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Heroes Notes

Classics Notes > Virgil’s Aeneid Notes

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How important is the descent into the underworld for Aeneas as a character and what is the significance of the show of Heroes?
Book six is divided into three sections, with the second, the descent into the underworld, and the third, the parade of heroes, being of the greatest importance. This book in many ways marks a transition from the more Odyssean first half of the poem to the second Iliadic half. It gives relief from the former and new impetus, which is greatly needed by Aeneas, for the latter. The katabasis of Aeneas is a long, dark and emotionally testing one; nevertheless this is absolutely essential to resolve all the emotional turmoil which he has undergone during the course of the first five books. In turn this gives Anchises much greater freedom to fill his son's mind with thoughts of glory and the future because he will no longer be haunted by his past. There were three major trials of the initial half of the Aeneid; the escape from Troy, the journeys at sea and the encounter with Dido. Each of these is dealt with by an encounter with a different figure from his past and each of these figures has a different cathartic effect for him. The first person he talks to in the underworld is his ex-helmsman Palinurus whom he feels great bewilderment at having to meet because supposedly Apollo had said that he would reach the land of Italy alive. "For Apollo never found false before, with this one answer tricked my soul, for he foretold that you would escape the sea and reaches Ausonian shores." Before this book Aeneas has been given many, sometimes seemingly contradictorily, prophecies from people such as Helenus and the harpies, and this revelation that something he thought had been falsely shown to him is actually true is very important. This is because from book six onwards there will be no doubt in Aeneas' mind as to what the ultimate aim of his toils are, Anchises will reveal all this to him, and so in terms of his character this represents a transition to clearer sense of mind about his purpose. Furthermore, Palinurus hears he will receive burial, a great tomb and a land named after to him. "By these words his cares are dispelled and for a little space grief is driven from his anguished heart; the land rejoices in the name." This creates happiness in a particularly desperate part of the underworld and no doubt has the effect of giving hope and encouragement to a stricken Aeneas. He is also able to leave behind happy a man whom he, at the start of the book, was crying for the loss of. In this way he has relief from the anguish of those men lost at sea and, through Palinurus, can move on from the guilt of all the pain his quest has caused upon the men he led so far from home. The next person that he meets is Dido and this encounter is the most moving and important of the three. Her appearance is very sudden and she is said to be wandering with a fresh wound, something which carries great poignancy with Aeneas as well. Book five began with the line, "so great a flame is unknown; but the cruel pangs when deep love is profaned, and knowledge of what a woman can do in frenzy." He is deeply troubled by his encounter and this worry is said to transfer and cause all the hearts of the Trojans woes. He must overcome his grief so he no longer negatively affects either his

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