Georgics Book 4, lines 531 - 558

Aristaeus’s bees

by Virgil

In an extended excursion into myth, Virgil continues with the theme of bees in the second half of his fourth Book of the Georgics. Aristaeus, son of Cyrene, a water-deity, has lost his bees to hunger and disease. His mother tells him how he can find out the reason by subduing Peleus, a supernatural being endowed with shape-shifting powers and the gift of prophecy. Aristaeus learns that he is being punished for causing the deaths of Eurydice, bitten by a snake as Aristaeus pursued her, and indirectly of her husband Orpheus, who has died, grief-stricken, after the failure of his attempt to rescue her from the underworld using his miraculous musical gifts. As this extract starts, Cyrene is telling her son how to atone for his guilt.

After the end of Aristaeus’s story, Virgil ends the Georgics with a brief coda praising the future Augustus’s latest military victories and bidding farewell to his own engagement with pastoral poetry. When we next read him, he will have turned to military glory and the foundation myth of Rome and the Caesars in his Aeneid.

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“Nate, licet tristes animo deponere curas.
haec omnis morbi causa; hinc miserabile Nymphae,
cum quibus illa choros lucis agitabat in altis,
exitium misere apibus. tu munera supplex
tende petens pacem et faciles venerare Napaeas;
namque dabunt veniam votis irasque remittent.
sed modus orandi qui sit, prius ordine dicam.
quattuor eximios praestanti corpore tauros,
qui tibi nunc viridis depascunt summa Lycaei,
delige et intacta totidem cervice iuvencas.
quattuor his aras alta ad delubra dearum
constitue et sacrum iugulis demitte cruorem,
corporaque ipsa boum frondoso desere luco.
post, ubi nona suos Aurora ostenderit ortus,
inferias Orphei Lethaea papavera mittes
et nigram mactabis ovem lucumque revises:
placatam Eurydicen vitula venerabere caesa.”
haud mora; continuo matris praecepta facessit;
ad delubra venit, monstratas excitat aras,
quattuor eximios praestanti corpore tauros
ducit et intacta totidem cervice iuvencas.
post, ubi nona suos Aurora induxerat ortus,
inferias Orphei mittit lucumque revisit.
hic vero subitum ac dictu mirabile monstrum
adspiciunt, liquefacta boum per viscera toto
stridere apes utero et ruptis effervere costis,
immensasque trahi nubes, iamque arbore summa
confluere et lentis uvam demittere ramis.

“My son, dismiss the sadness and sorrow from your mind. This is the sole cause of the sickness, for this the Nymphs, whom Eurydice used to dance with in the mountain groves, have inflicted a terrible destruction on your bees. Go, a suppliant, bring peace-offerings and venerate the gentle wood-nymphs; for they will respond with forgiveness and lay aside their anger. But I will tell first how you should make your prayer. Choose four outstanding prize bulls from your herd now grazing the green tops of Mount Lycaeus, and as many heifers whose neck was never yoked. Set up four altars for them at the mountain shrine of the goddesses, let down the sacred blood from their throats, and leave the bodies of the cattle in the leafy grove. Afterwards, when the ninth dawn has displayed her rising, lay out drowsy poppy as a funeral offering to Orpheus, sacrifice a black sheep and return to the grove. Eurydice will be appeased: sacrifice a she-calf in her honour.” Without delay, he follows at once his mother’s instructions, raises up the altars she prescribed, brings four outstanding prize bulls and as many heifers whose neck has never been yoked. Afterwards, when the ninth dawn had brought in her rising, he makes funeral offerings to Orpheus and returns to the grove. There they see a sudden and truly marvelous prodigy, bees buzzing all through the liquefied flesh and the entrails of the cattle and bubbling out from the burst rib-cages, borne along in huge clouds until they flow together on tree-tops, hanging down their swarms from the bending branches.

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More Poems by Virgil

  1. Dido’s release
  2. Charon, the ferryman
  3. Juno throws open the gates of war
  4. Juno is reconciled
  5. Virgil predicts a forthcoming birth and a new golden age
  6. The farmer’s happy lot
  7. The Trojans reach Carthage
  8. Aeneas arrives in Italy
  9. New allies for Aeneas
  10. Laocoon warns against the Trojan horse
  11. Rumour
  12. Aeneas comes to the Hell of Tartarus
  13. Anchises’s ghost invites Aeneas to visit the underworld
  14. Virgil’s perils on the sea
  15. Rites for the allies’ dead
  16. The Aeneid begins
  17. Laocoon and the snakes
  18. The Harpy’s prophecy
  19. Turnus at bay
  20. Aeneas joins the fray
  21. Dido and Aeneas: royal hunt and royal affair
  22. A Fury rouses Turnus to war
  23. Mercury’s journey to Carthage
  24. Fire strikes Aeneas’s fleet
  25. Aeneas tours the site of Rome
  26. Sea-nymphs
  27. Aeneas sees Marcellus, Augustus’s tragic heir
  28. The farmer’s starry calendar
  29. Omens for Princess Lavinia
  30. Storm at sea!
  31. The death of Priam
  32. Help for Father Aeneas from Father Tiber
  33. The Fury Allecto blows the alarm
  34. King Mezentius meets his match
  35. Aeneas reaches the Elysian Fields
  36. Palinurus the helmsman is lost
  37. Aeneas saves his son and father, but at a cost
  38. Aeneas is wounded
  39. Mourning for Pallas
  40. Jupiter’s prophecy
  41. Dido and Aeneas: Hell hath no fury …
  42. Aeneas rescues his Father Anchises
  43. Turnus the wolf
  44. Virgil’s poetic temple to Caesar
  45. The death of Dido.
  46. In King Latinus’s hall
  47. The natural history of bees
  48. Aeneas’s vision of Augustus
  49. Love is the same for all
  50. Souls awaiting punishment in Tartarus, and the crimes that brought them there.
  51. Vulcan’s forge
  52. The death of Euryalus and Nisus
  53. Aeneas finds Dido among the shades
  54. Aeneas’s ships are transformed
  55. How Aeneas will know the site of his city
  56. The infant Camilla
  57. The journey to Hades begins
  58. Hector visits Aeneas in a dream
  59. The death of Pallas
  60. Virgil begins the Georgics
  61. The Trojans prepare to set sail from Carthage
  62. Aeneas’s oath
  63. The Syrian hostess
  64. Signs of bad weather
  65. King Latinus grants the Trojans’ request
  66. Dido falls in love
  67. More from Virgil’s farming Utopia
  68. Catastrophe for Rome?
  69. Aeneas learns the way to the underworld
  70. Aeneas prepares to tell Dido his story
  71. The Trojan Horse enters the city
  72. Turnus is lured away from battle
  73. The portals of sleep