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The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

#121: June - Aug. 2013 (Fiction)
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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Some comments on Dante and Shamanism.

Thirty years ago I read The Way of the Shaman - A Guide to Power and Healing by Michael Harner. This book explains how in the traditional magical practices of shamanic cultures, medicine men sit in hollow trees and imagine they are sinking into the earth.

I have seen suggestions that the Christian idea of hell as an underworld has shamanic roots, linking to concepts of lucid dreaming. Looking on the internet for related material, there is a lot of imagery of the tree of life, Yggdrasil, as linking the earth with heaven and the underworld. For example here
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There are many other similar images, not least the descent of Jesus, Ulysses and Orpheus into the underworld, and the sacred river Alph in Coleridge's poem. In modern literature, we find Alice in Wonderland, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and The Matrix.

A blog on the topic http://squarenomore.blogspot.com.au/200 ... rt-4a.html says Jesus is an archetypal shaman, comparing the story of Jesus to Dante. "The shaman takes the challenge of navigating the realms unseen by others for their benefit."

Some more shamanic artwork is at http://www.oneism.org/ such as this Inca Tree of Life

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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Why Virgil? Why does Dante choose the ancient Roman author Virgil as his guide to hell? I have been pondering this question. There is certainly an irony in the fact that Dante appears to hold Virgil in high respect, but has to present his fictional scheme of the universe in the Divine Comedy within the iron bounds of Christian dogma.

The Inferno has to say that all the great writers and philosophers of pagan classical civilization such as Virgil and Aristotle and Plato are condemned to eternal suffering in hell just because they did not know Jesus Christ the one true saviour. This is the political premise which Dante had to accept in order to construct his fiction. It is hard for us today to imagine such a myth acquiring such a dominant cultural position, even if there are echoes in the continued acceptance of Christian fantasy.

Christianity found a way of resolving this problem of the condemnation of great moral thinkers through the myth of the harrowing of hell – the idea that in the forty hours between the cross and resurrection Jesus Christ went to hell, rounded up all his friends such as Abraham, Moses and the prophets, and whisked them off with him to heaven. But I am not sure if there are versions of the harrowing myth in which Jesus checks out Virgil and Aristotle to redeem them too.

I think the irony here is that Dante is subtly criticizing the church (much as Cervantes later did in Don Quixote) by inviting the reader to think that perhaps it is ridiculous to imagine that Virgil is in hell. What we see is that in 1300 Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, so Dante illustrates familiarity with classical writing and culture, but we are not yet at the high Renaissance, the time of Leonardo da Vinci two hundred years later in 1500, when the old books had all been dusted off and translated.

Virgil was a great propagandist. His book The Aeneid told the story of Aeneas of Troy, and how after the Trojan War against Greece as related by Homer, Aeneas founded Rome. Aeneas symbolises true grit and moral fibre. Virgil articulates the old conservative traditional Roman Republican values and virtues as the basis for imperial legitimacy, suggesting that Romans have a right to rule over the subject races of the Mediterranean because Rome is culturally superior due to its misty origins in Troy. But in the Christian scheme, all the virtuous Republicans of ancient Rome are in hell because they lived before Jesus and so cannot go to heaven.

By invoking Virgil as his guide to hell, Dante is subtly calling for a return to the glory and grandeur of ancient Rome. He is suggesting that evidence about reality (ie science) can come from a source outside the Christian Bible. All of this agenda helps to illustrate the psychological straight jacket that Christianity had imposed through the Dark Ages. Dante still has to be very careful to present his arguments in a way that will be acceptable to Christian opinion, illustrating the total cultural dominance that the church enjoyed.

By presenting Virgil as an admirable figure, albeit condemned to hell, Dante is part of a cultural reassessment, a change in thinking, also illustrated by Aquinas in his use of Aristotle as the philosopher guide for his collected theological system. The Greco-Roman culture is now seen as something to learn from and celebrate, and is not simply condemned on the model of Augustine for its worship of false gods.

Augustine, the dominant thinker of Christianity for a thousand years, held that Rome deserved to fall because the empire was grounded in the worship of non-existent deities such as Jupiter and Apollo, and that even the conversion of the empire to the one true faith of Christianity was not sufficient to redeem it in the eyes of God. Rome had lost the mandate of heaven and lacked divine moral legitimacy. Belief in false myths was unforgivable. Dante is questioning this traditional assessment of Rome’s loss of the mandate of heaven, by saying that even though Virgil is among the damned, he is still worth talking to and learning from.

One further interesting theme from Virgil and Dante’s use of him is from astronomy as a basis for political moral myths. Virgil had an interesting take on cosmology, arguing that the North Celestial Pole, the seemingly fixed visible point in the northern sky near Polaris in the Little Dipper, is the location of heaven, the realm of Jupiter, while the South Celestial Pole, located beneath the horizon for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, is the location of hell, the realm of Pluto.

Dante’s vision of a plunge through the core of the earth along the Jerusalem-Tahiti axis therefore reflects an old tradition of understanding the encompassing sphere of the stars within a geocentric framework. The old racist myth of north = good, south = evil was reflected in the Roman primary conflict with Africa, with the African empires of Carthage and Egypt seen as corrupt and subversive.

Osiris, the Egyptian God of the Dead, was also associated with the South Pole as realm of the dead, through his star Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius. Mapping the Roman north-south geographic morality onto the stars aimed to present a critique of southern Gods such as Osiris, and to confer a divine legitimacy on Rome as a northern power, even if this moral scheme was confused by Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.
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DWill

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Dante was an early proponent of separation of church and state, holding that each had its essential work to do, but rejecting the church's longstanding contention that it should be supreme over temporal rulers. Dante's modernity, in relation to Medieval thought, was to assert life on earth as something to be savored for its own sake, not as a mere vale of tears before the eternal bliss of the afterlife (for the holy). Governments existed to help order happy and prosperous lives for citizens. This attitude, as it might be reflected in the DC (which Dante himself titled merely "The Comedy") doesn't rise to the level of heresy and thus the Comedy was not banned by the Church. However, a treatise of Dante's titled "De Monarchia" was one of the first books placed on the Index. In it, Dante laid out his views of the separate spheres of Church and State.

The DC is thoroughly Catholic in its worldview, of course. I think it's unlikely that Dante was holding back or veiling criticisms of the Church.

By the way, I dusted off my old John Ciardi translation and got into the first Canto. It's a marvelous job that Ciardi does with Dante's language. He conveys the artistry of the work by retaining Dante's rhyme scheme in a simplified fashion more suitable for English. His brief translator's note is worth reading, as is Archibald MacAllister's introduction.
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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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I am a bit late to this party but will attempt, once again, to get through The Divine Comedy. I have failed several times before. The Tony Kline translation (transliteration?) looks more accessible than anything I have tried before. I seem to remember that Dante had some axes to grind with his contemporaries and used DC to lambast them. Looking forward to all of the comments on this forum.
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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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johnson 1010 - that was so funny. This book has been very depressing reading, but I can read it in a new light now. Also thanks of course to Robert Tulip. Can you repost the video link? could not get it to work
Life's a glitch and then you die - The Simpsons
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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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I do keep getting distracted, sorry. Now I am almost finished a book by Laurence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler - Leading Millions into the Abyss.

I can justify a link to the Inferno because I think Hitler deserves a place in the ice lake with Satan at the centre of the earth in the ninth circle of hell. So do Stalin, Pol Pot and various other mad tyrants who inflicted suffering and death on a grand scale.

Starting from the worst evil, I think tyranny deserves a spot in the worst part of hell. It is surprising that Dante steers away so carefully from anything political - perhaps illustrating how Christian tyranny had infected his brain and made him timid about calling it out.
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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Robert Tulip wrote:I do keep getting distracted, sorry. Now I am almost finished a book by Luarence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler - Leading Millions into the Abyss.

I can justify a link to the Inferno because I think Hitler deserves a place in the ice lake with Satan at the centre of the earth in the ninth circle of hell. So do Stalin, Pol Pot and various other mad tyrants who inflicted suffering and death on a grand scale.

Starting from the worst evil, I think tyranny deserves a spot in the worst part of hell. It is surprising that Dante steers away so carefully from anything political - perhaps illustrating how Christian tyranny had infected his brain and made him timid about calling it out.
Hmmm...I had recalled dimly that Dante does get political in the book. But I haven't reread very much yet. No doubt you're right, though, that our criteria for assigning folks to whatever level of Hell have changed since his time. Tyranny and even mass killing in the name of the true faith might have seemed a worthy thing back then. The viciousness that was accepted in theological writing is astounding. Look at Martin Luther as an example. He wasn't an exception in his vilification of groups, especially Jews.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Actually of course you are right about the politics. Dante is continually consigning his political enemies to hell. What I was getting at was that the nine circles are not explicitly political in the sense of applying directly to bad kings. Treachery and violence can be political crimes, but are not restricted to the political sphere. Heresy is a uniquely political crime, but is applied to enable the tyrant to suppress diversity. So we get this archaic Christendom vision of God in heaven enabling His divinely appointed representatives to ensure a smothering uniformity of belief and oppress any sign of dissent.

And now that I check again, tyrants are listed in the seventh circle, with murderers and warriors, as a subset of the violent. Dante includes Alexander the Great as a tyrant, which I found surprising since it is more common to read of Alexander as a hero.
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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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My own thoughts on this book seem so trite. Dante was a creative thinker.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: The Divine Comedy: Inferno (Hell)

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Dante did so much to construct the modern vision of hell. It is interesting to compare his vision to the various ideas at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell

I see it in terms of connection. Heaven is where everything is connected. Hell is where everything is disconnected. If our life promotes connection, we are remembered positively. If our life promotes disconnection, we are remembered negatively. But the concepts "go to heaven" and "go to hell" are meaningless.

In past times, the fear of hellfire was used by preachers to warn people to live morally. The lake of fire features five times in Revelation chapters 19, 20 and 21. "as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death." It is far from clear who is "detestable" and this gives plenty of wiggle room for detesters and detestees.

The idea of revenge against the wicked through perpetual torment is rather primitive. I prefer to think of morality in terms of actual consequences on earth in the future. Displacing the effects of a bad life into hell is somewhat irrelevant.

I was thinking once of giving out Bibles but Gideons told me that I had to believe in the lake of fire.

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