This painting, by Jan Brueghel the Elder (c. 1568–1625), was inspired by the story of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, being led through the underworld by a mystic woman known as the Cumaean Sibyl. As for the mythical cast of characters in this artwork, Aeneas was a survivor of the Trojan war who moved to Italy and founded a lineage that would eventually produce Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. The Cumaean Sibyl, one of several sibyls from ancient Italian myth and legend, was a kind prophetess who could receive and express heavenly messages, similar in nature to the mystic women who plied their trade at Delphi. In the case of the ancient Italian sibyls, their prophecies and messages were long recorded in Rome’s mysterious Sibylline Books. Like the priestesses in Delphi, sibyls were often particularly erratic and flamboyant in their behavior, sure to shock visitors with exaggerated body gestures and barrages of cryptic messages from the beyond. The Cumaean Sibyl was no different, but Aeneas was willing to put up with her strange behavior in order to employ her as a guide to the underworld so that he could speak one last time to his recently deceased father. Although meeting with his father was the ultimate goal, the trip turned into a general tour of the Roman underworld. This chthonic expedition was masterfully described in book six of the Aeneid, an epic poem by the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BCE). Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ journey with the Cumean Sibyl produced some of the most vivid and elaborately-written illustrations of the ancient Greco-Roman underworld, and undoubtedly served as an inspiration for Dante Alighieri’s much later conception of Hell in his famous work, The Divine Comedy.
As Virgil told the tale, Aeneas and the Cumean Sibyl prepared for their underworld journey by first traveling to a Stygian marsh, where they obtained a special golden bough that would be a key to the realm of the dead. With bough in hand, the sibyl led Aeneas to a cave that served as an access point to the underworld. The cave was guarded by illusory monsters, meant to keep curious wanderers away from the nearby ferryman of the dead, Charon. The ferryman, intrigued by the golden bough, was convinced to carry Aeneas and the Cumean Sibyl across the river Styx. After this success, the Trojan hero and the prophetess soon encountered the famous the three-headed hound, Cerberus, which was easily neutralized with a drugged treat. From there, they witnessed Minos judging the dead. Next, they came across a swamp holding the souls of people who had taken their own lives, and they also wandered into the Fields of Mourning, the residence of souls that tragically suffered because of love.
After that elaborate tour of the entrance of the underworld, Aeneas and the Sibyl finally found a forked 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 as being a land of lush greenery, where valiant and noble souls lived in angelic clothes and splendorous accommodations. Aeneas found many of his dead comrades from the Trojan War residing in the Fields of Elysium, all curiously wearing white headbands. It was there, in the paradise of Elysium, that Aeneas finally found the spirit of his father.
While father and son had their reunion, Aeneas saw a horde of souls gathered around a nearby 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. 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 the 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 Roman 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.
Such is the fascinating tale that inspired the painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder. The artwork shows Aeneas and the Cumean Sibyl as they wander through the underworld with their golden bough. Unfortunately for the pair, they seem far from the picturesque Fields of Elysium. Instead, Aeneas and the sibyl are surrounded by grotesquely-depicted souls and monsters that seem to better match Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy than Virgil’s Aeneid. As for the wide river seen in the painting, with the crowds of souls gathering around the river banks, perhaps it is the waters of the Lethe, which drew a horde of spirits that desired its powers of forgetfulness.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.