Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Fire symbolizes both destruction and erotic desire or love. With images of flames, Virgil connects the two. Paris’s desire for Helen eventually leads to the fires of the siege of Troy. When Dido confesses her love for Aeneas to Anna, her sister, she begins, “I recognize / the signs of the old flame, of old desire” (IV.31–32). Dido also recalls her previous marriage in “the thought of the torch and the bridal bed” (IV.25). Torches limit the power of flames by controlling them, but the new love ignited in Dido’s heart is never regulated by the institution of marriage, “the bridal bed.” The flames she feels do not keep her warm but rather consume her mind. Virgil describes the way she dies in the synonymous terms “enflamed and driven mad” (IV.965).
The Golden Bough
According to the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, the golden bough is the symbol Aeneas must carry in order to gain access to the underworld. It is unusual for mortals to be allowed to visit the realm of the dead and then return to life. The golden bough is therefore the sign of Aeneas’s special privilege.
The Gates of War
The opening of these gates indicates a declaration of war in a tradition that was still recognized even in Virgil’s own day. That it is Juno rather than a king or even Turnus who opens the gates emphasizes the way immortal beings use mortals to settle scores. The Gates of War thus symbolize the chaos of a world in which divine force, often antagonistic to the health and welfare of mortals, overpowers human will and desire.
The Trojan Hearth Gods
The hearth gods of Troy, or penates as they are called in Latin, are mentioned repeatedly throughout the epic. They are symbols of locality and ancestry, tribal gods associated specifically with the city of Troy, who reside in the household hearth. Aeneas gathers them up along with his family when he departs from his devastated home, and they symbolize the continuity of Troy as it is transplanted to a new physical location.
The gods use weather as a force to express their will. The storm that Juno sends at the beginning of the epic symbolizes her rage. Venus, on the other hand, shows her affection for the Trojans by bidding the sea god, Neptune, to protect them. In Book IV, Venus and Juno conspire to isolate Dido and Aeneas in a cave by sending a storm to disrupt their hunting trip, symbolizing the rupture of normal social codes as well. Greek and Roman mythology has a tendency to make its symbols literal in this way—to connect the seen (a storm, for example) with the unseen (divine will) causally and dramatically.
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