The Sacrifice of Palinurus (Aeneid 5.851-871)

Lucian Kapushoc (’25) discusses the meaning of the Palinurus episode at the end of the the fifth Book of the Aeneid, assesses two recent translations, those of Robert Fagles (2006 and Sarah Ruden (2021), and provides his own translation.

sketch of a crumbling grave monument overlooking the shore of the Mediterranean
Engraving by Wilhelm Gmelin (1760 – 1820) Cénotaphe de Palinurus

talia dicta dabat, clauumque adfixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
ecce deus ramum Lethaeo rore madentem
uique soporatum Stygia super utraque quassat 855
tempora, cunctantique natantia lumina soluit.
uix primos inopina quies laxauerat artus,
et super incumbens cum puppis parte reuulsa
cumque gubernaclo liquidas proiecit in undas
praecipitem ac socios nequiquam saepe uocantem; 860
ipse uolans tenuis se sustulit ales ad auras.
currit iter tutum non setius aequore classis
promissisque patris Neptuni interrita fertur.
iamque adeo scopulos Sirenum aduecta subibat,
difficilis quondam multorumque ossibus albos 865
(tum rauca adsiduo longe sale saxa sonabant),
cum pater amisso fluitantem errare magistro
sensit, et ipse ratem nocturnis rexit in undis
multa gemens casuque animum concussus amici:
‘o nimium caelo et pelago confise sereno, 870
nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena.’

At the end of the fifth Book of the Aeneid Palinurus, after being assigned by Aeneas to the vital job as helmsman for the lead ship in the fleet, falls victim to sleep and goes overboard. Clutching a fragment of the ship he shouts back in vain as he drifts off. After belatedly realizing that Palinurus has been lost, Aeneas takes the helm himself as he mourns the loss of his pilot. The last description of Palinurus is of his dead body lying unburied on an unknown shore (Virgil 5.852-872). The death concludes the seafaring portion of Aeneas’s journey but Palinurus’s presence in the story is not limited to his finale. His loss at sea fulfills a hidden promise made by Neptune that the fleet would reach Italy safely with only one crew member lost (Virgil 5.814–815). His earthly form did end up making it to shore but he was then knifed by bandits and left for dead (Virgil 6.359–361). His final fate was revealed by the Sibyl in the underworld when Aeneas is trying to cross the River Acheron, and Palinurus shows up on shore among the crowd of unburied souls (Virgil 6.337). He laments his fate and asks for passage across the river, but the Sibyl scolds him and assures him that someone would come and bury him. Palinurus delights when he finds out he will enter the underworld and that the beach he died on will be named after him.

Palinurus’ death occupies a significant place at the midpoint of the story, between land and sea, at an important turning point in Aeneas’s journey (Quint 50). With his sacrifice Virgil both emulates and contradicts Homer (Quint 1993: 91). On the one hand, Palinurus drifts through the open sea just as Odysseus did.On the other hand, Odysseus was the sole survivor of his crew, while Aeneas loses only one crewmember. While Odysseus had to give up his entire crew to get home, Aeneas had to give up Palinurus, and took his place as leader at the helm (Quint 1993: 89). If Palinurus is accepted as a stand-in for Aeneas, it also fulfills a divine plea from Dido that Aeneas be plagued by hardship and die prematurely, “unburied on some desolate beach” (Virgil 4.609–620). Palinurus, Creusa, Anchises, and Dido are some of the losses Aeneas and the Trojans sustain during the transition from Troy to Italy.

We are not meant to blame Palinurus for forsaking his duty but rather asked to see him as a victim of a cosmic fate over which he had no control. His devotion to his post and to Aeneas is shown by the broken fragment of the ship he still clings to in the water. Sacrifices such as this were meant to reaffirm the relationship between gods and humans. They paradoxically serve as reassurance that the gods are still on Aeneas’s side and his journey is still fated (O’Hara 2014: 112).  It’s not all bad for Palinurus, either. He is promised a burial and entrance into the underworld and he delights when The Sybil tells him that the beach he died on will forever be named after him. The place in Italy is still called Capo Palinuro.

Two good contemporary translations are those of Robert Fagles (2006) and Sarah Ruden (2021), who have both published impressive editions of The Aeneid unique in style and tone. In his translation Fagles balances the hopeful fate of the Trojans with sympathy for the native Italians who suffer their invasion. His tone bears strong narrative emphasis, encapsulating the themes of epic poetry and manifesting them in a world where epic poetry is no longer as common and esteemed as it used to be. The most notable aspect of Sarah Ruden’s version of The Aeneid is how she has formatted it to keep each line roughly a complete thought. This forces compression in words and ideas due to the differences between Latin and English (Ruden 2021: xxviii). The shortness helps maintain the elevated tone of The Aeneid that is absent in many other versions. The translation is as versatile as is required for such a story and retains many of the literary themes that Virgil made rich use of such as enjambment and speed. A translator’s style is present throughout the entire work and sets each version apart from the others. The coverage of a segment such as Palinurus will be equally unique.

Fagles’ style puts the reader right next to Palinurus using ecce as the imperative watch (Virgil 5.854). This creates a more personal tone that invests the reader into the fate of Palinurus with a natural buildup of suspense. The natural phenomenon of sleep is personified as a god and Palinurus’s fall happens as fast and as suddenly as one would pass out from exhaustion. The tragic undertones of the episode are realized with the direct translation of nudus as naked to complete the indecent and pitiful picture of Palinurus’ fate (Virgil  5. 872). Fagles does a good job of creating sympathy for Palinurus and then compensating equally with his eventual happy ending. Ruden provides a similar bystander perspective of the event in line for line verse which results in a more broken up sequence as to keep each line similar to its counterpart in The Aeneid and to stay within the meter. Her sentences start and stop as abruptly as one’s thoughts when battling fatigue. She discards ecce for a more impersonal tone fitting an independent reader (Virgil  5.854). Nudus turns into unburied to further lament Palinurus’s state, deprived of the proper rites and treatments of a valued member of Aeneas’s crew (Virgil 5.872). Changes in tone between versions likewise change the atmosphere and feeling in episodes like Palinurus without changing the core subject matter. Translations can make the experience more personal like Fagles or emphasize or more stoic and mythic like Ruden.

I translate as follows:

Thus he spoke to himself and Palinurus kept his hands stuck to the helm and his feet planted to the deck, rooted in place with his gaze fixed on the stars.

Hark, Sleep descends upon from on high wielding a sleepy branch, dripping with Lethaean dew and twilight power, which he waves over the temples of our oblivious helmsman; who struggled in vain as his swimming eyes began to ease.

Unanticipated weariness had already relaxed his body when Sleep, leaning over him, loosened his arms from the helm and pushed him headfirst over the rail into the rolling sea. Clutching hard onto the part of the stern he ripped off with him, Palinurus shouts in vain to his comrades back on the ship as Sleep flies off into the thin breeze.

The unaffected fleet runs its unchanged course over the sea just as Neptune had promised.

Here, the Sirens’ Rocks, once dangerous and stained white with the bones of countless sailors, now ring far and wide with the unending surf; And Father Aeneas, feeling his ship to float freely with no pilot, grabs the wheel, and guides the fleet across the midnight sea. He groans, shaken by the death of his comrade.

‘Oh Palinurus, you trusted too much in the sea and stars, and now your body will lie bare and unburied on an unnamed shore.’

My version aims to retain the personal and narrative tone that I like in Fagles with increased alliteration. The maritime nature of the episode is likewise emphasized with the use of Hark for ecce (Virgil 5.854) and sailors supplied with multorum (Virgil 5.65). Sleep is personified to a further extent and the elements of the sea and the Sirens’ rocks are played up to complete the tone.

Works Cited

Quint, David. Epic and Empire. Princeton 1993.

O’Hara, J. “Palinurus,” in Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds., The Virgil Encyclopedia, 3 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Virgil, Aeneid, Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Books, 2006.

Virgil, Aeneid, Translated by Sarah Ruden, Introduction by Susanna Braund. Yale University Press 2021.


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