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Ch. 25: The Infernal Regions, Sibyl

At the commencement of our series we have given the pagan account
of the creation of the world, so as we approach its conclusion,
we present a view of the regions of the dead, depicted by one of
their most enlightened poets, who drew his doctrines from their
most esteemed philosophers. The region where Virgil places the
entrance into this abode, is perhaps the most strikingly adapted
to excite ideas of the terrific and preternatural of any on the
face of the earth. It is the volcanic region near Vesuvius,
where the whole country is cleft with chasms from which
sulphurous flames arise, while the ground is shaken with pent-up
vapors, and mysterious sounds issue from the bowels of the earth.
The lake Avernus is supposed to fill the crater of an extinct
volcano. It is circular, half a mile wide, and very deep,
surrounded by high banks, which in Virgil's time were covered
with a gloomy forest. Mephitic vapors rise from its waters, so
that no life is found on its banks, and no birds fly over it.
Here, according to the poet, was the cave which afforded access
to the infernal regions, and here AEneas offered sacrifices to
the infernal deities, Proserpine, Hecate, and the Furies. Then a
roaring was heard in the earth, the woods on the hill-tops were
shaken, and the howling of dogs announced the approach of the
deities. "Now," said the Sibyl, "summon up your courage, for you
will need it." She descended into the cave, and AEneas followed.
Before the threshold of Hades they passed through a group of
beings who are Griefs and avenging Cares, pale Diseases and
melancholy Age, Fear and Hunger that tempt to crime, Toil,
Poverty, and Death, forms horrible to view. The Furies spread
their couches there, and Discord, whose hair was of vipers tied
up with a bloody fillet. Here also were the monsters, Briareus
with his hundred arms, Hydras hissing, and Chimaeras breathing
fire. AEneas shuddered at the sight, drew his sword and would
have struck, had not the Sibyl restrained him. They then came to
the black river Cocytus, where they found the ferryman, Charon,
old and squalid, but strong and vigorous, who was receiving
passengers of all kinds into his boat, high-souled heroes, boys
and unmarried girls as numerous as the leaves that fall at
autumn, or the flocks that fly southward at the approach of
winter. They stood pressing for a passage, and longing to touch
the opposite shore. But the stern ferryman took in only such as
he chose, driving the rest back. AEneas, wondering at the sight,
asked the Sibyl, "Why this discrimination?: She answered, "Those
who are taken on board the bark are the souls of those who have
received due burial rites; the host of others who have remained
unburied, are not permitted to pass the flood, but wander a
hundred years, and flit to and fro about the shore, till at last
they are taken over." AEneas grieved at recollecting some of his
own companions who had perished in the storm. At that moment he
beheld Palinurus, his pilot, who fell overboard and was drowned.
He addressed him and asked him the cause of his misfortune.
Palinurus replied that the rudder was carried away, and he,
clinging to it, was swept away with it. He besought Aeneas most
urgently to extend to him his hand and take him in company to the
opposite shore. But the Sibyl rebuked him for the wish thus to
transgress the laws of Pluto, but consoled him by informing him
that the people of the shore where his body had been wafted by
the waves, should be stirred up by the prodigies to give it the
burial, and that the promontory should bear the name of Cape
Palinurus, which it does to this day. Leaving Palinurus consoled
by these words, they approached the boat. Charon, fixing his
eyes sternly upon the advancing warrior, demanded by what right
he, living and armed, approached the shore. To which the Sibyl
replied that they would commit no violence, that AEneas's only
object was to see his father, and finally exhibited the golden
branch, at sight of which Charon's wrath relaxed, and he made
haste to turn his back to the shore, and receive them on board.
The boat, adapted only to the light freight of bodiless spirits,
groaned under the weight of the hero. They were soon conveyed to
the opposite shore. There they were encountered by the three-
headed dog Cerberus, with his necks bristling with snakes. He
barked with all his three throats till the Sibyl threw him a
medicated cake, which he eagerly devoured, and then stretched
himself out in his den and fell asleep. AEneas and the Sibyl
sprang to land. The first sound that struck their ears was the
wailing of young children, who had died on the threshold of life,
and near to these were they who had perished under false charges.
Minos presides over them as judge, and examines the deeds of
each. The next class was of those who had died by their own
hand, hating life and seeking refuge in death. Oh, how willingly
would they now endure poverty, labor, and any other infliction,
if they might but return to life! Next were situated the regions
of sadness, divided off into retired paths, leading through
groves of myrtle. Here roamed those who had fallen victims to
unrequited love, not freed from pain even by death itself. Among
these, AEneas thought he descried the form of Dido, with a wound
still recent. In the dim light he was for a moment uncertain,
but approaching perceived it was indeed herself. Tears fell from
his eyes, and he addressed her in the accents of love. "Unhappy
Dido! Was then the rumor true that you had perished? And was I,
alas! the cause! I call the gods to witness that my departure
from you was reluctant, and in obedience to the commands of Jove;
nor could I believe that my absence would have cost you so dear.
Stop, I beseech you, and refuse me not a last farewell." She
stood for a moment with averted countenance, and eyes fixed on
the ground, and then silently passed on, as insensible to his
pleadings as a rock. AEneas followed for some distance; then,
with a heavy heart, rejoined his companion and resumed his route.

They next entered the fields where roam the heroes who have
fallen in battle. Here they saw many shades of Grecian and
Trojan warriors. The Trojans thronged around him, and could not
be satisfied with the sight. They asked the cause of his coming,
and plied him with innumerable questions. But the Greeks, at the
sight of his armor glittering through the murky atmosphere,
recognized the hero, and filled with terror turned their backs
and fled, as they used to flee on the plains of Troy.

AEneas would have lingered long with his Trojan friends but the
Sibyl hurried him away. They next came to a place where the road
divided, the one leading to Elysium, the other to the regions of
the condemned. AEneas beheld on one side the walls of a mighty
city, around which Phlegethon rolled its fiery waters. Before
him was the gate of adamant that neither gods nor men can break
through. An iron tower stood by the gate, on which Tisiphone,
the avenging Fury, kept guard. From the city were heard groans,
and the sound of the scourge, the creaking of iron, and the
clanking of chains. AEneas, horror-struck, inquired of his guide
what crimes were those whose punishments produced the sounds he
hear? The Sibyl answered, "Here is the judgment-hall of
Rhadamanthus, who brings to light crimes done in life, which the
perpetrator vainly thought impenetrably hid. Tisiphone applies
her whip of scorpions, and delivers the offender over to her
sister Furies. At this moment with horrid clang the brazen gates
unfolded, and AEneas saw within, a Hydra with fifty heads,
guarding the entrance. The Sibyl told him that the Gulf of
Tartarus descended deep, so that its recesses were as far beneath
their feet as heaven was high above their heads. In the bottom
of this pit, the Titan race, who warred against the gods, lie
prostrate; Salmoneus, also, who presumed to vie with Jupiter, and
built a bridge of brass over which he drove his chariot that the
sound might resemble thunder, launching flaming brands at his
people in imitation of lightning, till Jupiter struck him with a
real thunderbolt, and taught him the difference between mortal
weapons and divine. Here, also, is Tityus, the giant, whose form
is so immense that as he lies, he stretches over nine acres,
while a vulture preys upon his liver, which as fast as it is
devoured grows again, so that his punishment will have no end.

AEneas saw groups seated at tables loaded with dainties, while
near by stood a Fury who snatched away the viands from their
lips, as fast as they prepared to taste them. Others beheld
suspended over their heads huge rocks, threatening to fall,
keeping them in a state of constant alarm. These were they who
had hated their brothers, or struck their parents, or defrauded
the friends who trusted them, or who having grown rich, kept
their money to themselves, and gave no share to others; the last
being the most numerous class. Here also were those who had
violated the marriage vow, or fought in a bad cause, or failed in
fidelity to their employers. Here was one who had sold his
country for gold, another who perverted the laws, making them say
one thing today and another tomorrow.

Ixion was there fastened to the circumference of a wheel
ceaselessly revolving; and Sisyphus, whose task was to roll a
huge stone up to a hill-top, but when the steep was well-nigh
gained, the rock, repulsed by some sudden force, rushed again
headlong down to the plain. Again he toiled at it, while the
sweat bathed all his weary limbs, but all to no effect. There
was Tantalus, who stood in a pool, his chin level with the water,
yet he was parched with thirst, and found nothing to assuage it;
for when he bowed his hoary head, eager to quaff, the water fled
away, leaving the ground at his feet all dry. Tall trees laden
with fruit stooped their heads to him, pears, pomegranates,
apples and luscious figs; but when with a sudden grasp he tried
to seize them, winds whirled them high above his reach.

The Sibyl now warned AEneas that it was time to turn from these
melancholy regions and seek the city of the blessed. They passed
through a middle tract of darkness, and came upon the Elysian
fields, the groves where the happy reside. They breathed a freer
air, and saw all objects clothed in a purple light. The region
has a sun and stars of its own. The inhabitants were enjoying
themselves in various ways, some in sports on the grassy turf, in
games of strength or skill, others dancing or singing. Orpheus
struck the chords of his lyre, and called forth ravishing sounds.
Here AEneas saw the founders of the Trojan state, high-souled
heroes who lived in happier times. He gazed with admiration on
the war-chariots and glittering arms now reposing in disuse.
Spears stood fixed in the ground, and the horses, unharnessed,
roamed over the plain. The same pride in splendid armor and
generous steeds which the old heroes felt in life, accompanied
them here. He saw another group feasting, and listening to the
strains of music. They were in a laurel grove, whence the great
river Po has its origin, and flows out among men. Here dwelt
those who fell by wounds received in their country's cause, holy
priests, also, and poets who have uttered thoughts worthy of
Apollo, and others who have contributed to cheer and adorn life
by their discoveries in the useful arts, and have made their
memory blessed by rendering service to mankind. They wore snow-
white fillets about their brows. The Sibyl addressed a group of
these, and inquired where Anchises was to be found. They were
directed where to seek him, and soon found him in a verdant
valley, where he was contemplating the ranks of his posterity,
their destinies and worthy deeds to be achieved in coming times.
When he recognized AEneas approaching, he stretched out both
hands to him, while tears flowed freely. "Have you come at
last," said he, "long expected and do I behold you after such
perils past? O my son, how have I trembled for you as I have
watched your career!" To which AEneas replied, O father! Your
image was always before me to guide and guard me. Then he
endeavored to enfold his father in his embrace, but his arms
enclosed only an unsubstantial image.

AEneas perceived before him a spacious valley, with trees gently
waving to the wind, a tranquil landscape, through which the river
Lethe flowed. Along the banks of the stream wandered a countless
multitude, numerous as insects in the summer air. AEneas, with
surprise, inquired who were these. Anchises answered, "They are
souls to which bodies are to be given in due time. Meanwhile
they dwell on Lethe's bank, and drink oblivion of their former
lives." "Oh, father!" said AEneas, "is it possible that any can
be so in love with life, as to wish to leave these tranquil seats
for the upper world?" Anchises replied by explaining the plan of
creation. The Creator, he told him, originally made the material
of which souls are composed, of the four elements, fire, air,
earth, and water, all which, when united, took the form of the
most excellent part, fire, and became FLAME. This material was
scattered like seed among the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and
stars. Of this seed the inferior gods created man and all other
animals, mingling it with various proportions of earth, by which
its purity was alloyed and reduced. Thus the more earth
predominates in the composition, the less pure is the individual;
and we see men and women with their full-grown bodies have not
the purity of childhood. So in proportion to the time which the
union of body and soul has lasted, is the impurity contracted by
the spiritual part. This impurity must be purged away after
death, which is done by ventilating the souls in the current of
winds, or merging them in water, or burning out their impurities
by fire. Some few, of whom Anchises intimates that he is one,
are admitted at once to Elysium, there to remain. But the rest,
after the impurities of earth are purged away, are sent back to
life endowed with new bodies, having had the remembrance of their
former lives effectually washed away by the waters of Lethe.
Some, however, there still are, so thoroughly corrupted, that
they are not fit to be entrusted with human bodies, and these are
made into brute animals, lions, tigers, cats, dogs, monkeys, etc.
This is what the ancients called Metempsychosis, or the
transmigration of souls; a doctrine which is still held by the
natives of India, who scruple to destroy the life, even of the
most insignificant animal, not knowing but it may be one of their
relations in an altered form.

Anchises, having explained so much, proceeded to point out to
AEneas individuals of his race, who were hereafter to be born,
and to relate to him the exploits they should perform in the
world. After this he reverted to the present, and told his son
of the events that remained to him to be accomplished before the
complete establishment of himself and his followers in Italy.
Wars were to be waged, battles fought, a bride to be won, and in
the result a Trojan state founded, from which should rise the
Roman power, to be in time the sovereign of the world.

AEneas and the Sybil then took leave of Anchises, and returned by
some short cut, which the poet does not explain, to the upper

The Egyptian name of Hades was Amenti. In the Revision of the
Scriptures the Revising Commission has substituted the word Hades
where "hell" was used in the version of King James.


Virgil, we have seen, places his Elysium under the earth, and
assigns it for a residence to the spirits of the blessed. But in
Homer Elysium forms no part of the realms of the dead. He places
it on the west of the earth, near Ocean, and described it as a
happy land, where there is neither snow, nor cold, nor rain, and
always fanned by the delightful breezes of Zephyrus. Hither
favored heroes pass without dying, and live happy under the rule
of Rhadamanthus. The Elysium of Hesiod and Pindar is in the
Isles of the Blessed, or Fortunate Islands, in the Western Ocean.
>From these sprang the legend of the happy island Atlantis. This
blissful region may have been wholly imaginary, but possibly may
have sprung from the reports of some storm-driven mariners who
had caught a glimpse of the coast of America.

James Russell Lowell, in one of his shorter poems, claims for the
present age some of the privileges of that happy realm.
Addressing the Past, he says,

"Whatever of true life there was in thee,
Leaps in our age's veins.
. . . . . .
"Here, 'mid the bleak waves of our strife and care,
Float the green 'Fortunate Isles,'
Where all thy hero-spirits dwell and share
Our martyrdoms and toils.
The present moves attended
With all of brave and excellent and fair
That made the old time splendid."

Milton alludes to the same fable in Paradise Lost, Book III.,

"Like those Hesperian gardens famed of old,
Fortunate fields and groves and flowery vales,
Thrice happy isles."

And in Book II. he characterizes the rivers of Erebus according
to the meaning of their names in the Greek language:

"Abhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate,
Sad Acheron of sorrow black and deep;
Cocytus named of lamentation loud
Heard on the rueful stream; fierce Phlegethon
Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage.
Far off from these a slow and silent stream.
Lethe, the river of oblivion, rolls
Her watery labyrinth, whereof who drinks
Forthwith his former state and being forgets,
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain."


As AEneas and the Sibyl pursued their way back to earth, he said
to her, "Whether thou be a goddess or a mortal beloved by the
gods, by me thou shalt always be held in reverence. When I reach
the upper air, I will cause a temple to be built to thy honor,
and will myself bring offerings." "I am no goddess," said the
Sibyl; "I have no claim to sacrifice or offering. I am mortal;
yet if I could have accepted the love of Apollo, I might have
been immortal. He promised me the fulfilment of my wish, if I
would consent to be his. I took a handful of sand, and holding
it forth, said, 'Grant me to see as many birthdays as there are
sand-grains in my hand.' Unluckily I forgot to ask for enduring
youth. This also he would have granted, could I have accepted
his love, but offended at my refusal, he allowed me to grow old.
My youth and youthful strength fled long ago. I have lived seven
hundred years, and to equal the number of the sand-grains, I have
still to see three hundred springs and three hundred harvests.
My body shrinks up as years increase, and in time, I shall be
lost to sight, but my voice will remain, and future ages will
respect my sayings."

These concluding words of the Sibyl alluded to her prophetic
power. In her cave she was accustomed to inscribe on leaves
gathered from the trees the names and fates of individuals. The
leaves thus inscribed were arranged in order within the cave, and
might be consulted by her votaries. But if perchance at the
opening of the door the wind rushed in and dispersed the leaves,
the Sibyl gave no aid to restoring them again, and the oracle was
irreparably lost.

The following legend of the Sibyl is fixed at a later date. In
the reign of one of the Tarquins there appeared before the king a
woman who offered him nine books for sale. The king refused to
purchase them, whereupon the woman went away and burned three of
the books, and returning offered the remaining books for the same
price she had asked for the nine. The king again rejected them;
but when the woman, after burning three books more, returned and
asked for the three remaining the same price which she had before
asked for the nine, his curiosity was excited, and he purchased
the books. They were found to contain the destinies of the Roman
state. They were kept in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus,
preserved in a stone chest, and allowed to be inspected only by
especial officers appointed for that duty, who on great occasions
consulted them and interpreted their oracles to the people.

There were various Sibyls; but the Cumaean Sibyl, of whom Ovid
and Virgil write, is the most celebrated of them. Ovid's story
of her life protracted to one thousand years may be intended to
represent the various Sibyls as being only reappearances of one
and the same individual.

It is now believed that some of the most distinguished Sibyls
took the inspiration of their oracles from the Jewish scripture.
Readers interested in this subject will consult, "Judaism," by
Prof. F. Huidekoper.

Young, in the Night Thoughts, alludes to the Sibyl. Speaking of
worldly Wisdom, he says:

"If future fate she plans 'tis all in leaves,
Like Sibyl, unsubstantial, fleeting bliss;
At the first blast it vanishes in air.
As worldly schemes resemble Sibyl's leaves,
The good man's days to Sibyl's books compare,
The price still rising as in number less."

Thomas Bulfinch

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