The Divine Comedy, Part II

My 2004 review of this classic, continued.

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Purgatory contains seven circles; here we find people who basically lived good and righteous lives, yet had some sin that couldn’t be overlooked, and so they must undergo a set form of penance in a set circle of Purgatory for a set period of time until they’re deemed ready to enter their set circle of Paradise (or Limbo/First Circle, as the case may be if they’re non-Christians; again, how very arrogant!).

In the first circle of Purgatory, the lowest circle instead of the highest, unlike Hell, where the best circle came first instead of last, are being punished the proud. After that we find envy, anger, sloth, avarice and prodigality, gluttony, and lust. I guess the gluttons in Purgatory weren’t as all-out gluttonous as the ones in the Third Circle of Hell. At the start of this middle part of the journey, seven Ps are written on Dante’s forehead, signifying each of the seven major sins being punished here; however, each time he climbs up into each new level, an angel erases one of the Ps, which makes his step lighter and thus easier for him to climb.

One of the last major trials still awaits, though, even as they’re getting closer to Paradise: a terrifying fire. At first Dante is very scared about having to pass through it, despite reassurances from his belovèd Virgil, since he’s seen people being burned alive back in Italy. Eventually he does go through it, cheered on by the thought that soon he’ll be with Beatrice. Towards the end of the journey through Purgatory, Dante suddenly finds Virgil has left him, and he becomes very sad, after the last few powerful days they’ve been through together. His guide for the remainder of this part of the journey is a woman named Matilda; Beatrice also joins them, but she isn’t the guide just yet. And then comes Paradise.

There are ten spheres of Paradise, named by the region in the cosmos which they occupy. Though at the time this poem was written, the farthest-away planet people knew about was Saturn, so the circles that come after Saturn are named for the region in the bed of stars they occupy, instead of for Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And as they ascend to each new level, Beatrice gets more and more beautiful to behold.

The first level of Paradise is located in the Moon, and this is for those who broke vows, such as some nuns who were forcibly removed from their convents in order to get married. Dante thinks this is unfair, since it’s not like they broke their vows on purpose; they were forced into doing something they didn’t want to do.

Next comes Mercury, where we find those who were ambitious; it’s not classified as a sin, but it’s still not something that’s very desirable, and so their place in Paradise isn’t quite so high up.

Next we find the sphere of Venus, which is for rulers; the Sun, for theologians; Mars, for martyrs and warriors, obviously; Jupiter, for those who were “conspicuous for justice”; Saturn, for those who spent their lives in holy contemplation; the sphere of the Fixed Stars, far above the planets, which houses the really big-name people, such as Saints Peter and John, Adam, Jesus, Mary, and the Angel Gabriel; Primum Mobile, where a huge host of angels of all types are assembled; and finally Empyrean, which is the best of the best Paradise has to offer. It is here where Dante beholds the Divine Presence, in visions more wonderous and unbelievable than even in the last few spheres, which were also dazzling to behold, even blinding at some points.

All three parts of the poem end with the beautiful and hopeful word “stars”; the very end of the poem has one of the most beautiful and inspiring ending lines I’ve yet read. “To the high imagination force now failed;/But like a wheel whose circling nothing jars/Already on my desire and will prevailed/The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

This is a love poem not just for Beatrice and Virgil but for all that is good and inspiring within humanity. We too can make the trek from the depths of deepest despair, to a place where we have hope of bettering our lives; and finally to higher and higher spheres of beauty and wonder.

The Divine Comedy, Part I

This is the first part of the review of The Divine Comedy which I wrote on my old Angelfire site sometime in the Spring of 2004. Since writing it, I read a wonderful biography of Dante that really helped me to understand his world and his epic poem on a greater, more in-depth level. I feel having a more updated translation will also help me when I reread this amazing work of literature. Every time I look up at the stars since reading this, I think of Dante, because each of the three sections ends with the beautiful, sweet, hopeful word “stars” (stelle).

[June 2021 note: I’m really embarrassed for my 24-year-old self regarding a lot of this post! Despite my love for this book, I still managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading and project my modern sensibilities onto the Middle Ages. I blame the translation I read, my lack of a teacher or supplementary notes (beyond mere footnotes), the speed at which I read, and the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite complete at that age. There are quite a lot of important details and deeper meanings I badly misinterpreted or never understood in the first place.]

My April 2021 post on Inferno is here. It’s much more descriptive of what actually happens and who shows up, instead of being little more than a litany of “I don’t think this is a sin or should be punished with Hell! Let me project my modern views onto the Middle Ages!”

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It’s Good Friday Eve in the year 1300, and the 35-year-old poet Dante Alighieri suddenly wakes up in the Wood of Error, not knowing how he got there nor how he lost the true way. But he feels heartened by the rising Sun, and so begins to climb up the Delectable Mountain, only to encounter three frightening animals—a leopard, symbolising lust, a lion, symbolising pride, and a female wolf, symbolising avarice. He turns back in terror and comes face-to-face with the spirit of his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil.

Virgil explains to him that he’s going to guide him through Hell to see the souls of those without hope, and then into Purgatory to see those souls who’ll eventually attain redemption for their sufferings. After that’s come to pass, Virgil says, Dante will be led through the beautiful bliss of Paradise by the spirit of the deceased love of his life, the beautiful Beatrice. He also tells him he cannot overtake the fearful wolf, but one beautiful day a saviour will arise to save Italy and chase the terrible animal, symbolic of avarice, down into Hell where it belongs. Thus begins one of the most amazing epic adventures of all time, told in beautiful poetry.

In traditional Medieval Catholic theology (and I’d assume also Eastern Orthodoxy), there are nine circles of Hell. Some of these circles have divisions within them to punish different so-called crimes. Basically the lower you go, the badder you were (though nowadays many people would consider some of these things, like counterfeiting, forbidden love affairs, and suicide, to be possibly wrong, but certainly not worthy of going to Hell over).

Circle One is also known as Limbo; this is where virtuous people who aren’t Christians go. (How arrogant can you get, claiming that anyone who isn’t a member of your own religion and who was even born before it existed is going to Hell?!)

Circle two is for the lovers, whom I don’t think deserved to go to Hell just because they had frowned-upon love affairs, such as Cleopatra, Dido, and Helen of Troy.

Down in Circle Three we find gluttons, who while they certainly may have been pigs in their human lifetimes, didn’t deserve to get eternally damned for it either.

In Circle Four we find the Hoarders and Wasters; while that’s not something to aspire to, I also don’t think they deserved eternal punishment.

Circle Five is where I belong according to a test I took; the Circle of the Wrathful and Gloomy.

Circle Six is for “heretics,” and we all know Mother Church just loved to brand people as heretics back in those bad old days if they dared to think independently, question official doctrine, or even think there were other equally valid ways to practise Christianity.

Circle Seven, now we’re getting somewhere. There are three rings in this Circle; the first is for those who were violent against other people, such as murderers; the second is for suicides (who really thinks people who kill themselves are sinners anymore?), and the third is for “blasphemers,” gay people, and usurers. Again, the Church labelled practically anything that refused to tow their official line as blasphemy. And how hypocritical could you be, refusing to practise usury since it was against their religion yet hiring Jews and Muslims to do it for them?! That’s where the stereotype of Jews loving money and being miserly comes from. And nowadays only narrow-minded bigots still think gay people are going to Hell.

Circle Eight is even bigger. There are ten different rings in here, all punishing different types of crimes with the same level of seriousness nonetheless. We have flatterers, seducers, those who practised simony, fortune tellers and diviners (such as Tiresias and other famous prophets; I don’t think that’s a sin!), grafters, hypocrites (the irony is priceless!), thieves, evil counsellors, sowers of discord, and falsifiers.

In Circle Nine, the final and deadliest circle, the four different rings have the honour of having names. Ring One is called Caïna, so named for Cain. I now hold to the theory put forth in Hesse’s Demian, that Cain was the hero of the story and Abel was this overly pious wosbag who never questioned anything. According to Max Demian, those who bear the Mark of Cain are special people and nonconformists, and other people stay away from us not just because of the mark we’ve got, but because they’re afraid of anything that’s different and against what they believe. “People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.”  In Caïna, obviously, people were violent against their own kin.

In Ring Antenora, we find people who betrayed their countries; here we find the infamous story of poor Count Ugolino and the Archbishop of Pisa.

Ptolomea is for those who backstabbed either a guest or host.

The lowest and darkest Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell is called Giudecca, named for Judas in the Christian Bible. Brutus and Cassius are also in this ring, and the three of them are merged into one grotesque-looking monster contained within the teeth of the devil. The people here betrayed their masters (or mistresses). Satan himself also lives here, the fallen Lucifer (a positive name in the Wiccan religion; it means Son of Light). But after meeting Satan, there is nowhere for Dante and Virgil to go but up.

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