Aeneid Book 6, lines 295 - 330

Charon, the ferryman

by Virgil

The first terrors that Aeneas finds at the gates to the underworld are personified grief, care, disease and the other enemies of human happiness. Then comes a huge tree, to the underside of whose leaves false dreams cling; then a place where terrifying phantoms of the monsters of ancient myth writhe, hiss and threaten. Skirting these, Aeneas and the Sybil make for the Styx, the infernal river which the dead must cross to reach the underworld proper.

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Hinc via Tartarei quae fert Acherontis ad undas.
turbidus hic caeno vastaque voragine gurges
aestuat atque omnem Cocyto eructat harenam.
portitor has horrendus aquas et flumina servat
terribili squalore Charon, cui plurima mento
canities inculta iacet, stant lumina flamma,
sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus.
ipse ratem conto subigit velisque ministrat
et ferruginea subvectat corpora cumba,
iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus.
huc omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat,
matres atque viri defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae,
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum:
quam multa in silvis autumni frigore primo
lapsa cadunt folia, aut ad terram gurgite ab alto
quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus
trans pontum fugat et terris immittit apricis.
stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum,
tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.
navita sed tristis nunc hos nunc accipit illos,
ast alios longe summotos arcet harena.
Aeneas miratus enim motusque tumultu
‘dic,’ ait, ‘o virgo, quid vult concursus ad amnem?
quidve petunt animae? vel quo discrimine ripas
hae linquunt, illae remis vada livida verrunt?’
olli sic breviter fata est longaeva sacerdos:
‘Anchisa generate, deum certissima proles,
Cocyti stagna alta vides Stygiamque paludem,
di cuius iurare timent et fallere numen.
haec omnis, quam cernis, inops inhumataque turba est;
portitor ille Charon; hi, quos vehit unda, sepulti.
nec ripas datur horrendas et rauca fluenta
transportare prius quam sedibus ossa quierunt.
centum errant annos volitantque haec litora circum;
tum demum admissi stagna exoptata revisunt.’

From here is the way to the waters of Tartarean Acheron.
Here, turbid with mud, in a vast chasm a whirlpool
boils and belches all its sand into Cocytus.
A horrible ferryman keeps these waters and streams
in fearful squalor, Charon, on whose chin stand enormous,
unkempt grey whiskers, his eyes stand out in flame and
a filthy garment dangles by a knot from his shoulders.
He punts the boat with his pole, handles the sails
and carries bodies across in his murky boat; he is
old now, but for a god old age is raw and green.
A whole crowd poured and rushed towards the place,
mothers, husbands, bodies of high-minded heroes,
their life spent, boys and unmarried girls, and youngsters
placed on the pyre before their parents’ eyes: as many
as the leaves that fall in the woods at the first chill
of autumn, or as many as the birds that flock to the ground
from the high crosswinds when the cold year drives them
over the seas and send them to sunny lands.
Those in front stood begging to make the crossing,
and stretched their hands in longing for the far shore.
But the surly sailor takes now these, now those,
while excluding others far back from the beach.
Aeneas, startled and moved at the uproar, said
“tell me, what does this crowding to the river mean?
What do the souls want? On what basis must some leave
the banks, while others row the leaden waters?”
The aged seer curtly replied: “Anchises’ son,
undoubted seed of the gods, what you see are
the deep marshes of Cocytus and the lake of Styx,
by which the Gods fear to swear, then break the sacred
bond. All this crowd you see is destitute, unburied;
the boatman is Charon; these, who sail, are buried.
Nor may they cross the dread banks and roaring flood
before their bones have rested in their graves. A hundred
years they flit and wander round these shores; then finally
they are accepted and see the marshes they long for.”


More Poems by Virgil

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