Bleeding Trees

Book XI of the Aeneid begins somewhat gruesomely. Aeneas, duty-bound to bury Pallas, must first “discharg[e] his ritual vows / As victor to the gods” (XI.5-6). This, it turns out, is a rather gory affair:

…………………………………….A big oak trunk
Lopped of its boughs, he planted on a mound
And dressed it with Mezentius’ bright gear
To make a trophy, god of war, to thee.
He fitted it with a crest still oozing blood,
With javelins of the warrior, and his cuirass,
Twelve times cut and breached. (XI.6-12)

This is not the first time Virgil has painted for us a picture of a bleeding tree. Back in book III, as the Trojans, newly exiled, sought out a new home in “the land of Mars” (III.19). Aeneas there attempts to make an offering to Venus, and seeks to make a leafy covering for the altar:

Now as it happened the ground rose nearby
In a low hummock, overgrown with cornel
And myrtle saplings flickering in a thicket.
I stepped over, trying to tear away
Green stuff out of the mount to make a roof
Of boughs and leaves over the altar. There
I had sight of a gruesome prodigy
Beyond description: when the first stalk came torn
Out of the earth, and the root network burst,
Dark blood dripped down to soak and foul the soil. (III.33-43)

Three times Aeneas tries to pluck the plants of this haunted grove. Twice he was rewarded with blood, the third time with a groan, “a sobbing muffled in the depth of earth” (III.56). This is the burial mound – or, better, simply the death site – of Polydorus, son of Priam, kill by Thracians for gold. The voice of Polydorus urges the Trojans to go elsewhere, to leave this hostile land.

Returning now to book XI, Aeneas and the Trojans have reached the land that is to be their home. But even here they cannot escape the specter of the bleeding tree. Granted, that Mezentius whose blood it is is hardly so innocent as Polydorus. Granted, that Mezentius is killed not by greed but by Aeneas in fair combat. Granted, quite generally, that the background circumstances to these two images could hardly be more different. Grant it all – it is of no consequence: still the tree bleeds.

Thus Virgil reminds us how much is awful in the Trojan victory, how a home gained is, from another vantage, a home lost.



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