Dante and the Gorgon within [Margaret Nossel Mansfield]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Margaret Nossel Mansfield

Tratto da: Italica

Numero: 47

Anno: 1970

Pagine: 143-160

In the ninth canto of the Inferno, the pilgrim Dante is threatened by the Furies who wish to summon up Medusa and turn him to stone. The significance of the episode in terms both of its occurrence at the Gate of Dis and of its place in the larger pattern of the pilgrimage to salvation has not yet been satisfactorily defined. Most recent critics have largely ignored the questions raised by the episode, and editors of Dante have been left to gloss the Furies and Medusa most commonly as remorseful terror and despair, with little or no elaboration on this reading. In fact, the most thorough published treatment of the problems of this canto was written nearly ninety years ago — Raffaello Fornaciari’s “Il Mito delle Furie in Dante.”
Although the interpretation which Fornaciari finally proposes seems to me unacceptable, I believe a brief summary and refutation of his views may be a valuable starting point for further consideration of this problem. For his investigation begins by raising a most important question: are the Furies related to any specific class or circle of sinners either within or outside the City of Dis? He answers ultimately in the affirmative, connecting them with the wrathful in the marsh of the Styx. His opinion is based first on the notion that if the Furies, who are looking toward the Styx, may be associated with ira, and if Phlegyas, because of his impious attacks on Apollo’s temple, may be related to heresy, each circle in Hell then may be said to have a guardian or symbolic figure drawn from Classical myth. However, while Fornaciari can make some case for the association of Cerberus with gluttony, Plutus with avarice, the Minotaur with violence, and Geryon with fraud, there are serious objections to the rest of his argument: Charon and Minos seem to pertain rather to the total organization of Hell than to Limbo and the lustful; and the Giants, whom he associates with treachery, are Biblical as well as Classical. Moreover, Phlegyas is not within the circle of heresy at all and is described clearly in terms of ira (VII, 22-24). The Furies, on the other hand, not only stand within the City of Dis but also defend it against unwelcome intruders.
There is a further difficulty. It is most important that any attempt to connect the Furies with a specific sin should recognize that they pose the most serious threat so far in the pilgrim’s journey through Hell. It is clear that Fornaciari does not take this into account. For he goes on to identify the Furies specifically with invidia, a species of ira, and defined as a mortal hatred among men. (Medusa he connects with the worldly pleasures and goods which make man invidioso by culminating in pure egotism and by excluding all love for non-worldly things). However, Dante’s rebuke to Filippo Argenti (VIII, 53ff.) seems to imply that the pilgrim stands apart from the sin of wrath and would presumably be unthreatened by it. The only other sin proximate enough to be associated with the Furies is heresy; but, again, there is no evidence that this sin presents any extraordinary temptation to the pilgrim. Moreover the appropriateness of these pagan figures to represent a sin which occurs primarily in a Christian context might well be questioned. AIl in all, the flaws in Fornaciari’s interpretation should point to the fundamental objections inherent in any attempt to connect the Furies with one specific circle or sinners.
If, therefore, we still wish to examine the Furies and Medusa in terms of the scheme of Hell, we may virtually rule out the question of specific sins and may proceed to ask whether these figures are connected in any way with the larger divisions of Hell as expounded two cantos later. In view of Geryon’s description as the image of fraud, one would like to connect Medusa, the Furies, or both, with violence. However, there is no corresponding figure to represent incontinence: Cerberus comes after the circle of the lustful; Minos is obviously depicted as the judge of all Hell. Even if we wished to connect Medusa and the Furies, on the one hand, and Geryon, on the other, with the two barriers, as it were, between these three major divisions of sins, we would encounter a major difficaulty. For Geryon, despite his funetion as a means of transport from the circle of the violent to those of fraud, is explicitly connected with the latter class of sins only (XVII, 7).
The solution that remains is to connect the Furies and Medusa with the single major dividing line in Hell — that between the sins classed as incontinence and those designated as malice, in the broadest sense of the term (cf. Virgil’s explanation in XI, 22-24 and 79-90). In fact, these figures are most definitely concerned with defending this barrier between upper and lower Hell from such intruders as Dante. Keeping this in mind, we may posit a working hypothesis: the Furies and Medusa, explicitly connected with this barrier between lesser and more grievous sins, represent such a danger to Dante that, even with Virgil as his guide, his journey could not survive the direct sight of the Gorgon. Before considering the implications of the barrier itself, however, let us first examine the details of the episode.
That the obstacle pertains primarily to Dante rather than to Virgil is fairly clear. The fallen angels’ first rage is at “costui, che sanza morte / Va per lo regno de la morta gente” (VIII, 84-85). Moreover, when Virgil asks to speak to them, they reply that he may indeed remain, but Dante must try to find his way back without a guide (89-91). The gate is, however, shut in Virgil’s face when he does not agree to this, much to his dismay and bewilderment, since he has been to the furthest depths of Hell before (IX, 19-30). Clearly, then, it is not against Virgil qua Virgil that the gates are shut, but against a living man and against Virgil as his guide. Moreover, as we shall see below, the Furies’ reference to the assault of Theseus raises certain associations which plainly imply that the primary cause for the barring of the gates against Dante is that he is on a journey to salvation, to personal redemption; Virgil is prevented from going further only because he is assisting in what will ultimately be an ascesis.
The Furies, then, appear while the pilgrim and his guide are waiting for aid. Their famous threat is delivered in terms the details of which deserve somewhat closer attention than they have generally been afforded. “Venga Medusa,” they say — that is, let Medusa come. This is not a summons but a desired and necessary condition on which their threat hinges. “Si l’ farem di smalto” — and then we, the Furies, will turn him to stone (IX, 52). Virgil describes the threat in more specific terms, for he warns Dante,

“Volgiti in dietro, e tien io viso chiuso;
Chè se il Gorgòn si mostra, e tu ’l vedessi,
Nulla sarebbe del tornar mai suso ” (55-57).

Medusa, then, apparently cannot be directly willed by the Furies to appear; but if she does and is “seen” by Dante, his return above, that is, to the Purgatorial mountain, will be impossible. The implication seems to be that Medusa represents a condition which, though it may not be entirely independent of exterior stimulus (it certainly is related to this point in the journey), primarily must arise from some inner change in Dante rather than from the overwhelming power of any Hellish force. Indeed, were this not so, we would be forced to see in this episode a picture of the powers of Hell as having a real and absolute domination over the will of man. For the danger which Medusa represents is so strong that, unless Dante’s eyes are shielded from her by Virgil, his sight of her will enable the Furies to paralyze his further movement toward grace.
To discover more precisely the nature of this potential temptation, it is necessary to examine Medusa and the Furies in terms both of other patterns in the poem and of traditional interpretations. First of all, it seems quite possible that “being turned to stone” might represent primarily a paralysis of the power of movement, the ability to continue the journey. As John Freccero has shown, Dante the poet, in the first canto of the Inferno most prominently, was working with a neo-Platonic tradition that the “feet of the soul” — the right representing the intellect, the left the will — retained even after baptism “wounds” symbolizing the residual effects of original sin. The sight of the sun at the beginning of the poem was sufficient to heal the wound of the intellect (ignorance); but the injury to the will (concupiscence) remained to be purged before Dante could regain original justice at the summit of the Purgatorial mountain. Thus Dante’s progress with one whole foot (the right) and one still injured (the left) would be a limping one, with the latter, the “firm foot,” always lower. Even so, the very process of walking, an interaction of intellect and will, is the motion by which the ascesis of the total journey will be accomplished. The paralysis, then, which the Furies would have power to inflict should Medusa come, would represent the cessation of this movement of ascent.
In order to determine what effect the coming of Medusa herself would produce, it is necessary to recall first that it was the sight of the sun which originally effected a cure to the wound of the intellect. Furthermore, a turning to the light represents in the neo-Platonic tradition a conversion. It was by means of the eyes, then, that this conversion was brought about, and it is the eyes of Dante which are here shielded against the sight of the Gorgon. Moreover, Medusa was connected in some medieval commentators with blindness: Fulgentius, for example, explains.

Gorgones dici voluerunt tres, id est tria terroris genera. Primus [Stheno] quippe terror est, qui mentem debilitat: secundus [Euryale], qui profundo quodam terrore mentem spargit: tertius [Medusa], qui non solum mentis intentum verum etiam caliginem ingerit visus... Itaque Medusam, quasi uî)l6éoav, quod videre non possit.

Medusa in this interpretation represents a kind of blindness as the final result of extreme terror. Supporting the appropriateness of such a reading here, there is rather plain evidence in Cantos VIII and IX that Dante is suffering from great fear at this point in his journey. Certainly, when the fallen angels threaten him with separation from Virgil, Dante makes no secret of the fact that he wants to turn back if the obstacle is of such magnitude:

“O caro duca mio, che più di sette
Volte m’ hai sicurtà renduta, e tratto
D’alto periglio che ’ncontra mi stette,

Non mi lasciar,” diss’io, “così disfatto.
E se ’l passar più oltre ci è negato,
Ritroviam l’orme nostre insieme ratto”
(VIII, 97-102).

This is, in fact, the only time in the entire poem that Dante’s fear reaches such a peak as to impel him to suggest abandonment of his purpose, fearing he will never return to this world (cf. 94-96). Again, at the sight of the Furies, he is struck with fear and presses close to Virgil for aid (IX, 50-51). Dante’s terror, then, is so overwhelming here that there is a real danger that a Medusa will take shape in his own soul, bringing intellectual blindness to the truth, loss of the light of conversion. Such a loss would reopen the wound of ignorance and give the Furies the power to paralyze his forward progress, returning him to his aimless wandering in the dark wood of Canto I. Such would be his confusion in trying to find his way back on the dark road, in fact, that the rebel angels have already jeered at his chances: Virgil must remain and Dante return alone “‘ per la folle strada: / Pruovi se sa; chè tu qui rimarrai / Che li hai scorta sî buia contrada’ ” (VIII, 91-93). Such a retreat indeed would be both “mad,” lacking in the guidance of reason, and “ dark,” devoid of the light of knowledge and truth, the light of conversion.
Thus the Furies” threat may possibly be paraphrased: if - and only if - Dante loses the light of conversion through terror, then we will be able irrevocably to paralyze his motion toward salvation. Such a paraphrase, however, would leave two major questions still unanswered. First, what do the Furies symbolize and why would they have such a paralyzing effect? Second, what is the reason for the terror which Dante experiences here and why has it the potential to blind his intellect?
The simplest and most obvious explanation for the Furies, strictly on the grounds of context, would be that they represent the whole corpus of sins punished within the walls of the City of Dis. These sins are classed by Virgil as malizia, in the broadest sense of the word, including all sins of which “in giuria è ’1 fine” (XI, 22-23). The Classical role of the Furies is certainly not alien to this kind of role: their “ malicious ” acts toward men included the bringing of insanity and the carrying out of spiteful acts of vengeance ordained by jealous gods. Moreover, in medieval commentators, these three daughters of Night are seen as bringing both madness and strife. For example, interpreting the meanings of the names Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera, Fulgentius says, “Primum est ergo, non pausando furiam concipere: secundum est, in vocem erumpere: tertium jurgium protelare”. Bernardus Silvestris interprets them as a kind of compendium of evils, equating them respectively with “prava cogitatio,” “vox superposita malae cogitatione, malus enim sermo,” and “mala operatio.”
This is hardly conclusive evidence of the Furies’ association with malice per se. But the total role they play, as will be examined below, certainly supports this thesis. Undoubtedly they and the rebel angels act as the spokesmen and guardians of the fortress of Dis. Moreover, if Dante wanted to dramatize the pilgrim’s encounter with malice, it would not be perfectly fitting to have this occur only with the rebel angels, whose violence was directed primarily against God. The Furies, whose hostility was toward men, would be much more suitable adversaries in a case like this.
If we may accept the above theory as at least a possible interpretation, we may proceed to consider more precisely the nature of the threat Dante encounters at the gate to the realm of malicious sins. On the most obvious level, it is surely not implausible that Dante, faced with the horrible aspect of malice, of sins essentially far more grave and malevolent than those of incontinence, should experience a heightened terror. But if his reaction is simply horror at the nature of the sins or fear of the severity of the punishments meted out, we would logically expect that these reactions would increase in direct proportion to the gravity of the sins he sees in each successive circle. However, it is clear upon examination of the rest of the Inferno that this is not so. In no other episode, including the journey on Geryon’s back, does Dante show a like degree of terror: nowhere else in the entire poem does he actually suggest turning back. Nor does Virgil elsewhere see such a severe threat to Dante’s journey.
Therefore, there must be some quality in the very nature of all malicious sins, as distinguished from lesser offenses, which makes Dante afraid here. Moreover, this must be a quality which for some reason does not increase, at least as regards its significance for Dante, in proportion to the gravity of the sin committed. In order to determine, if we can, what this quality may be, let us analyze briefly the implications of Dante’s classification of sins.
It is clear from Virgil’s explanation of the scheme of Hell that those sins within Dis are classed as malizia and have ingiuria as their end (XI, 22-24). Virgil further makes it apparent that there is more difference between incontinence and those sins punished within Dis than between the subdivisions of malicious sins themselves — those committed by force or by fraud (XI, 76-90). Furthermore, it is very important to note, as W.H.V. Reade points out, that the sinners in Dante’s Hell are punished rather for the interior state of will than for their external acts: in other words, incontinence and malice refer to two inner volitional states which may indeed produce the same external acts, but which Dante portrays in terms of categories of sins traditionally arising from each disposition. More significantly, however, this inner condition of malice in the agent is equivalent to a state of impenitence. For this reason, there are no sins of malice in Purgatory: there is no venial degree of impenitence.
In fact, then, in reference to salvation, impenitence is a state the degree of which is in one very important sense totally immaterial: he who dies impenitent, to whatever degree, is damned. Thus, in this qualified application, at least, impenitence is an attitude which would not significantly increase in proportion to the gravity of the sin committed. Moreover, a state of impenitence, hardening of the heart, obstinacy in sin, would fit the Furies’ threat in two ways: 1) it could most appropriately be symbolized by being “ turned to stone,” that is, being paralyzed, losing the power of motion toward salvation; 2) it would most absolutely preclude a return above, as Virgil warns.
If the Furies, then, may represent malice, and their threat of petrification the paralyzing impenitence which goes hand in hand with malice, it is still necessary to determine more specifically the exact nature of Dante’s fear in the face of this malice and the significance of Medusa, who is liable to come as an effect of his terror. First, we may note that, while the Furies threaten Dante with impenitence if Medusa comes, it is not impenitence itself which causes his fear; for Dante’s terror preceded their actual verbalized threat. In other words, Dante is not simply experiencing a healthy fear of the power of evil, of the danger that grave sin will render the heart obdurate. This is a very important point. Indeed, were Dante’s fear of this sort, it would be rather commendable.
But his fear is obviously not commendable — it is, in fact, since it threatens to turn him from salvation, dangerously close to serious sin in itself. Presumably, if it reached the stage where Medusa did come, it would be a grave sin. And so he is afraid; and this fear may be of either or both sorts described by Thomas: fear of God's justice or horror at one's own sins. Fear of either sort can be the source of despair.
Is it, in faet, the sin of despair (often understood as a species of acedia) which is symbolized by Medusa? A good amount of evidence seems to support this view. Thomas examines despair at length in the Summa Theologica 2:2.20, “ De Desperatione.” It can spring either from luxuria or from acedia: in the former case, it results from the failure to consider beatitude as a good only arduously attained; in the latter, from the failure to see the acquisition of beatitude as possible either by one’s own efforts or with the aid of another. The second cause seems to be the more pertinent in Dante”s case: he fears that “ ’1 passar più oltre ci è negato ” (VIII, 101).
Thomas’ further discussion of despair associates it with a number of themes which we have seen to be prominent in the episode at the gate. First, it was postulated above that a loss of intellectual light was symbolized by the blindness Medusa may bring. It was to protect this faculty of sight that Virgil shielded Dante’s eyes from the Gorgon. Such a failure in the intellectual apprehension of the truth is associated by Thomas with despair:

Et ideo omnis motus appetitivas conformiter se habens intellectui vero, est secundum se bonus; omnis autem motus appetitivus conformiter se habens intellectui falso, est secundum se malus et peccatum. ...
Et ideo sicut motus spei, qui conformiter se habet ad existimationem veram, est laudabilis et virtuosus, ita oppositus motus desperationis, qui se habet conformiter existimationi falsae de Deo, est vitiosus et peccatum.

Although Thomas classes despair, as well as hope, as a motus appetitivus, it requires no great imaginative leap to see why Dante chose to present the effects of despair in terms of a paralysis of motion. As a matter of fact, Thomas, in discussing why despair is the most dangerous of sins, himself associates it with a cessation of good actions and of perseverance in faith. Comparing the sin against hope to those against faith and charity, he concludes that: “... desperatio est periculosior, quia per spem revocamur a malis, et incucimur ad bona prosequanda; et ideo sublata spe, irrefremate homine labuntur in vitia et a bonis laboribus retrahuntur.” And he cites the Glossa Ordinaria on Prov. 24:10: “Nihil est execrabilius desperatione, quam qui habet, et in generalibus hujus vitae laboribus, et quod pejus est, in fidei certamine constantiam perdit.” This insistence on despair as the most perilous sin, though hatred and infidelitas are graver, is in perfect accord with the poet’s placement of Dante’s encounter with it here at the entrance to the realm of more serious sins.
Our entire hypothesis about the presence here of despair as the danger represented by Medusa and potentially causable by the contemplation of one’s own graver sins or capabilities for sin, can be strengthened by a look ahead to the similar episode at the gate of Purgatory. There are, of course, numerous references throughout the Purgatory which equate spiritual progress with the perfection of the power of sight; and Dante expliciily states to the souls on the terrace of lust that he is ascending the mountain “per non esser più cieco” (XXVI, 58). Before the gate of Purgatory, Dante’s yet imperfect sight makes it impossible for him to gaze at the angel’s flaming sword (IX, 82-84). Besides this allusion to a deficiency in sight, Peter delivers a warning against looking back which also recalls the episode with the Furies. He injoins Dante: “Intrate! Ma facciovi accorti / Che di fuor torna chi ’ndietro si guata” (IX, 131-132).
As this last statement might seem to suggest, there is much evidence that the episodes in Hell and in Purgatory both center on the same danger — loss of purpose or motivating force for the journey. But, while in the Inferno the danger is that of despair, on the mountain it may be that of acedia in its less grave aspects. At any rate, there is no doubt that both warnings against looking back or turning back would tend to recall to Dante’s medieval readers the passage from Luke 9: 62: “Nemo mittens manum suam ad aratrum et aspiciens retro, aptus est regno Dei.” Moreover, medieval commentary tended to interpret the plough as an instrument of remorse. The Glossa Ordinaria states:

Manum ab aratrum mittit qui quasi quodam instrumento compunctionis, ligno et ferro dominicae passiones duriciam sui cordis evertit, et ad bonos fructus aperit. Qui si ad relicta vitia desiderio rapit, a regno Dei cum vxore Loth excluditur.

If the danger in Purgatory is cessation of the process of repentance, that in Hell is loss of the light of conversion and the cessation of the acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness. And the episodes before the gates in both places use images which tell us clearly that in neither case is stasis possible: he who halis the process either of acknowledgment of guilt or of repentance does not stand still - he goes backward. In the more serious instance of despair, he does not simply close his eyes - he goes blind.
The conjunetion in Scriptural commentary of the images of looking backward from the plough and of Lot’s wife’s disobedience appear to be quite an important gloss on Dante. The poet seems to have concentrated on the former image in the Purgatory episode and on the latter in Hell, where it is recalled by the Furies’ threat to turn the pilgrim to stone. Moreover, these two themes are also linked in a description of the sin of acedia by Alanus de Insulis:

... haec est acedia quae Christiani manum ab aratro retrahit, quae cum uxore Loth in Sodomam respicit, quae cum Loth timet montem ascendere, quae cum Ruth non vult in terram Bethleem redire.

Further in this same passage, Alanus also associates acedia with the eyes of the mind in a highly suggestive way:

Tali pigro dicitur: Surge qui dormis [Ephes. 5:14]. Dormit, inquam, piger clausis oculis mentis, qui nec ad bona intuitum dirigit, nec ad videndum necessaria oculum mentis aperit.

Perhaps, then, Dante’s swoons, brief periods of “sleep,” during the passage of the Acheron and after the story of Francesca may have been early indications of his tendency toward the kind of acedia which is associated with despair, or from which despair arises. The danger, as we saw above, is that there comes a certain point, evidently marked off by the barrier to Dis, beyond which one cannot simply close his eyes, one can only allow himself to be incurably blinded.
It seems quite plausible, then, that the episode with the Furies involves an encounter on Dante’s part with an evil so deep and of such a nature that it involves integrally a state of unrepentence. This deep evil is malice, covering at least the sins of violence and fraud and probably that of heresy also; and it is represented by the Furies, whose traditional role is one of hostility toward men. The state of impenitence malice involves is symbolized by the Furies’ threat to turn Dante to stone. This petrification also comes to represent a paralysis of motion toward the good, a cessation of ascesis. But the Furies’' threat is essentially conditional, hinging on the appearance of Medusa. It is the encounter with the malice represented by the Furies which may produce terror and despair in Dante’s heart, but the Furies cannot directly summon the Gorgon: despair, in the medieval outlook, was not a pathological mental state but a grievous sin which necessarily involved a free act of consent by the will. The Gorgon of despair was perceived by Virgil for what it was - essentially a loss of the light of truth, of the knowledge that God is merciful and that man can obtain salvation and forgiveness of any sin, no matter how grievous. So Virgil shielded Dante’s eyes, protecting his intellectual vision from the blindness which could have made the Furies’ threat possible.
Such an explanation seems to cover at least plausibly the central events of the delay at the gate of Dis. Two further aspects of this episode, however, may be related to this interpretation; and the analysis of them will, I hope, serve to reinforce the evidence above. I am speaking of the address to the readers and of the references to Theseus and to the dragging forth of Cerberus from Hell.
First, the injunetion to the readers. Dante’s call to discover the teaching veiled beneath these strange lines is to those who have “li ’ntelletti sani” (IX, 61). As we saw above, the pilgrim here is still wounded in the foot of the soul which represents the will, though healed in the right or intellective one. Were he not so healed, he could not have begun his journey. Moreover, it is at this point in the journey that the possibility of an appearance by the Medusa of despair presents a threat to reopen the intellective wound. Thus, Dante addresses those with “sane” or “whole ” intellects for two reasons: 1) because those whose intellects are not sound could not have “followed” the meaning of his journey even this far; and 2) because, even though their intellects are sound, those who travel a similar road must yet beware of the Medusas which threaten them with the loss of this “saneness.”
The second feature which correlates with the general interpretation proposed above is the reference to Theseus by the Furies: to their threat to turn Dante to stone they add, “Mal non vengiammo in Teseo l’assalto” (IX, 54). Presumably, the same incident from Classical myth is again referred to by the “Messo” who rebukes the “outcasts of heaven” by reminding them that “Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda, / Ne porta ancor pelato il mento e il gozzo” (IX, 98-99). The usual gloss here is, as in Grandgent, to the Aeneid, VI, 392ff, where Theseus and Pirithous, having undertaken to steal Proserpine from Hell, were rescued from captivity there by Hercules, who in the process chained Cerberus and dragged him forth from Hell. Giorgio Padoan, however, makes a good case for the thesis that Dante was using a version of the incident in which it was Theseus, in aid of Pirithous, who chained Cerberus and dragged him forth in the process of rescuing his friend. Padoan points to the widely variant versions of this episode which were recounted by medieval mythographers and commentators on the Commedia; one of the most suggestive for his purposes is that of the Eight Commentary on Dante:

... Piritoo andò solo per rapire Proserpina, e fu ritenuto, e incontanente legato; la qual cosa udito Teseo suo amicissimo, andò in Inferno, e prese per la barba Cerbero e divisegliela, e liberò il suo amico di pena.

Actually, this account of the story aecords better than the one traditionally cited with the Furies’ reference to their failure to avenge “in Teseo l’assalto.” Surely if the outrage referred to is the capture of Cerberus, and if it is to be avenged upon Theseus rather than upon Hercules, it would be assumed that it was the former who succeeded in affronting the denizens of Dis. But, for our purposes, it is not of primary importance to determine whether Dante knew Theseus or Hercules as the hero of this successful foray, for both men were interpreted by the medieval and later commentators as figurae Christi. Padoan shows that Bernardus Silvestris and Coluccio Salutati, among others, saw in the tale of Theseus liberating Thebes an echo of Christ redeeming the human race. Moreover, Hercules was perhaps the Classical hero most commonly interpreted as the Savior.
But the major relevance of this journey to the underworld, whoever took the hero’s role, may well be that at least some versions of the myth viewed the assault as successful not only in capturing Cerberus and rescuing Pirithous but also in liberating Proserpine, a type of the human soul. Pierre Bersuire, commenting on the version of the story in which Hercules is the rescuer, gives such an interpretation: Plutus, representing the “diabolus a principio,” had captured Proserpine, standing for Adam and Eve or for human nature in general; after the failure of Abraham and Moses, represented by Theseus and Pirithous, to save her by good works, Hercules, that is, Christ, assuming flesh and submitting to death “descendit ad infernum et fregit... Cerberum idest diabolum...” He rescued the patriarchs, “ et Proserpinam idest humanam naturam de inferni servitude liveravit.”
Furthermore, we know that Dante used Proserpine to symbolize a sort of primal innocence lost in Purgatorio XXVII, when the pilgrim tells Matilda:

“Tu mi fai rimembrar dove e qual era
Proserpina nel tempo che perdette
La madre lei, ed ella primavera”

There is reason to suppose, therefore, that Dante was recalling some such version as Bersuire knew and was citing the incident as a figure of the Redemption. Moreover, the appropriateness of such a reference at this point may be clarified by reading the Furies’ speech with specific emphasis on an underlying antithesis: “Venga Medusa, si l’ farem di smalto,... / Mal non vengiammo in Teseo l’assalto.” The implication is that there is some similarity between the assauli of Theseus and Dante’s attempt to journey through Dis. And the basis of this similarity is not difficult to discover: the action of Theseus (or Hercules) in rescuing Proserpine stood for Redemption in the largest sense - the act of Christ by which salvation was made available to all men; Dante’s journey is precisely the working out of this salvation on the individual level - his personal redemption. And the personal, individual redemption of each soul, as a fulfillment of Christ’s original act, would be correspondingly resented by the forces of Hell, whose intent it is to subvert each such act. Thus, when the gates are shut in the faces of Virgil and Dante, it is no accident that the ancient poet recalls their barring of the upper gate to Christ when he came to harrow Hell:

“Questa lor tracotanza non è nova,
Chè già l’usaro a men secreta porta,
La qual sanza serrame ancor si trova.

Sopr’essa vedestù la scritta morta.
E già di qua da lei discende l’erta,
Passando per li cerchi senza scorta,

Tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta”
(Inf. VIII, 124-130).

In fact, one symbolic funetion of the barrier around Dis, setting it off as a fortress of evil, may well be to symbolize this perpetual diabolic attempt to hinder the fulfillment of the redemptive act by making the sinner impenitent.
Finally, if the pattern of the Inferno is, for the pilgrim, an acknowledgment of his own sinfulness as a necessary prelude to repentance, the primary corollary of this truth about the self is one’s participation in man’s basic need, because of sin, for this redemptive act of Christ. Thus, the “Messo,” whoever he may be on the literal level, undoubtedly reenacts Christ°s unbarring of the gates of Hell, not only to free the patriarchs but also to liberate all men from the bonds of sin which previously made heaven unattainable. By means of this entire episode, then, Dante may be pointing up man’s utter dependence on God for the accomplishment of his own salvation. Though the pilgrim, in this time between his conversion or turning to the light and his baptism of penance in Purgatory, may not be portrayed as the recipient of sanetifying grace, interventions such as those of Beatrice and the Messo could well be symbolic of the actual graces necessary to spur man on toward the accomplishment of repentance. It would seem to be a logical conclusion from the evidence of this episode that, had the Messo not come, Dante, left helpless before the barrier, might well have “seen” Medusa.

Date: 2022-01-12