Podcast: The Chilling Fate of Palinurus (Aeneid 5.847–871)

Seth Levin discusses the character of Palinurus in Vergil’s Aeneid

Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.
Palinurus falls from the stern of a ship into the sea, the God of Sleep flies away with a branch in his hand. Engraving from a German children’s picture-book version of the Aeneid by G. J. Lang and G. C. Eimmart, 1688.

Cui vix attollēns Palinūrus lūmina fātur:
‘Mēne salis placidī vultum flūctūsque quiētōs
ignōrāre iubēs? Mēne huic cōnfīdere mōnstrō?
Aenēān crēdam (quid enim?) fallācibus aurīs          850
Tālia dicta dabat, clāvumque adfīxus et haerēns
nusquam āmittēbāt oculōsque sub astra tenēbat.
Ecce deus rāmum Lēthaeō rōre madentem
vīque sopōrātum Stygiā super utraque quassat          855
tempora, cūnctantīque natantia lūmina solvit.
Vix prīmōs inopīna quiēs laxāverat artūs,
et super incumbēns cum puppis parte revulsā
cumque gubernāclō liquidās prōiēcit in undās
praecipitem ac sociōs nēquīquam saepe vocantem;           860
ipse volāns tenuīs sē sustulit āles ad aurās.
Currit iter tūtum nōn sētius aequore classis
prōmissīsque patris Neptūnī interrita fertur.
Iamque adeō scopulōs Sīrēnum advecta subībat,
difficilīs quondam multōrumque ossibus albōs          865
(tum rauca adsiduō longē sale saxa sonābant),
cum pater āmissō fluitantem errāre magistrō
sēnsit, et ipse ratem nocturnīs rēxit in undīs
multa gemēns cāsūque animum concussus amīcī:
‘Ō nimium caelō et pelagō cōnfīse serēnō,           870
nūdus in ignōtā, Palinūre, iacēbis harēnā.’

Scarcely raising his eyes Palinurus says: ‘You order me to forget what I know about the appearance of the gentle salty sea and to forget the tranquil waves? To place my trust in this monster? For how could I entrust Aeneas to these fallacious winds, as I am often deceived by the guile of the serene sky?’ He spoke these words, and grasping and clinging to the helm, he never lost his grip and kept his eyes on the stars. But behold, the god shakes above both of his temples a branch dripping with the dew of Lethe, a branch stupefied with the power of the Styx, and although Palinurus tried to resist, his floating eyes weakened. Scarcely an unexpected sleep relaxed his first limbs, and reclining above him, the god threw Palinurus, who called out to his friends many times in vain, headlong into the peaceful waves with a plucked out part of the stern and rudder; and the god flying as a bird, carried himself along the thin breezes. The fearless fleet traverses the voyage on the sea in no more danger than was foretold by the promise of father Neptune. And now the departing fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, white with the bones of many men. Formerly it was difficult to traverse, (at that time the rough rocks were resounding from afar with the constant waves). When Aeneas felt that his wavering ship was wandering without a helmsman, he steered the ship himself on the waves of the night, terrified by the fate of his friend and lamenting much: ‘O Palinurus, confident too much in the sky and peaceful ocean, you will be thrown naked onto an unknown shore.’

Palinurus is an unlucky soul struck down by fate and the gods so that Aeneas might reach destined Italy. As Aeneas’ helmsman, he is visited by Somnus in the end of Book Five of the Aeneid, and is instructed to rest his eyes and let Somnus take over steering the fleet. However, Palinurus does not listen and is put to sleep by the god, and falls into the ocean. The reason why Palinurus dies in this manner is because earlier in Book Five, Neptune promises Venus that Aeneas will safely reach Latium on calm waters, but only if a single life in given in return. Palinurus’ main appearance is in Book Five, but he also makes an appearance in Book Six when Aeneas travels to the Underworld. During this scene, Palinurus begs Aeneas to give his bones a proper burial, and the Sibyl promises Palinurus that the people who discover Palinurus’ body “will appease your bones, will build you a tomb and pay your tomb due rites and the site will bear the name of Palinurus now and always” (Aeneid 6.379-80). But why is Palinurus unfairly chosen to die? Palinurus’ death fits into Vergilian pattern of death taking place at the end of books, or sections, of the Aeneid. In Book Two, Creusa dies in the final lines; in Book Three, Anchises does; and in Book Four, the final scene is the suicide of Dido. Not only do these characters all die at the end of these books, but their deaths in some way help Aeneas to arrive safely in Latium. They were all subject to fate and the intervention of the gods. This principle, as discussed by historian of religion Walter Burkert, is called pars pro toto, and it refers to “accepting the small loss in order to save the whole.” Vergil uses it because it “is highly rational [to employ] and highly emotional at the same time” (Burkert 51).

Through his use of pars pro toto, Vergil creates a rather eerie and somber tone in this passage. Although Vergil uses a lot of adjectives noting how peaceful the ocean and sky were during Palinurus’ death, those like placidi, quietos, sereni, and liquidas to name a few, Palinurus dies vocantem socios nequiquam, “calling out to his comrades in vain,” while he is thrown headlong into the ocean, drowning without any “indication that anyone heard the helmsman’s cries” (Fratantuono, 719). This eerie tone is especially present when Vergil writes about how the fleet approached the crags of the Sirens, which were white with the bones of many men. Sirens are mythological creatures, half human, half bird who lived on cliff-sides and would lure passing travelers to them by singing pleasant songs. Then, they would wreck the approaching ships, killing the sailors (Hinz). This detail about the Sirens could have been omitted, but Vergil cleverly writes about the Sirens to enhance the somber tone of Palinurus’ death, as “sleep had to work quickly so as to ensure that Palinurus could be cast overboard as a quasi-offering to the Sirens” (Fratantuono, 721).

Further adding to the eerie tone of this passage are Vergil’s final words in Aeneas’ epitaph to Palinurus at the end: ‘nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena’ (5.871). Palinurus will eventually wash up on the Italian shore, but Vergil notes that this shore will be ignota, or unknown. Palinurus is lost forever, and no matter how hard the Trojans search for Palinurus’ body, it will forever remain a mystery as to its whereabouts. Palinurus’ body is also nudus, or naked, stripped of its former Trojan distinction to whoever happens upon it. Vergil uses an eerie tone for this section because it complements the unfair fate of Palinurus. Everything seems to be going great for the Trojans after the games Aeneas holds for Anchises in Book Five, until Palinurus is unjustly chosen for death. The eerie tone in this passage also sends chills down your spine, forcing you to shudder at the dark fate of an innocent victim.

Besides the tone, another aspect of Vergil’s portrayal of Palinurus which I find interesting is the dichotomy between his brief speech in the beginning of this section and Aeneas’ at the end. Palinurus makes it very evident that he does not trust the calm waves and the clear sky. Palinurus is an experienced helmsman, and would not easily be thrown overboard by the worsening of conditions. However, “in the last lines of the book Aeneas laments the steersman’s fate and comments, pathetically inappropriately as it seems in view of Palinurus’ earlier indignant refusal to trust the elements, that Palinurus died through overconfidence in the calm sea and sky” (Nicoll, 459). It seems odd for Vergil to credit Palinurus with being a great helmsman, only to have Aeneas discredit this distinction a mere twenty lines later. However, it is not uncommon for Aeneas to be ignorant of the facts, contrary to other epic heroes. When Aeneas is fighting for Troy in Book Two, for example, Venus has to come down to show him how the gods were destroying Troy and there was no hope in saving the city. Similarly, in the Underworld, Aeneas sees Dido for the first time since leaving Carthage and has no idea she killed herself because he left. Fortunately for Palinurus, Aeneas eventually realizes that divine foul-play was involved when he meets Palinurus in the Underworld.

There are many instances in this passage which exemplify Vergil’s distinct style. He employs vocabulary in this section in order to generate a more epic emotion to the lines. In line 861, he uses ales (“bird,” literally “wing”) to describe Somnus flying away from Palinurus, instead of using more colloquial terms such as avis or volucris. Additionally, Vergil does not use mare even once to describe the ocean, instead opting to use the epic word aequor in line 862. For the other instances when Vergil mentions the ocean, he uses nouns such as salis, fluctus, and undas to describe features of the ocean, which further enhance the imagery of the scene, contributing to the epic feel.

Another stylistic feature present within this passage which is characteristically Vergilian is the repetition of an idea using different sets of words. In Palinurus’ short speech alone there are two examples of repetition of the same idea. The first is in line 848: mene salis placidi vultum fluctusque quietos. Palinurus references the ocean twice in the adjective-noun pair salis placidi vultum and fluctus quietos. The example in Palinurus’ speech is in lines 850-51: Aenean credam (quid enim?) fallacibus auris et caeli totiens deceptus fraude sereni? This time fallacibus auris and caeli sereni describe the treachery of the weather. These two examples of repetition allow the reader to better picture the scenery Palinurus is currently experiencing, adding to the vividness of the poem.

To summarize, this passage at the end of Book Five is dark, as it highlights the fated death of an innocent victim, while sticking to the Vergilian theme of death at the end of sequential books, or pars pro toto.


Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Fagles, Robert, trans. Virgil: The Aeneid. London: Penguin, 2010.

Fratantuono, Lee, and R. Alden Smith. Vergil: Aeneid 5: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Hinz, Berthold, “Sirens.” In Maria Moog-Grunewald, ed., Brill’s New Pauly Supplements I – Volume 4: The Reception of Myth and Mythology.

Nicoll, W. S. M. “The Sacrifice of Palinurus.” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 459–72.

Thomas, Richard F., Jan M. Ziolkowski, Anna Bonnell-Freidin, Christian Flow, and Michael B. Sullivan. The Virgil Encyclopedia. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

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