Why does Virgil make Aeneas visit the underworld?
In book 6 of the Aeneid Virgil makes Aeneas visit the underworld. There are many reasons that Virgil explains in the book. His visit to the underworld is the turning point of the Aeneid, it ends the description of his journey and starts to lead into the warfare and other events in the second half of the Aeneid. His visit rounds up all the main focus points of the whole epic, Aeneas as a person, piety and homage to Rome’s splendour. Aeneas’ meet with his father demonstrates the piety that Aeneas holds for his family and his homeland. The Pageant of Roman heroes demonstrates the homage to Rome and its future. As Aeneas continues his journey through the underworld meeting other people from his past, he changes and this demonstrates what Aeneas is like as a person. As a debt to Homer, and to be seen as writing in the Homeric style, Virgil uses many similar scenes and references throughout his epic to those in Homer’s. For example, Odysseus meets his mother in the Underworld, but he didn’t initially know she was dead. He tries to embrace her three times, and three times he wraps his arms around nothing but air and begs her not to leave his grasp. Aeneas meets his father in the Underworld and tries to embrace him three times, and three times wraps his arms round nothing but air and begs him not to leave his grasp. Aeneas cannot meet his mother in the Underworld, as she is a goddess. He also knows that his father is dead and is told to go and visit him in a dream. Odysseus may not be able to meet his father in the Underworld because he is still at home, on his farm. It would be too much for Odysseus to meet both his parents in the Underworld. Thus, Homer has made a conscious choice. He may have picked for Anticleia to die because Laertes, being a man, had more prestige in Homer’s time, and should therefore be alive and well to greet his son when he returns home. However, it may also be ironic that Odysseus meets the woman who gave him life in the Kingdom of the Dead. Therefore, the poems are similar, but also different. Aeneas’ meeting with his father may also be an attempt to show the Trojan hero as greater than the Greek, this is also anther theme of the epic. Anchises would have more status that Odysseus’ mother, as he is a man, and has had a child with a goddess. Aeneas also has more status than Odysseus, because he is half immortal, whereas both Odysseus’ parents are mortal. This tie in with the points made above, Aeneas is half-immortal to add splendour to the Roman race, which is Virgil’s target market. Odysseus has to have mortal parents, because his is a story about a man and going home. Before going to the underworld, Aeneas is told by the Sibyl that “at long last you have done with the perils of the ocean, but worse things remain for you to bear on land.” This refers to the end of the Odyssey, as Odysseus reaches Ithaca, and the start of the Iliad. Throughout the whole of book 6 we see various examples of Aeneas changing as a person, but especially in the centre of the book. He is confronted by ghosts of his past, and all through this section of the book we are made to remember all the hurt and hardships caused by Aeneas’ mission to reach Italy. We see him as a character we haven’t met yet, Aeneas is very irresolute, guilt filled, backwards looking and sad for the hurt he feels he has caused along the journey. As Aeneas first enters the underworld he sees all the people waiting on the side of the river Styx, these people have not been buried, they must wait 100 years to be granted crossing by Charon, the ferryman. Here he meets the ghost of his friend and trusty helmsman Palinurus. Palinurus had safely guided the Trojan ship through seven years of wondering journeys. When the boats were only a few miles off the shore of Italy he was knocked over board by the god Sleep. When Palinurus explains this to Aeneas he feels, understandably, guilty that he didn’t even notice...
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