From Ovid, Metamorphoses IV
Imagine a sloping path overshadowed by yew trees
that leads to the underworld through a soundless hush:
where the Styx wheezes mist, where fresh shadows
descend in the likenesses of the newly dead.
Cold and cadaver-grey, a boundless wasteland
where new spirits arrive in ignorance of the road
to the Stygian city and Death’s savage palace.
A thousand gates flung open on every side:
as the ocean absorbs the whole of the earth’s rivers,
so this place receives all spirits, never too small
for its population, never a shade more crowded
as the bloodless shadows stray without bodies or bones.
From Virgil, Aeneid vi
Gods who command the departed, you mute ghosts
and deserts of soundless night, Chaos and Phlegethon,
let it be done with your blessing – to tell what’s known
of the deep mists of the earth, its dark treasure.
Shadows on shadows, they walked in that lonely night
through the waste and desolate halls of Death’s kingdom,
like a journey through woods by the warp of the moon’s light
when God has buried the universe in shadow
and darkness stolen the colour of all things.
From Homer, Odyssey XI
But when I’d prayed vowed entreated the tribes of the dead
I seized and slaughtered the sheep, slitting their throats
and blood blackened the trench, thronging
corpse-ghosts from Erebus:
brides bachelors careworn old men
delicate girls new-grieving
and many maimed with bronze spear-heads
the battleslain, blood-stained in armour –
massing the trench ravening
raised an unspeakable shriek & the pale fear took me
then calling my comrades, compelled them
to burn the sheep we’d slaughtered with pitiless bronze –
flay burn them pray to the gods
stout Death and dread Persephone –
drawing the sharpened sword at my side sat firm
nor suffered the impotent dead
to come near the blood until –
Notes on this poem
The descent to the underworld (κατάβασις) is as old as recorded literature and a recurring theme in epic poetry. The three episodes translated here span some 700 years of Greek and Roman history, during which poetry became increasingly literary and self-aware. The Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso (‘Ovid’, 43 BCE–17 CE) never lose sight of their own artifice. When the goddess Juno visits the underworld in Book iv she crosses a landscape that is both original and aware of its own antecedents.
Some thirty years earlier, Publius Vergilius Maro (‘Virgil’, 70 BcE–19 BcE) had taken his hero Aeneas on the same journey. Where Ovid is a magician enjoying his own illusion, Virgil seems
in genuine awe of his material. His invocation to the gods may be conventional but is tinged with piety: the underworld is a dangerous place for mortal imaginations to trespass.
The written Odyssey dates from the end of the eighth century BCE but had evolved for much longer in the oral tradition. Odysseus’s visit to the underworld stops at the borderlands; the ensuing corpse- ritual (νέκυια) is nonetheless one of the most unsettling episodes in Western literature.
All three originals were written in the same dactylic hexameter (the metre of classical epic). For the two Latin poems I chose a loose pentameter as the closest cultural equivalent. For the necromancy of Odyssey XI this felt too refined, and if the resulting alliterative verse takes liberties with the original then I hope it conveys something of its spirit in doing so.