The Pilgrim Texts and Dante's Three Beasts: Inferno, I [John G. Demaray]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John G. Demaray

Tratto da: Italica

Numero: XLVI

Anno: 1969

Pagine: 233-241

So extraordinary are the circumstances surrounding Dante’s encounter with a leopard, lion, and she-wolf in Inferno, I, that one can well understand why the literal sense of the canto has so often been regarded as a poetic fiction, an “allegory of the poets” in which a series of surface, imaginative inventions depend for their existence upon underlying, fixed ideas. In particular, the visually powerful beast images have traditionally been interpreted as fictive veils concealing specific concepts. Yet with the growing awareness that the actions of Dante in the narrative are in part a figural re-enactment of Biblical events, commentators recently have urged that the opening canto, apparently written in imitation of Scripture, is an “allegory of the theologians” with a literal sense that should be considered in context as historically true. The three beasts, then, emerge contextually in the poem’s literal sense as “real” flesh-andblood animals capable of serving, through their independent existences, as symbols for other meanings.
In close textual studies Charles Singleton has demonstrated that Dante’s movement across a desert toward a mountain mirrors an attempted Exodus journey, and that the three beasts reflect temptations besetting the ancient Israelites. And in elaborating certain of Singleton’s views, John Freccero notes that “the first canto of the Inferno must be considered an exodus that failed, a temporary escape that was not a definitive departure from ‘Egypt,’ but merely a disastrous sortie” (“River of Death,” p. 26). What Singleton and Freccero have overlooked, however, is that in Dante’s period Christian pilgrims, to insure the conversion of their souls from sin to grace, made actual journeys past forty-two Stations of the Exodus linking worldly Egypt to holy Jerusalem. The pilgrims in addition visited special “rings” of stations on Mt. Sinai and in the Holy City and so gained indulgences that were thought to remove the stain of purgatorial sin. As a recent analysis has revealed, it is to these pilgrimages, together with the Exodus of the Israelites, that events in the world beyond refer.
“Chiamansi Palmieri,” writes Dante in the Vita Nuova, “in quanto vanno oltramare là onde molte volte recano la palma... .” And on the summit of Mt. Purgatory, the poet, after having made the journey from the Egypt of this world to the Jerusalem of the Earthly Paradise, is admonished by Beatrice to remember what he has observed “che ’l te ne porti dentro a te per quello / che si reca il bordon di palma cinto” (Purg. XXXIII, 77-78). Unlike the Israelites of Biblical tradition but like contemporaneous Palmers, souls in Purgatorio arrive in a holy region by boat; they are conducted singing and weeping by pagan guides over desert mountains and paths; they ask strangers for news of their homeland; and they learn spiritually by halting and listening to lectures before iconographic objects at certain appropriate stops, the then thousand-year-old educational method used in Dante’s time on the Exodus pilgrimage route. When sunset in Purgatorio reminds Dante of that hour in which “lo novo peregrin” leaves his loved ones (VIII, 4), when the poet writes of “peregrin” passing one another on the pilgrimage path (XXIII, 16-2]), or when Virgil announces that all souls at the base of Mt. Purgatory are “peregrin, come voi siete” (II, 63), one realizes with renewed force that the allusions reflect contemporaneous pilgrimages along with the Biblical Exodus.
In reading Inferno, I, of course, one might not be immediately aware that the unfolding landscape of the world beyond—a shore, a grand desert, a mountain—serves to place the prefigured and fulfilled action in two identifiable regions of the world. In accord with the poem’s presentation of certain motifs in recurring but somewhat altered patterns, expanded understanding comes when the pattern of the action and landscape in the prologue reappears in the first cantos of the Purgatorio. There the pilgrimage of souls in a desert and mountain setting at the antipodes is seen to fulfill the prefiguring pilgrimage of living persons in a similar setting near the pole of the world at Jerusalem. And with this insight, one becomes fully cognizant that even in the prologue, by means of a double focus vision, attention has been centered upon two different and yet corresponding regions: a shore, desert, and mountain in an environment beyond death, and a shore, desert, and mountain on the earthly Exodus route to Jerusalem.
It is of considerable interest that in Dante’s period leopards, lions, wolves, and other wild beasts were described as roaming the deserts along the whole of the Exodus route. In the twelfth century, for example, the Russian Abbot Daniel mentioned in 1106-1107 A.D. the “many panthers and lions” to be seen in the Jordan River Valley’s desert depression near the Dead Sea. In 1185 A.D. the pilgrim Joannes Phocas told of a lion in the region as did Felix Fabri as late as the fifteenth century. The Muslim Usamah Ibn-Munquidh, in writing of the Holy Land in 1138-1164 A.D., speaks of his numerous personal encounters with lions and of the manner in which these beasts attack men; he also vividly explains how his party killed a wolf while on a desert hunting expedition.
With wild beasts, such as those described by Dante, on the desert pathways, it would take no straining of the imagination for early readers of the Commedia to conceive of a Christian near the pole, a counterpart for Dante in the realm beyond, actually confronting animals near a purgatorial mountain on the desert of Exodus. In the opening canto of the Inferno, it is a leopard that first stands before the poet on the slopes of a holy mountain:

Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar dell’erta,
una lonza leggiera e presta molto,
che di pel maculato era coverta, (I, 31-33)

And as early as the sixth century, pilgrims noted leopards as among the wild animals and strange things to be found in the deserts and valleys near Mt. Sinai, an earthly purgatorial mountain of God. “Between Sinai and Horeb is a valley,” writes Antonius Martyr in Of the Holy Places Visited (circa 560-570 A.D.), “in which at certain times dew descends from heaven which they call manna. It thickens and becomes like grains of mastic, and is collected. Jars full of it are kept upon the mountain, and they [the monks] give away small bottles of it for a blessing; and they gave us five sextarii... of it. They also drink it as a relish; and they gave some of it to us, and we drank it. Upon these mountains feed lions and leopards, wild goats and mules, and wild asses together, and none of them are hunted by the lions because of the vastness of the desert.” In pilgrim writings the monks and hermits of Mt. Sinai are said to have spiritual aid from Heaven in controlling the wild beasts, and the Sinai Abbot John Climacus records in his seventhcentury work The Ladder of Divine Ascent that St. Stephen (circa 600 A.D.), the monk who was famous for hearing the confessions of pilgrims at a stone gate on the mountain, once tamed a leopard living on nearby deserts.
In the twofold narrative of the Commedia, the primary and reflected travelers are not harmed by the animal. But Ibn Manquidh by contrast tells how a twelfth-century Christian knight had a less fortunate encounter with a leopard at Hunak, one of the castles defending Ma‘arrah-al-Nu‘man. The leopard attacked the knight, “broke his back and killed him.” Like Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, the Muslims in the area were quite ready to ascribe this type of event to the will of God, only from a manifestly non-Christian point of view. “The peasants of Hunak,” writes Ibn-Manquidh, “used to call that leopard, ‘ the leopard that takes part in the holy war’” (An Arab-Syrian, p. 140).
After Dante’s forward and upward movement is blocked by the first beast, the poet becomes aware that it is the time when the morning sun and stars are in view. Although Dante does not look directly upon these heavenly bodies as he wil! do later, he is given cause to hope by the hour and the season, that is, until the moment when a lion appears on the path.

...che paura non mi desse
la vista che m’apparve d’un leone.
Questi parea che contra me venesse
con la test’alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l’aere ne temesse.
(I, 44-48).

An almost exact parallel for this second meeting can be found in an eighth-century pilgrim guide book, The Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald (circa 754 A.D.), a work written by a nun from Willibald’s dictation. In recording how the pilgrim Willibald and his party left Samaria and moved on the pilgrimage path to the Levant, the account reads: “From thence they travelled on across a wide plain full of olive-trees, and there went with them an Ethiopian with two camels and a mule... . And as they journeyed there met them a lion which, with open mouth, roaring and growling, sought to seize and devour them, and terrified them greatly. Then that Ethiopian said to them, ‘Fear you not, but go on.’ They went on immediately, and drew near to it. But the lion, by the disposition of the Almighty God enthroned on high, quickly turned another way, and left the path clear for them to pass.”
All the key elements are here: the hungry lion astride the path; its movement forward as if to devour the travellers; the fear experienced by the pilgrims; the ultimate influence of God upon the movements of the beast. If it were not known that the recounted meeting is from a pilgrim narrative, one might interpret the passage as a fiction introduced into a medieval morality tract to convey a moral message. But lions did roam the pilgrim paths; they did interfere with the movements of Christians. And if in the pilgrim text a lion is described in a terse, graphic account having moral overtones, that roaring animal was apparently real enough to cause Willibald and his companions considerable anxiety.
The last beast Dante meets in the prologue to the Inferno is

...una lupa, che di tutte brame
sembiava carca nella sua magrezza,
e molte genti fe’ già viver grame,
questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
con la paura ch’uscia di sua vista,
ch’io perdei la speranza dell’altezza.
(I, 49-54).

This lean creature, a scavenger of the desert, forces Dante backward and downward to “la dove il sol tace” (I, 60), possibly toward a spiritual death resulting in part from the loss of heavenly light. And on the Sinai deserts along the pilgrim path to the mountain of God, the Florentine Leonardo Frescobaldi remarked upon the wolves in the area. “There is a very great deal of partridge and francolin,” he writes in a fourteenth-century account, “but nobody could catch one of these animals, save the mean wolves who feed on them and the pilgrims who die in the desert.” The wolf accordingly is that mean creature associated by Leonardo with dead pilgrims who have failed to reach Mt. Sinai and Jerusalem. The tenacity and viciousness of wolves in the Holy Land is well attested to in the twelfth-century memoir of Usémah Ibn-Munquidh. After Ibn-Munquidh and some companions had made camp in a circle one evening on the the desert, “a wolf, caught in the circle, pounced upon a gazelle in the center of it, and was killed while in that position” (An Arab-Syrian, p. 223).
Though certain kinds of animals that once lived on the deserts of the Holy Land have today disappeared, it is enough to know that in Dante’s time leopards, lions, and wolves did regularly appear before contemporaneous pilgrims who, in converting their souls, re-enacted the Biblical Exodus while traveling towards Jerusalem. In interpreting Inferno, I, as an “allegory of the theologians” with a true literal sense, one finds that similarly a real leopard, lion, and wolf confront the poet when, in seeking to convert his own soul, he attempts to act out in the realm beyond the same Biblical events. Dante in advancing through the other world, one will recall, is explicitly said by Beatrice to have made the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem (Par. XXV, 25-27); dead souls in the Commedia are repeatedly depicted in a manner reflecting contemporaneous pilgrims. But because the pilgrim texts telling of the Egypt-toJerusalem journey have been neglected by Dante commentators, the three beasts in the realm beyond have never been viewed in their proper light as the fulfilled types of corresponding animals on earth.
No longer is there an absolute need for commentators to label each supposedly fictional beast image with one or more clear, fixed ideas—and then to disagree about which clear, fixed ideas Dante intended. When the three beasts of the desert are examined in context without preconceived notions about their being artifacts, they take on a fresh, three-dimensional quality that demands recognition. The animals move before the reader with far too much life, concreteness, and spontaneity to be easily confined. The spotted leopard, nimble and light, appears suddenly on the scene; the lion advances with head erect, furious with hunger; the lean she-wolf with the craving look stalks forward. Both aesthetically and in the perspective of the pilgrimage tradition, the three beasts can be regarded in the literal sense as real, their physical presence in turn supporting varying symbolic values.


American University of Beirut

Date: 2023-01-10