Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 12 Retelling — First Ledge — Exempla of Pride

Chapter 12: First Ledge — Exempla of Pride (Purgatory)

Like humble oxen submitting to the yoke, Dante and Oderisi walked together until Virgil said to Dante, “We must move faster, so leave him and press forward. On this mountain, each one must press ahead with all the speed that each one is able to use.”

Dante now stood up straight, but his thoughts were still humble. Now Dante and Virgil walked together much more quickly. By spending time on this terrace dedicated to purging the sin of pride, they were becoming lighter of foot.

Virgil said, “Look down. You will see something that you can learn from and that will make your journey up the mountain easier.”

Dante looked down and saw carvings of the kind that might be seen on a tomb to preserve the memory of the person whose body is within. Often, such carvings bring tears to the eyes of a pious person who remembers the dead.

These carvings were similar, but of higher artistic quality. Like the previous carvings that were on the side of the mountain, these carvings on the ledge were intended to teach. Previously, the carvings on the side of the mountain taught examples of humility. Now, these carvings on the ledge taught examples of pride.

First in the works of art, Dante saw the angel who was supposed to be the most beautiful of all, the one who rebelled against God and now resides at the bottom of the Inferno, chewing the worst sinners of all time in his three mouths for all time. This angel is Satan. Satan was so proud that he rebelled against God.

Then in the works of art Dante saw Briareus, who rebelled against Jupiter, the King of gods and men in ancient times. Just as Satan tried to unseat God, so Briareus tried to unseat Jupiter, who killed him with a thunderbolt. Briareus and other giants fought against Jupiter and the gods on Olympus. After the battle, Apollo, Minerva, Mars, and Jupiter looked down at the severed and scattered arms and legs of the giants they had defeated. Briareus is now one of the giants who guard the well that leads to the Final Circle of the Inferno. Briareus was so proud that he rebelled against Jupiter.

And in the works of art Dante saw Nimrod, who was so proud that he thought that he could build a tower that would reach Heaven. To stop the tower from being built, God created many languages instead of the one language that human beings had spoken until that time. Because the workers were now speaking different languages, they were unable to coordinate their actions and so the Tower of Babel was not built. Because of Nimrod’s pride, God changed the speech of human beings, and now human beings no longer share the same language. Nimrod is another of the giants who guard the well that leads to the Final Circle of the Inferno. Nimrod was so proud that he rebelled against God.

And in the works of art Dante saw Niobe, who had seven sons and seven daughters, and so she boasted that she was more worthy of praise than Latona, aka Leto, who had given birth to only one son and only one daughter: the god Apollo and the goddess Diana. Because of Niobe’s pride, Apollo and Diana killed all of Niobe’s children in one day. Because of Niobe’s pride, Apollo and Diana turned her to stone. Even when she was stone, she grieved for the deaths of her children, and tears trickled down her marble cheeks. Niobe was so proud that she thought she was a better mother than the goddess mother of the god Apollo and goddess Diana.

And in the works of art Dante saw King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. Saul disobeyed a command of God, and after losing a battle to the Philistines, he committed suicide on Mount Gilboa by falling on his sword rather than be captured. After Saul died, David cursed Mount Gilboa with drought. Saul was so proud that he disobeyed a commandment that God made to him.

And in the works of art Dante saw Arachne, who was so proud of her weaving that she challenged Minerva to a weaving contest. Arachne produced a magnificent cloth without fault, but because of Arachne’s pride, Minerva tore up the cloth and turned Arachne into a spider. Arachne was so proud that she challenged the goddess Minerva to a weaving contest.

And in the works of art Dante saw Rehoboam, who arrogantly rejected the advice of wise old men and would not lower the taxes on the tribes of Israel. Rehoboam sent Adoram to collect the exorbitant taxes, the tribes revolted and stoned Adoram to death, and Rehoboam fled, although no one was pursuing him. Rehoboam was so proud that he ignored the advice of wise old men.

And in the works of art Dante saw Alcmeon, who avenged his father, Amphiaraus, a soothsayer who knew that he would die if he took part in a war against Thebes and so hid himself. Polynices, the leader of the forces against Thebes, bribed Eriphyle, the wife of Amphiaraus, with a gold necklace to reveal her husband’s hiding place. Forced to go to war against Thebes, Amphiaraus asked Alcmeon to avenge him, and Alcmeon killed his mother, Eriphyle. Alcmeon was so proud that he killed his own mother.

And in the works of art Dante saw the two sons of Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, who warred against the Israelites, who defeated his superior number of forces with divine aid. Later, when Sennacherib was praying to false gods, his two sons murdered him. The two sons of Sennacherib were so proud that they killed their own father.

And in the works of art Dante saw Tomyris, the Queen of a Scythian people, who avenged the death of her son, whom the Persian Emperor Cyrus had murdered. Her army defeated his army, and he died in the battle. Her thirst for revenge was not satisfied by his death, so she cut off his head and threw it into a container that was filled with human blood, saying as she did so, “Drink your fill.” Tomyris was so proud that her revenge went beyond the bounds of human decency.

And in the works of art Dante saw the Assyrians who had been led by Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Holofernes attacked the Israelite city Bethulia, and he mocked the god of the Assyrians. Judith, an Israelite heroine, went to Holofernes’ tent, gaining entrance by pretending that she would tell him information that would help him conquer the Israelites; however, a few days later when Holofernes lay drunk, she cut off his head with a sword and brought the head back to the Israelites. The next day, learning that Holofernes was dead, the Assyrian army fled. The Assyrians were so proud that they warred against the Israelites and mocked the one true God.

And in the works of art Dante saw the city of Troy. Paris, a prince of Troy, stole Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, from Menelaus, her lawful husband, in addition to stealing treasure from him. Because of Paris’ pride, and because the Trojan citizens would not return Helen to Menelaus, Troy fell to an Achaean army led by Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother. Paris was so proud that he stole the lawfully wedded wife of another man, and the Trojans were so proud that they would not return the wife to her legal husband.

The art that Dante saw on the ledge was much better than the art created by human beings. God had created the art on the ledge. Looking at the art, Dante thought that the depictions of the living people really seemed to be living people and the depictions of the dead people really seemed to be dead people. No eyewitness to the scenes depicted had a better view of the scenes than Dante.

Dante the Poet thought, So be proud, sons of Eve, if you dare. If you are proud, hold your head high so that you never look down and see the evils of the pride you regard so highly. If I were asked for a synonym of “man,” I would give the answer “pride.”

Dante the Pilgrim kept walking, and thinking, until noon. Then Virgil said to him, “Raise your head now. Look, and see. An angel is coming. Show reverence when you look at the angel so that he will help us. Let us not waste time. We will never see this day again when it is over.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, Often, you tell me not to waste time. You are correct.

The angel, wearing white and with his face shining, came to Dante and Virgil. He first spread his arms, and then he spread his wings. He told them, “Come. The steps you must climb are very close. You will find the climbing much easier from here on.”

Dante the Poet thought, Such an invitation is given to all men and women, but few accept it. All men and women should climb high, but for most a little puff of wind keeps them from climbing higher and makes them fall back down.

The angel led Dante and Virgil to a cleft in the rock, and he brushed his wings against Dante’s brow before telling him that his climb would go well.

Climbing upwards was easier in part because the stone had steps. Previously, they had followed a path through a narrow cleft in the rock.

While Dante and Virgil were climbing those steps, they heard sweetly sung a beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, Entering a new area of Purgatory is much different from entering a new area of the Inferno. In Purgatory, one hears music; in the Inferno, one hears cries of grief, violently expressed.

Dante felt light as he climbed the steps. The steps made the climbing easier, but they could not be the full explanation for why he was climbing upward so much easier than before.

Dante asked Virgil, “Why do I feel so light now? Why does climbing up the mountain seem so much easier?”

Virgil replied, “The angel has removed one of the P’s from your forehead, and the other P’s are much lighter than they were. By purging the sin of pride, which is the foundation of all of the other sins, you are lighter because the burden of pride has been lifted from you. When all of the other P’s on your forehead have been completely removed like the first P, you will easily climb upward. Your feet will not complain; instead, they will rejoice.”

Dante the Pilgrim, hearing that one of the P’s had been removed from his forehead, used his right hand to explore his forehead. Yes, six P’s — not seven — were on his forehead. He had six more sins to purge.

Virgil watched as Dante touched his forehead, and Virgil smiled.

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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