Aeneid 6

At the beginning of Aeneid 6, Virgil describes Aeneas’ ascent to the acropolis at Cumae with the Sibyl, so they can sacrifice to Apollo in his temple there.

Aeneas becomes lost in thought when he sees the pictures on the door of Daedalus and his adventures. The Sibyl breaks his reverie and says, “non hoc ista sibi tempus specatcula poscit; nunc grege de intacto septem mactare iuvencos / praestiterit, totidem lectas de more bidentes.” (6. 37-39). Now is not the time to gape at spectacles like that.

It is almost dream-like, how Virgil/Aeneas envisions the whole story of Daedalus and the Minotaur, not without some emotion (6. 21). Virgil goes into some detail for at least 15 lines, reaching further and further back into the history contained in the myth.

I think this is meant to parallel the experience that the readers themselves will have in the Underworld with Aeneas. At first, Aeneas becomes lost in thought and the Sibyl must keep him on task and remind him why they are there. While the reflection is not in of itself a bad thing, one must not get so lost in thought that they lose sight of why they are there.

The ecphrasis may not seem terribly relevant to the story, but it is if you consider that it is possibly meant to foreshadow and parallel.

Aeneas is paralleling the Roman readers and foreshadowing their experience when they are reading the catalog of famous Romans and reflecting on the history. The difference is that for Aeneas it is the future, while it is the distant past for the audience. For Aeneas, the story of Daedalus is in the distant past and he slips into reverie thinking about it.

Just as a Roman reader might slip into reverie thinking about the past of Rome and all her heroes, Virgil brings us out of the Underworld again and into a completely different world. The readers emerge into a mysterious, pre-Roman world filled with violence.

Jarred out of his reverie, Aeneas goes with the Sibyl to sacrifice and eventually finds himself in the world of the shades.

One might say that the Roman reader never really emerges out of the Underworld until after the poem ends, since for the Roman (or modern reader) they remain in the world of the shades, in a sense. It’s all still in their past, among people who, if they ever really existed, are still shades to them.

After a reflection on Roman history (though in the future) Aeneas emerges into his own timeline. Likewise, the contemporary reader remains in the world of the past and will emerge into their own contemporary timeline when they have finished the poem.

After reflecting upon the past history of Rome, the reader may have a better sense of their own identity, as Aeneas must have when he emerged out of the Underworld. Armed with that new knowledge, Aeneas could proceed in his destiny.

In a sense, I believe that Virgil is pointing his readers to reflect upon their own experience with the poem, and this becomes fully apparent in Book 6, first foreshadowed by Aeneas’ reverie about Daedalus (and also by the rude awakening he receives from the Sibyl). Likewise, the reader will receive a similar awakening when the poem ends. In both cases, they ought to have emerged with a heightened sense of their identity.


The Structure of Iliad Book 1

At my college, we are deeply devoted to the Western Canon, and as a result, I am on my fourth or fifth re-reading of Homer’s Iliad for a class as a senior. Most of these classes are within my major, and a lot of the information is recycled, yet there are always new things to learn and say.

I’m sure that nothing I have to say here is new or earth-shattering, and the reason why I am writing a blog post about it is so that I can pursue my thoughts on the readings more effectively. I can do my homework and write blog posts all at once, which is a very happy arrangement.

The more I study, the more I am realizing that my brain is very strongly wired towards breaking down the structures of things. I tend not to spend much time on minute details, but what I am good at is finding the underlying patterns and rhythms of narratives. All of my best research papers have been those that I have dedicated to excavating the structures and substructures of a narrative passage, which is something I find endlessly fascinating.

I believe that the human mind subconsciously segregates things into patterns, and especially in work like the Iliad, which was supposed to be memorized. And patterns in the narrative make it so much easier to remember, and more enjoyable for the audience.

In Iliad 1, we begin of course with the narrative about Achilles and the grievances he has with Agamemnon over the war prizes, i.e. beautiful captive women. Agamemnon is forced to return his woman Chryseis, or else be severely punished by Apollo who sends plagues and arrows upon the Greeks. Agamemnon then takes Achilles’ prize, Briseis.

After a long, protracted scene of speeches, and Achilles losing his temper, we see Achilles speaking to his mother, the nymph Thetis. Achilles asks her to tell Zeus to give him honor and recognition, since he already knows that he is doomed to die young. Thetis then goes to Olympus to ask Zeus to grant Achilles’ request. Zeus assents to her request, which puts him into strife with his wife Hera.

After a confrontation with Hera, there is now strife on Olympus, which is ironically soothed by Hephaestus, who speaks to Hera and convinces her to lay her grievances aside. The book ends on a peaceful note, with a party on Mt. Olympus, with all the other gods laughing at Hephaestus in his attempts to appease everyone.

Homer juxtaposes the world of men and the world of the gods. Beginning with the world of men, they start out in relative peace but Homer soon describes the cause of Achilles’ great rage, and the narrative shows their degeneration into strife. The world of the gods begins in relative strife and ends in peace. Thetis is the narrative bridge between the two worlds.

The priest of Apollo, Chryse, and the god Hephaestus correspond in their purpose as agents of strife and peace respectively. Chryse, in his prayer to Apollo, is ultimately the cause of the strife amongst the Greeks, while Hephaestus in calming Hera was the agent of peace among the gods.

The structure of the narrative is essentially this:

  • The Argives have relative peace/the dividing of the war spoils
  • Chryse invokes Apollo/Apollo’s punishment/Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father. Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize, causing Achilles’ fatal anger.
  • Speeches/disagreement/strife among the Argives
  • Achilles/Thetis (which occurs at roughly the midpoint of the narrative)
  • Thetis/Zeus
  • Speeches/disagreement/strife between Hera and Zeus and the gods in general
  • Hephaestus calms Hera.
  • The narrative ends with the party of the gods, laughing at their agent of peace, Hephaestus.

The underlying symmetry is interesting, and extremely helpful for remembering the progression of the narrative. And it is, of course, a brilliant way to open the poem.