Study Guide

The Aeneid Book 6

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Book 6

  • Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? SIMMER DOWN ALREADY. Yes. Aeneas arrives in Italy.
  • Like many a globetrotter after him, Aeneas's first visit is to the local tourist office – meaning, of course, the cave of the Sibyl, a prophetess who owes her power to the god Apollo.
  • When Aeneas arrives at her temple, which was built by the famous inventor Daedalus (click here and scroll down to read all about him).
  • He spends some time admiring the doors of the temple, also built by Daedalus. These depict various mythological scenes. Something they don't depict is the death of Daedalus's son Icarus (read that link above to get the scoop). Virgil tells us that Daedalus twice tried to fashion a depiction of his death in gold, but both times was overcome by emotion.
  • Then out of the temple comes Achates, who had gone ahead, with the Sibyl.
  • The Sibyl tells him stop admiring the doors and sacrifice seven young bulls and seven ewes. Aeneas passes along the orders to his men to make it happen.
  • Then, the Sibyl takes them into her inner shrine. There, she becomes possessed by the god Apollo, and instructs Aeneas to pray.
  • After that, the Sibyl busts out some prophecies. Specifically, she says that things are going be tough: they will have to fight a war to secure their territory in Italy. She predicts that a new Achilles will arise in the territory of Latium. (Achilles was the greatest of the Greek warriors fighting against Troy in the Trojan War.)
  • The Sibyl then says that the war will arise as a result of a foreign bride. She says that the Trojans will find safety from an unexpected source: a Greek city. (If this all sounds kind of weird, don't worry, prophecies are supposed to sound weird.)
  • After receiving this prophecy, Aeneas prays to be allowed to descend to the underworld, so that he can visit his father.
  • The Sibyl says that the way down to the underworld is easy, it's coming back out that's the tricky part.
  • She says that Aeneas must go deep into the forest and, in darkest and most secluded part, find a tree sprouting a golden bough. He must pluck this bough and bring it as a gift to Proserpina, the queen of the underworld. She says that only those who are fated to can pluck the bough: it won't come off for those who try to force it.
  • But then the Sibyl reveals a snag. She says that the Trojans have become defiled and have to purify themselves. This is because one of their number has died and remains unburied. The Sibyl says they have to find out who it is, bury him, and then sacrifice some black animals. Then Aeneas can go down to the underworld.
  • You might have thought that the unburied dead guy was Palinurus, but actually it's some guy named Misenus. He had apparently made the mistake of thinking he was better at blowing his conch shell than the sea god Triton. Gods don't take kindly to that sort of boast, and Triton's response was to drown Misenus in the surf.
  • While the Trojans start building a pyre for Misenus, Aeneas prays for a sign that the Sibyl's other predictions will come true, just like this one did. Venus sends down two doves, reassuring Aeneas.
  • Then Aeneas asks to be shown where the golden bough is. The doves fly off and he follows. Eventually, they lead him to the spot.
  • Aeneas is totally excited, and breaks the bough off the tree. We are told that it "clung" to the tree a bit. Does this mean that Aeneas is acting against fate? Generations of scholars haven't been able to give a conclusive answer. (That's your cue to have at it!)
  • Now armed with the golden bough, Aeneas follows the Sibyl down into the underworld, where they immediately encounter a lot of freaky stuff.
  • Then they come to the banks of the River Styx, where a crowd of souls has assembled, waiting to be ferried across by Charon, the boatman of the underworld.
  • The Sibyl explains that only those who have been buried can cross; those who haven't been must first wait a hundred years on the Styx's banks.
  • At this point, Aeneas catches sight of his lost pilot, Palinurus – now one of the unburied dead crowding the bank, denied passage.
  • Aeneas asks Palinurus if Apollo's oracle had lied, and some god had killed him.
  • Palinurus says, "No, no god killed me. The rudder broke while I was leaning on it, and I fell into the water. Then I swam ashore, but some locals killed me."
  • Then Palinurus asks Aeneas to bury him. "Or," he says, "take me across with you."
  • But then the Sibyl cuts him off, saying, "You know that we can't take you. Anyhow, some other locals are going to bury your body soon enough – and then they are going to name that cape of land after you." Palinurus is satisfied with this response.
  • Then up paddles Charon, the ferryman, and addresses Aeneas and the Sibyl as follows: "Whaddaya want?"
  • The Sibyl explains that Aeneas is just going to see his dad. Then she reveals the golden bough.
  • That does the trick, and Charon takes them across.
  • Once they get to the other side, Aeneas and the Sibyl see various dead people.
  • Aeneas sees Dido, and approaches her. He tells her he is sorry, and how it wasn't his fault for leaving her: he was only doing the gods' bidding, just as he is now.
  • But Dido doesn't listen to him. Instead, without a word, she runs off to join the shade of her dead husband, Sychaeus.
  • Next Aeneas sees some dead Trojan warriors – plus some Greeks, who scatter when he approaches.
  • Then he catches sight of Deiphobus, a Trojan warrior. His face shows that he has been cruelly mutilated.
  • Deiphobus, who had married Helen after the death of Paris, says that his wife is to blame. During the fall of Troy, she let her former husband, Menelaus, and Ulysses into their bedroom, and the two of them went at him.
  • He asks what Aeneas is doing there, but before he can answer, the Sibyl taps her watch (OK, points to the sky) and says that they've got to get a move on.
  • Deiphobus says, "That's cool. Peace out."
  • Then Aeneas and the Sibyl come to a place where the road forks. The path on the left leads to Tartarus, the black pit of hell. The one on the right leads toward Elysium, where the blessed go.
  • The Sibyl tells Aeneas about the horrible torments suffered by the souls in Tartarus.
  • Then she tells him again to hurry up. They go to the gates of Proserpina's palace where, after performing a cleansing ritual, he leaves the golden bough.
  • After that, he and the Sibyl head to Elysium – the ultimate chill-out zone, a.k.a. Club Dead.
  • They go up to Musaeus, an ancient singer and poet, and ask where Anchises is. Musaeus directs him to the spot. There they find Anchises watching the souls preparing for rebirth.
  • Aeneas and Anchises share a tearful reunion.
  • Then Aeneas catches sight of the thousands of souls crowding around a nearby river. He asks Anchises, "What gives?"
  • Anchises says that these are souls waiting to be reborn. They are drinking from the River Lethe, whose waters will wipe clean their memory of their previous lives.
  • Aeneas says, "Why would they want to live again?"
  • That's Anchises's cue to have a fatherly talk with Aeneas (a super-special fatherly talk, since Anchises is now dead and knows the secrets of the universe).
  • Anchises explains that everything that exists – including things like the sky, the land, the water, the moon, sun, and stars, as well as living creatures – is permeated with Spirit.
  • This Spirit occasionally becomes part of living things. When this happens, though, the body pollutes the spirit and clouds its vision.
  • Even in death, the spirit retains traces of its old life. As a result, the souls of the dead must spend a good deal of time (sometimes up to a thousand years) being purified (sometimes involving torments), so that they can regain clear vision. (Those who were especially pure in life – like Anchises – get to chill out in Elysium.)
  • Then, when the time comes, the soul of the dead man drinks from the waters of Lethe and enters a new body.
  • Anchises shows Aeneas some of the people waiting to be reborn. These include many future leaders of Rome.
  • First Anchises points out a bunch of Aeneas's immediate descendents. Then he points out members of the Julian dynasty, culminating in Caesar Augustus (the first Roman emperor).
  • Then they see various other figures from Roman history, last of whom is Marcellus, who looks a little under the weather. Marcellus was Augustus's nephew, son-in-law, and prospective heir; Anchises explains that he looks glum because he is destined to die young, without fulfilling his promise.
  • After this who's-who session, Anchises shows Aeneas a bunch of other cool stuff, including glimpses of the future. This gets Aeneas all fired up for the rest of his mission.
  • But now it's time to wrap things up. Anchises takes Aeneas to the exit of the Underworld: the Gates of Sleep. There are two gates, to be precise. One, made of horn, is the gate from which "true shades" Emerge. The other is made of ivory; through it, "false dreams" make their way to mankind.
  • Aeneas and the Sibyl leave through the ivory gate of false dreams. Why? That's a million dollar question. Unfortunately, we don't have a million dollars to give you.

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