Virgil’s Underworld: A Land Of Death…And Reincarnation

  (Dante and Virgil in Hell, by Crescenzio Onofri  (–1714) and Livio Mehus  (1630–1691), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


In The Aeneid, an epic poem written by the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BCE), the main character of the story (Aeneas) traveled into the underworld to meet his father. The scenes that Virgil painted about the realm of the dead in book six of his masterpiece are likely some of the most vivid and elaborate illustrations of the ancient Greco-Roman underworld.

Virgil’s description of the underworld was so compelling that it undoubtedly served as an inspiration for Dante Alighieri’s conception of Hell in his famous work, The Divine Comedy. Despite Virgil’s disquieting portrayal of the gloomy, depressing and gruesome side of the underworld, he also described a highly interesting system of reincarnation that occurred in the Fields of Elysium. Although Virgil was not the only person from ancient Greece and Rome to envision reincarnation—Pythagoras and his followers also believed in rebirth—it is, nonetheless very interesting to read about souls in Greco-Roman mythology participating in a system of reincarnation similar to what can be found in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Journeying to the Underworld

  (Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl, by François Perrier  (1594–1649), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Aeneas’ adventure to the underworld began when he decided to break into the realm of the dead to speak with his father. He sought out a renowned Sibyl in Cumae to teach him how a living man could enter the realm of the dead. She directed him to a Stygian marsh, where he needed to obtain a golden bough that would be vital to them during their journey into the depths of the underworld.

With the golden bough in their possession, Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl entered a cave, which led them down to the entrance of the underworld. Aeneas and the Sibyl passed by illusions of monsters to reach the ferryman Charon, who was unenthusiastically carrying a select few souls across the river Styx. The ferryman stubbornly refused to allow Aeneas passage further into the underworld, but the Sibyl changed Charon’s mind by showing him the golden bough.




  (Charon Ferrying Souls, painted by José Benlliure y Gil  (1855–1937), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


After Aeneas and the Sibyl were ferried across by the ferryman, they progressed through the land of the dead at a quick pace. They encountered Cerberus, the three-headed hound, but easily neutralized the beast with a drugged treat. From there, they witnessed Minos judging the dead. Next, they came across a swamp holding the souls of suicides, and they even wandered into the Fields of Mourning, where souls resided who tragically suffered because of love.


  (Cerberus by William Blake  (1757–1827), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


After that elaborate tour of the entrance of the underworld, Aeneas and the Sibyl finally found a forking road. One path led to Tartarus, a place where (according to Virgil) souls received punishment for their crimes committed during life. The other road led to Elysium, a place that Vigil described to have the lush greenery of the Garden of Eden, the white clothing and splendor of the Abrahamic Heaven, and a population of noble warrior inhabitants like the heavenly Norse hall of Valhalla. Aeneas found many of his dead comrades from the Trojan War residing in the Fields of Elysium, all curiously wearing white headbands.

As Aeneas wandered through Elysium, he finally found his father, Anchises. While father and son had their reunion, Aeneas noticed a horde of souls gathered around a river. Aeneas’ father noticed his son’s curiosity, and began to explain a system of reincarnation that the souls inhabiting the Fields of Elysium could undergo if they so wished.



  (Entrance to Elysium, painted by Sebastian Vrancx  (1573–1647), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Anchises said that the river was the River Lethe. The waters of Lethe, if a soul drank it, would erase memory, preparing the dead to return to the living. Of the people crowding around the river, Anchises said: “They are the spirits owed a second body by the Fates” (The Aeneid, Book Six, line 823). Anchises went on to say that many of the souls that wanted a rebirth had lived unfulfilling lives, or had been barred from living a full life by disease or disability. Aeneas’ father admitted that many souls would linger in Elysium for a long time, but most would eventually drink from the waters of Lethe to be reborn into the world of the living. Anchises stated to Aeneas:

“Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost.
Then we are sent to Elysium’s broad expanse,
A few of us even hold these fields of joy
Till the long days, a circle of time seen through,
Cleanse our hard, inveterate stains and leave us clear
Ethereal sense, the eternal breath of fire purged and pure.
But all the rest, once they have turned the wheel of time
For a thousand years: God calls them forth to the Lethe,
Great armies of souls, their memories blank so that
They may revisit the overarching world once more
And begin to long to return to bodies yet again.”
(The Aeneid, Book Six, Line 859)


After that deep theological statement, Anchises brought Aeneas to the crowd around the river and named some of the prominent souls that would be reborn. Among them were Romulus, King Numa of Rome, Julius Caesar and Augustus. With those revelations complete, Anchises ushered his son out of the underworld so that Aeneas could continue on his fated journey to Italy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


  •   The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

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