Saturday, April 17, 2021

Future Shock - Aeneas in the Underworld (1)

After the women went wild and the ships were burnt, I called out to Jove and he answered my prayer, sent down the rain and rescued one of my vessels. And that one ship was all I needed in the end.

I didn't even try to get to sleep that night. I sat on the high rocks and looked out to sea, my mind full of scorpions. The episode had made it plain that most of my companions wished to remain in Drepanum, even though they knew full well what my mother Venus had told me - that our destiny lay not on these Sicilian shores but northwards in Latium.

I blamed myself. I had failed to convey the vision; failed to imbue them with faith in the future. Death and despair had trailed in my wake all the way from Troy to Sicily. If I had any honour I would throw myself into the waters and bring an end to this cascade of errors. Then, just as this demonic counsel took hold, my father Anchises appeared to me, standing on the last tuft of grass between the cliff-edge and my feet. In his hands were the icons of the same Trojan gods - Diana, Venus, and Apollo - that he had salvaged from our home on the night the city fell.

'Aeneas,' he said. 'Banish these thoughts of self-slaughter. See this as an opportunity instead - a chance to restart and rebuild. It is good that those who prefer comfort to hardship are left behind. Bring with you only men who are hungry for glory and war, for you will have plenty of both. First though, sail north to Cumae and speak with the Sibyl, Apollo's prophetess. Ask her to lead you to Hades, for I long to see you there as I have much more to tell you and also to show you. What you will see will transform you into who you were meant to be - a leader of men, a father to a people, and the archetype of all the kings and emperors to follow.'

So it transpired. Acestes, King of Drepanum, gladly accepted those who no longer wished to accompany me, while I set sail for Cumae with those few who did. For two days and one night the going was easy, the sea calm and the sky blue. But in the third watch of the second night I was awoken by a chaos of voices and an air of disorientation. The ship was spinning in senseless circles. I raced to the poop where the crew were trying to set her right but the tiller and part of the stern were missing and Palinurus, our helmsman, was nowhere to be seen. Between us we cobbled a makeshift tiller together and got the ship moving again. Then I dismissed them and steered by myself until we reached Cumae. I couldn't understand what had happened. Palinurus was an experienced seaman and a good-hearted, hopeful fellow. He would never have fallen asleep at the wheel, still less slipped overboard or thrown himself off. I blamed the gods. I wanted to curse them publicly but I knew better by now than to provoke their wrath, especially Juno, whose rage against us was as fathomless as it was senseless. But the loss of Palinurus struck me as the the type of thing they would do - the kind of pointless deal they would strike. 'We'll let him get there safely as long as one of his men dies on the way.' As petty and vindictive like that.

We arrived at Cumae shortly before sunrise. Some of the men began setting up camp while others set out foraging for food and supplies. But I took Achates my lieutenant with me, and started climbing the rocky slopes towards the temple of Apollo. When we got there and looked down from the portico, the beach was a distant band of gold and the ship a brown speck on the edge of a cobalt blue sea. The only sound we heard (aside from the gulls), faint and far-off, was the refrain our trumpeter Misenus always played when we set up camp in a new land. Despite the disasters which habitually befell us, he always placed great trust in the gods and in the unfolding future. 'The future calls us forward,' he often remarked. His faith was unshakeable and infectious. Like a beacon at sea.

The temple itself was silent and deserted. I sent Achates to have a look around the perimiter, to see if he could find the Sibyl. I stayed where I was, in front of the door, studying a carving of the famous Cretan labyrinth, the black minotaur crouching ominously in the centre.

Then Achates returned with the Sibyl beside him. She was a portly woman, somewhere between forty and fifty, clad in a robe of winedark red. But there was a note of command in her voice that put me on my mettle straightaway. 'Do not waste your time sightseeing, Aeneas, son of Anchises. Pray to Phoebus instead. Pray like your life depends on it.'

The Sibyl opened the door and beckoned us us to follow. We passed through a small courtyard, then down a flight of five stone steps, and out into a wide cavern, the sun slanting down through the casing of rock in arrow-like slits. 'Now pray,' she ordered. So I stepped forward, closed my eyes, knelt on the ground, and begged Apollo to move heaven and earth and everything in-between to bring us to Tiber's banks. I asked for his permission to seek out my father in Elysium below, and my prayer was unfinished when the Sibyl started speaking in a voice not her own, a tone not just of command but of real authority and might. This was the sound, I realised with a start, of Phoebus Apollo himself. I did not dare to turn and look. The gulls were hushed as the oracle resounded around the cave:

'Aeneas, son of Venus, you will indeed lay the foundation stone of the city and empire to come, but you will suffer and sweat for the prize and Tiber will foam with much blood. As for your wish to traverse Pluto's Halls and visit your father, let me tell you this. The road to Dis is easy to find. Harder it is to return with body and mind intact. There is no hiding place there. You will be tested and exposed you come face to face with the depths of your wretchedness and sin. Yet if you win through, the rewards are incalculable. Is this what you want?'

'Yes,' I said.

'Good. Now listen. Your first task will be to bury a companion who, since you left camp this morning, has been sent to the Underworld by Triton, son of Neptune. Then you must find and take the golden bough that lives in secret among the firs. This will be hard - impossible without divine help. But there is no other way. Charon will not ferry you across Acheron without it. If you succeed, show it to the Sibyl, then hold it before you all the time you are in Avernus as a sign that despite your grudges and doubts you have the backing of the gods.'

Silence ensued. Tension dissolved. The gulls resumed their call and response. I turned and saw the Sibyl crouching low behind me, writing on the ground with her finger. She looked shattered - hollowed out and exhausted. 'Go,' she said. 'Do as he says,' So Achates and I bowed, then left the temple precincts.

'I think it is Misenus who is dead,' said Achates as we scrambled down the mountain. 'Triton is a musician, just as he is. He blows on the conch shell. Not particularly well, so I hear. Misenus was a first-rate trumpeter. Triton is known for his jealousy. It all adds up in my mind.'

'Mine too,' I replied, leaving it there for the moment though Achates was clearly keen to hear more. The thought of losing another good man in such a nonsensical fashion felt too tragic to bear. But alas, when we returned to the beach, we saw that it was indeed Misenus who had fallen. The men had covered him in a white groundsheet and they stood around him in a sorrowful knot, hands folded in prayer. His silver trumpet lay in the sands, a little way off to the right. 'What happened?' I asked.

'We don't know,' said Corynaeus. 'No sooner had Misenus sounded his salute than he was flung through the air by an invisible force. His head was dashed against a boulder. We ran across, but he was already dead.'

I shook my head, and felt the urge again to rage and rail against the gods. But I held my tongue and checked my thoughts, recalling the words of Apollo and remembering that at least two of them - him and my mother, probably Diana, maybe more - supported my cause and argued my case before Jove. 'Let us give him the burial he deserves,' was all I said, and we set about the task with reverence, dignity, and pride in one of the best of Trojans, a servant first of Hector, then myself, and an incarnation of everything good about Troy. He deserved a better end, but the ways of gods, as I was swiftly discovering, are far from the ways of men.

As I was brooding on this, two doves swooped down and circled three times around my head. As a boy, I had seen my mother talking to doves like these. She saw them as messengers and friends. 'I'll be back,' I shouted, and ran off after them, up to the fir-lined slopes on the eastern side of the temple mount. Unerringly, they led the way, to a bough like all the others but gold instead of green. I pulled it off and another sprang forth to replace it at once. The birds departed, cooing happily, and I returned to the shore, just in time for the funeral rite. 'I've got it,' I whispered to Achates, before focusing my mind on the prayers I had to recite. When all was done, I cast my own purple cloak over the earthen mound. It was a needless gesture, and I had cause to miss that cloak later, but it was the least I could do for this prince among men, a link with the city we all knew and loved before war and catastrophe ground us to dust. Oh, how I wish we were all still there! How I wish none of this had happened! But it isn't up up to me. There are greater powers at play. Destiny draws me on. The future, whether I want it to or not, calls me forward. So I left Achates in charge of the camp and set out on my way again, up the rocks and scree, golden bough in hand, towards the temple of Apollo.

Adapted from Books V and VI of Virgil's Aeneid. Part 2 will appear on this blog no later than Sunday May 2nd.