Aeneid Book 3, lines 231 - 267

The Harpy’s prophecy

by Virgil

Aeneas tells the Carthaginian Queen Dido how, driven from Troy, he and his followers build a fleet, and, when the winter is over, set off to found a new city. The way is hard, and their wanderings last for years. There are abortive attempts to settle in Thrace and Crete: omens indicate that they are in the wrong place, but for a long time what the gods truly wish becomes no clearer. Finally, Troy’s gods reveal to Aeneas in a dream that the city will be in Italy. At last there seems to be certainty, but another sinister prophecy will complicate matters. Making landfall on an island, the Trojans help themselves to untended cattle without knowing that they belong to the Harpies, birds with women’s heads and murderous talons, who foul everything that they touch. In this extract, the Trojans think at first that they have driven the Harpies off.

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Instruimus mensas arisque reponimus ignem;
rursum ex diverso caeli caecisque latebris
turba sonans praedam pedibus circumvolat uncis,
polluit ore dapes. sociis tunc arma capessant
edico, et dira bellum cum gente gerendum.
haud secus ac iussi faciunt tectosque per herbam
disponunt ensis et scuta latentia condunt.
ergo ubi delapsae sonitum per curva dedere
litora, dat signum specula Misenus ab alta
aere cavo. invadunt socii et nova proelia temptant,
obscenas pelagi ferro foedare volucres.
sed neque vim plumis ullam nec vulnera tergo
accipiunt, celerique fuga sub sidera lapsae
semesam praedam et vestigia foeda relinquunt.
una in praecelsa consedit rupe Celaeno,
infelix vates, rumpitque hanc pectore vocem:
‘bellum etiam pro caede boum stratisque iuvencis,
Laomedontiadae, bellumne inferre paratis
et patrio Harpyias insontis pellere regno?
accipite ergo animis atque haec mea figite dicta,
quae Phoebo pater omnipotens, mihi Phoebus Apollo
praedixit, vobis Furiarum ego maxima pando.
Italiam cursu petitis ventisque vocatis:
ibitis Italiam portusque intrare licebit.
sed non ante datam cingetis moenibus urbem
quam vos dira fames nostraeque iniuria caedis
ambesas subigat malis absumere mensas.’
dixit, et in silvam pennis ablata refugit.
at sociis subita gelidus formidine sanguis
deriguit: cecidere animi, nec iam amplius armis,
sed votis precibusque iubent exposcere pacem,
sive deae seu sint dirae obscenaeque volucres.
et pater Anchises passis de litore palmis
numina magna vocat meritosque indicit honores:
‘di, prohibete minas; di, talem avertite casum
et placidi servate pios.’ tum litore funem
deripere excussosque iubet laxare rudentis.

We set up the tables and light fresh fire on the altars;
from the other part of the sky and their hidden lairs
again the noisy crowd circle the prey with taloned feet
and foul the food with their mouths. I call my men
to arms, to wage war with the horrid tribe.
They obey at once and lay swords and shields
hidden in the grass. So when they swooped, screaming
along the curving shore, Misenus gave the signal
from a high lookout on a bronze horn.
My men set to, and try by a strange warfare
to maim the foul seabirds with steel.
But their feathers took no harm from the attack, their
backs took no wounds, and quickly soaring to the sky
they leave behind their half-eaten prey and foul traces.
One of them, Celaeno, alighted on a high rock,
a prophet of doom, and spat out these words:
“war, then, you bring us for our slaughtered cattle,
and butchered calves, Trojans, war, prepared to drive
the innocent Harpies from our fatherland?
Listen well and remember these words, given by
the mighty Father to Apollo, and by Apollo to me,
that I, mightiest of the Furies, now reveal to you.
You head for Italy and call on the winds: to Italy
you shall go and be granted landfall. But you will not
wall in your promised city before dire hunger and
the wrong done by your bloody attack on us
makes you eat your tables, and gnaw them with
your jaws.” And, taking wing, she flew to the forest.
My men’s blood ran cold and froze with sudden fear:
their spirits fell, and they bade me seek peace,
no longer with weapons, but with vows and prayers,
be the Harpies goddesses or fell and horrid birds.
Father Anchises, stretching out his hands from
the shore invokes the great gods and offers the due
tributes: “ O Gods, frustrate these threats, avert such
disaster, peacefully save the righteous.” Then he orders
the cable loosed from the shore and the sheets shaken free.