Photo: Gods of Mount Olympus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Minute-Long Myths – CLST 100 Crash Course
By Alicia Lopez
Your time in Classical Mythology may be coming to a close, but preparing for the final exam doesn’t have to feel like a Herculean labor. Welcome to your CLST 100 crash course, featuring memorable minute-long renditions of each myth on the syllabus.
The Odyssey: Odysseus coming home after the Trojan War.
The first four books—sometimes called the Telemachy—focus on Odysseus’ son, Telemachus (checks out). Basically, Telemachus is sick of his mom’s suitors hanging around their house in Ithaca and just wants to find his dad, who marched off to Troy years ago and never came back. Meanwhile, his dad just keeps getting held up. He blinds Polyphemus, the cyclops (whoops). For a guy whose journey hinges on traveling by sea, he’s messing with the son of the wrong god—per his precious son Polyphemus’ prayers, Poseidon curses out Odysseus, and the trip home from Troy gets rocky. Odysseus meets up with the Laestrygonians, who eat his men; the sorceress, Circe, who turns them into pigs; a cast of Underworld ghosts (highlights: a reunion with his mom whom he didn’t know was dead, a consultation with the prophet Tiresias for guidance, and a conversation with a kid named Elpenor, a member of Odysseus’ crew who got drunk, fell off a roof, and just wants to be buried so he can RIP). The crew go back and bury Elpenor’s body, then postgame the burial with Helios’ cattle. Upon being told not to eat the cattle … they eat the cattle. They go through Scylla (monster) and Charybdis (monster-whirlpool) and more men die. The remainder of the crew put wax in their ears as they pass the sirens—but not Odysseus, who gets tied up to listen to the pretty music. Seriously?
Then there’s a shipwreck. Now everyone’s dead except Odysseus, who washes up on Ogygia, home to Calypso, who makes him her boy-toy. For seven years. When he finally leaves, he winds up in the land of the Phaeacians and is found by Princess Nausicaa. The Phaeacians have some really cool tech, mostly flying boats, and Odysseus tells his tale before getting a lift home. Phew, the end!
WRONG. Odysseus isn’t going to let his story go out without a bang. He decides he can’t just show up on the doorstep of his wife, Penelope, who has been weaving and unweaving a funeral shroud every day and night to hold off her suitors. She’s been very faithful, just like Odysseus … uh-huh, yeah! Under a disguise and pseudonym, he thinks he’s so clever until his childhood nurse, Eurycleia, recognizes him from an old scar. (Real ones always know.) But Odysseus won’t let her tell his wife. Penelope, desperate to hold off the suitors, holds a contest to see who can use Odysseus’ bow, which is ridiculously large and difficult to manage. Odysseus decides this is his big break. Turning the challenge into the Hunger Games, he kills the biggest brute of the suitors, Antinous, followed by the rest of the suitors and the household maids. But Penelope’s still not sure this is really Odysseus. She tests him, telling him “I’ll move our bed here for you to sleep”—but Odysseus knows the bed, carved out of a tree, can’t be moved. This little nugget finally proves Odysseus’ identity and, at last, the sun sets on Ithaca. Yep, it ends. Just like that.
Hesiod’s Theogony, a.k.a. the origin story of the universe.
The world starts with nothing … until chaos shows up (this explains a lot). Then you get a whole cast of characters: night (Nyx) and the MVPs Mother Earth (Gaea) and the Underworld (Tartarus). Gaea starts giving birth spontaneously and produces the Pontus (the ocean) and another MVP, Uranus (the sky). Maybe because they didn’t have many options, or maybe just … because, Gaea and Uranus have a bunch of kids together—the Hecatoncheires, huge monsters with 100 hands. Enamored with their new little bundles of … hands, they have the Cyclopes. But Uranus is kind of embarrassed by these kids, so he locks them in Tartarus.
Finally, they have “normal” kids—the 12 Titans, 6 boys and 6 girls (who mate like their parents and pair up, too). Key players here: Cronus, the OG timelord, and Rhea, his sister-wife. Gaea’s gotten fed up that Uranus locked their “weird” kids in the basement, a.k.a. Tartarus, so she calls a family meeting (sans her son-husband) and asks, “Does anyone want to kill Dad?” Taking one for the team, Cronus, the baby of the bunch, agrees. Gaea hands him a sickle and tells him to have fun. TL;DR, Uranus gets chopped up into pieces and his blood creates the giants and the Furies and some other people and his privates get dropped into the sea and create Aphrodite. Crashing and burning in style.
From here, the Titans think they’re in the clear, until Cronus finds out that his kids are going to overthrow him like he overthrew his father. No bueno. Instead of just … not having kids, he decides to start a family but swallow the babies as soon as they’re born. (Keep your friends close and your kids-prophesied-to-become-your-enemies closer.) Rhea isn’t too thrilled about it, so after letting it happen five times, she gets her mom, Gaea, to hide the sixth—little Zeus. Meanwhile, Cronus chomps on a stone instead. (Apparently, Titans aren’t that tasty, because he totally buys it.) Zeus grows up in a secret cave, nursed by a goat, until he’s strong enough to free the cyclopes and commission them to craft some lightning bolts for him. Cue the big reveal to Cronus that he is, in fact, alive. Gaea makes Cronus a cocktail to make him vomit up the rest of the kids he swallowed, who have grown up in his stomach, and the whole squad’s back together again. Zeus and his newly regurgitated siblings have a “Titans: Assemble” moment and team up to destroy their dad. Their victory kicks off the reign of the Olympians and Zeus has a bunch of (non-eaten-and-subsequently-thrown-up) kids of his own. Percy Jackson can take it from here.
Homeric Hymns: Apollo & Demeter
Next, we turn to the Homeric Hymns. First: the Hymn to Apollo. Hera’s decided to take out her Zeus-related rage—on some girl whom Zeus probably raped. Um … This time, it’s Leto, Apollo and Artemis’ mom. Hera sends over a giant snake (named Python—checks out) to chase her down so that she can’t give birth to the twins—but Hera underestimates the girl, who runs at an Olympian (ha) pace until she’s safe on a moving island. When Apollo and Artemis are born, they vow revenge. Apollo sets off after Python and slays the serpent. Turns out Python was a guard at Delphi, the center of the world (per the highly trustworthy Zeus-Eagle method). And that’s why Delphi’s known as the “navel” of the world.
The Hymn to Demeter tells us the reason for the seasons. Hades, looking to get cuffed while also being a horrible person in general, sees Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, picking flowers one day, and abducts her, taking her down to the Underworld. Demeter looks all over the earth (literally) for her daughter, but when she can’t find her, she realizes that the girl has to be in the Underworld, taken by Hades against her will. The goddess’ grief ages her until she looks like an old lady, and while sitting at a well, some girls ask her to take care of their baby brother. She takes care of the baby, Demophoon, on behalf of his mother, Metaneira, and his father, Celeus. All is going well until her motherly instincts kick in a little too hard and she decides to make Demophoon immortal. To do this, she sticks the baby in the fire to let him cook just a bit. (The key to immortality is a preheated fire and a sprinkle of patience.)
But, one-night, Demophoon’s real mother comes in to say goodnight, only to find him cooking like a Christmas ham. She goes haywire. Demeter shouts back, “I would have made him divine if it weren’t for you meddling mortals!” She leaves the house in a huff and, now sadly 100% childless, she decides to withhold the harvest and bring on the winter, a la Elsa in Frozen. With nothing to eat, the whole earth begs Demeter to bring back their crops, but she won’t—not until she sees her daughter again. At long last, Hades lets Persephone return to the earth, but not before giving her some pomegranate seeds. Although mother and daughter get to reunite, Persephone has eaten food in the underworld, meaning she’s now eternally tied there. Demeter and Hades split a deal that Persephone will be in the Underworld with her husband for a third of the year—winter—and with her mother the rest of the year.
Aeschylus: The House of Atreus, Agamemnon, Eumenides
Finally, my favorite myth in all of myth: The House of Atreus. This story really makes you feel good because no matter how messed up your family is, it’s not this messed up. So, here’s how it goes: there’s this guy named Tantalus. He’s a son of Zeus and, lucky him, actually stayed in contact with his dad. So, he’s pretty close with the gods—so close that he decides that maybe he’s better than the gods. (Spoiler alert: he’s not.) But there’s no stopping Tantalus, so to test out if his theory is true, he chops up his son and cooks him into a stew to see if he can trick the immortals into eating the boy. All of the gods take one look at the feast and immediately know that their meal is actually Tantalus’ son, Pelops. Well, all except Demeter, who is preoccupied with grief over her daughter, Persephone, who’s been snatched by Hades—throwback to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. She’s so preoccupied, in fact, that she takes a bite. Tantalus is sent straight to Tartarus, where he’s eternally banned from eating or drinking ever again. The gods put Pelops back together and give him a new shoulder made of ivory, since Demeter accidentally ate his real one.
If you thought that having your dad cut you up and serve you in a stew would be traumatizing and potentially lead to a bad future, you’d be correct. Pelops, however, attempting to have as normal a life as possible, decides he wants to marry Hippodamia. Not so fast—Hippodamia’s in hot demand, and her father, Oenomaus, says that whoever wants to marry his daughter has to beat him in a chariot race first. This wouldn’t be such a tall order—except that Oenomaus has a special chariot from Ares, which is basically unbeatable. Desperate to win, Pelops gets Mertylis, Oenomaus’ personal charioteer, to sabotage his future father-in-law’s chariot and let him win, telling him he’ll pay him in gold (or let him sleep with Hippodamia, depending on the version of the myth). But after the victory, Pelops goes back on his promise, and Mertylis curses Pelops, guaranteeing him and his line, the house of Atreus, a future even worse than its past.
Pelops and Hippodamia, now married, have two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. But since a son of Pelops is set to become king of Mycenae, the two brothers are constantly at odds. Atreus has a golden fleece, and Thyestes suggests that whoever has the golden fleece should become the king. Atreus, confident that this is easy money, agrees. Little does he know that Thyestes has been having an affair with his own wife, Aerope, and that she has given the fleece to Thyestes, making him king per the brothers’ agreement. However, Atreus is positive this is a mistake, so he tells Thyestes, “Wait and see if the sun comes up in the west tomorrow—then we’ll see who’s king.” Thinking that this is impossible, making this easy money (when will this family learn?) Thyestes agrees. But Zeus steps in and makes the sun rise in the west, and Atreus, now king, banishes his brother. He then finally learns that Aerope and Thyestes were having an affair and vows revenge—a bad but common choice in this family.
Pretending he isn’t bitter about the affair, he calls a family reunion. Thyestes nervously comes back and brings his sons. Atreus gets his brother drunk, then kills the boys. But drunk as he is, Thyestes starts to get a little nervous because he hasn’t seen his kids in a while. (Finally a good parent in the family!) “Hey, where are my kids?” he asks Atreus. “They’re here … ” Atreus responds, gesturing in the general vicinity. After a while, Thyestes asks again, “Um … I’m serious, where are my kids?” Atreus smiles and says, “They’re around here somewhere!” Thyestes decides he’s hungry and eats dinner before asking a final time, “Dude, where are my kids?” Atreus, laughing maniacally, shrieks “Did you not recognize your own kids? You ATE them!” to which Thyestes responds with something like, “JNFEG@OIHSEIJ!!QKLWRM!”
Thyestes then decides to commit suicide, but just as he’s about to stab himself, his brother says, “Hold up! Are you about to defile your kids’ grave? That’s majorly messed up!” Thyestes then realizes he can’t kill himself without dishonoring his kids because HE is their tomb. Thyestes, having had a miserable night, goes to an oracle and asks how to get revenge (it’s becoming a theme). The oracle says, “You have to have a kid with your daughter,” to which Thyestes says, “Ew gross, no.”
He then rapes a random girl who ends up actually being his daughter, Pelopia. Hmmm … He then flees and accidentally leaves his sword behind. Atreus then takes Pelopia as his wife, and she gives birth to Aegisthus, who Atreus thinks is his son—but he’s actually Thyestes’. Atreus, still looking to make Thyestes’ life miserable, is getting nervous because he hasn’t heard anything about his brother recently. He sends his other sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus (who are definitely not important at all), and they find him and bring him back to Atreus. Aegisthus brings out his sword, prepared to cut off Thyestes’ head and side with his “father,” Atreus. Thyestes recognizes the sword as his own, the one that he left behind all those years ago. Pelopia then comes forward and tells her story, before killing herself when she realizes she had sex with her dad. Aegisthus, realizing who his real dad is, kills Atreus instead of Thyestes, thus fulfilling the oracle’s prophecy. Agamemnon and Menelaus escape and go on to have their own kingdoms.
But that was all just background:
This play starts with Agamemnon coming home from the Trojan war. Clytemnestra, enraged that her husband sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, for some wind to sail to Troy, has been having an affair with Aegisthus (yes, the son of Atreus actually Thyestes). The couple plans to kill Agamemnon upon his return. When he gets home, they pretend everything is fine, even though it definitely isn’t, especially because Agamemnon has brought home his concubine, the “never believed but always prophetic” Cassandra. As Agamemnon is about to walk in, Cassandra stops and says “Don’t go in! We’re going to get killed” and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus say, “Shhhhhh” and everyone else, and Agamemnon, say, “What’s with her?” Sure enough, they go inside and Cassandra is killed and Agamemnon is axed in the bathtub. RIP.
Basically, after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill Agamemnon, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s kids, especially Orestes, are put in a tough situation because you’re supposed to avenge your father’s death, but you’re also not supposed to kill your mom. So they ask Apollo, “What should we do?” and Apollo says, “Oh, go ahead and kill your mom and her lover.” Taking this as a pretty clear answer, Orestes does just this, apologizing as he stabs them to death. Then the Furies, a.k.a. the Eumenides, a.k.a. these old-as-dirt professional judges, show up to plague Orestes. Orestes runs around trying to hide from them for a loooong time. He then prays to Athena, saying, “I literally can’t stand it anymore, this wasn’t even my fault, can you help me or something?” Athena shows up and kicks off a court case trying to figure out if Orestes should be tortured for all eternity or if he’s been punished enough. The citizens of Athens are the jury. After a dramatic counting scene, you guessed it, it’s a tie! Unfortunately, there is no “good game” here because the Furies really want blood. Athena shows up to break the tie and rules in favor of Orestes, finally breaking the curse of the House of Atreus.
Sophocles: Oedipus Rex
Let’s talk about the Oedipus complex! There’s a plague in Thebes, so the king (rex), Oedipus sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle. The oracle says that the last king, Laius, was murdered and that’s why there are bad vibes in Thebes. Oedipus summons everyone’s favorite blind prophet, Tiresias, and asks who killed the king. Tiresias refuses to speak. In a fit of rage, Oedipus says, “I bet you did it.” Then Tiresias gets mad and says, “no u.” Oedipus sighs, sends Tiresias away, and turns to his incredibly sexy wife, Jocasta, who says “Oracles are dumb, babe. My ex, Laius, was supposed to be killed by our son, but instead he was killed at a crossroads. So, like … ” Oedipus says, “Wait wut?” He then remembers an oracle from way back that prophesied that he’d kill his dad and sleep with his mom. He also remembers that he killed a guy at a crossroads on his way to Thebes who fits the description of this Laius guy.
Then a messenger says “Oedipus, your dad is dead,” which Oedipus is psyched about in a super messed-up way, since it means he didn’t kill him! He’s feeling like he dodged a bullet … but he’s scared he still might sleep with his mom. The messenger assures him, “Don’t worry about that! It’s not like Merope, the woman you think is your mom is actually your mom!” But now Oedipus is getting confused because there are now reports that Laius’ son was sent live with new parents in the next town over … to avoid a prophecy like this one. And this kid sounds kind of like him. Now Jocasta’s in a corner rocking back and forth saying, “I’m sure it’s fine! Let’s just forget about this. It’s fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine.”
Everything is, in fact, not fine. Oedipus has a conversation with a shepherd, who hits him with the facts: turns out that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, who sent him to the kingdom next door to avoid the kill-your-dad-sleep-with-your-mom prophecy. On his way to Thebes, Oedipus got in a fight at a crossroads, killed his real dad, headed into the city, and married his mom. Hearing this, Oedipus goes crazy and along the way, stumbles upon the body of his wife, who killed herself. Oedipus then blinds himself and heads into exile.
Okay, this is a good one. Dionysus, god of wine and wild parties, is getting trash-talked by the ladies of Thebes. They’re saying that he’s not really a son of Zeus—they think his mom, their friend Semele, just told everyone this to cover up the fact that she was actually having an illegitimate child. Getting annoyed that he’s become a laughingstock on earth, Dionysus drives the women insane, disguising himself as a visiting traveler and leading them away to perform his ritual practices —a.k.a. running around naked in the woods, etc. Tiresias, a classic fan favorite, shows up again and calls up his buddy, Cadmus, the former king of Thebes, telling him they should get involved in the rituals too. Hey, it’s always a good idea to appease any divinities who might be mad at you!
But young upstart, Pentheus—Cadmus’ grandson and the current king of Thebes—isn’t having this whole ritual thing. Seeing the festivities, he orders all the participants to be locked up. Hearing that some foreign traveler who nobody knows is leading the rites, Pentheus asks him what’s up. The traveler—Dionysus in disguise—trolls him for a while, refusing to give any straight answers, and Pentheus locks him up, too.
Well, Dionysus doesn’t like this, so he pulls a get-out-of-jail-free card—he causes a fire and an earthquake, then escapes. A farmer shows up and says, “Something’s up with the women. They just .. tore my cattle to shreds? Oh, by the way, Pentheus, your mom was there.” Dionysus says “Oh, Pentheus, you should go take a look first. Then you can decide how to deal with them.” Sounds good to Pentheus. He climbs up a tree to get a good look at what’s going on, but before he can do anything, Dionysus points out Pentheus’ location and sends the women into a frenzy. They tear the tree down, and also tear Pentheus apart limb by limb, with Pentheus’ mother, Agave, leading the charge. She takes Pentheus’ severed head, puts it on a stick, and parades it around town, thinking it’s the head of a mountain lion. Her father, Cadmus, is horrified and slowly, Agave comes down from her high and realizes what’s happened. The Bacchants are exiled, Pentheus’ limbs are gathered and burned, and, needless to say, nobody ever disses Dionysus again.
Juno is mad at Aeneas—typical Juno behavior since way back before the war, Juno got snubbed by Paris, Aeneas’ pal from Troy, who said that Venus, Aeneas’ mom, was prettier than her. (The rest is history.) Anyway, she’s ready to throw a wrench at pious Aeneas and his plans to found Rome. Wanting to create some trouble, Juno pays a visit to Aeolus, the wind god, and says, “Listen. I’ll give you a hot nymph wife if you make this kid’s journey complete and utter hell!” to which he says “K.” Now Neptune’s getting suspicious since the sea is angry, and he didn’t tell it to be angry. He screams, “What are you doing in MY surf?” then calms everything down. Aeneas and co. lose a bunch of their crew in Aeolus’ storm and make a stop in Libya. Meanwhile, Venus, Aeneas’ mom, complains to Jupiter that Aeneas has a really rough road ahead, and he promises her that her son will get to Italy in one piece. Venus, disguised as a huntress, shows up and tells Aeneas and his best friend, Achates, that the queen of Carthage, Dido, used to be married to this guy, Sychaeus, back home in Tyre. But then her brother, Pygmalion, killed her husband and would have killed her, if she hadn’t fled the state. The goddess hides Aeneas and Achates in a cloud of invisibility, and they go to check out the city. Turns out that Aeneas’ men who went MIA after the storm are now in the city—who’d a thunk? The guys introduce themselves to Dido, who knows Aeneas’ name from the Trojan War. Realizing he’s a household name here in Carthage, Aeneas emerges from the cloud and says hey to Dido, who thinks he’s kind of cute. Aeneas sends for his son, Ascanius, to bring gifts for Dido from the ship, but his mom, Venus, sends Cupid instead of Ascanius. Cupid shoots Dido with a love arrow, making her fall for Aeneas for real.
At Dido’s feast, Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy via the Trojan Horse. (RIP Laocoon, who didn’t trust the horse but was killed by snakes because he was right but nobody listened to him). In Aeneas’ flashback, Sinon, this Greek who was “left behind” (yeah, right), tells the Trojans to take the horse inside and they do. According to Sinon, the war was “too hard” and “too scary,” so the Greeks left thinking they had angered the gods, and were now sending this horse as a gift to make up for it. (This is a lie.)
Aeneas then says that Hector (the big Trojan hero) appeared to him all bloody in a dream and told him to flee the city. Despite this, Aeneas tried to fight, dressing in Greek armor and taking out Greeks. Then he sees King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy in trouble. Priam, who is actually, like 1,000 years old, pretends he’s going to fight or something, and his wife’s like, Yeah, right. Get over to the altar and beg for mercy with the women.” Then Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, who has major anger issues, kills Priam’s son, Polites, right in front of his parents. (Not very Polite(s).) Then Neoptolemus kills Priam on the altar, which is another major taboo.
Aeneas then thinks about his own dad, Anchises, and decides to grab him and flee the city. On his way to his father’s place, he runs into Helen of Troy, a.k.a. public enemy no. 1 because this war is “her fault.” Aeneas almost kills her, but his mom, Venus, tells him not to. Aeneas gets home and starts packing, but now Anchises is saying he’s too old and is just going to slow them down, so he wants to stay behind. Aeneas’ son’s head catches fire but doesn’t burn (?) and taking this as a sign, Anchises decides to join his family and flee. Aeneas has his household gods in one hand (pious), his son in the other (responsible), his dad on his back (stronk), and tells his wife, Creusa, to run a little faster. Surprise! Creusa gets lost somehow and dies. Her ghost shows up and tells Aeneas “Thanks for waiting for me. I’m dead, by the way, so don’t come looking for me.” Aeneas accepts this and sets sail.
We’ve gotten to the point in Aeneas’ story where he and the guys show up in Thrace and decide to found a city. Well … they really want to, but the place they’ve landed is cursed by this Trojan, Polydorus, who was killed there. Not the strongest foundation. A prophecy tells them to go to the O.G. Troy, which is apparently Crete, and they found their city! But then there’s a plague, so they leave again. It turns out that they were following the wrong lead and there’s another different O.G. Troy, Italy, and they plan to head there. There’s a run-in with some demons called the Harpies and the head Harpy, Celaeno, says “You’re going to get to Italy, but you’ll be so hungry you have to eat your tables. Good luck!” Not thrilled about this, Aeneas and co. leave.
They hang out with Hector’s wife, Andromache, who has a new husband and a new city. Andromache’s new husband, who is prophetic, says that when they see a pig suckling 30 white piglets, it’s time to found a city. He tells them to be nice to Juno to try to win her favor. (Tall order for a band of Trojans.) They then find some guy from Odysseus’ crew—crossover episode!—who barely escaped from the Cyclopes. Panicked, everyone flees on the quick, with Odysseus’ guy in tow. They stop at a city, Drepanum, in Sicily, where Anchises, Aeneas’ dad, dies of old age and too much excitement. (Pour one out.) The crew sets sail for the boot of Italy, but then Juno’s storm from Book 1 makes its appearance and our main man ends up on Dido’s shores.
Dido, still reeling from the love arrow she got shot with three books ago, thinks this story is incredibly sexy (or maybe it’s just the storyteller?). Point being—she’s head over heels for Aeneas. Thinking “strategically” in terms of “alliances” (yeah, right) she gets Aeneas & co. to stay for the winter. Juno, who loves Carthage, is a little scared to see Dido doodling Aeneas’ name everywhere instead of building a city. She confronts Venus then—sharp left—says, “Let’s make them get married!” Dido and Aeneas go hunting, it starts pouring thanks to the gods, and our star-crossed lovers end up in the same cave—what a coincidence! Juno and Venus send lightning and singing nymphs and it looks a heck of a lot like a wedding. In the biggest miscommunication of all time, Dido thinks this means she’s married to Aeneas and Aeneas thinks he’s still living his best bachelor life. Big RIP. Rumor spreads this juicy gossip around and eventually Iarbas, a guy who got rejected by Dido, starts praying to his dad, Jupiter, asking for an explanation. Jupiter says, “Don’t worry, Aeneas is on his way out,” then sends Mercury to tell Aeneas to pack his bags. This kind of sucks for Aeneas but there’s nothing to do about it, so he gets ready to go. And apparently, he was just going to ghost Dido …but she finds out about it and shows up right when he’s ready to set sail. This makes it super awkward, and Aeneas says he just isn’t looking for something serious right now. Our ~hero~ leaves and Dido, raving through the city, tells her maids she wants to literally set fire to their relationship. Piling up all of their furniture, Dido commits suicide on their wedding bed and from his ship, Aeneas sees smoke rising from the shoreline … then shrugs it off and sets off for Italy.
The Trojans arrive in Sicily, the same place they buried Aeneas’ dad exactly one year ago. They hold a feast and some funeral games to commemorate him, starting off with a boat race. It’s pretty close until some boats crash while making a sharp turn, and a guy named Cloanthus wins because the gods helped him. (Seems like cheating, but okay.) Aeneas gives everyone participation awards. Then there’s a footrace. This kid, Nisus, is going to win, but he slips in blood. (Kinda gross.) On the way down, he takes out the guy behind him so his friend (boyfriend?) Euryalus can claim the prize. Afterward, the guy who got tripped makes a fuss about cheating and Aeneas gives him a participation award to shut him up.
Then it’s time for boxing, the big event. This massive, totally ripped guy named Dares wants to fight and, unsurprisingly, nobody wants to fight him. Then this old man, Entellus, says he’ll fight. Entellus is good, but he’s way past his prime. Everyone thinks this is going to be a slaughter. They fight, Entellus falls, then, to make up for it, suddenly fights really well. Eventually, Aeneas steps in because everyone thinks the gods are helping Entellus and they don’t want Dares to die. The prize is a bull, and Entellus, filled with decades of rage and wanting to relive his youth, punches the bull’s head and instantly kills it, scattering guts like candy from a pinata. Okay. Onto the archery contest! A bird is tethered to the ship. The first guy hits the post it’s tied to. (Not the bird.) The second guy hits the string that the bird was tied with. (Not the bird.) This frees the bird. The third guy says a quick prayer then shoots the flying bird. (Finally.) The last guy is like, “Um … what exactly am I supposed to shoot at now?” To prove his strength, he shoots an arrow into the sky anyway and it yeets so far that it turns into a shooting star. Weird flex, but okay.
Then Juno, who’s sick of the festivities, sends down the rainbow goddess, Iris, to stir up trouble among the Trojan women, who are homesick and don’t want to travel anymore. Iris chucks a torch at the ship and all the women follow her lead. Aeneas tells Jupiter, “Hey—either fix this mess or kill me. Your call.” and Jupiter sends rain to put out the fires. They decide to leave some people in Sicily to live there, and the rest continue on the journey. At the end of this book, the designated driver Palinurus—an absolute lad—gets put to sleep by the literal god of sleep, Somnus, falls overboard, and drowns. Everyone is kind of sad about this (but in my humble opinion, no one is sad enough).
Aeneas arrives in Italy! The end! (JK—this is only half of it.) Aeneas visits the Sibyl, a prophetess who might be able to tell him what he has to do. She tells the squad to make a sacrifice, then says “Hey, you’ve got a really hard battle coming up. It’s going to be caused by someone’s wife.” (Trojan War part two?) Then she hits them with a bigger shocker: “And you’re going to be helped out by a Greek city,” to which everyone is like, “Um, us? We’re literally the Trojans.” Aeneas really wants to talk this over with his dad, who’s unfortunately dead. So he sets his sights on the Underworld. The Sibyl tells him he has to get a golden bough to bring as a gift to Persephone before they can go. Aeneas finds a fancy stick and comes back ready for the trip, but the Sibyl says, “Hold up. Some guy on your crew died, and it looks like he’s unburied.” The Trojans count off and realize it’s true—it’s this guy Misenus, who we’ve never heard about before. Apparently, he drowned after challenging a sea god to a conch shell blowing competition. (Yeah, it’s really as bad as it sounds.) The Trojans build a pyre for him so that Aeneas can go into the underworld.
The Sibyl and Aeneas descend and get a lift from Charon, the ferryman. They see unburied souls who can’t cross the Styx for a hundred years, including our boy, Palinurus. Once he’s across the Styx, Aeneas has reunions with a bunch of his old friends, including his ex, Dido. Yikes … Aeneas has the nerve to say it wasn’t his fault, and Dido runs off with her old husband (who was murdered by her brother) Sychaeus, and refuses to talk to him. Aeneas sees some old war buddies, then goes to the really good and really bad parts of the Underworld—Elysium (bougie neighborhood) and Tartarus (eternal torture). Then they go see Aeneas’ dad’s new place in Elysium. Anchises tells Aeneas that he knows literally everything now and Aeneas is like, “Well, you always said you knew more than me.” Anchises points out some future family members including a bunch of Roman leaders—Marcellus, Augustus’ heir (who died early IRL). Aeneas asks why this guy looks so sad, and Anchises says, “It’s because he isn’t going to live up to his life of promise, continuing the greatness and glory of Rome [which I, author Vergil, believe in immensely. Please pay me, Augustus].” Then, the Sybil says it’s time to go, so Aeneas turns to head out and finds himself with two options—the gate of true dreams and the gate of false dreams. Aeneas and the Sybil leave through the gate of false dreams and head back up to the world of the living.
Well… this should give you the gist. Hope this helped, and good luck on the exam!
Alicia Lopez (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and English.