Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI


Aeneas in the Underworld

Virgil’s idea of the “infernal regions” originates in the doctrines of philosophers, and he locates the entrance in a volcanic region near Vesuvius — an area cleft with chasms from which sulfurous flames arise, where the ground trembles with pent-up vapors, where mysterious sounds can be hear from deep below. Lake Avernus is the water-filled crater of an extinct volcano with high banks. There, noxious vapors arise and no life thrives on the banks or overhead. A cave here leads to the infernal regions, according to Virgil. The sibyl (or prophetess) guides Aeneas down.

Before the entrance, in the jaws of Orcus,
Grief and avenging Cares have made their beds,
And pale Diseases and sad Age are there,
And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime,
And sordid Want–in shapes to affright the eyes–
And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep,
And the mind’s evil joys; on the door sill
Death-bringing War, and iron cubicles
Of the Eumenid√ęs, and raving Discord,
Viperish hair bound up in gory bands.

What are these? It’s natural to think of “evils” as hovering in personified form around the entrance to hell (although that term is anachronistic here). But is old age an “evil”? Or sleep?! Or even discord (and note its association with crazy hair)?

Rather than “evils,” these are more matters of Western culture’s fears. So psychoanalyze Western culture for a few moments.

The next sight on the tour is a collection of grotesques, monsters, and deformities. If the human body is idolized, and monsters are those creatures that do not conform to the categories a culture has subliminally instilled in its people, then naturally this is what we see cast to the border of hell.

Identify these following characters from the underworld:

  • Charon
  • Cerberus
  • Tityus
  • Ixion
  • Sisyphus
  • Tantalus
  • If the experience of hell is being spun on a wheel or having to push a boulder up a hill or being unable to reach food and drink, then what is the way out of hell? (Think Buddhist.)

Virgil: Introduction

Aeneid: Book 1

Aeneid: Book 2

Aeneid: Book 4