Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 8 Retelling — Prepurgatory — The Serpent and the Two Angels

Chapter 8: Prepurgatory — The Serpent and the Two Angels (Purgatory)

Now was the hour when sailors, on their first day’s journey away from home, think of home and loved ones. Now was the hour when a traveler hears the tolling of a far-away bell and thinks of loved ones.

Dante looked at a soul who rose and began singing “Te Lucis Ante Terminum” — “Before the End of the Light.” The saved soul looked to the East and seemed to be thinking only of God.

The soul sang beautifully, and the other souls joined in the singing as they looked at the stars and sang a prayer asking to be kept safe that night:

“You, before the close of day

“Creator of the world, we pray

“That with Your wonted favor,

“You would be our Guard and Keeper now.

“From all ill dreams defend our eyes,

“From nightly fears and fantasies:

“Tread under foot our ghostly foe,

“That no pollution we may know.

“O Father, may what we ask be done

“Through Jesus Christ Your only Son,

“Who, with the Holy Ghost and You,

“Shall live and reign eternally.

“Amen.”

Dante the Poet thought, Reader, sharpen your eyes and learn. This prayer has been and will be answered.

Dante the Pilgrim saw descending from Paradise two angels who each carried a blunt sword. The angels’ clothing was green, as were their wings. One angel landed on a bank above, and the other angel landed on the bank opposite. Dante could easily see the angels’ gold hair, but their faces were so bright that he could not see them.

Sordello said, “Mary has sent the two angels to protect us from the serpent in the valley. The serpent will soon arrive.”

Dante was afraid. He did not know from which direction the serpent would come, and he moved closer to his protector, Virgil.

Then Sordello said, “You have seen the angels. We can now descend into the valley.”

Sordello thought, It is important that you see the angels. They show that God is our protector.

To descend into the valley took only three steps. Dante saw a soul looking at him, attempting to see his face in the fast-arriving darkness.

The soul moved toward Dante, and they recognized each other, rejoiced, and greeted each other.

Dante thought, This is my friend Nino Visconti, who died in 1296. Although he was active in worldly affairs, he did not let them corrupt his soul.

After they had greeted each other, Nino said to Dante, “How long has it been since you arrived here in the angel’s boat?”

Dante replied, “I came here by a different journey. I traveled through the Inferno. I am still alive, but I hope that by taking this journey, I will come to this mountain after I die.”

Nino was amazed. So was Sordello, who had ignored Dante since learning Virgil’s identity. Because Dante had been in the shadow of the mountain, he had not cast a shadow, and so Sordello had not realized that Dante was still living.

Both Sordello and Nino backed away from Dante, and then Sordello turned to face Virgil as Nino called to a nearby soul, “Corrado, come here! See something marvelous that God has willed!”

Nino said to Dante, “Since you are still living, I beg you to do me a favor. When you are back in the Land of the Living, please tell my daughter, Giovanna, to pray for me so that I may climb this mountain sooner. Her mother has forgotten me. She has remarried. Her new husband is a man who will bring her less honor than marriage to me did.”

Nino’s face was indignant as he thought of his widow’s new marriage.

Dante looked at the sky, and he saw three new stars that had superseded the four stars that he had seen when he first reached the mountain.

Virgil asked, “What are you looking at?”

Dante replied, “At the three bright stars that light up the sky above the South Pole.”

Virgil said, “With the passage of time, and the movement of the cosmos, the four stars you saw earlier have moved out of your sight. These have taken their place.”

Dante the Poet thought, The four stars I saw earlier represent the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. These three stars represent the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Sordello grabbed Virgil’s arm and said, “The serpent is coming.”

The serpent came leisurely through the valley, even stopping to lick its back as if proudly grooming itself.

The angels flew down toward the serpent, and the serpent took flight. The angels flew back to their posts.

Dante the Poet thought, God could — of course — destroy the serpent, but He does not. He allows this ritual to be repeated each evening. This ritual bears a message: I will protect you, and I will answer your prayers. The saved souls know that they are in no danger from the serpent — the angels are bearing blunted swords because sharp swords are not needed here. However, the saved souls watch this ritual because God is showing them that He keeps His promises and that He answers prayers. Of course, all these souls want to climb the mountain, and God is letting them know that yes, eventually they can climb the mountain. Also, of course, God is a Protector in addition to a Promise-Keeper.

Nino had called Corrado over to see Dante.

Dante the Poet thought, This is Corrado Malaspina. When I am in exile, I will shelter for a while with the Malaspina family, which is known throughout Europe for its generosity.

Corrado said to Dante the Pilgrim, “I wish you well in your journey up the mountain. If you can tell me recent news of the Magra Valley, please do so. I came from there, and I was well known there. My name is Corrado Malaspina — the younger one.”

Dante replied to Corrado, “I have never visited that region, but all of Europe knows your family, which is famous for its hospitality and its generosity. While other families have failed in virtue, your family has not.”

Corrado replied, “Within seven years, you will know much better the hospitality and generosity of my family.”

Dante the Poet thought, This is a prophecy that did come true.

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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