Aeneid Book 4, lines 238 - 258

Mercury’s journey to Carthage

by Virgil

Here is Mercury on his way to Carthage with a stern message for Aeneas from the Gods. Virgil combines a description of Mercury which is quite closely based on Homer with ideas of his own personifying Mount Atlas as a huge, craggy old man.

Mercury’s function as a psychopomp – a guide of the the souls of the dead – features in Homer’s Odyssey, where he brings the souls of Penelope’s suitors to the underworld when Odysseus has killed them. “Opening eyes in death” is a reference to the Roman custom of opening the eyes of the dead on the funeral pyre.

Mercury’s mother, Maia, was the daughter of Atlas. Mercury is called “the Cyllenian” after Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, where, according to tradition, he was born.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Dixerat. ille patris magni parere parabat
imperio; et primum pedibus talaria nectit
aurea, quae sublimem alis sive aequora supra
seu terram rapido pariter cum flamine portant.
tum virgam capit: hac animas ille evocat Orco
pallentis, alias sub Tartara tristia mittit,
dat somnos adimitque, et lumina morte resignat.
illa fretus agit ventos et turbida tranat
nubila. iamque volans apicem et latera ardua cernit
Atlantis duri caelum qui vertice fulcit,
Atlantis, cinctum adsidue cui nubibus atris
piniferum caput et vento pulsatur et imbri,
nix umeros infusa tegit, tum flumina mento
praecipitant senis, et glacie riget horrida barba.
hic primum paribus nitens Cyllenius alis
constitit; hinc toto praeceps se corpore ad undas
misit avi similis, quae circum litora, circum
piscosos scopulos humilis volat aequora iuxta.
haud aliter terras inter caelumque volabat
litus harenosum ad Libyae, ventosque secabat
materno veniens ab avo Cyllenia proles.

The Great Father had spoken. Mercury prepared
to obey his order, and first laced the golden
sandals on his feet which bear him aloft on
their wings as fast as the wind over sea and land.
Next he took his wand, with which he summons
pale ghosts from Orcus, sends others under sad
Tartarus, gives and takes sleep and opens eyes
in death. With it he drives the winds and swims
over the wild clouds. In flight he sees the peak
and steep sides of rough Atlas, whose crown supports
the heavens, Atlas whose pine-clad head is forever
girt with black clouds and lashed by gale and storm,
snowfall clothes his shoulders, torrents crash down
from the ancient’s chin, his bristling beard is stiff
with ice. Here the Cyllenian, hovering on both wings,
first paused, then stooped headlong close to the waves in
the shape of a bird which flies low, skimming the surface,
around the shore and the fishes’ rocky home.
Just so Cyllene’s child cut the winds as he came,
flying between earth and sky to Libya’s sandy shore
from his maternal grandsire.


More Poems by Virgil

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