The Aeneid (Yet Again)

August 6 was this site’s second birthday. As in the first post and the first anniversary post, I’m marking the date by trying the Virgilian lottery, a form of fortune-telling where you open Virgil’s works at random and point. Whatever passage your finger lands on supposedly foretells your future.

I don’t own copies of all the Roman poet’s works, so Robert Fagles’s translation of The Aeneid has to suffice. I also don’t know if you’re allowed to point at a new prophecy every year, but hey, epic verse calls for bold moves.

The 2019 prediction had to do with fire-breathing horses; I have yet to encounter any such creatures. The following year’s Virgilian fortune involved weeping and wailing, which I think we can all agree was pretty apt for 2020.

At this point, then, the accuracy rate for this annual exercise in soothsaying stands at a respectable 50%.

The passage in The Aeneid that I randomly landed on this year comes from Book Three. Aeneas is telling Queen Dido about the long string of misadventures he’s had since the end of the Trojan War, and he’s gotten to the part where he finds out that he shouldn’t have listened to his dad’s interpretation of Apollo’s order to go to the land of their ancestors. 

Aeneas’s dad, Anchises, assumes that means Crete, but as soon as our hero and company get there, a plague strikes, bringing “one whole year of death” during which “men surrendered their own sweet lives / or dragged their decrepit bodies on and on.”

And, again, if we’re reading this in the context of our own moment for fortune-telling purposes, that does feel like an eerily appropriate description of how things have gone in the prequel to the time of the prophecy (i.e.,  right this second). I’ve been dragging my decrepit body on and on for months now. 

Anyhow, the hearth gods of Troy, whom I imagine as friendly but judgmental Jiminy Cricket types, appear to Aeneas in a dream to tell him that he’s not supposed to go to Crete after all but, rather, to Italy. In the stanza that fate chose for me this year, the Jiminy Cricket gods say:

“There is a country —
the Greeks called it Hesperia, Land of the West,
an ancient land, mighty in war and rich in soil.
Oenotrians settled it; now we hear their descendants
call their kingdom Italy, after their leader, Italus.
There lies our true home. … 
Rise up now! Rejoice, relay our message, certain 
beyond all doubt, to your father full of years.
Seek out the town of Corythus, sail for Italy!”

Despite my annual consultation of the Virgilian lottery, I do not actually have much faith in the prognosticating powers of snatches of verse chosen at random. It’s simply not in my character to buy into seers or oracles or, really, any claims that the future is knowable—though I do respect a Magic 8-Ball when it admits things look hazy. Don’t they always?

Even when the gods tell you that you’ll, say, sire Roman greatness, as in Aeneas’s case, it’s evidently possible for you to get the particulars of the plan wrong and screw everything up, so we’re probably better off not knowing the final outcome ahead of time. 

I will admit, however, that I find this year’s Virgilian prediction encouraging, what with its promise of a plague coming to an end and an important purpose being fulfilled. You can’t feel bad about any forecast that contains the word “rejoice.”

Plus, it sounds like I could be taking a trip to Italy. That’s almost as good as getting a fire-breathing pony. 

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