Her Soul Receded into the Winds: Dido’s Suicide in Aeneid Book 4

Henry Fusel. Dido. 1781. Oil on Canvas.

If you haven’t read  The Aeneid then I implore you to do yourself a favor and at least read Book 4.  It is one of my favorite pieces of literature to read in Latin and in English. (I recommend the Fagles translation or the new Ferry translation.)  I won’t go through all of the specific reasons for Dido’s suicide in this book because you really need to read it for yourself to understand the complexity of her situation.  But she does feel hopeless, abandoned, deceived, angry. In the culmination of this heart wrenching scene, Dido climbs on to the top of the funeral pyre on which she has placed all her gifts from Aeneas, the Trojan hero who, at this very same moment, is sailing away from Carthage and from her (these translations are my own):

After she looked down at the Trojan’s robes and the all-too-familiar couch, and with her mind hesitating in tearful recollection, she laid down on that same couch and spoke her final words: “Oh gifts that were dear to me as long as the fates and the gods were allowing, accept my spirt and release me from my sorrows.  I have lived and I have finished the course which Fortune had set out for me, but now my famous soul will go to the underworld.  I have established a famous city, I have looked upon my city’s walls, and having avenged my husband, I exacted punishment from my hateful brother.  Unlucky, oh I am too unlucky—if only those Trojans ships had never reached our shores.” When she finished her speech she pressed a kiss into the couch and said, “I will die unavenged, but let me die anyway. In this way, yes, in this way it eases my pain to approach my death.  I hope that cruel Trojan drinks in this fire with his eyes as he sails away, and I hope he carries with him the omen of my death.” As she had said these things, Dido’s loved ones saw her fall onto Aeneas’s sword while standing in the midst of all his other gifts.  Both the sword and her hands were sprayed with blood.  A shouting reaches all the parts of the palace; the report of her death quickly spreads throughout the shattered city.

Since Dido kills herself, her soul is not allowed to be accompanied to the underworld by Mercury.  Instead the goddess Juno sends Iris to release Dido’s spirit:

Therefore, dewy Iris, dragging thousands of colors against the sun and through the sky with her yellow wings, descends and stands by Dido’s head: “I, having been ordered by Juno to carry out the rituals of the dead, release you from this sword and from your body.”  After Iris said this she cut a lock of Dido’s hair: at the same time all the warmth slipped from her body and her soul receded into the winds.

That last sentence is just beautiful, it gets me every time I translate it.  Please do read it and let me know what you think about Dido’s story.



Filed under Classics

24 responses to “Her Soul Receded into the Winds: Dido’s Suicide in Aeneid Book 4

  1. That’s beautiful Melissa, and I can understand why that last line gets you. Thank you for sharing it – I obviously need to read more of the classics….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How beautiful! I haven’t read the Aeneid all the way through yet, but I did read Book 4 (in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation) and thought it was amazing. Dido is such a fascinating character.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That is lovely, and I like your translation. I’ve read The Aeneid a couple of times, once in an old Penguin Translation, not sure now who that would have been, and then in the Fagles, which I bought after falling in love with his translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad.
    One joy not to be overlooked, quite apart from the pleasure of reading these works, is the way they enhance the pleasure of seeing the artworks which derive from the stories. I know that galleries nearly always have signage about the paintings, but it’s not the same as knowing the stories properly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan

    I have a Penguin prose version which I pick up every now and then with the intention to read…..buy I always decide on something else. I always think it’s going to be a tough read and so I should tackle it when I’m better prepared. But both The Odyssey and The Iliad were enjoyable to read so hopefully The Aeneid should be too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love The Aeneid, although I’ve only read it in English. It’s one of those books I return to periodically (C.Day Lewis and Mandelbaum translations). Thank you for sharing your translation. Poor Dido; between the goddess’ interventions and Aeneus’ sense of duty, she doesn’t have a chance. I have Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI on my reading pile(s) and will be curious to see the lines on Dido there.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Books 2 and 12 were my lot, but your translation from Book 4 is amazing, and that final sentence, as you say, really powerful. I shall hunt out my old Latin Aeneid from the loft just to look at the original with your version alongside.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. To be honest I have a dreadful memory of Aeneid in class with all the sweating on the translation. I still have my copy of it though, so I’ll check out the book 4.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Kirsten Leslie

    Can you provide a source for the claim that Mercury cannot take suicides into the Underworld? I’ve never heard that before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The passage itself is the source. That’s why Juno asks Iris to escort her to the underworld, because Mercury won’t do it.


      • Kirsten Leslie

        I’m sorry, but where specifically is it claimed that Mercury cannot come as psychopomp because she’s killed herself? Isn’t it more that she’s dying before her time (nec fato merita nec morte peribit/sed misera ante diem subitōque accēnsa furōre, 696-7) so Juno had to send her messenger special to lead her down (ergo Īris…dēvolat et suprā caput astitit (700, 702)?

        Liked by 1 person

      • She’s dying before her time specifically because of suicide. And later when Aeneas meets her in Book 6 it’s mentioned again that her soul cannot be at peace because of taking her own life. That’s how I’ve interpreted these lines. So for me this passage is the source.


  9. The source is this passage. That’s why Iris has to escort Dido to the underworld and not Mercury.


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