Skip to main content Accessibility help

Palinurus and his Rudder: Vergil, Aeneid 5.858-9

  • M. Dyson (a1)


The precise relationship between the two accounts of the death of Palinurus in the Aeneid (5.833-71, 6.337-83) remains elusive, in spite of the wealth of discussion bestowed upon them in recent years. When the helmsman falls overboard in Book 5, according to the narrative, sea and sky are serene, but in the version which his spirit recounts to Aeneas in the underworld in Book 6, there is suggestion of rough seas, great waves rising and violent winter wind. On the other hand, the two accounts have not been developed in total separation, with the natural causation of a storm replacing the supernatural operation of the god Sleep as an explanation of Palinurus’ undoing. For, although Palinurus in his own version of events does not men tion Sleep—how could he, since the god came in human disguise?



Hide All

1 I limit my discussion of the differences between the two accounts mainly to the question of the weather. Wider ranging discussions during the last decade that bear usefully on this aspect are: Laudizi, G., ‘Palinuro (Verg. Aen. 5.827 ff.; 6.337 ff.)’, Maia 40 (1988) 5773; Kinsey, T.E., ‘The death of Palinurus’, PP 40 (1985) 379-80; Brenk, F.E., ‘Unum pro multis caput: Myth, History and Symbolic Imagery in Vergil’s Palinurus incident’, Lotomus 40 (1984)776-81; Friedrich, W.H., ‘Libyco cursu’, Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göllingen, Phil.-Hist. Klasse (1982) 69101; Berres, T., Die Entstehung der Aeneis (Wiesbaden 1982)250-81; Harrison, E.L., ‘The Structure of the Aeneid: Observations on the Links between the Books’, ANRW II. 31.1 (1980) 369-72.

2 Something may be conceded to the frequenüy expressed view that the differences are due to different modes of narrative, that of the omniscient narrator in Book 5 and that of the human victim in Book 6, with an attendant shift ‘from the mythical into the humanly comprehensible’, as argued by Segal, C.P., ‘Aeternum per saecula nomen’, Arion 4 (1965) 647. However, the weather differences seem too extreme to be explained completely this way. It should be noted that the words nec me deus aequore mersit (348) mean that Palinurus was not drowned at sea, not that the agent who drowned him was not divine.

3 Friedrich (above, n. 1 ) 81, believes that what is meant is that the rudder carries him overboard, and the variation is only one of expression. He also (89) refers the multa vis, which tears off the rudder, to a wave or rock. But surely the words multa vi are to be taken modally (‘with great force’) and not instrumentally (‘by a great force’).

4 There is a discrepancy in chronology here: Aeneas’ second dawn (6.255-7) is apparently Palinurus’ fourth after the same event. I doubt if this is significant, considering Aeneas’ very crowded programme. Laudizi (above, η. 1) 60 well takes the three nights of Palinurus’ swim as a symbolic number enhancing his heroic endurance.

5 The storm comes later: Thaniel, G., ‘Ecce Palinurus’, Acte Classica 15 (1972) 151; Kinsey (above, n.1) 379. The storm is imagined by Palinurus: ‘Palinurus reasoned afterwards that the ship had been caught in a sudden squall and that he had toppled into the sea when the ship lurched violently’ suggests McKay, A.G., in Evjen, H.D. (ed.), Mnemai, Studies in memory of K.K. Hulley (Chico 1984) 123. The guilty conscience: Palinurus was involved in a disreputable incident and exaggerated the difficulties in his memory: Laudizi (above, n.1) 61.

6 Views along these lines aie common ground; cf. e.g. Laudizi (above, n.1) 71.1 regard this position as fundamental and sufficient, although there may be more to Palinurus’ loss than this. Nicoll, W.S.M., “The sacrifice of Palinurus’, CQ 38 (1988) 459-72, sees a moral in the death of a man too involved with fortuna; however, the image of a steersman who falls overboard at the point at which the fleet comes safely home does seem essentially designed as a comment on function rather than on morality.

7 The significance of this structure is clearly worked out by Williams, R.D., “The sixth book of the Aeneid’, G & R 11 (1964) 4863.

8 The phrase remains a puzzle, since it seems that here is must mean ‘on the voyage from Libya’, and so most commentators take it. Jacob, P., ‘L’ épisode de Palinure’, LEC 20 (1952) 163-7, uses the natural sense ‘on the voyage to Libya’ to argue for the identity of Palinurus as Orontes’ helmsman in the original draft; see Thaniel (above, n. 5) for criticism of this thesis.

9 It is trae that no other losses at sea are recorded: even after another major storm during which they were scattered for three days and nights, the Trojans are simply said to reach land, without attention being given to the regrouping of the fleet (3.196-208); the implication is that no losses occurred. However, the possibility of other losses, before or after the storm of Book 1, is not excluded either: Palinurus dies as a sacrifice of one life for many (5.815), implying extensive losses in the event of a further storm, and at 6.334 Aeneas sees not only Orontes but Leucaspis, a man not previously named. Presumably he is the helmsman lost at 1.115, but the fact that he is now named combines with the detachment of the occasion from the storm off Carthage to suggest a wider range of losses than those actually described.

10 After his raft is smashed in a storm, Odysseus sits on a plank, then takes off his clothes and swims (Homer, , Od. 5.370-5).

11 Cf. Williams, R.D., Vergil. Aeneid 5 (Oxford 1960), on 5.858-9: ‘Palinurus even in sleep does not relax his hold, so that the helm and a part of the ship are torn away with him.‘

12 For the adjective primos in place of the adverb see Conington, J.-Nettleship, H., The Works of Vergil 4 (London 1884), online 858: they quote 1.723 (postquam prima quies epulis) and 3.69 (ubi prima fides pelago). Were it not for the words italicised in the text, no-one would dream that the clause meant anything essentially different from my translation. But Conington goes on to remark that ‘ Vergil chooses to suppose one part of the body affected before another’, and he is very conscious that the expression is unnatural (“those limbs, or that part of them, which were first affected by sleep’). The whole end of this awkward idea is to justify the notion of a grip so strongly maintained in sleep that a heavy piece of machinery is removed when the sleeper is removed. Supporting passages quoted by others are not convincing in my view: vix prima inceperat aestas (3.8) might possibly mean ‘scarcely had early summer begun’, but it would still imply that summer had just begun, not that only part of it had begun, prima proelia (5.375,12.103), meaning ‘the beginning of the fray’, does not seem comparable with primos artus.

13 Again, I think, editors have treated the text too indulgently; e.g. Williams (above, n. 11) ad loc. says ‘there are a number of possible ways in which a sailing boat with oars may be kept under control without a rudder (rexit is perhaps ‘took control of rather than ‘steered’), and Vergil does not feel it necessary or appropriate to go into detail’. Both “kept under control’ and the reduced sense suggested for rexit seem to imply an impeded motion out of harmony with the passage. The expert on Roman ships, Saint-Denis, E. de, Le rôle de la mer dans la poesie latine (Paris 1935) 216, thinks that Vergil tends to treat ships anachronistically, so that one of the two contemporary steering paddles would be lost only, whereupon the ship would immediately go round in circles to the distress of the fleet following: it needed one god, he says, to get Palinurus overboard, and would need a deus ex machina to rectify the situation. Without following that analysis in detail, still, the impracticability of Vergil’s account should not be underestimated. Offermann, H.,’Vergil, Aeneis 5.847 und die PalinurusepisodeHermes 99 (1971) 171, thinks the problem of the loss of the rudder is alleviated because a reader’s attention is deflected by the splendour of the Siren passage (865-6).

14 Austin, R.G., Vergil, Aeneid 6 (Oxford 1977), ad loc., is revealing: ‘Aeneas (now at the helm of his own ship; see 5.868) gives the fleet its head, as it were, slackening the sheets for speed before the wind’. But there is no helm.

15 Berres (above, n. 1) 266-7, observes that the violence of Sleep is intrusive. He deduces that helmsman and helm, as an indissoluble unit, while falling together through natural cause in Book 6, here do so through supernatural agency: the violent action of Sleep fuses the two realms of myth (Palinurus is possessed by Sleep) and reality (Palinurus falls asleep) in an event which transcends the limits of physical possibility. Aeneas, however, must interpret what happened rationalistically and assumes that Palinurus fell asleep. This is a fine idea, but it relies on the ‘fairy-tale element’ of a sleeper maintaining his grip, the rationalistic response of Aeneas is selective and, above all, the problematic violence is mentioned only in the two half-lines which receive no corroboration and considerable undermining throughout the entire passage until 6.2.

16 Peerlkamp, P.H., Vergilii Aeneis (Leidae 1853), ad loc.

17 Peerlkamp (above, n. 16), on 6.337: omne hoc de Palinuro episodium Vergilio vix dignum esse mihi videtur. Praeterea longius est, et tota res levior pro cetera rerum gravitate, nec cum argumento satis coniuncta.

18 Cf. Gercke, A., Die Entstehung der Aeneis (Berlin 1913) 24, who takes the two half-lines, as I do, to be a later addition by Vergil.

19 Cf. Putnam, M., The Poetry of the Aeneid (Cambridge, Mass. 1965) 76 and 97. Putnam compares the loss of helm and the helmsman with the accident to Gyas’ ship in the naval race earlier in the Book (172-7). The fact that Aeneas takes over a disabled ship shows that he is ‘sublimely, though unknowingly, in the hands of the gods’.

20 Drafts of this paper were read at a Classics Department seminar at the University of Queensland and at the Roman Literature seminar held at the University of New England in July 1990.1 am grateful to those who made comments on those and other occasions, and to Dr. E.L. Harrison, of the University of Leeds, for the benefit of his criticism.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Palinurus and his Rudder: Vergil, Aeneid 5.858-9

  • M. Dyson (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.