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.

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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.

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