Dante’s Inferno: Canto 26 Retelling — Evil Advisers; Ulysses/Diomed

Chapter 26: Evil Advisers; Ulysses/Diomed

Florence, your name is well known in the Inferno, Dante thought. Among the thieves I found five of your most important citizens — and I know that trouble is coming for you.

Now Dante and Virgil climbed up from the vantage point from which they had been able to see into the bolgia of the thieves. Virgil went first, so that he could help pull Dante up the rough spots. In many places, they had to climb while using their hands as well as their feet.

And now they arrived at the eighth bolgia, a place where Dante learned to use his great talents in the service of good, not evil.

Looking into the eighth bolgia, Dante and Virgil saw many, many lights. They looked as numerous as fireflies on a hot summer evening. The lights were flames.

They looked at the flames, which traveled along the bolgia. Dante could not see what was inside the flames, but because he was in the Inferno, he knew that inside the flames were sinners. Similarly, when Elisha witnessed Elijah traveling to Heaven in a fiery chariot, he could see the shining of the chariot in the distance, but not who was in it.

Dante leaned over the bridge so that he could see into the bolgia, and Virgil explained, “Inside the flames are sinners. Burning is part of their punishment.”

Dante replied, “I had guessed that already, but I am glad to hear you confirm what I guessed.

“Can you tell who is in the flame whose tip on top is split in two, just like the flame of the pyre on which Eteocles and Polynices, his brother, were burned?”

Eteocles and Polynices were two brothers who agreed to take turns ruling the city of Thebes, Virgil thought. One brother was supposed to rule for a year, then the other brother would rule for a year, and so on. Eteocles ruled for the first year, but then he refused to give up the throne so that his brother could rule for a year. Angry, Polynices gathered an army together and marched against Thebes, creating the story of the Seven Against Thebes. The two brothers killed each other in combat, and when their corpses were cremated together, the flame split in two over their corpses because even in death they were still angry at each other.

“Inside are the souls of Ulysses and Diomed, two Greek soldiers of the Trojan War,” Virgil replied. “Ulysses is also known as Odysseus, which is his Greek name, and Homer wrote in his Odyssey about Ulysses’ journeys and homecoming after the end of the Trojan War.

“The two warriors are entombed in the flame together because they are angry at each other. Just like Francesca da Rimini and Paolo are together in eternity as part of their punishment, so are Ulysses and Diomed punished together in eternity.

“Inside the flame Ulysses and Diomed grieve for three things. The first thing they grieve for is the trick of the Trojan Horse that led to the destruction of Troy and the founding of the Roman people.”

I wrote about the trick of the Trojan Horse and the founding of the Roman people in my Aeneid, Virgil thought. Other epic poets such as Homer also wrote about the Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of events that occur before the Trojan Horse, and Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of events that occur after the Trojan Horse.

Ulysses came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. The Trojan War had been fought for 10 years, and the forces of Agamemnon and the other Greeks had not been able to conquer Troy by might, and so Ulysses had the idea of using trickery to conquer Troy. The Greeks built a huge wooden horse and left it outside Troy, then they seemed to sail away in their ships and return home. However, the Trojan Horse was hollow and filled with Greek soldiers, including Ulysses and Diomed, and the ships sailed behind an island so that the Trojans could not see them. A lying Greek named Sinon stayed behind and pretended that he had escaped from Ulysses, who had wanted to kill him. Sinon told the Trojans that if the Trojans were to take the Trojan Horse inside the walls of Troy, then Troy would never fall. Amid great rejoicing, the Trojans took the Trojan Horse inside the walls of Troy. That night, the Greek warriors came out of the Trojan Horse, went to the gates of Troy, killed the Trojan guards, and opened the gates of Troy. Agamemnon and his troops were outside the gates, as they had returned from hiding behind the island. The Greeks then conquered Troy, killing many, many Trojans, including Trojan women and children.

After Troy fell, Aeneas led the Trojan survivors to Italy, where the Trojan men married Italian women. Their descendants became the Romans.

“The second thing that they mourn is another trick — the trick that caused Deïdamia to weep over Achilles,” Virgil continued.

Both Ulysses and Diomed were instrumental in making Deïdamia grieve, Virgil thought. Achilles was the major warrior for the Greeks in the Trojan War, and his mother, the immortal goddess Thetis, knew that he would die at Troy; therefore, she disguised him as a girl and took him to the court of King Lycomedes, where he pretended to be one of the king’s daughters. There, he seduced Deïdamia, who bore him a son. Ulysses and Diomed came to the court of King Lycomedes looking for Achilles, and Ulysses was able to learn his identity through a trick. Ulysses, bringing gifts for the king’s daughters, brought a lance and shield with him — Achilles, dressed as a girl, was very interested in those weapons, thus revealing his sex.

Here Ulysses used his great intellect, but its use had bad consequences: One, Achilles killed many, many Trojans; two, Achilles died; and three, Deïdamia mourned him. This is an example of great but misdirected intellect.

“The third thing that they lament is the theft of the Palladium,” Virgil said.

The Palladium was a statue of the goddess Pallas Athena, aka Minerva, Virgil thought. As long as it remained in Troy, Troy would never fall. Ulysses and Diomed snuck into Troy one night and carried off the Palladium. Here Ulysses and Diomed used great daring and probably great intellect, and here once again bad consequences followed. As long as the Palladium stayed in Troy, Troy would not fall. By stealing the Palladium, Ulysses and Diomed helped cause Troy to fall.

“Can they speak from within the flame?” Dante asked. “If they can, I would like to know their story.”

“You should hear their story,” Virgil replied, “But let me do the talking. You and I both are descendants of the Trojans, and for that reason they may not want to speak to us. However, since I am an epic poet and have told part of their stories in my Aeneid, that may be enough for one of them to talk to me.”

When the flame whose tip was divided in two came near the bridge on which Dante and Virgil were standing, Virgil said, “You — the two souls entombed in one flame — if I have deserved any praise from you while I was living, when I wrote my Aeneid, let one of you tell his story. What is your sin, and how did you die?”

The two tips of the flames were of unequal size. The larger of the tips began to move quicker, like a tongue that is talking, and words came out of the flame: “I am Ulysses, and when Troy fell I journeyed on the seas, and I spent a year with the goddess Circe, who turned my men into swine until I made her turn them back into men.

“I made my way back to Ithaca, but I did not stay there long, even though I had been away for 20 years. I spent 10 years at Troy, and it took an additional 10 years for me to return home to Ithaca. Not the duty I owed to my son, not the duty I owed to my father, not the duty I owed to my loving wife, Penelope, could keep me there. I wanted to seek out more adventures and more knowledge.”

Ulysses lacked the Roman virtue of pietas, Virgil thought. Pietas is giving respect where respect is owed: to one’s country, to one’s father, to one’s wife, and to one’s son. Ulysses had been away from Ithaca for 20 years, but quickly he grew bored and wanted to set out for adventures, leaving behind his father (Laertes), his wife (Penelope), and his son (Telemachus). These are people who suffered while Ulysses was away from his kingdom of Ithaca, and Ulysses ought to have stayed on Ithaca to take care of his family and his people. Instead, he placed his thirst for adventure ahead of his family and his kingdom. Pietas is a virtue that Aeneas, the hero of my Aeneid, had in abundance.

“I wanted adventure,” Ulysses continued, “and I wanted knowledge and experience — I wanted knowledge and experience of all human vices and of all human virtues.”

Part of what you wanted is good, Virgil thought. To want knowledge and experience of all human virtues is a very good thing. But part of what you wanted is very bad. You wanted knowledge and experience of all human vices. That is forbidden knowledge. No one should have the knowledge and experience of being a drug addict, a rapist, a murderer.

“I set sail with a small group of men — not many — who were loyal to me,” Ulysses continued. “We sailed the Mediterranean, and we came to the Pillars of Hercules. I wanted to sail beyond them.”

The Pillars of Hercules are also known as the Strait of Gibraltar, Virgil thought. Hercules split a mountain in two to form the Pillars of Hercules. This was a warning to pagan sailors not to go any further. Of course, what lies outside the Pillars of Hercules is the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean that was very dangerous for ancient ships to sail on. Any ancient ship that sailed west into the Atlantic Ocean would probably run out of food long before reaching land, and everyone on board would perish. By going beyond the limits set for ancient sailors, Ulysses was seeking forbidden knowledge.

“I was old and tired, and my men were old and tired,” Ulysses continued, “but I wanted to sail into the Atlantic Ocean. I told my men, ‘Brothers, we have had many adventures together. Let us have another great adventure. Do not deny yourselves anything. Experience everything. We are Greeks, and we were born to pursue knowledge and experience.’”

You scammed your men, Virgil thought. They should have returned to Ithaca, but you convinced them to sail out into the Atlantic Ocean for bad reasons.

“My men cheered, and we set sail into the Atlantic Ocean,” Ulysses continued. “Our voyage was mad, but we went. We made our way to the southern hemisphere, and we saw a mountain slope the likes of which I had never seen before. At first, we were happy to see the mountain, but a storm arose from the mountain. The wind crashed into our ship four times, and the fourth time the wind hit our ship, we sank. Above us, the sea grew calm.”

I know which mountain you saw, Virgil thought. It was the Mountain of Purgatory, and a pagan must have special permission from God to be on that mountain.

Dante, I hope that you are learning from Ulysses’ story. Here we have a man of great abilities, but he did not use his gifts in the correct way. Instead of using his gifts for good, he used them for evil — to seek knowledge and experience of all human vices. You, Dante, have great abilities. Do not misuse them, or you will end up in the Inferno forever.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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