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Quotes

Quote #1

At Dido's head she came to rest.
"This token
Sacred to Dis I bear away as bidden
And free you from your body."
Saying this,
She cut a lock of hair. Along with it
Her body's warmth fell into dissolution,
And out into the winds her life withdrew. (4.971-978)

These lines depict the death of Dido. The Romans believed that Proserpina, the goddess of the underworld, came to cut a lock of hair from a person about to die. Here, because Dido has died before her time, Proserpina hasn't come, so Juno sent down Iris to do the job instead. Aside from these cultural details, these lines are striking for their emphasis on death as a physical process.

Quote #2

(The Sibyl:)
"The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis' door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil." (6.187-190)

Avernus is a lake near Naples; it was thought to be near the entrance to the underworld, also known as "Dis." It is possible to read the Sibyl's instructions completely literally – but they take on a whole added depth when you realize that she is talking metaphorically. If you don't see the metaphor at first, just think about how many people die, versus how many people die and come back. The way downward is easier, right? (For a highly original twentieth century reimagining of the descent to the underworld, check out the poem "Bavarian Gentians" by D. H. Lawrence.)

Quote #3

(The Sibyl):
"Cocytus is the deep pool that you see,
The swamp of Styx beyond, infernal power
By which the gods take oath and fear to break it.
All in the nearby crowd you notice here
Are pauper souls, the souls of the unburied.
Charon's the boatman. Those the water bears
Are souls of buried men. He may not take them
Shore to dread shore on the hoarse currents there
Until their bones rest in the grave, or till
They flutter and roam this side a hundred years;
They may have passage then, and may return
To cross the deeps they long for." (6.436-447)

As the Sibyl gives Aeneas her tour, we see more of the greatest hits of the ancient view of the underworld. We say "greatest hits" because most scholars now believe that the underworld as depicted in Book 6 of the Aeneid is a composite of various belief systems, and probably does not, in its entirety, reflect the true religious beliefs of Virgil of his Roman contemporaries. What literary reasons might have influenced Virgil to include this grim spectacle of the unburied, homeless dead?

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