Sunday, May 2, 2021

Future Shock - Aeneas in the Underworld (2)

The mountains were not only clear all through like purple glass, but living. They sang and were conjubilant. They were not all that sang. Everything is related to everything else, and all relationship is either discord or harmony. The power of gravity, dimension and space, the movement of the earth and sun and unseen stars, these made what might be called music and I heard it ...

William Golding, Free Fall


'It is good,' said the Sibyl, taking the golden bough and turning it in her hands. 'Come, let us pray in silence for a moment.'

Then we were on our way again, through the portico and into the big cavern. She opened a trap-door in the ground with her foot. I saw a small, square space, and stone steps leading down. 'You first,' she said, handing me back the bough. 'Hold it aloft at all times. It is your lantern in the dark. Now go.'

The afternoon light and heat vanished. The Sibyl closed the door above our heads and we were only saved from total darkness by the bough's warm, heartening glow. After a long descent, I detected a certain moisture in the air and even a hint of the sea. Then I heard a babble of voices - crying, begging, pleading, wailing - as we emerged onto a dismal shore lit by a feeble green light, which had no obvious source that I could see. A lake stretched before us, and between ourselves and the water's edge was a huge throng of people - jostling, pushing, clamouring - all trying to climb aboard the wooden skiff coming into harbour. The boatman was a wild-looking fellow with long grey hair and beard. Some of them he let on, but others he beat back with his oar. 'Not yet!' he barked. 'Wait your time.' Then he sailed off into the gloom, returning about a half hour later, during which time even more desperate souls had appeared on the gloomy strand.

'These are the newly dead,' explained the Sibyl. 'Charon ferries those who have received burial to their destination on the far side of Acheron. The unburied must stay here for a hundred years. Now lift that golden bough up high and part this crowd in two.'

The unhappy shades gazed up in awe and moved aside instantly, and when Charon returned he saw the bough too and took us two alone on the boat. But as we were boarding I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I turned and looked and there was Palinurus, our lost helmsman. 'Take me with you, good Aeneas, ' he implored. 'Get me out of this place!'

'Palinurus!' I exclaimed. 'What happened? Did a god shove you overboard?'

'No, my Lord. The sea was so calm and the night so still that complacency possessed me and and I fell asleep. I tumbled over into the water, and when I cried out for help no-one heard me. Everyone was sleeping. So I swam for the Italian shore and almost made it but was clubbed to death in the shallows by natives who mistook me for a demon. And that is why I am here, unburied and condemned to squat in this fetid swamp for a century. So I ask you again, noble prince, take me with you to the farther shore.'

'Palinurus,' I replied. 'You were never so naive as you seem to have grown down here. The gods treated us so roughly, both before Troy's fall and after, that you were always so shrewd and careful. I believe you are covering for whichever god did this to you, hiding the crime so that they will not be angered further and you get your wish to cross Acheron before your time. Well, I would take you if I could, but I am a stranger here - alive, not dead - and am ignorant of the law. So I leave your fate in the hands of Apollo's priestess, the Cumaen Sibyl, who stands beside me.'

'Palinurus,' she said. 'I know both the truth and the falsehood in your words. Both are irrelevant. You are unburied, and no amount of pleading and dissembling will alter Jove's decree. But take heart. Those Italians will acknowledge their crime and rapidly repent. They will build you a tomb, which will soon become a shrine as they perceive that nearness to your remains brings healing to their sick and makes the barren fertile. They will name that coastline after you, so look up with joy, for you will be honoured and Charon will ferry you to Elysium far sooner than you think.'

Tears of joy ran down Palinurus's pale cheeks. I would have said more but Charon growled impatiently and I knew it was time to go. The voyage was long, the air cold, and the waters black. At the farther shore, he turned around and sailed straight back without a glance or word. A rough gravel path lay ahead of us, lined on either side with tall, drooping trees like elms or poplars. It was hard to be sure in the half-light. But as we walked, it was the sounds I heard that stirred my heart, not the sights - three different expressions of anguish, one upon another in quick succession. The first seemed to come from babies and infants - short, sharp cries and gasps. Then adult voices in a kind of medley - weeping, wailing and exclaiming. The third was so quiet that my ears could barely pick it up - a choking, insistent kind of sobbing - yet the despair in those tears was all-pervasive and seemed to fill the air and every nook and corner of my mind. The atmosphere was heavy and doom-laden. I ground to a halt. The Sibyl grasped my sleeve and dragged me on but all the time the sobbing lasted I felt a strong, all but overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness.

She explained the sounds. The first, as I had surmised, was that of babes and infants who had died at birth or shortly afterwards. Then came those who had been unjustly sentenced to death, followed by numberless legions of suicides. I was so distressed by this waste and loss - the sorrow and the pity - that I failed to notice we had entered a wood and that the path had almost disappeared. Here I saw men and women with stooped backs and sad expressions wandering between and behind the trees. 'Who are these mournful shades?' I asked.

'Also suicides,' said the Sibyl, 'but the gods have granted them a copse of their own for they all destroyed themselves for the same reason - an excess of love. Here, I believe, is one you know.' And Dido, Queen of Carthage, stepped forth and turned her face to me. I ran to greet her, but she glowered at me as I spoke, her beautiful eyes all ice and hostility. 

'O great and noble Queen. So those dreadful rumours are true - that you made a pyre and flung yourself on top on my account. Please understand. I did not want to leave Carthage. I had no desire to depart from your side or your bed. But Mercury himself, at Jove's command, ordered me to go. He recalled me to my destiny, that city and civilisation I am called to begin. This is what drives and compels me on, often against my will, and never more so than when I left your gracious harbour.'

I would have gone down on my knees and begged forgiveness but she never gave me chance. She simply turned and walked away and disappeared behind a knotty oak. There was nothing in her comportment that suggested she wanted me to follow. Quite the reverse. I was most emphatically unforgiven, and knew in that moment that it was right and just that I was. I could not blame the gods this time. I had stayed in Carthage of my own free will and had enjoyed Dido's hospitality to the full. It was the gods, in fact, who had shaken me awake. Dido, I saw now, had every right to assume that I loved her and had decided to stay with her for life. Through my sensuality, through my abdication of responsibility, I had conveyed to her that this was the case. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

I was crushed  - pulverised and made naught - by the weight of my sin. 'Did Apollo not say,' whispered the Sibyl, 'that you would come face to face down here with the very worst of who you are?'

'Words to that effect,' I snapped back. 

The air grew thick. The trees thinned and disappeared until nothing but flat, barren land surrounded us. Presently, the ramparts of a mighty city loomed ahead, giant battlements and towers of the purest, darkest black. Demonic figures stood on the turrets, brandishing spears and shouting what I could only take to be obscenities at me in some outlandish tongue I could not understand. Cries of screaming agony resounded from the depths. 'Behold the city of Dis,' said the Sibyl, 'where the wicked dwell. To the left lies the road to Tartarus, the black pit reserved for the worst of evildoers. Be careful that you do not end up there. Our road now, the way to Elysium, runs under the city and then to the right. Cling tight to the bough as you go. It will bring comfort and strength.'

The path dipped, and soon the iron gates of Dis stood bold and strong in front of me. I saw a sign in blood-red ink: 'Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.' Then a hole in the ground, like a small cave, right beneath the doors. I clutched the bough as the Sibyl had instructed. Down we went. The hole became a tunnel. The bough's rays were again the only light we had. A foul, sickening stench accompanied us. The cries of the damned assailed us from above. But the tunnel quickly ended, and we found ourselves in a rocky, slightly brighter landscape, full of armed men and women too, including, I saw, some of the Amazons who had fought beside us at Troy. There were horses as well, and chariots, and all kinds of sword-play and mock battles going on. It seemed a contented type of place, the first I had come seen in Hades. I saw many there that I knew - Idaeus, Adrastus, the three sons of Antenor, and more - noble comrades all. When they saw me they gave a shout of recognition and speedily rushed over. I spotted Agammemnon too, skulking in the distance. I had not known that he had died. When he saw me, he scuttled off into a dell and hid. I longed to see that bastard Ulysses there among the dead as well, though I rather hoped he had come to a more deserved fate in Tartarus or Dis. 'He is still alive,' said the Sibyl, reading my mind. 'He is a wanderer like you. Searching for his home  Soon we will be in Elysium - the blessed realm. You will need to have banished all such animosity from your mind by then.'

One of the faces in front of me was so scarred and mutilated that at first I did not recognise him - Deiphobus, Priam's son, who had taken Helen for his wife after Paris's death. Those savage cuts wounded me with shame for I had thought of him often on Troy's last night as I knew that Menelaus and his men would have headed straight for his chamber. I had been aware of this and had intended to find him and support him but the pressure of events kept me away. I apologised and told him I had let him down, but Deiphobus said there was nothing to forgive and sent me on my way with his blessing, assuring me that I had done everything I could to save Troy and that a future bright beyond imagining lay ahead now for us all.

So we left that place and crossed a stream of clear blue water before passing beneath a huge green hill, nearly a mountain. Colour, I noticed, was coming back to the world. A tunnel ran straight through the hill, long and metallic, my boots ringing on the shiny, silvery surface as we walked.

The stream and the hill and the colour they displayed were harbingers of the astonishing world we shortly emerged into. There was so much light that at first I could make nothing out. I had to pause and rub my eyes. Then I saw the sun and the sky - mountains, rivers, trees, flowers and a wild, briny smell that told me the sea was near. Then I saw people - men, women and children of all types and races - all clad in white, some with golden circlets around their brows, others with silver. 'Behold Orpheus!,' said the Sibyl, pointing to a man of beauty and distinction playing a harp on a cliff-top as a group of blessed spirits listened peacefully below. 'Here are all those nearest to the gods - poets, artists, priests, prophets, and the finest of warriors, such as these, your friends and countrymen who now approach.'

I had been seen by two men, who waved and sprinted towards us across the grass. I saw who they were - Misenus, our trumpeter, who we had so recently lost, and with him great Hector himself. My heart leapt and sang in a burst of unexpected, totally undeserved joy. We talked together for a long time, while the Sibyl watched on discreetly. Their faith in me - their unswerving backing and support - broke the chains of the negativity that had taken my mind captive for so long. By the end of our conversation I had even begun to think that the fall of Troy was a good thing because without it the glory of the city to be could never come about. 'Come now,' said Hector at length. 'I will take you to your father. He will not only speak of the future, as we have done. He will show you.' He asked me then me to lift the golden bough above their bowed heads and pronounce a blessing on them. Me give them a blessing! 

He led me to the crest of a hill. From there saw my father below, standing by the bank of a swiftly-flowing river. He was alone on the near side of the water, while opposite him a great number of souls from a  variety of vocations, judging by their garb - soldiers, workers, holy men and women, and more - were kneeling on the ground, drinking from the stream.

I ran down the hill at full speed to greet my father, Anchises. I'll be honest. I forgot he was a shade. Three times I tried to embrace him, and three times I held nothing but air. That had happened with the ghost of Creusa in the burning shell of Troy as well. The memory stung, but I kept my eyes fixed on my father and the joy of seeing him again replenished my heart with gladness. After a while, I asked him who these thirsty souls were.

'Those, my son, whom the gods command to return to the world and live a second or even a third life after a short sojourn down here. Do not ask me why. It is a mystery beyond my ken. This is the river of Lethe. When souls drink here they forget this blessed realm, though some imbibe less deeply than do others, so Elysium returns to them in flashes as they journey through their lives above. Many of those gathered here now will be mighty figures in the future now unfolding for our race. They are keen to show you. So watch.'

Then began the most extraordinary flow of people, from right to left, each and every one of them saluting me with an upraised left arm as they filed by. My father named and announced them all, but there were thousands upon thousands and I recall very few. There was a series of kings first, then a legendary hero - Romulus; I remember him - then more kings, followed by tough-looking men my father called 'Dictators,' 'Consuls,' and 'Caesars.' Some of these Caesars' names I remember now too - Augustus, Trajan, Constantine, Justinian. It was a long list. Then the folk going by began to alter in looks and style: less royal and military, though both of these still featured, and more religious in demeanour, some with the rapturous gaze of the prophet and others with the focused serenity of the contemplative. I saw men as well with builders tools and the set-squares and protractors of the geometers. Then my field of vision changed and I was no longer reviewing a parade but gazing at a map of Europa, drawn in starlight on a cloth of ink-black sky. A great light shone in Italy for centuries, but dimmed eventually and gave way to another light in the East, near, it seemed to me, to where Troy once stood. After an even longer period, that disappeared too and a new light appeared - dimmer and a little less constant - further to the East and North. That was extinguished in turn and there was darkness over the land and even the starry outline of Europa grew blurred, faded, and then vanished into night. The Northern light sparkled again, flickered, and then disappeared as all returned to black. Then a light as strong as the first I had seen blazed out from the North West and all the other lights flashed back into life, fierce and purposeful as before. Others joined in, and soon I was faced with a myriad of lights, blazing from one end of Europa to another, from North to South and East to West until the whole continent was one long band of fire and glory.

In the end, all I could see was that light and in the midst of it three red circles - interlocking, interweaving, inter-relating - a dance, a diagram, a pattern, a thread, which somehow I began to grasp in my mind's eye and intuitively understand. I was wildly excited and felt on the verge of a tremendous discovery, both for myself and the world at large. But that was the moment when it suddenly felt all too much, and it must have been then that I fell head first into the river in a dead swoon.


I did not forget! I remembered! And when I opened my eyes there were three people with me - the Sibyl, my father and, most wonderfully, Creusa, my wife. In their different ways - for two were shades and one a living person - they dried me off, helped me up, and led me back to the silvery tunnel. The souls of the blessed lined the route, Misenus sounding his trumpet and all saluting in the manner I had seen on Lethe's bank. I turned to them and held the bough up high in a gesture of triumph and respect. They responded with a mighty roar, before Creusa left me for the last time and the Sibyl and I pressed on through the tunnel alone. I prayed for my dear wife's soul, while on the other side, in the country of the warriors, I blessed the soldiers with the bough and prayed that the sun might shine on that good and decent place and that some or all of them would graduate to the Elysian Fields. Agammemnon did not run away from me this time. He nodded as I passed, and I nodded back, and hand on heart I can say that I felt no animosity, not even towards Ulysses.

At the walls of Dis I prayed that soon some Mighty One would tear down those iron doors and cleanse and transform  that wretched city. It became clear and real to me that the traditional gods - even Apollo, even Venus - were not strong enough to combat and beat such intense levels of sin. Only a real god could win down here, and I knew there and then that this being, this entity, this person - this God beyond the gods - existed beyond and above our Pantheon and that He was calling me and had already revealed himself to me in the Underworld, though my conscious mind at that point could not grasp when. But I took this knowledge with me into the lovers' wood and Dido this time, just like Agammemnon, did not turn from me. She stood and made eye contact and seemed to listen to and even, perhaps, appreciate my prayer. I saw no love in her eyes, but no hate either. 

In the sorrowful regions, where the babes, the wrongly condemned, and the suicides cry and weep, I knelt on the path for hours, praying to that same strong God that some measure of relief - an opportunity for movement and growth - might be granted these unlucky souls. On the other side of Acheron, I saw no sign of Palinurus, and that was the moment when I knew that my job in Hades was done and that my mission was accomplished. Parting from the Sibyl in the temple was harder than I had expected. A bond had built up between us. But I was already looking forward to seeing my men again as I began my descent down the mountain. The world was transfigured - renewed and remade. All things - rocks, trees, sea, sky, grass - were brimming with vitality. I felt at any moment that a random gorse bush might catch fire and the God I had prayed to at Dis would address me from the flames. It was an odd conception - hard to explain, even to myself. Great Jupiter was in no way diminished - I want to stress that - but it was like a space had opened up above him and that the God beyond the gods was in that space, reshaping my soul, remoulding my heart, reorienting my mind, so that His desires were my desires. It was a strange and welcome sensation to feel aligned for once with the Power - previously unknown to me - that guides and directs the universe.

It was good to meet Achates on the beach, throw my arms around him and find flesh and bone and not fresh air. I was about to show him the golden bough when I realised that I no longer had it. I had no idea when it disappeared but I think now that it must have been the moment when the pattern of the circles (yes, that's when it was!) filtered down to my conscious mind outside Dis, that stronghold of sin, and I saw and understood how high the stakes were and knew that the God behind the gods alone could sack that evil citadel. From then on I had no more need of the bough. It had done its job and done it well. A new and greater power had broken through, into my life and into the world.


  1. This is absolutely beautiful John!! I really appreciate all your efforts in composition and getting it posted here!

    It brought to mind the work of (Devout Christian) Bible historian, Dr. Michael Heiser - whose research you might find very interesting...
    ...he has a theory, based on verses in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82, that originally God had a "divine council" of 'higher angels/lesser gods' ("sons of God") who became the Pantheons of gods from earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, etc..
    Not sure if this link will work - - if not, do a search on his name and his main website will come up. Though, it can be a bit difficult to navigate, as he's a prolific writer and podcaster..

    Anyway, I feel blessed to have read 'your version' of "The Aeneid", especially this last part, which has a truly lovely spiritual quality to it. Thank you.

  2. Thanks very much, Carol. I'll have a look at that site. Sounds really interesting - a bit like Iluvatar and the Valar in Tolkien's oeuvre. I probably believe something similar myself.

    I really struggled in the writing of this piece. Was assailed by negative voices throughout. But the story came through in the end, as it was always going to. These things are irresistible.

    New Arthurian story coming on Friday.

    All the best, jf