Astyages's Weblog

April 25, 2011

Virgil’s Aeneid, Part 21


Virgil’s Aeneid


DL Rowlands


(Part 21)

Scarce had the day revealed the rising sun, scarce had his heat dispelled the pearly dews, when from the woods there bolts, before our very eyes, a creature somewhere between a mortal and a sprite. So thin, so ghastly meager and so pale; so bare of flesh that the scarcely resembled a man. This think, a tattered, seemed to implore our pious aid from the distance, pointing to the shore. We look behind, then view his shaggy beard; his clothes tagged with thorns and his limbs besmeared with filth. The rest, in mien, in habit and in face, appeared Greek, and such indeed he was. From a distance, when he saw that we were Trojans and he knew us as foes, he cast on us a fearful look, paused and stood still; then all at once began to stretch his limbs, trembling as he ran. As soon as he approached, he fell to his knees and thus, with tears and sighs, calls for pity.

‘Now, by the powers above, and by what we share of Nature’s common gift, this vital breath, oh Trojans, take me away from here! I beg no more; just take me far from this unhappy place. It is true I am a Greek, and I further admit that I was among your foes who besieged Troy… If my death is due for such demerits, then I’ll plead for this abandoned life no more, but let my tears obtain only one favor; that you throw me headlong into the swelling sea, since my crime demands nothing more than death; I shall die content to die by human hands…”

Speaking thus on his knees, he embraced my knees: I bade him boldly to tell us his story, how he came to be in his present state, his lineage and his name, what it was that he was so afraid of, and where he came from. The good Anchises raised him with his hand, and thus encouraged, he answered our questions:

‘I came from Ithaca; my native soil; to Troy. Achaemenides is my name. My poor father sent me with Ulysses… (Oh, how I wish that I’d stayed at home, content in my poverty!) But, fearful for themselves, my companions left me forsaken as a sacrifice in the Cyclops’ den. The cave, though large, was dark; the dismal floor was paved with mangled limbs and putrid gore. Our monstrous host, an immense beast, lifts his head and stares at the skies. His voice bellows and horrid is his hue; ye gods! Remove this plague from mortal sight! The joints of slaughtered wretches are his food and his wine is their streaming blood. These very eyes saw when with his huge hand he seized two captives from our Grecian band, and, stretched on his back, he dashed their broken bodies against the rocks to crush their bones. The pavements swims with the purple of their spouting blood as the dire glutton grinds their trembling limbs.

‘Ulysses could not bear such a fate unrevenged; nor was he thoughtless about his own unhappy situation; for, gorged on flesh and drunk with human wine, the giant now lay supine, fast asleep, snoring aloud and belching indigested foam and gobbets of meat from his maw. We pray, then cast lots and surround the monstrous body that was stretched along the ground. Each as he could approach him, lends a hand to bore out his eyeball with a flaming branch. Beneath his frowning forehead lay his eye, for the gods had given him only one, but that was a globe so large that it filled his face, like the sun’s disc, or like a Grecian shield. The stroke succeeds; and down the pupil bends: this was the vengeance we obtained for our slaughtered companions.

‘But haste, oh unhappy wretches, make haste to fly! Cut your cables and lean on your oars! As vast as Polyphemus appears, this hated island bears a hundred more of his kind. Like him they shut their woolly sheep in caves; like him they keep their herds on the tops of the mountains; and like him they stalk from mountainside to mountainside… It has been three months since, hiding in the wilderness, I have dragged my loathsome days with mortal fear, lodging in deserted caverns at night. Often from the rocks I see the dreadful prospect of the huge Cyclops, like a walking tree; and from afar I hear his thundering voice resound; his trampling feet shaking the solid earth. Cornels and salvage berries of the wood, along with roots and herbs, have been my meager food, as I searched all around for some means of escape. Finally I saw your happy ships appear and on those I fixed my hopes; I ran to these and it is all I ask, that you shun this cruel race; and that whatever death you see fitting for me, you bestow upon me yourselves.’

Scarce had he said this, when we saw the giant shepherd stalking on the mountain’s brow; leading his flock down to the shore: A monstrous bulk, blind and deformed, his staff a trunk of pine to guide his steps; his ponderous whistle dangling from his neck. His flock attend their lord closely; this the only comfort allowed to him by his hard fortune. As soon as he reached the shore and touched the waves, he washes the guttering blood from his hollowed eye, gnashes his teeth and groans and then strides forward through the seas; their topmost billows scarcely reaching his waist.

Seized with a sudden fear, we run to sea, cut our cables and haste silently away, bringing the well-deserving stranger with us. Then, buckling to the work, we divide the seas with our oars. The giant heard the splashing, however, and when he found our vessels beyond his reach he strode onward, vainly essaying the Ionian deep, but daring to wade no further. With that he roared aloud: the dreadful cry shakes earth, and air, and seas; the billows fly before the bellowing noise to distant Italy. The neighboring Aetna trembled; its winding caverns echoing the sound. His brother Cyclops hear the yelling and rushing down the mountains now crowd the shore. We saw their stern, distorted visages from a distance; the one-eyed glance that vainly threatened war. A dreadful council they made, their heads so lofty that the misty clouds fly about their foreheads; higher even than the towering tree of Jove, or Diana’s tallest cypresses.

New pangs of mortal fear assail our minds; we tug at every oar and hoist up every sail to take advantage of the friendly winds. Forewarned by Helenus, we strive to avoid Charybdis’ gulf on the one side and Scylla on the other; an equal fate appearing on either side. Tacking to the left we free ourselves from fear, for, from Pelorus’ point the north wind arose, driving us back past the rocky mouth of the swift Pantagias. From there we make our way by Thapsus and the winding bays of Megara; this passage shown to us by Achaemenides, retracing the course he had already run.

Right over against Plemmyrium’s watery strand, there lies an island once named Ortygia. Ancient legends report that, led by Love, Alpheus found there a secret underground passage from Greece, which led to the bedchamber of the beauteous Arethusa and, mingling here, they roll in the same sacred bed. As Helenus had advised us, we next adored Diana’s sacred name, as protector of the island. With prosperous winds we pass the quiet sounds of still and fruitful land of Elorus; then, doubling Cape Pachynus, from whose rocky shore, extending to the sea, we survey the town of Camarine in the distance; her fenny lake undrained by Fate’s decree.

We pass in sight of the Geloan fields, and see the walls where mighty Gela was; then Agragas, crowned with lofty summits, long renowned for its race of warlike steeds; we pass the palmy land of Selinus but widely avoid the shores of Lilybaea, whose coast is unsafe because of secret rocks and shifting sands. At length the weary fleet arrived on shore, where we were received at Drepanum’s unhappy port. Here, after endless hardships, having been tossed by raging storms and driven from every coast, spent with age, I lost my dear, dear father: the ease of my cares and the solace of my grief… saved through a thousand toils, but saved in vain. The prophet who had revealed my future woes to me had kept this one, the greatest and worst of them, concealed; and dire Celaeno, whose foreboding skill denounced all else, was silent on this matter. This was my last labor; some friendly god conveyed us from there to your blessed abode.”

Thus the royal guest told the intently-listening queen of all his toils and wanderings and, concluding here, he retired to rest.

*****     *******     *****

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