Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)


Inferno: The Aftermath
If Schadenfreude is your thing (Schaden, injury, hurt, loss; Freude, joy, glee), and if malicious enjoyment of other people’s misfortune and misery is your favourite pastime, then y
ou would have a jolly good time reading Dante's Inferno, a feast of merry thigh-slapping. What, hitting yourself, too? Well, in that connection, I did suggest that the solution to the problem of pain and suffering in Hell is to cultivate masochism. Indeed, to increase your appreciation of the general tribulation, it would be wise to have it both ways, burning your fingers and candles at both ends (or whatever), diversifying and expanding your enterprise into sado-masochism.

The last Infernal villains we see are being chewed in Satan’s three mouths (1.34.61-67), all traitors to their lord: Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord of all; Brutus and Cassius who assassinated Julius Caesar.

Where was noble Caesar?  His admirers will be relieved to hear he had an honoured place in Limbo (1.4.121-123), though the disconcerting news is that this place of refuge was built on shaky foundations and has recently disintegrated, by papal decree. Be that as it may, Caesar was domiciled with the Trojans, notably Hector and Aeneas (Julius claimed descent from him). And the women named in their company, or at least in the same context, were
Lavinia, the princess of Latium, daughter of Latinus, and wife of Aeneas in Italy; Electra (the one through whom Jupiter fathered Dardanus, the mythical founder of Troy); and Penthesilea (queen of the Amazons, who assisted the Trojans after Hector’s death, but was slain by Achilles; and he, according to a tradition followed by Dante, fell in love with a Trojan princess, Polyxena, daughter of King Priam, and was treacherously killed by Paris. Achilles and Paris were in the section for ill-fated lustful lovers [5.64-67], where Helen, Dido, Cleopatra, and Francesca languished).

For interest’s sake, we should name some of the noble pre-Christian and non-Christian  denizens of Limbo. (It no longer exists, of course, having been abolished in A.D.  2007 by papal decree. Closed down for lack of patronage? Couldn’t muster the numbers to satisfy the managers and accountants? Failed to produce the outcomes stipulated in its mission statement?).

Virgil tells Dante that when he first came to the netherworld (he died in the year 19 ‘Before Christ’), they were visited by “a puissant one (un possente), crowned with a sign of victory” (4.52ff). This was Jesus the Christ, fresh from his crucifixion and triumph over death, come for “the harrowing of Hell” (giving the place a shakeup; not "hallowing", though his his presence there must have added a temporary aura of holiness to the wretched place); “he descended into Hell”, as the Creed states; or as Saint Peter says, “he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). He took away “the shade of the first parent“(that is, Adam; but what about Eva, the arch-sinner, where can she be? We must watch out for her); also Abel (Hebel) his son (though not Cain); Noah (Mrs Noah never rates a mention, I notice); Moses “the obedient lawgiver”, Israel (Jacob) with his father (Isaac) and his (twelve) sons, and Rachel, “for whom he did so much” (laboured 14 years), and King David, and many others; and he beatified all of them (made them blessed), releasing them from their dungeon, and presumably taking them to his own abode with its “many mansions” (John 14:2).

The classical poets whom Dante singles out are: Homer “the sovereign poet” (though Dante could not read Greek, and no Latin translation was available to him), Horace the moral satirist, Ovid, and Lucan. Also receiving honourable mention are the great Roman writers Cicero and Seneca.

Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic oath) and Galen are there for their contributions to medicine, I suppose.

The Muslims in Limbo are Saladin (Salah-ed-Din, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century), and the philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Muhammad and `Ali are in the depths of Hell, as heretics. (Let’s get this clear: I did not say that; I refuse to take responsibility for medieval European opinions about the Apostle of the One God; it is Dante who is deciding the eternal destination of every person who comes into his mind.)

 Other notables are Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy the astronomer and geographer (he believed in a spherical Earth, but in the centre of what we call the solar system, which actually has the sun in the middle). 

Dante’s cosmology
The mention of Ptolemy (Klaudios Ptolemaios of Alexandria, born 75 CE) is our cue for summarizing Dante’s view of the universe.

Earth is at the centre of the universe.
[So, I presume, apart from the fixed stars in the sky, every other heavenly body, including the sun and the moon, is a ‘planet’ (they were ‘wandering stars’, Greek astéres planêtai) circulating around Earth, which itself is not a planet (a wanderer), but fixed.]

Inferno, Hell, is a funnel-shaped cavity, starting beneath Earth’s surface and reaching down to the centre. This point is not only Earth’s centre, but also the centre of the universe, and, I am told, the farthest point from God.  (So is God a circle surrounding the universe?)

Down the sides of the conical cavity there are nine levels of diminishing concentric circles, on each of which various classes of unrepentant sinners are located, and punished. The lower the level the more serious the offence, and the more severe the chastisement.

The northern hemisphere of Earth is predominantly land, and has Jerusalem (the Holy City, the place of the Crucifixion) at its centre, and on the line of the central axis of Hell.

The southern hemisphere is ocean, and the only land in it is the mountain-island Purgatory, situated at the antipodes of Jerusalem, in antipodean relation to the Holy City.

(The term ‘antípodes’, and also ‘antípodean’, as used here, refers to places exactly opposite to each other on different sides of the globe. It started by meaning people inhabiting the opposite hemisphere, on the assumption that there was indeed habitable land in the southern regions, and the Greek word antipodes implied that these weird folk had their feet around the wrong way, pointing backwards.)

Dante mentions another (actual) difference between the hemispheres. In Canto 4, Dante and Virgil sit down on Purgatory Mountain and face the East, and Dante is surprised to see that the sun is on his left, that is, in the northern part of the sky. If you have any trouble with the concept, think of the Equator (which Dante mentions). In Europe and North America you look southwards to the Equator, so you see the sun to the south of your position. In Australasia we look northwards to the Equator, and likewise to the Sun.

In Ptolemy’s Geography there are inhabited islands below the equator, notably Java, which is in its own way a paradise, with lofty volcanoes showing us that the netherworld under the ground is fiery. All the ancient geographers knew Taprobane, an island next to India, which has had several other names in its history, such as Serendiba, Ceylon, and Sri Lanka.

I personally think that the model for Dante’s south-sea island of Purgatory was Sri Lanka, ever renowned as a beautiful paradise. It is in the northern hemisphere, but it is only a few degrees above the equator.  It has a high mountain with a large footprint at its summit. Hindus revere it as a mark made by the god Siva, known as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (I presume he would have put one foot down on this spot as he did his creative dance through the world). Buddhists believe it is a relic of the Buddha (he likewise practised levitation and flying through space). Christians and Muslims know the mountain as Adam’s Peak, and they assume that the footprint belonged to the first man (in Jewish lore, Adam’s head reached to the clouds, so he was envisioned as a large human, who would leave a big footprint). This suggests that the Paradise Garden was thought to be on this island, anciently known as Serendiba, from which the word serendipity is derived, from a fairy-tale “The three princes of Serendip”, in which the heroes were always making happy discoveries by accident (Horace Walpole, 1754). Dante may have encountered the tradition of Adam’s Peak and incorporated it into his scheme. Maybe I have had a serendipitous moment through this thought that has come to me. 

Marco Polo (1254-1324), a contemporary of Dante (1265-1321), has two accounts of Ceylon (Seilan) in his travelogue,  The Description of the World. He mentions a very high mountain, difficult to climb, which has a monument of Adam, according to the 'Saracens' (Muslims), though the 'idolaters' (Buddhists) connect it with Sakyamuni ('Sage of the Shakya people', a title of the Buddha). 

In the first canto of Purgatorio, Dante speaks of a group four stars he saw (1.22-27), which could well be the Southern Cross. Marco claims to have voyaged through southeastern Asia. but does not mention the Southern Cross. However, it would have been known to voyagers who had returned from the Indies. 

Dante’s view of Purgatory is different from the official ecclesiatical line: Purgatory was considered to be a subterranean place, like Hell. Dante has it out in the light and in the open air, a mountain resort with stunning views of sea and sky.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning. Where Dante enters the pit of Hell is not sta
ted, but in his ‘infernal’ journey with Virgil he goes from the top-edge to the centre, where Satan is imprisoned (unable to roam the world as he did in the Book of Job). From there Dante continues in the same direction (but now upward, in a sense) along the bed of a subterranean stream (namely the Lethe, the river of oblivion, which has its origin in the Earthly Paradise), to the sandy shore of Purgatory island. (For Dante life is now a ‘beach’ compared to what it had been in the other place.)

In Purgatorio the journey is upward, involving mountain-climbing. Again we have concentric circles.
Ante-Purgatory (Cantos 1-9): the lower irregular slopes are populated by souls whose penitence was delayed in life:
(1) the excommunicated (Manfred),
(2) the lethargic (Belacqua),
(3) the unabsolved (penitent at the last hour)
(4) the negligent rulers (Harry/Arrigo of England, Henry 3, born 1216, reigned 1226 till 1272).

Purgatory (Cantos 10-16): the Purgatorio gate leads into the place of purgation of sinners and purification from sins, through penance. Seven circular terraces rise one above the other, connected by steps in the rock. Each level is concerned with purging one of the seven capital sins (the deadly sins) from souls who are obsessed with that particular vice.

(1)    Proud (2) Envious (3) Wrathful  (Perverted Love)
(4)    Slothful  (Defective Love)
(5)    Avaricious & Prodigal (6) Gluttonous (7) Lascivious (Excessive Love)

Paradise (24-30): this is the earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Here Dante finally encounters Beatrice. 

When Dante heard that he would meet Beatrice there (Canto 6) he was ready, so to speak, to plummet to the summit,  immediately; but he was obliged to ascend slowly through all the stages for his own personal development.

CANTO [1] Prologue “To course over better waters the little boat of my wit now lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel a sea; and I will sing of that second realm where the human spirit is purged and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven.” (1.1-7)
Venus “The beautiful planet which encourages us to love was making all the East laugh, veiling the Fishes in her train.... And I saw four stars only ever seen before by the first people. The sky seemed to be rejoicing in their flames. O widowed northern region, bereft of that wondrous sight.” (1.19-27)

After the Fall in the Garden of Eden, humans were driven from Paradise into the northern hemisphere. That is the basis for this statement about four stars, which are visible only in the antipodes. This constellation might be our Southern Cross,  but  Dante might have simply invented them. In any case,  they represent the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance.

Virgil and Dante are on the shore. They meet a venerable bearded man; it is Cato (95-46 BCE), a Roman statesman; he had sided with Pompey against Caesar; when Caesar won, Cato renounced his life and committed suicide. He represented the Stoic ideal, and here he is made the guardian of the Mountain, but he does not go up it himself.

[2] The ship of souls arrives, with more than a hundred people, recently deceased, singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (Psalm 114). “When Israel came forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign speech, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” It is referring to the Exodus from Egypt, and liberation from slavery, and the settling in the Promised Land of Canaan. In a letter to Can Grande, Dante gave the ‘mystical’ interpretation of these words as “the departure of the sanctified soul from the bondage of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory”. The psalm had long been used in the Western Church in funeral rites. The choir sings in unison, an indication of the unity of spirit in Purgatory.

One of the newcomers is known to Dante, a musician named Casella who had set some of Dante’s poems to music, and here he sings one of them: Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona (‘Love that converses with me in my mind’).
Apparently it is not about romantic love; Dante explains it in the Convito as being in praise of Lady Philosophy (as in the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius). All are entranced by it as they make their entrance to their new but temporary home.

Gruff old Cato (though he was only 49 at his death) calls the troop to attention, and orders them to set off for the mountain to begin the task of purging themselves, so that God could eventually be made manifest to them. 

[3] (1) The Excommunicated
The two poets go to the lower slopes of the mountain in the sunlight; only Dante casts a shadow.

The group of excommunicated people (who must have repented at some time or they would not be there) are like sheep without a shepherd. They have been excluded from the sacraments of the Church, and are therefore without means of salvation. They are being punished, but, whereas the unrepentant in Hell have no hope of redemption or release from their torture, these penitent souls have the possibility of a bright future, eventually, if they bear their sufferings patiently.

The example is King Manfred, ruler of Apulia and Sicily (1231-1266), who was excommunicated as a heretic, though his subjects loved him. He was addicted to fun and pleasure, the proverbial ‘wine, women, and song’. He asks Dante to tell his daughter Constance to pray for him, since he is not in Hell as she might have supposed (because of his excommunication).

[4] (2) The Lethargic
The example here is Belacqua, a maker of musical instruments, who was known to Dante; Belacqua was notorious for his indolence. He was sitting in the shade with his head on his knees, too tired and lazy to do any climbing into a state of Grace (being in favour with God). Dante was puffing and panting, but he was eager to explore and learn. Purgatory would be much higher than Mount Everest (and might be called Mount Never-rest). Virgil (although he has not climbed the Mountain himself) reassures Dante that the higher one goes the less toilsome it becomes, as easy as going downstream in a boat. That is similar to my copyright line: “I did plummet to the summit”. 

[5] (3) The Late-Repentant
These are the unabsolved, the unshriven (shrive means submit oneself to a priest for confession, and have penance imposed, and receive absolution, that is, be absolved from sin and guilt). They left it to the last moment, and missed out. They did not repent till the last hour, that is, the twelfth hour, not the proverbial miscalcalculated eleventh hour.

[People who speak of the eleventh hour as the final hour (because all the minutes in it have 11 in front of them, 11.22, and so on) also foolishly believe that a century or a millennium  starts in the year with the two zeros, or more, such as 2-0-0-0, twenty hundred, two thousand; we have to wait till the one comes up (2001) before the new era starts. These are the things that Dante and I rack our pedantic scholastic brains with, in a sincere endeavour to get things right.]

Dante speaks to three of these hapless penitents of the last hour, the third being a woman known as La Pia (The Pious), who was murdered by her husband, and presumably had no time or opportunity to call for a priest. All three request Dante’s prayers.
[6] Others clamour for his intercession. Dante ponders about intercessory and petititionary prayer. Virgil says Beatrice will explain  it. At the mention of her blest name Dante wants to climb to the top immediately. But no. The rules are that no climbing is permitted at night, the poet Sordello tells them in Canto 7. The Sun is a symbol of God and his Grace, and no progress can be made in penitence without the Light.

The Valley of the Princes
[7] The negligent
The examples are rulers who were so preoccupied with worldly affairs that they neglected their religious duties. Nevertheless, they are in Ante-Purgatory because they were concerned about others in their actions. Dorothy Sayers says that Dante would also be thinking of commoners who are so busy that they forget to say their prayers.
[8] The four stars set; they symbolize the four cardinal virtues of natural morality: Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude. They are replaced by three others, representing the three Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity/Love.
A serpent creeps into the valley, “perhaps such as gave to Eva the bitter food”; the angels put it to flight.
[9] Attended by Saint Lucy (enlightening Grace), one of Dante’s ‘three blessed Ladies’, the two poets will now pass through Saint Peter’s Gate, and enter Purgatory. When Dante comes in, the assembly welcomes him by singing the Te Deum laudamus (We laud Thee God).

Dante must perform the three parts of the sacrament of Penance: confession, contrition, satisfaction (by works of love). These are symbolized by three steps. On his brow seven P’s are marked with a sword (P for peccatum, ‘sin’) representing the deadly sins, the seven sorts of sinfulness from which he is to be purged on the seven terraces.

[10] First terrace: Pride > Humility
The proud are each weighed down by an enormous stone.
[11] They say the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster, O Padre nostro) in Dante’s paraphrase translation. The benediction  for this section is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
[12] Graven on the floor Dante sees depictions of the proud who fell (pride goeth before a fall, of course): Lucifer (Satan), who fell like lightning (Luke 10:18); Briareus (a giant who attempted to overthrow the gods of Olympus); Nimrod (who tried to reach Heaven with his tower in Babylon); Saul (first King of Israel, who fell on his own sword); and others.
The angel of Humility removes the first P on Dante’s forehead.

[13] Second terrace: Envy > Kindness
The envious sit in sackloth, having their eyes stitched up with wire.
[14] More examples of the envious.
[15] The angel (of mercy and generosity) removes the second P.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mathew 5:7)

Third terrace: Anger > Gentleness
[16] Suffocating smoke envelops this area (from the blazing anger?!)
The hymn here is: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; grant us peace). The beatitude is: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
[17] The angel of peace and gentleness takes away the third P.
Discourse on love and free will.

[18] Fourth terrace: Sloth > Zeal (Keenness)
The term translated ‘sloth’ is accidia, ‘unconcern’, spiritual torpor.
The examples of zeal are: Mary, as the mother-to-be of Christ hastening to her cousin Elizabeth and receiving “Ave Maria, Hail Mary, full of Grace... blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:39ff). And Julius Caesar, destined to be the founder of the Roman Empire, hurrying from a siege of Marseille to defeat Pompey in Spain. Here the prayer  would be the labours of love they perform. The benediction is (19.50): "Blessed are they that mourn" (Matthew 5:4).

[19] Fifth terrace: Avarice & Prodigality > Generosity
Here the prayer is: Adhaesit pavimento anima mea (My soul cleaveth unto the dust, Psalm 119:25)
[20-21] The whole mountain shakes (a sign that a soul has been released from Purgatory), and all the penitents shout Gloria in excelsis Deo.

 [22] Sixth terrace: Gluttony > Temperance   

The Beatitude is: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matthew 5:6), but omitting the words "hunger and"!  The prayer, which is 'wept and sung' (23.10), is: Labia mea, Domine (Lord open thou my lips, Psalm 51:15).

[23]-[24] Dante converses with his intemperate friend Forese Donati, who would have been related to Dante’s wife Gemma Donati. Let us assume that Gemma is not here in the afterlife among the shades because she is still alive on Earth. (She is not a shrew, and so Dante has no cause to assign her to Hell or Purgatory before she dies, though we have seen him doing this elsewhere.)  

[25] Seventh terrace: Lust > Chastity
[26] The souls with this problem learn to greet one another with a holy kiss, as recommended by the Apostle Paul. (This is in stark contrast to the sinful lingering kiss of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini on the afternoon when they were reading about the love between Lancelot and Guinivere.) Perhaps not enough stories of unbridled lust here; too much moralizing, philosophizing, and theologizing? The prayer in this section (25.121) is a hymn from the breviary, against lust: Summae Deus clementiae (God of highest clemency).
[27] Dante is terrified of the purging cleansing fire that they must pass through, But Virgil reminds him that this way leads to Beatrice.  The angel of chastity erases the last letter P. 

The final beatitude (27.8) is very apt: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mathew 5:8). This is what the purging was all about, to purify the mirror of the ‘heart’, to scour away all the dross on it, so that it could reflect God in his glory. This was the teaching of the Syrian Christian mystics that have occupied my head for half of my life. John of Dalyatha in the 8th century quotes this beatitude continually, and European mystics learnt this purgative way from Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite: purgation > illumination  (seeing God’s effulgence) > unification (mystical union with God).

The wall of flame is also connected with the fiery sword of the Kerubim guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden Genesis 3:24).

[28] The Earthly Paradise
We enter the Sacred Wood, the contrasting counterpart to the terrifying Dark Wood at the beginning (Inferno, Canto 1).   Virgil is fading out, and in Canto 30, when Dante turns to him for advice, he has disappeared with no fond farewell having been said.  The mysterious Matilda comes waltzing in; she is singing and gathering flowers on the other side of the Lethe stream, a model of innocence, joy, and peace; she is a friend and attendant of Beatrice; also an expert on Golden Age myths, and she tells Dante about this Paradise on Earth. Possibly she is a reflection of Mechtildis of Hackenborn (d. 1298), a German nun who had visions of the Earthly Paradise. However, in real life Beatrice had a friend named Matilda, who also died before Dante wrote his Commedia.
[29] Lady Matilda’s song is: ‘Blessed are they whose sins are covered’ (Psalm 32.1, according to the Vulgate translation). There is music in the air: 'a sweet melody ran through the luminous air' (29.23-24); and 'Hosanna in the voices of the singing' (29.51).
Here comes a procession of white-robed souls. Bring on the dancing girls, we say, and three maidens dance in a ring. There are some revered elders there: one of them was of the house of Hippocrates, obviously Doctor Luke, 'the beloved physician', the writer of a gospel and a history of (some of) the Apostles; another had a sword, clearly Paul with 'the sword of the Spirit'. But in fact what is being portrayed is the bringing of the New Testament into the Mass, and we would expect the 'Host' (the sacred elements) to appear in the procession. This will also be represented by a person
[30] Beatrice arrives on her triumphal two-wheeled “car”, drawn by a griffin, on the opposite bank.
At last, the happy reunion, the long-awaited meeting with the distant beloved, the unveiling of Beatrice. And what do the lovers do when they come face to face? They do what is expected of them: they have a lovers’ tiff? (“Where have you been all this time? What kept you so long?”) This section is described as “Beatrice’s rebuke of Dante”. What is the subject of this scalding scolding? It certainly causes Dante to break down and weep. She is upbraiding him for his sins, and he responds with tears of repentance. When we come to the Paradiso, we will consider the allegorical and mystical meaning of Beatrice’s relationship with Dante. (Actually, it’s all in his mind, as they say.) But the chanting of 'Benedictus' ('Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord') would indicate that here she represents the Blessed Sacrament.
[31] - [33] Beatrice is unveiled and puts on a show for Dante. But we draw a veil over these proceedings. Suffice it to say that it is a history of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire.

Let us pause and ponder over the significance of where we have been. The difference between the atmosphere in the Inferno and the Purgatorio is: besides the stinking polluted air versus the bracing sea-breezes, there is the lack of community spirit versus a spirit of unity and general good will, kindness, and helpfulness. Down there in the gloom they have no hope; all hope was abandoned when they chose to pass through Hell’s Gate by their deliberate ‘high-handed’ sinning against God. Up here in the sunlight the souls are working towards joining the blessed ‘communion of saints’.

The closing lines of the Purgatorio. Matilda had taken him across the Lethe stream, and forced him to drink some of the water of forgetfulness. Later she has him drink the waters of  Eunöe, ‘good memory’.

“If, reader, I had more space for writing, I would sing if only partly of the sweet draught which never would have sated me. But because all the sheets prepared for this second canticle are full, the restrainer of art lets me go no further. From those holiest of waters I came forth again remade, as new plants are renewed with new foliage, pure and disposed to ascend to the stars.” (puro e disposto a salire alle stelle)

So, next time we go “dancing with the stars”. (Recall that each of the three parts ends with the word stelle ('stars'). For musical accompaniment, Franz Liszt  provides a Dante piano sonata, and a 'symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy'; but the composer (influenced by his friend Richard Wagner,who doubted that Paradise could be represented in music) reduced it to Inferno and Purgatorio, concluding the work with the Magnificat (female chorus) and an antiphonal exchange of Hosanna and Halleluyah.