Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 25 Retelling — Seventh Ledge — Lust (Body-Soul Relationship)

Chapter 25: Seventh Ledge — Lust (Body-Soul Relationship) (Purgatory)

The time was around 2 p.m., and the three poets started climbing the stairs to the next ledge: the ninth of nine ledges. They walked in single file because of the narrowness of the stairs, and they did not waste time.

Dante wanted to speak. He wanted to ask a question that had been occupying his mind for a long time: ever since he had seen the emaciated saved souls of ledge six. He began to speak, changed his mind, and was silent.

Virgil, however, as always, knew his thoughts, and encouraged Dante to speak.

Dante asked, “Why are the saved souls on ledge six so emaciated? These souls are purging the sin of gluttony, but why are they so emaciated? After all, souls do not need food and drink.”

Virgil said, “Think of two analogies, and they will help you to understand the answer to your questions.

“First think of the myth of Meleager. When he was born, his mother learned from the Fates that Meleager would live only as long as a piece of wood that was then burning in the fireplace would remain unburned. His mother, Althaea, grabbed the piece of wood, put the fire out, and put the piece of wood in a safe place. Meleager grew up and became a warrior and a hero. When the goddess Diana sent a boar to ravage Calydon, Meleager led a band of heroes to hunt the dangerous boar. Eventually, he was able to kill it. He presented the hide to Atalanta, with whom he was in love, but his uncles — his mother’s brothers — stole the hide from her. Outraged, Meleager killed his uncles. When his mother learned of her brothers’ deaths, she put the half-burned piece of wood in a fire, and Meleager died as the piece of wood burned. In this myth, two things — Meleager and a piece of wood — are very different but are closely related, and when something happens to the first of the pair, it affects the second of the pair.

“In addition, think of a mirror. It reflects every movement of the person in front of it. The mirror and the person are very different, but one thing imitates perfectly every movement of the other thing.

“But Statius can answer your question in more detail.”

Statius said to Virgil, “As you request, I will explain to him things he does not know. I have too much respect for you to deny your request.”

Then Statius said to Dante, “As you know, the year is 1300. Science has barely made a beginning, and some of what you ‘know’ is incorrect. As I am in the afterlife, I can see ahead into at least part of the future, and I know that science will make great increases in what Humankind knows. Science will be one of the greatest accomplishments of Humankind.

“Let me explain some things to you, using a little science but also using religion. Each can reveal truth. I will explain to you how a baby acquires a soul, and I will explain to you the aerial body: the body you see when you look at me or Virgil or any soul.

“Conception occurs when a human male deposits semen into the womb of a human woman who is ready to have a baby. The first part of the soul becomes present. We can call this the vegetative part: it takes nourishment and it grows. The fetus grows, and it begins to move. The second part of the soul becomes present. We can call this the sensitive part: it uses its senses such as the sense of touch and it moves. At the time of quickening, when the fetus can be felt moving in the womb, God breathes the third part of the soul into the fetus. We can call this the intellective part: it can contemplate itself and it can think. With this third part present, the soul is complete. The Spanish philosopher Averroës erred by denying the third part of the soul, which gives it immortality.

“When the body dies, the soul is freed, and it goes either to the Inferno or to the Mountain of Purgatory. The soul retains memory, intelligence, and will, but it lacks its vegetative and sensitive parts until it acquires its aerial body, which is formed from the air around it. This aerial body is visible, and it is often called a ‘shade.’ This aerial body can move and it has all five senses. The aerial body can speak, and it can laugh, and it can cry, and it can sigh. The aerial body also reflects the feelings of the soul: it changes with those feelings. Thus, if the soul is hungry, the aerial body can take on the appearance of emaciation. This should answer your question. My words also explain how you are able to see the souls you have seen in the Inferno and on the Mountain of Purgatory.

“Let me summarize a few main points of Christian doctrine:

“First, God directly creates the human soul.

“Second, each body is given a soul.

“Third, body and soul, joined, become one unified person.

“Fourth, even after the death of the body, the soul continues to exist.”

The three poets continued walking and reached the next ledge. Then they saw a fire. Only a narrow space along the edge of the ledge was without fire. The three poets had to walk in that space in single file.

Dante was terrified by the narrowness of the path left to walk on. On one side was the fire; on the other side was air and no solid ground to walk on.

Virgil told Dante, “Be sure to walk on the narrow path. This is a place where it is easy to make a misstep.”

Then the three poets heard a song — “Summae Deus Clementiae” or “God of Supreme Clemency” — that asked God to banish lustful thoughts and to cleanse the sinner with healing fire:

“Great God of boundless mercy hear;

“You Ruler of this earthly sphere;

“In substance one, in Persons three,

“Dread Trinity in Unity!

“Do You in love accept our lays

“Of mingled penitence and praise;

“And set our hearts from error free,

“More fully to rejoice in You.

“Our reins and hearts in pity heal,

“And with Your chastening fire anneal;

“Gird You our loins, each passion quell,

“And every harmful lust expel.

“Now as our anthems, upward borne,

“Awake the silence of the morn,

“Enrich us with Your gifts of grace,

“From Heaven, Your blissful dwelling place!

“Hear You our prayer, Almighty King;

“Hear You our praises, while we sing,

“Adoring with the Heavenly host

“The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

The song was coming from the fire. Dante looked and saw souls walking in the fire. He made sure that he stayed on the narrow path.

When the souls had sung the entire hymn, they shouted, “Virum non cognosco.”

Dante thought, This is an example of the virtue of Chastity. As always on the Mountain of Purgatory, the first example of a virtue comes from the life of Mary. When the angel told Mary that she would give birth to the Savior, she replied, “Virum non cognosco” or in English “I know not man.” In other words, she was a virgin. Of course, she did as God willed and although she was a virgin, she gave birth.

The souls in the fire sang the hymn again, and then they called, “Diane banished Helice.”

Dante thought, Diana is the Roman name of the Greek goddess Artemis, who was one of the three virgin Greek goddesses. The other virgin goddesses are Minerva and Vesta. Diana was a militant virgin. When Jupiter seduced one of her attendants, the nymph Helice, Diana dismissed her. Helice gave birth to Arcas. Juno was Jupiter’s jealous wife. She turned Helice into a she-bear, and Jupiter placed her into a constellation: Ursa Major. “Ursa Major” means “Big Bear” or “Great Bear.”

Again, the souls sang the hymn, and then they praised virtuous husbands and wives.

Dante thought, These couples refrained from having coercive sex. In addition, they refrained from having affairs. These couples are not virgins. Certainly, married couples are allowed to have sex with each other. It is a heresy to believe that proper sex is sinful. Used properly, sex is far from sinful and is one of the great pleasures of life. After all, God invented sex.

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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