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The story of Laocoön - an extract from The Aeneid


Laocoon and Sons.

Just then another event, the most alarming yet,
Befell us wretches, muddling further our hooded minds.

Laocoön, whom we'd elected by lot as Neptune's priest,
Was sacrificing a great bull at the official altar,
When over the tranquil deep, from Tenedos, we saw -
Telling it makes me shudder - twin snakes with immense coils
Thrusting the sea and together streaking towards the shore:
Rampant they were among the waves, their blood red crests
Reared up over the water; the rest of them slithered along
The surface, coil after coil sinuously trailing behind them.
We heard a hiss of salt spray. Next, they were on dry land,
In the same field - a glare and blaze of bloodshot eyes,
Tongues flickering like flame from their mouths, and the mouths hissing.
Our blood drained away at the sight; we broke and ran. The serpents
Went straight for Laocoön. First, each snake knotted itself
Round the body of one of Laocoön's small sons, hugging him tight
In its coils, and cropped the piteous flesh with its fangs. Next thing,
They fastened upon Laocoön, as he hurried, weapon in hand,
To help the boys, and lashed him up in their giant whorls.
With a double grip round his waist and his neck, the scaly creatures
Embrace him, their heads and throats powerfully poised above him.
All the while his hands are struggling to break their knots,
His priestly headband is spattered with blood and pitchy venom;
All the while, his appalling cries go up to heaven -
A bellowing, such as you hear when a wounded bull escapes from
The altar, after it's shrugged off an ill-aimed blow at its neck.
But now the twin monsters are gliding away and escaping towards
The shrine of relentless Minerva, high up on our citadel,
Disappearing behind the round of the goddess' shield, at her feet there.

Then, my god! a strange panic crept into our people's fluttering
Hearts: they argued Laocoön had got what he deserved
For the crime, the sacrilege of throwing his spear at the wooden
Horse and so profaning its holiness with the stroke.
Bring the horse to Minerva's shrine! Pray for her goodwill!
All of our people shouted.


from Book II of 'The Aeneid' by Virgil, translated by C. Day Lewis (Oxford University Press)

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