Aeneas has asked the Sibyl to show him how to reach the underworld and Anchises, his dead father: here she tells him what must be done to open the way. The reference to the accidental death of a companion, creating a taint that must be cleansed before the journey, mirrors an incident in the corresponding episode in the Odyssey. See the illustrated blog with a painting by Turner here.
To follow the story of the Aeneid in sequence, use this link to navigate from the foot of Virgil’s poet page.
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Talibus orabat dictis arasque tenebat,
cum sic orsa loqui vates: ‘sate sanguine divum,
Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est. pauci, quos aequus amavit
Iuppiter aut ardens evexit ad aethera virtus,
dis geniti potuere. tenent media omnia silvae,
Cocytusque sinu labens circumvenit atro.
quod si tantus amor menti, si tanta cupido est
bis Stygios innare lacus, bis nigra videre
Tartara, et insano iuvat indulgere labori,
accipe quae peragenda prius. latet arbore opaca
aureus et foliis et lento vimine ramus,
Iunoni infernae dictus sacer; hunc tegit omnis
lucus et obscuris claudunt convallibus umbrae.
sed non ante datur telluris operta subire
auricomos quam quis decerpserit arbore fetus.
hoc sibi pulchra suum ferri Proserpina munus
instituit. primo avulso non deficit alter
aureus, et simili frondescit virga metallo.
ergo alte vestiga oculis et rite repertum
carpe manu; namque ipse volens facilisque sequetur,
si te fata vocant; aliter non viribus ullis
vincere nec duro poteris convellere ferro.
praeterea iacet exanimum tibi corpus amici
(heu nescis) totamque incestat funere classem,
dum consulta petis nostroque in limine pendes.
sedibus hunc refer ante suis et conde sepulcro.
duc nigras pecudes; ea prima piacula sunto.
sic demum lucos Stygis et regna invia vivis
aspicies.’ dixit, pressoque obmutuit ore.
As he prayed in these words and gripped the altar,
the seer began: “Born of the blood of the Gods,
Aeneas of Troy, easy is the descent to Avernus:
night and day the gate of black Dis stands open.
To retrace your steps, return to the upper air,
that is the task, there the difficulty. A few, that
Jove loved and favoured or bright virtue lifted to
heaven, divinely born, were able. Woods clothe
the centre, Cocytus flows round it in its black course.
If such great love and desire is in your mind twice
to sail the lakes of Styx, twice see black Tartarus
and take the mad challenge on, hear what must be
done first. Hidden in a thick wood there is a branch,
golden both in its leaves and its pliant stem,
said to be sacred to the infernal Queen; the whole
grove hides it, shadows shut it in with dark defences.
No-one is allowed under the buried places of earth who
has not plucked the gold-leaved growth from the tree.
Lovely Proserpina required this to be brought to her as
her due gift. As soon as the first bough is taken there is
another, also in gold, in leaf of the same metal.
So seek it with eyes upturned, and, when found,
pluck it by hand; for it will come easy and willing
if fate chooses you; else you will not win it with any
violence or be able to cut it with hard iron.
Also, you do not know, alas, the breathless body of
a friend lies tainting the whole fleet with death,
while you ask counsel and linger at our door.
First put him to his rest and lay him in his tomb.
Bring black beasts, let them first be your first offering.
So will you then see the groves of Styx and the realm
the living may not tread.” She ended, and remained silent.