that Spartan woman’s [ Helen‘s ] deadly crime, drowned me

in these sorrows: she left me these memorials.

You know how we passed that last night in illusory joy:

and you must remember it only too well.

When the fateful Horse came leaping the walls of Troy,

pregnant with the armed warriors it carried in its womb,

she led the Trojan women about, wailing in dance,

aping the Bacchic rites: she held a huge torch in their midst,

signalling to the Greeks from the heights of the citadel.

I was then in our unlucky marriage-chamber, worn out with care,

and heavy with sleep, a sweet deep slumber weighing on me

as I lay there, the very semblance of peaceful death.

Meanwhile that illustrious wife of mine removed every weapon

from the house, even stealing my faithful sword from under my head:

she calls Menelaus into the house and throws open the doors,

hoping I suppose it would prove a great gift for her lover,

and in that way the infamy of her past sins might be erased.

Why drag out the tale? They burst into the room, and with them

Ulysses the Aeolid, their co-inciter to wickedness. Gods, so repay

the Greeks, if these lips I pray for vengeance with are virtuous.

But you, in turn, tell what fate has brought you here, living.

Do you come here, driven by your wandering on the sea,

or exhorted by the gods? If not, what misfortune torments you,

that you enter these sad sunless houses, this troubled place?’

[535-627] While they spoke Aurora and her rosy chariot had passed

the zenith of her ethereal path, and they might perhaps

have spent all the time allowed in such talk, but the Sibyl,

his companion, warned him briefly saying:

‘Night approaches, Aeneas: we waste the hours with weeping.

This is the place where the path splits itself in two:

there on the right is our road to Elysium, that runs beneath

the walls of mighty Dis: but the left works punishment

on the wicked, and sends them on to godless Tartarus.’

Deiphobus replied: ‘Do not be angry, great priestess:

I will leave: I will make up the numbers, and return to the darkness.

Go now glory of our race: enjoy a better fate.’

So he spoke, and in speaking turned away.

Aeneas suddenly looked back, and, below the left hand cliff,

he saw wide battlements, surrounded by a triple wall,

and encircled by a swift river of red-hot flames,

the Tartarean Phlegethon, churning with echoing rocks.

A gate fronts it, vast, with pillars of solid steel,

that no human force, not the heavenly gods themselves,

can overturn by war: an iron tower rises into the air,

and seated before it, Tisiphone, clothed in a blood-wet dress,

keeps guard of the doorway, sleeplessly, night and day.

Groans came from there, and the cruel sound of the lash,

then the clank of iron, and dragging chains.

Aeneas halted, and stood rooted, terrified by the noise.

‘What evil is practised here? O Virgin, tell me: by what torments

are they oppressed? Why are there such sounds in the air?’

Then the prophetess began to speak as follows: ‘Famous leader

of the Trojans, it is forbidden for the pure to cross the evil threshold:

but when Hecate appointed me to the wood of Avernus,

she taught me the divine torments, and guided me through them all.

Cretan Rhadamanthus rules this harshest of kingdoms,

and hears their guilt, extracts confessions, and punishes

whoever has deferred atonement for their sins too long

till death, delighting in useless concealment, in the world above.

Tisiphone the avenger, armed with her whip, leaps on the guilty immediately,

lashes them, and threatening them with the fierce

snakes in her left hand, calls to her savage troop of sisters.

Then at last the accursed doors open, screeching on jarring hinges.

You comprehend what guardian sits at the door, what shape watches

the threshold? Well still fiercer is the monstrous Hydra inside,

with her fifty black gaping jaws. There Tartarus itself

falls sheer, and stretches down into the darkness:

twice as far as we gaze upwards to heavenly Olympus.

Here the Titanic race, the ancient sons of Earth,

hurled down by the lightning-bolt, writhe in the depths.

And here I saw the two sons of Aloeus [ the Aloadae ], giant forms,

who tried to tear down the heavens with their hands,

and topple Jupiter from his high kingdom.

And I saw Salmoneus paying a savage penalty

for imitating Jove’s lightning, and the Olympian thunder.

Brandishing a torch, and drawn by four horses

he rode in triumph among the Greeks, through Elis’ city,

claiming the gods’ honours as his own, a fool,

who mimicked the storm-clouds and the inimitable thunderbolt

with bronze cymbals and the sound of horses’ hoof-beats.

But the all-powerful father hurled his lighting from dense cloud,

not for him fiery torches, or pine-branches’ smoky light

and drove him headlong with the mighty whirlwind.

And Tityus was to be seen as well, the foster-child

of Earth, our universal mother, whose body stretches

over nine acres, and a great vulture with hooked beak

feeds on his indestructible liver, and his entrails ripe

for punishment, lodged deep inside the chest, groping

for his feast, no respite given to the ever-renewing tissue.

Shall I speak of the Lapiths, Ixion, Pirithous,

over whom hangs a dark crag that seems to slip and fall?

High couches for their feast gleam with golden frames,

and a banquet of royal luxury is spread before their eyes:

nearby the eldest Fury, crouching, prevents their fingers touching

the table: rising up, and brandishing her torch, with a voice of thunder.

Here are those who hated their brothers, in life,

or struck a parent, or contrived to defraud a client,

or who crouched alone over the riches they’d made,

without setting any aside for their kin (their crowd is largest),

those who were killed for adultery, or pursued civil war,

not fearing to break their pledges to their masters:

shut in they see their punishment. Don’t ask to know

that punishment, or what kind of suffering drowns them.

Some roll huge stones, or hang spread-eagled

on wheel-spokes: wretched Theseus sits still, and will sit

for eternity: Phlegyas, the most unfortunate, warns them all

and bears witness in a loud voice among the shades:

“Learn justice: be warned, and don’t despise the gods.”

Here’s one who sold his country for gold, and set up

a despotic lord: this one made law and remade it for a price:

he entered his daughter’s bed and a forbidden marriage:

all of them dared monstrous sin, and did what they dared.

Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,

a voice of iron, could I tell all the forms of wickedness

or spell out the names of every torment.’

[628-678] When she had spoken of this, the aged priestess of Apollo said:

‘But come now, travel the road, and complete the task set for you:

let us hurry, I see the battlements that were forged

in the Cyclopean fires, and the gates in the arch opposite us

where we are told to set down the gifts as ordered.’

She spoke and keeping step they hastened along the dark path

crossing the space between and arriving near the doors.

Aeneas gained the entrance, sprinkled fresh water

over his body, and set up the branch on the threshold before him.

Having at last achieved this, the goddess’ task fulfilled,

they came to the pleasant places, the delightful grassy turf

of the Fortunate Groves, and the homes of the blessed.

Here freer air and radiant light clothe the plain,

and these have their own sun, and their own stars.

Some exercise their bodies in a grassy gymnasium,

compete in sports and wrestle on the yellow sand:

others tread out the steps of a dance, and sing songs.

There Orpheus too, the long-robed priest of Thrace,

accompanies their voices with the seven-note scale,

playing now with fingers, now with the ivory quill.

Here are Teucer’s ancient people, loveliest of children,

great-hearted heroes, born in happier years,

Ilus, Assaracus, and Dardanus founder of Troy.

Aeneas marvels from a distance at their idle chariots

and their weapons: their spears fixed in the ground,

and their horses scattered freely browsing over the plain:

the pleasure they took in chariots and armour while alive,

the care in tending shining horses, follows them below the earth.

Look, he sees others on the grass to right and left, feasting,

and singing a joyful paean in chorus, among the fragrant

groves of laurel, out of which the Eridanus’ broad river

flows through the woodlands to the world above.

Here is the company of those who suffered wounds fighting

for their country: and those who were pure priests, while they lived,

and those who were faithful poets, singers worthy of Apollo,

and those who improved life, with discoveries in Art or Science,

and those who by merit caused others to remember them:

the brows of all these were bound with white headbands.

As they crowded round, the Sibyl addressed them,

Musaeus above all: since he holds the centre of the vast crowd,

all looking up to him, his tall shoulders towering above:

‘Blessed spirits, and you, greatest of Poets,

say what region or place contains Anchises. We have

come here, crossing the great rivers of Erebus, for him.’

And the hero replied to her briefly in these words:

‘None of us have a fixed abode: we live in the shadowy woods,

and make couches of river-banks, and inhabit fresh-water meadows.

But climb this ridge, if your hearts-wish so inclines,

and I will soon set you on an easy path.’

He spoke and went on before them, and showed them

the bright plains below: then they left the mountain heights.

[679-702] But deep in a green valley his father Anchises

was surveying the spirits enclosed there, destined

for the light above, thinking carefully, and was reviewing

as it chanced the numbers of his own folk, his dear grandsons,

and their fate and fortunes as men, and their ways and works.

And when he saw Aeneas heading towards him over the grass

he stretched out both his hands eagerly, his face

streaming with tears, and a cry issued from his lips:

‘Have you come at last, and has the loyalty your father expected

conquered the harsh road? Is it granted me to see your face,

my son, and hear and speak in familiar tones?

I calculated it in my mind, and thought it would be so,

counting off the hours, nor has my trouble failed me.

From travel over what lands and seas, do I receive you!

What dangers have hurled you about, my son!

How I feared the realms of Libya might harm you!’

He answered: ‘Father, your image, yours, appearing to me

so often, drove me to reach this threshold:

My ships ride the Etruscan waves. Father, let me clasp

your hand, let me, and do not draw away from my embrace.’

So speaking, his face was also drowned in a flood of tears.

Three times he tries to throw his arms round his father’s neck,

three times, clasped in vain, that semblance slips though his hands,

like the light breeze, most of all like a winged dream.

[703-723] And now Aeneas saw a secluded grove

in a receding valley, with rustling woodland thickets,

and the river of Lethe gliding past those peaceful places.

Innumerable tribes and peoples hovered round it:

just as, in the meadows, on a cloudless summer’s day,

the bees settle on the multifarious flowers, and stream

round the bright lilies, and all the fields hum with their buzzing.

Aeneas was thrilled by the sudden sight, and, in ignorance,

asked the cause: what the river is in the distance,

who the men are crowding the banks in such numbers.

Then his father Anchises answered: ‘They are spirits,

owed a second body by destiny, and they drink

the happy waters, and a last forgetting, at Lethe’s stream.

Indeed, for a long time I’ve wished to tell you of them,

and show you them face to face, to enumerate my children’s

descendants, so you might joy with me more at finding Italy.’

‘O father, is it to be thought that any spirits go from here

to the sky above, returning again to dull matter?’

‘Indeed I’ll tell you, son, not keep you in doubt,’

Anchises answered, and revealed each thing in order.

[724-751] ‘Firstly, a spirit within them nourishes the sky and earth,

the watery plains, the shining orb of the moon,

and Titan’s [ Helios ] star, and Mind, flowing through matter,

vivifies the whole mass, and mingles with its vast frame.

From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,

and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.

The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine,

so long as harmful matter doesn’t impede them

and terrestrial bodies and mortal limbs don’t dull them.

Through those they fear and desire, and grieve and joy,

and enclosed in night and a dark dungeon, can’t see the light.

Why, when life leaves them at the final hour,

still all of the evil, all the plagues of the flesh, alas,

have not completely vanished, and many things, long hardened

deep within, must of necessity be ingrained, in strange ways.

So they are scourged by torments, and pay the price

for former sins: some are hung, stretched out,

to the hollow winds, the taint of wickedness is cleansed

for others in vast gulfs, or burned away with fire:

each spirit suffers its own: then we are sent

through wide Elysium, and we few stay in the joyous fields,

for a length of days, till the cycle of time,

complete, removes the hardened stain, and leaves

pure ethereal thought, and the brightness of natural air.

All these others the god calls in a great crowd to the river Lethe,

after they have turned the wheel for a thousand years,

so that, truly forgetting, they can revisit the vault above,

and begin with a desire to return to the flesh.’

[752-776] Anchises had spoken, and he drew the Sibyl and his son, both

together, into the middle of the gathering and the murmuring crowd,

and chose a hill from which he could see all the long ranks

opposite, and watch their faces as they came by him.

‘Come, I will now explain what glory will pursue the children

of Dardanus, what descendants await you of the Italian race,

illustrious spirits to march onwards in our name, and I will teach

you your destiny. See that boy, who leans on a headless spear,

he is fated to hold a place nearest the light, first to rise

to the upper air, sharing Italian blood, Silvius, of Alban name,

your last-born son, who your wife Lavinia, late in your old age,

will give birth to in the wood, a king and the father of kings,

through whom our race will rule in Alba Longa.[12]

Next to him is Procas, glory of the Trojan people,

and Capys and Numitor, and he who’ll revive your name,

Silvius Aeneas, outstanding like you in virtue and arms,

if he might at last achieve the Alban throne.

What men! See what authority they display,

their foreheads shaded by the civic oak-leaf crown!

They will build Nomentum, Gabii, and Fidenae’s city:

Collatia’s fortress in the hills, Pometii

and the Fort of Inus, and Bola, and Cora.

Those will be names that are now nameless land.

[777-807] Yes, and a child of Mars will join his grandfather to accompany him,

Romulus, whom his mother Ilia will bear, of Assaracus’ line.

See how Mars’ twin plumes stand on his crest, and his father

marks him out for the world above with his own emblems?

Behold, my son, under his command glorious Rome

will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle

seven hills with a single wall, happy in her race of men:

as Cybele, the Berecynthian ‘Great Mother’, crowned

with turrets, rides through the Phrygian cities, delighting

in her divine children, clasping a hundred descendants,

all gods, all dwelling in the heights above.

Now direct your eyes here, gaze at this people,

your own Romans. Here is Caesar, and all the offspring

of Iulus destined to live under the pole of heaven.

This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear

promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of the Deified,

who will make a Golden Age again in the fields

where Saturn once reigned, and extend the empire beyond

the Libyans and the Indians (to a land that lies outside the zodiac’s belt,

beyond the sun’s ecliptic and the year’s, where sky-carrying Atlas

turns the sphere, inset with gleaming stars, on his shoulders):

Even now the Caspian realms, and Maeotian earth,

tremble at divine prophecies of his coming, and

the restless mouths of the seven-branched Nile are troubled.

Truly, Hercules never crossed so much of the earth,

though he shot the bronze-footed Arcadian deer, brought peace

to the woods of Erymanthus, made Lerna tremble at his bow:[13]

nor did Bacchus, who steers his chariot, in triumph, with reins

made of vines, guiding his tigers down from Nysa’s high peak.

Do we really hesitate still to extend our power by our actions,

and does fear prevent us settling the Italian lands?

[808-853] Who is he, though, over there, distinguished by his olive branches,

carrying offerings? I know the hair and the white-bearded chin

of a king of Rome, Numa, called to supreme authority

from little Cures’ poverty-stricken earth, who will secure

our first city under the rule of law. Then Tullus

will succeed him who will shatter the country’s peace,

and call to arms sedentary men, ranks now unused to triumphs.

The over-boastful Ancus follows him closely,

delighting too much even now in the people’s opinion.

Will you look too at Tarquin’s dynasty, and the proud spirit

of Brutus the avenger, the rods of office reclaimed?

He’ll be the first to win a consul’s powers and the savage axes,

and when the sons foment a new civil war, the father

will call them to account, for lovely freedom’s sake:

ah, to be pitied, whatever posterity says of his actions:

his love of country will prevail, and great appetite for glory.

Ah, see over there, the Decii and Drusi, and Torquatus

brutal with the axe, and Camillus rescuing the standards.

But those others, you can discern, shining in matching armour,

souls in harmony now, while they are cloaked in darkness,

ah, if they reach the light of the living, what civil war

what battle and slaughter, they’ll cause, Julius Caesar,

the father-in-law, down from the Alpine ramparts, from the fortress

of Monoecus: Pompey, the son-in-law, opposing with Eastern forces.

My sons, don’t inure your spirits to such wars,

never turn the powerful forces of your country on itself:

You be the first to halt, you, who derive your race from heaven:

hurl the sword from your hand, who are of my blood!

There’s Mummius: triumphing over Corinth, he’ll drive his chariot,

victorious, to the high Capitol, famed for the Greeks he’s killed:

and Aemilius Paulus, who, avenging his Trojan ancestors, and Minerva’s

desecrated shrine, will destroy Agamemnon’s Mycenae, and Argos,

and Perseus the Aeacid himself, descendant of war-mighty Achilles.

Who would pass over you in silence, great Cato, or you Cossus,

or the Gracchus’ race, or the two Scipios, war’s lightning bolts,

the scourges of Libya, or you Fabricius, powerful in poverty,

or you, Regulus Serranus, sowing your furrow with seed?

Fabii, where do you hurry my weary steps? You, Fabius

Maximus, the Delayer, are he who alone renew our State.

Others (I can well believe) will hammer out bronze that breathes

with more delicacy than us, draw out living features

from the marble: plead their causes better, trace with instruments

the movement of the skies, and tell the rising of the constellations:

remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power,

(that will be your skill) to crown peace with law,

to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud.’

[854-885] So father Anchises spoke, and while they marvelled, added:

‘See, how Claudius Marcellus, distinguished by the Supreme Prize,

comes forward, and towers, victorious, over other men.

As a knight, he’ll support the Roman State, turbulent

with fierce confusion, strike the Cathaginians and rebellious Gauls,

and dedicate captured weapons, a third time, to father Quirinus.’

And, at this, Aeneas said (since he saw a youth of outstanding

beauty with shining armour, walking with Marcellus,

but his face lacking in joy, and his eyes downcast):

‘Father, who is this who accompanies him on his way?

His son: or another of his long line of descendants?

What murmuring round them! What presence he has!

But dark night, with its sad shadows, hovers round his head.’

Then his father Aeneas, with welling tears, replied:

‘O, do not ask about your people’s great sorrow, my son.

The Fates will only show him to the world, not allow him

to stay longer. The Roman people would seem

too powerful to you gods, if this gift were lasting.

What mourning from mankind that Field of Mars will

deliver to the mighty city! And what funeral processions

you, Tiber, will see, as you glide past his new-made tomb!

No boy of the line of Ilius shall so exalt his Latin

ancestors by his show of promise, nor will Romulus

land ever take more pride in one of its sons.

Alas for virtue, alas for the honour of ancient times,

and a hand invincible in war! No one might have attacked him

safely when armed, whether he met the enemy on foot,

or dug his spurs into the flank of his foaming charger.

Ah, boy to be pitied, if only you may shatter harsh fate,

you’ll be a Marcellus! Give me handfuls of white lilies,

let me scatter radiant flowers, let me load my scion’s spirit

with those gifts at least, in discharging that poor duty.’

[886-901] So they wander here and there through the whole region,

over the wide airy plain, and gaze at everything.

And when Anchises has led his son through each place,

and inflamed his spirit with love of the glory that is to come,

he tells him then of the wars he must soon fight,

and teaches him about the Laurentine peoples,

and the city of Latinus, and how to avoid or face each trial.

There are two gates of Sleep: one of which is said to be of horn,

through which an easy passage is given to true shades, the other

gleams with the whiteness of polished ivory, but through it

the Gods of the Dead send false dreams to the world above.

After his words, Anchises accompanies his son there, and,

frees him, together with the Sibyl, through the ivory gate.

Aeneas makes his way to the ships and rejoins his friends:

then coasts straight to Caieta’s harbour along the shore.

The anchors are thrown from the prows: on the shore the sterns rest.


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

Philosophy of Afterlife

Virgil’s depiction of the underworld in the Aeneid Book VI was very influential, especially on Christian ideas of the underworld. It shows influence from a number of different literary sources, including Homer’s Odyssey, Book 11 (included above in this chapter) and from the philosopher Plato’s “Myth of Er”, a story from his Republic Book 10, written in the 4th century BCE. It also reflects ideas from the philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BCE, from stoic philosophy, and from the Cult of Orpheus.

The Transmigration of Souls

In particular, Book VI of the Aeneid contains a description of a Greco-Roman philosophical idea called The Transmigration of Souls, a kind of resurrection whereby souls in the underworld are cleansed of errors from their previous life and, after paying any penalties that they owe, are sent back to earth in new bodies.


Virgil, Aeneid, Book 6 (trans. A. S. Kline)

Latin epic poem, 19 BCE

[703-723] Then his father Anchises answered: ‘They are spirits,

owed a second body by destiny, and they drink

the happy waters, and a last forgetting, at Lethe’s stream.

Indeed, for a long time I’ve wished to tell you of them,

and show you them face to face, to enumerate my children’s

descendants, so you might joy with me more at finding Italy.’

‘O father, is it to be thought that any spirits go from here

to the sky above, returning again to dull matter?’

‘Indeed I’ll tell you, son, not keep you in doubt,’

Anchises answered, and revealed each thing in order.

[724-751] ‘Firstly, a spirit within them nourishes the sky and earth,

the watery plains, the shining orb of the moon,

and Titan’s [ Helios ] star, and Mind, flowing through matter,

vivifies the whole mass, and mingles with its vast frame.

From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,

and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.

The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine,

so long as harmful matter doesn’t impede them

and terrestrial bodies and mortal limbs don’t dull them.

Through those they fear and desire, and grieve and joy,

and enclosed in night and a dark dungeon, can’t see the light.

Why, when life leaves them at the final hour,

still all of the evil, all the plagues of the flesh, alas,

have not completely vanished, and many things, long hardened

deep within, must of necessity be ingrained, in strange ways.

So they are scourged by torments, and pay the price

for former sins: some are hung, stretched out,

to the hollow winds, the taint of wickedness is cleansed

for others in vast gulfs, or burned away with fire:

each spirit suffers its own: then we are sent

through wide Elysium, and we few stay in the joyous fields,

for a length of days, till the cycle of time,

complete, removes the hardened stain, and leaves

pure ethereal thought, and the brightness of natural air.

All these others the god calls in a great crowd to the river Lethe,

after they have turned the wheel for a thousand years,

so that, truly forgetting, they can revisit the vault above,

and begin with a desire to return to the flesh.’


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

This idea had been described much earlier, in the 4th century BCE, by Plato, in Book 10 of his Republic.


Plato, Republic, Book 10 (trans. P. Shorey, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek Socratic dialogue, ca. 335 BCE

Plato’s Republic is a dialogue in which Socrates discusses the structure of society and the human condition with various characters. Socrates concludes his discussion of morality (which he defines in terms of “just” and “unjust”) by telling Glaucon the “Myth of Er.” Socrates tells that, after being killed in battle, Er was sent back to life to tell people about what he saw in the afterlife.

“He [ Er ] once upon a time was killed in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, he was found intact. Having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day as he lay upon the pyre, he revived, and after coming to life told about what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond. He said that when his soul went forth from his body, he journeyed with a great group of people, [614c] and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and above and over against them in the heavens two others, and that judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgement they told the righteous to journey to the right and upwards through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs [614d] of all that had befallen them. [He said] that when he himself drew near, they [the judges] told him that he must be the messenger to mankind to tell them of that other world, and they charged him to give ear and to observe everything in the place. And so he said that here he saw, by each opening of heaven and earth, the souls departing after judgement had been passed upon them, while, by the other pair of openings, there came up from the one in the earth souls full of squalor and dust, and from the second there came down from heaven a second procession of souls clean and pure, [614e] and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those which came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others. And they told their stories to one another, the one lamenting [615a] and wailing as they recalled how many and how dreadful things they had suffered and seen in their journey beneath the earth—it lasted a thousand years—while those from heaven related their delights and visions of a beauty beyond words.

To tell it all, Glaucon, would take all our time, but the summary, he said, was this: for all the wrongs they had ever done to anyone and all whom they had severally wronged, they had paid the penalty in turn tenfold for each, and the measure of this was by periods of a hundred years each, [615b] so that on the assumption that this was the length of human life the punishment might be ten times the crime; as for example that if anyone had been the cause of many deaths or had betrayed cities and armies and reduced them to slavery, or had been participant in any other iniquity, they might receive in punishment pains tenfold for each of these wrongs. And again if any had done deeds of kindness and been just [615c] and holy men, they might receive their due reward in the same measure. And other things not worthy of record he said of those who had just been born and lived but a short time. And he had to tell of still greater rewards and punishments for piety and impiety towards the gods and parents and for self-slaughter. For he said that he stood by when one was questioned by another: ‘Where is Ardiaeus the Great?’ Now this Ardiaeus had been tyrant in a certain city of Pamphylia just a thousand years before that time and had put to death his old father [615d] and his elder brother, and had done many other unholy deeds, as was the report. So he said that the one questioned replied, ‘He has not come,’ said he, ‘nor will he be likely to come here. For indeed this was one of the dreadful sights we beheld: when we were near the mouth and about to issue forth and all our other sufferings were ended, we suddenly caught sight of him and of others, most of them, I may say, tyrants. But there were some [615e] of private station, of those who had committed great crimes. And when these supposed that at last they were about to go up and out, the mouth would not receive them, but it bellowed when anyone of the incurably wicked or of those who had not completed their punishment tried to come up. And then,’ he said, ‘fierce men of fiery aspect who stood by and took orders from the voice took hold of them and carried them away. But Ardiaeus [616a] and others they bound hand and foot and head, and flung down and flayed them and dragged them by the wayside, carding them on thorns and signifying to those who from time to time passed by for what cause they were taken away, and that they were to be hurled into Tartarus. And then, though many and diverse terrible things had happened to them, this fear exceeded all: that each one should hear the voice when he tried to go up, and each went up most gladly when it had kept silent. And the judgements and penalties were somewhat like this, [616b] and the blessings were their counterparts.

But when seven days had elapsed for each group in the meadow, they were required to rise up on the eighth and journey on, and they came in four days to a spot from where they could see, extended from above throughout the heaven and the earth, a straight light like a pillar, most nearly resembling the rainbow, but brighter and purer. To this they came [616c] after going forward a day’s journey, and they saw there at the middle of the light the extremities of its fastenings stretched from heaven; for this light was the girdle of the heavens like the undergirders of triremes [ships], holding together in a similar manner the entire revolving vault. And from the extremities was stretched the spindle of Necessity, through which all the orbits turned. Its staff and its hook were made of adamant, and the whorl of these and other kinds was mixed. And the nature of the whorl was this: [616d] Its shape was that of those [spindles] in our world, but from his description we must imagine it to be as if in one great whorl, hollow and scooped out, there lay enclosed, right through, another like it but smaller, fitting into it as boxes that fit into one another, and in like manner another, a third, and a fourth, and four others, for there were eight of the whorls in all, lying within one another, [616e] showing their rims as circles from above and forming the continuous back of a single whorl about the shaft, which was driven home through the middle of the eighth. Now the first and outermost whorl had the broadest circular rim, that of the sixth was second, and third was that of the fourth, and fourth was that of the eighth, fifth that of the seventh, sixth that of the fifth, seventh that of the third, eighth that of the second; and that of the greatest was spangled, that of the seventh brightest, that of the eighth [617a] took its color from the seventh, which shone upon it. The colors of the second and fifth were like one another and more yellow than the two former. The third had the whitest color, and the fourth was of a slightly ruddy hue; the sixth was second in whiteness. The staff turned as a whole in a circle with the same movement, but within the whole as it revolved the seven inner circles revolved gently in the opposite direction to the whole, and of these seven the eighth moved most swiftly, [617b] and next and together with one another the seventh, sixth and fifth; and third in swiftness, as it appeared to them, moved the fourth with returns upon itself, and fourth the third and fifth the second.

And the spindle turned on the knees of Necessity, and up above on each of the rims of the circles a Siren stood, borne around in its revolution and uttering one sound, one note, and from all the eight there was the concord of a single harmony. And there were another three [617c] who sat around at equal intervals, each one on her throne, the Fates, daughters of Necessity, dressed in white vestments with filleted heads: Lachesis, and Clotho, and Atropos, who sang in unison with the music of the Sirens, Lachesis singing the things that were, Clotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that are to be. And Clotho with the touch of her right hand helped to turn the outer circumference of the spindle, pausing from time to time. Atropos with her left hand in like manner helped to turn the inner circles, and Lachesis [617d] alternately with either hand lent a hand to each.

“Now when they arrived they were immediately told to go before Lachesis, and then a certain prophet first marshalled them in orderly intervals, and thereupon took from the lap of Lachesis lots and patterns of lives and went up to a lofty platform and spoke, ‘This is the word of Lachesis, the maiden daughter of Necessity: “Souls that live for a day, now is the beginning of another cycle of mortal generation where birth is the beacon of death.

[617e] No divinity will cast lots for you, but you will choose your own deity. Let him to whom falls the first lot first select a life to which he will go, of necessity. But Virtue has no master, and each will have more or less of it as he honours or dishonours it. The blame is his who chooses: the god is blameless.“’ So saying, the prophet flung the lots out among them all, and each took up the lot that fell by his side, except himself; him they did not permit. And whoever took up a lot saw plainly what number he had drawn.

[618a] And after this again the prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them, some uninterrupted until the end and others destroyed midway and resulting in penuries and exiles and beggaries; and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength [618b] and prowess and the high birth and the virtues of their ancestors, and others of ill repute in the same things, and similarly of women. But there was no determination of the quality of soul, because the choice of a different life inevitably determined a different character. But all other things were mixed with one another and with wealth and poverty and sickness and health and the intermediate conditions. —And there, dear Glaucon, it appears, is the supreme hazard for a man.

[618c] And this is the main reason why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this thing: if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow, and, taking into account all the things of which we have spoken and estimating the effect on the goodness of his life of their conjunction or their severance, to know how beauty mixed with poverty or wealth and combined with [618d] what habit of soul operates for good or for evil, and what are the effects of high and low birth and private station and office and strength and weakness and quickness of apprehension and dullness and all similar natural and acquired habits of the soul, when blended and combined with one another, so that with consideration of all these things he will be able to make a reasoned choice between the better and the worse life, [618e] with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just. But all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice, [619a] both for life and death. And a man must take with him to the house of death an adamantine faith in this, that even there he may be undazzled by riches and similar trumpery, and may not throw himself into tyrannies and similar doings and so work many evils past cure and suffer still greater himself, but may know how always to choose in such things the life that is seated in the middle and shun the excess in either direction, both in this world so far as may be and in all the life to come; [619b] for this is the greatest happiness for man.

“And at that time also the messenger from that other world reported that the prophet spoke thus: ‘Even for him who comes forward last, if he makes his choice wisely and lives strenuously, there is reserved an acceptable life, no evil one. Let not the first to choose be careless nor the last be discouraged.’ When the prophet had thus spoken, he said that the drawer of the first lot at once sprang to seize the greatest tyranny, and that in his folly and greed he chose it [619c] without sufficient examination, and failed to observe that it involved the fate of eating his own children, and other horrors, and that when he inspected it at leisure he beat his breast and bewailed his choice, not listening to the forewarning of the prophet. For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself. He was one of those who had come down from heaven, a man who had lived in a well-ordered polity in his former existence, [619d] participating in virtue by habit and not by philosophy; and one may perhaps say that a majority of those who were thus caught were of the company that had come from heaven, inasmuch as they were unexercised in suffering. But most of those who came up from the earth, since they had themselves suffered and seen the sufferings of others, did not make their choice hastily. For which reason also there was an interchange of good and evil for most of the souls, as well as because of the chances of the lot. Yet if at each return to the life of this world [619e] a man loved wisdom sanely, and the lot of his choice did not fall out among the last, we may venture to affirm, from what was reported thence, that not only will he be happy here but that the path of his journey there and the return to this world will not be underground and rough but smooth and through the heavens. For he said that it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives.

[620a] He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives. He saw the soul that had been Orpheus’, he said, selecting the life of a swan, because from hatred of the tribe of women, owing to his death at their hands, it was unwilling to be conceived and born of a woman. He saw the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale; and he saw a swan changing to the choice of the life of man, and similarly other musical animals.

[620b] The soul that drew the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion; it was the soul of Ajax, the son of Telamon, which, because it remembered the adjudication of the arms of Achilles, was unwilling to become a man. The next, the soul of Agamemnon, likewise from hatred of the human race because of its sufferings, substituted the life of an eagle. Drawing one of the middle lots, the soul of Atalanta caught sight of the great honours attached to an athlete’s life and could not pass them by but snatched at them.

[620c] After her, he said, he saw the soul of Epeius, the son of Panopeus, entering into the nature of an arts and crafts woman. Far off in the rear he saw the soul of the buffoon Thersites clothing itself in the body of an ape. And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make its choice, and, from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others, [620d] and upon seeing it said that it would have done the same had it drawn the first lot, and chose it gladly. And in a similar way, of the other beasts some entered into men and into one another, the unjust into wild creatures, the just transformed to tame, and there was every kind of mixture and combination. But when, to conclude, all the souls had chosen their lives in the order of their lots, they were marshalled and went before Lachesis. And she sent with each, [620e] as the guardian of his life and the fulfiller of his choice, the genius that he had chosen, and this divinity led the soul first to Clotho, under her hand and her turning of the spindle to ratify the destiny of his lot and choice; and after contact with her the genius again led the soul to the spinning of Atropos to make the web of its destiny irreversible, and then without a backward look it passed beneath the throne of Necessity,.

[621a] And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion, through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness [ the river Lethe ], whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

[621b] And after they had fallen asleep and it was the middle of the night, there was a sound of thunder and a quaking of the earth, and they were suddenly blown from there, one this way, one that, upward to their birth like shooting stars. Er himself, he said, was not allowed to drink of the water, yet how and in what way he returned to the body he said he did not know, but suddenly recovering his sight he saw himself at dawn lying on the funeral pyre.—And so, Glaucon, the tale was saved, as the saying is, and was not lost.”


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Media Attributions and Footnotes

  1. From the Greek thesmós ("law") and phorós (verb "to bear/carry")
  2. "the poet" refers to Homer (Odyssey 9:109)
  3. One of the symbols of Hymen was a lit torch, and torches were thus considered an important symbol for marriage.
  4. Refers to the myth of Persephone's abduction by Hades. See chapter 10.
  5. In the myth of Lethaea and Olenos, Lethaea claimed to be more beautiful than the goddesses and was punished by being turned to stone. Olenos chose to be punished alongside her. This myth does not appear anywhere other than in this passage of the Metamorphoses.
  6. The practise of pederasty, where an adult (man) had a romantic and sexual relationship with a (boy) child or teenager, was common in ancient Greece and Rome. For further discussion of this practice, see the myth of Ganymede in chapter 5.
  7. Trivia is an epithet for Diana from the Latin for the number 3. It refers to her aspect as a guardian of crossroads.
  8. In Roman worship, the order and type of sacrifice offered to gods reflected their role and importance. A black animal was typically sacrificed to a Cthonic deity (as to Night, here), female animals were usually sacrificed to female deities (as to Persephone, here), and the most important deity (here, Hades) often received the largest and last sacrifice.
  9. In Callimachus' "Hymn 2," Apollo passes by the river Amphrysus. Callimachus explains that this is the origin for the epithet "Amphrysian."
  10. Laodamia may refer to many different women in Greek myth. It likely here refers to the Laodamia who committed suicide after her husband was killed in the Trojan War.
  11. Book 12 of Ovid's Metamorphoses provides the most detailed account of the story of Caeneus. Caeneus, born Caenis (a feminine ending of the name), was raped by Poseidon, and then asked Poseidon to transform her into a man. Poseidon fulfilled this wish and gave Caeneus the additional gift of being invulnerable to weapons. For further discussion of the story of Caeneus and the concepts of gender and transgender in this myth, see:  Northrop, C. (2020). Caeneus and Heroic (Trans)Masculinity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Arethusa 53(1), 25-41 and Power M., (2020) “Non-Binary and Intersex Visibility and Erasure in Roman Archaeology”, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3(1). p.11.
  12. Anchises here foretells the founding of Rome. For further discussion of the descendants of Aeneas and foundation of Rome, see chapter 32.
  13. Refers to three of the labours of Heracles: catching the Cerynitian Hind, hunting the Erymanthian Boar, and killing the Lernean Hydra.


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