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.