Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 28 Retelling — Forest of Eden (Matelda)

Chapter 28: Forest of Eden (Matelda) (Purgatory)

Dante was eager to explore the top of the mountain, and without delay he set forth. On the top of the mountain is a forest. The green leaves made the light soft, without harshness. The scents were soothing, as was the light, steady breeze he felt on his forehead. The breeze always blew with the same intensity, and it always blew in the same direction. Italy is a Mediterranean country that can be hot, but this forest is cool. The sound of birds filled the air as they welcomed the morning. The two poets followed Dante as he moved deeper into the forest.

Dante moved slowly, but soon he was deep in the forest — so deep that he could not see where he had entered it.

Suddenly a stream appeared that blocked his way. The water of the stream was clear — so clear that compared to it the clearest waters in the Land of the Living appear to be clouded. This stream is constantly in shade, and the rays of the Sun and the light that the Moon reflects will never directly touch it.

Dante stopped, and he looked at the land on the other side of the stream. As suddenly as an unexpected miracle, a lady appeared. She was singing, and she was gathering flowers, and she reminded Dante of Leah, one of the two women in his prophetic dream. She was the first of the two female guides whom he would meet.

Dante said to her, “Lady, you are lovely, and your appearance glows with love. Please come nearer so that I can hear and understand the words of your song. You remind me of Proserpine, aka Persephone. She was gathering flowers, when Hades, god of the Underworld, entranced by her beauty, made her his bride and took her with him away from her mother, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, who mourned. Because Ceres mourned, nothing grew, and Jupiter sent the messenger god Mercury to bring Proserpine back to the Land of the Living. But because she had eaten one-fourth of a pomegranate, she was forced to spend one-fourth of the year with Hades in the underworld, and so Humankind now endures Winter three months of the year, having lost the eternal Spring that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.”

Moving like a dancer among the red and yellow flowers, the lady turned toward Dante, but she kept her eyes modestly lowered. She walked to the stream that separated Dante from her, and then she raised her eyes and looked at him.

And now Dante was reminded of Venus. The lady’s eyes were radiant, and even Venus’ eyes could not be so radiant — not even when an arrow of Cupid, her son, lightly scratched her breast when she bent to kiss him, and the arrow made her fall in love with Adonis.

The lady stood on the other side of the stream, and in her hands she arranged the flowers of many colors — flowers that had not grown from seeds.

And Dante hated the stream because it separated him from her. He hated it the way that Leander hated the Hellespont — the water between Europe and Asia Minor — because the water separated him and his beloved, the woman named Hero.

The stream was narrow. Only three feet separated Dante and the lady, but the top of the mountain was a special place, and Dante wanted to cross the stream only when he knew that crossing it was permitted. If only the stream would part like the Red Sea parted for Moses and the Israelites when they fled slavery in Egypt! But it continued flowing.

The lady said, “You three have never been here before. You may be amazed to see me and to hear me singing here in this place that was the cradle of Humankind. To understand why I was singing, think of Psalm 91 — “Delectasi Me” or “You Did Delight Me”:

“‘It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Your name, O most High:

“‘To show forth Your lovingkindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness every night,

“‘Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.

“‘For You, Lord, have made me glad through Your work: I will triumph in the works of Your hands.

“‘O Lord, how great are Your works! and Your thoughts are very deep.’

“I am rejoicing in the beauty of the Earthly Paradise: this Forest of Eden that is also known as the Garden of Eden. And I am filled with love for its and my Creator.

“You who spoke to me just now, if you have any questions, please ask.”

Dante said, “I have heard that no rain falls here, so what is the source of the stream? And what is the source of this breeze?”

Dante thought, Statius told me earlier that no rain falls here and that the breezes of the Earth’s atmosphere have no effect here.

The lady said, “I will explain the nature of this place. This is where God created Adam, who was supposed to do good and to dwell in this Earthly Paradise, but Adam sinned and he was banished from the garden to work instead of enjoy. You know that God created Adam first and then Eve. God had created the Earthly Paradise for them, and He allowed them to eat all the fruit of the Earthly Paradise except for the fruit of one tree: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. A serpent came to Eve and tempted her to eat the forbidden fruit. She did eat, and then she persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Because of this sin, they were banished from the Earthly Paradise, as were all their descendants. But after death, saved souls can climb to the top of the Mountain of Purgatory and reach once more the Earthly Paradise.

“This is a place where the laws of nature sometimes are not in effect. No storms occur here. The Earthly Paradise is so high that storms cannot reach here. Earthly winds also cannot reach here. The movement of the heavens above us causes the breeze that constantly blows.

“Plants grow here without the need of seeds. All plants grow here in this perfect place. But seeds from plants here travel to the rest of the world. In the Land of the Living, the plants that grow here in profusion will grow only when the soil and weather conditions are right. Here in the Earthly Paradise you can find every species. Here are species that bear fruit of a kind that no man has ever plucked. The Earthly Paradise is a fruitful place.

“The water here does not come from a natural source. The source of the water here is a fountain that is created by the will of God, who causes it to flow without ceasing. The fountain of water divides into two streams. The stream before you has the power to erase the memory of sin’s sting when its water is drunk. You will remember many of your sins, but you will know that they have been forgiven, and you will rejoice and be happy that they have been forgiven. Gone will be the pain of the knowledge that you have sinned. This stream is called Lethe, which means ‘oblivion.’

“The other stream found here is called Eunoë, which means ‘well minded’ or ‘good memory,’ and it also has a special power, but to enjoy the special power of the Eunoë, you must drink first from the Lethe. Drinking from the water of the Eunoë will restore the knowledge of every good deed that you have ever done.

“Let me tell you one more thing. Poets of long ago sang of a Golden Age. They fell asleep on Parnassus, the mountain of the Muses, and dreamed of this place. The Golden Age they dreamed and sang of was the time when Humankind lived here. Here, Humankind was without sin and without guilt, and here were clear water and every fruit. The nectar that ancient poets sang of was and is found here.”

Dante looked back at Virgil and Statius, two of the ancient poets who sang of the Golden Age, to see what they thought of the lady’s words about them. The two poets were smiling.

Then he looked again at the lovely lady.

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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