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Both Book III of the Aeneid, by Virgil, and Canto XIII of Inferno, by Dante, share
two ‘characters’: the bleeding bush and the harpies. Both Virgil and Dante use
these characters to express certain themes and lessons in their writings. Although
Dante’s use of the characters is his adaptation of Virgil’s creations, used to express
common ideas of the Christian-era.
In Book III of the Aeneid, Aeneas encounters the bleeding bush when he and
his men arrive in Thrace. Upon arrival, he prepares to offer the sacrifice of a white
bull to the gods by pulling up some green branches to cover the altars. When he
does this, black blood flows out of the severed branches where he has broken them
from the bush. Aeneas first believes that the bleeding branches are an omen of
terrible things to come, so he prays to the nymphs of Thrace and the god Mars, and
attempts to pull up another branch. As he does this, the bush speaks to him in a
The voice reveals that the blood is not coming from the bush itself, but from
the body of the Trojan, Polydorus, who is buried below. When Troy was beginning
to be sieged, Priam, the ruler of Troy, sent Polydorus to the king of Thrace, who was
thought to be friendly to Troy, offering gold for his care and protection. After Troy
fell to the Spartans, the king of Thrace murdered Polydorus and took the gold for
himself. Because Polydorus was pierced through with “an iron harvest of lances”,
“sharp javelins” of branches grew above where he was buried.
Polydorus was so astounded by the actions of the king, that he was silent with
dread and could only speak once Aeneas pulled up the branches from his grave.
Once he could speak, Polydorus warned Aeneas to flee from the land of Thrace
where “friendship was profamed”. Aeneas took this message in front of his
chieftains and they all agreed to leave at once and follow the south winds. Before
they left, though, they gave Polydorus a proper funeral by covering his grave with
dirt and building altars to the Shades, which were decorated with dark garland and
Aeneas then encounters the harpies when he and his crew arrive on the coast
of the Strophades’, which are islands in the Ionian sea. The harpies and their leader
Celaeno are creatures that are half woman and half bird. They have pale and
famished features, sharp talons for hands, horrible screeching voices, and they leave
an unbearable filth and stench on what ever they touch.
When Aeneas and his men first arrive on the shore, they find unguarded
herds of cattle and flocks of sheep which they quickly slaughter for food. Before
they begin to feast, they give offering to the gods. Their offerings seem to do no good
,though, when the harpies fly down from their perches in the hills and spread filth
and stench over the banquet so that no one could bear to eat the food.
Aeneas then has his men set out another feast on their tables. This time,
when the harpies come down to foul their food, the Trojans draw their concealed
weapons and attack the creatures. Unfortunately, their weapons cannot harm the
harpies, and the bird-women succeed in destroying yet another meal. After the
harpies flee, their leader Celaeno perches on a rock and calls out to the Trojans in a
horrible screeching voice.
>From her roost, she chastises Aeneas and his men for killing the harpies’ livestock
and then attacking the creatures on their own land.
Celaeno then brings a message for Aeneas that was passed from the king of
the gods, to Phoebus (Apollo), and then to her. She tells him that he must leave the
shores of the Strophades and that his voyage will end in Italy, where he will build
the promised city and can finally rest. Celaeno also curses the men with the threat
that they will not build their great city until they pay for attacking the harpies.
Their punishment will be that they will be subject to such a terrible hunger and
famine that they will “gnaw as food” their “very tables”. These threats cause great
fear in the Trojans,
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Roman mythology, Trojans, Fairies, Harpy, Afterlife, Aeneid, Polydorus, Inferno, Aeneas, Strofades, Virgil, Celaeno
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