Aeneas's continues to tell his story to Dido, as before in first person from his point of view. The Trojans build a fleet, unsure where the fates will lead them. In early summer they set off, bringing the household gods. Aeneas directs the fleet to Thrace, a land friendly to Troy. Aeneas lands and prepares to sacrifice a steer. But when he uproots a plant to shade the altar, the stem bleeds. Frightened, he pulls up another plant, which also bleeds. He prays and pulls up a third plant, which groans and speaks, introducing itself as Polydorus.
The Mediterranean is filled with both natural dangers and Greek-friendly regions. Troy's fall has affected the Trojans both emotionally and practically—they must depend on friends and strangers for supplies. Aeneas's sacrifice, immediately after landing, demonstrates the crucial importance of the gods' favor on the Trojans' quest.
Polydorus explains that Priam sent him to Thrace so that he would be safe if Troy lost the war. Polydorus also brought gold to secure his protection, but, as Troy fell, the Thracian king killed him and took his gold. The spears that struck Polydorus became the plants Aeneas uprooted. Aeneas gives Polydorus a proper funeral before setting sail again.
Throughout the Aeneid, we'll see the necessity of proper burials. In this society, the dead are never quite gone—like the living, they need respect, and sometimes their ghosts return.
The Trojans sail to an island, Ortygia, blessed by Apollo, to a city ruled by Anius, a friend of Anchises. Aeneas goes to pray for guidance from Apollo. Apollo speaks to him, telling him to find the land of his forefathers and return to his "ancient mother," where Aeneas's descendents would rule the world.
Like Creusa in Book 2, Apollo gives Aeneas a better sense of his destiny. Notably, it's Aeneas's pious prayers that lead to this revelation. Apollo isn't Aeneas's guardian, but he'll help if asked correctly.
The men attempt to interpret Apollo's instructions. Anchises believes this ancient homeland to be the nearby island of Crete. After sacrificing animals to Apollo, Neptune, and the winds, the Trojans head off for Crete. But, strangely, they find Crete in the grip of an intense drought, rife with death and disease. Anchises wants to return to Ortygia to consult Apollo again. But that evening, the household gods appear to Aeneas in a dream, and tell him that their homeland is actually the distant Italy. Aeneas recounts this to Anchises, who recalls that Cassandra once said the same thing.
A message from the gods is a good first step, but the human interpretation of that message can still cause problems. This passage shows that even the wisest humans, like Anchises, can make blunders. It's a constant question in the Aeneid how much control the gods have over the human lives, and here it seems that the gods have very limited power—they suggest, but the humans decide the actions on their own.
The Trojans set sail again, but a storm forces them off course, and they wander for three days before landing at the Strophades islands, which is the home of the Harpies, monsters with women's faces and filthy bird bodies. The men make a feast with the goats and oxen they find on the island, when the Harpies come screaming down from the hills and destroy their food. The Trojans try to fight back, but fail. Caelano, head Harpy, scolds the men for stealing the Harpies' animals and trying to fight them off their own territory. Then she reveals their future misfortune: they won't manage to establish their city in Italy before they undergo a famine so great they will try to eat their tables. Anchises begs the gods not to bring such trouble to the pious Trojans.
Caelano makes good points. The Trojans DID steal, and they did try to take over Harpy territory. This might be a difficult message to accept from such an ugly monster, but the passage accomplishes a typically Virgilian feat of making the reader sympathize with both sides of a conflict. The Trojans' desire to follow fate at all costs will have them making debatable decisions throughout their journey. Virgil never neglects the costs of this approach.
The Trojans sail on to Actium, where they enjoy themselves with games and wrestling, happy to have sailed unnoticed past Greek territory. Aeneas leaves a shield he took from a Greek he fought as a symbol that he hasn't been defeated. Winter is coming as they continue to Buthrotum, where Pyrrhus's former kingdom is now under the rule of the Trojan siblings Helenus and Andromache.
Aeneas's symbol of defiance, the Greek shield, shows his stubbornness and his inability to forgive his enemies. A typically pre-Christian hero, his consistency, and even his occasional gloating over his victories, show strength.
Andromache, Hector's widow, is so shocked to see Aeneas that at first she thinks he might be a ghost. Andromache explains that she was the slave of Pyrrhus (the evil Greek who killed Priam), until another Greek killed him, after which Helenus inherited some of his territory. She asks after Ascanius, and Helenus leads everyone to the city, which resembles a smaller Troy.
Helenus and Andromache's home offers a kind of preview of what Aeneas hopes to build in Italy. Memory and the bonds of family and nation can help to offset the scattering effects of war.
Before leaving, Aeneas asks Helenus what the future holds, and how he can avoid Caelano the Harpy's prediction of famine. Helenus describes how to reach Italy, and mentions that Aeneas must first descend to the underworld. When Aeneas finds a white sow and piglets under an oak tree, he will have reached his final destination. The famine will not be a problem, Helenus says, but he counsels Aeneas to avoid certain unfriendly cities, and to make sure to avoid the hazardous waters near Charybdis, a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily, and Scylla, a monster that lurks near Charybdis and has the head of a woman and the body of a dolphin or whale. Helenus recommends praying to Juno and visiting the Sibyl of Cumae.
Little by little, Aeneas's fate becomes more specific. Though it might seem like Virgil is removing suspense from the story by revealing it, all these prophecies actually demonstrate that uncertainty underlies even a fated journey. Aeneas must still pray and educate himself as best as he can. He will reach his destination, but at what cost? It's still possible that the losses could outweigh the ultimate gain, a situation known as a "Pyrrhic victory."
Helenus and Andromache give presents to the men, and Aeneas, sorry to depart, thanks them and says that he hopes that his future city will be united with theirs. The Trojans head north and camp briefly, but set off again at night when Palinurus the navigator can see the constellations by which he guides their route. Soon the Trojans come within sight of Italy, where they see four peaceful white horses near the shore, and the men rejoice. They see Mount Aetna in the distance, then row furiously to escape the pull of Charybdis. They drift to the island of the Cyclops.
Despite this glimpse of Italy, the Trojans still have a long way to go before reaching their destined homeland. This so-close-yet-so-far moment brings out the Trojans' longing for home, and the fatigue of their journey.
When they arrive, a Greek man, Achemenides, dirty and ragged, begs the Trojans to take him away from the island. He describes the bloodthirsty Cyclops, and how Ulysses blinded him. Achemenides was left behind when the Greeks departed and survived by hiding. The Trojans take him aboard. As they sail away, the Cyclops hears the splashing and chases them, though they manage to reach deep waters and escape. The winds blow the Trojans towards Scylla and Charybdis, but a fortunate north wind blows them away from danger. They pass many lands.
Although Achemenides is a Greek, the Trojans are willing to show him hospitality. The scene echoes the Sinon incident in Book 2, another time when a Greek begged for Trojan help. Despite the disastrous consequences of their friendliness to Sinon, the Trojans remain hospitable and treat Achemenides well.
At Drapenum, Sicily, Anchises dies. Aeneas mourns that his father survived such great risks only to die. Aeneas then sadly remarks that neither Helenus nor Caelano warned him of his father's coming death. Finally, Aeneas has finished telling his story, and the Aeneid returns to Dido's court at Carthage.
Surprisingly, the tragedy of Anchises death is only briefly mentioned here—it's just one of many trials of the Trojans years of wandering. But Anchises's death will lead to Aeneas's voyage to the underworld in Book 6.