Deviant Physics in Mythological Spaces

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Deviant Physics in Mythological Spaces and Other Important Points in Canto IV of Dante's Purgatorio

Dante' Purgatorio is not the most-studied of his works; by far the more famous is the Inferno, as well as more culturally salient. From the Commedia as a whole are derived many of the connotations of old moral and cultural systems, Catholicism no less than Scholasticism, which appears notably in scenes in the Paradiso involving medieval Christian scholar St. Thomas Aquinas. The Purgatorio as a whole is a reflection of the everyday struggle of ordinary persons, symbolized by the literary and historical figures that the narrative contains, rather than the celebrity-studded extremes of the Inferno and Paradiso. In medieval Italian culture, and in European culture generally, reference to the Commedia is a reference to the compendium of pre-Renaissance social and scholarly thought and art. The journey of Dante, Virgil, and the other poets through purgatory is a complex allegory and referential system that requires the utmost attention to detail. Thoughts about love, sin, and other human behaviors are distilled into the action, description, and dialogue of the Commedia. It is the task of the scholar to use the Commedia as a resource to determine the character of medieval thought, as well as to ferret out Dante's own divergent opinions that have propagated themselves through European cultural history. This paper will attempt to show how canto IV reflects the moral structure of Dante's faith and society, in revealing to us the physical structure of purgatory, as well as the cultural significance of Belacqua's pleas. It will also show how the extensive discourse on astronomy points up some features of metaphysical religious ontologies that are thought by some to be universal.

The Purgatorio is central to this issue of cultural reflection in literatre, for it is where Dante's vision of the afterlife diverges most from the mainstream view, and dictates from Rome. Traditionally, Limbo was the place reserved for the souls of unbaptized babies and pious people who died before the salvation of Christ. Dante admits many more to this list than merely those innocents whose deaths were badly timed; his Limbo is full of souls who would, in Rome's book, be firmly on one side or another, not suspended between the two in a state of "partly-good, partly-evil" (Cantor, 141) Dante's inclusion of the great poets of antiquity in the population of purgatory is unexpected, since they do not seem, in their works, to have given those "good sighs" at all, even at the last. Dante's allegorical structuring of purgatory is a reflection of his moral priorities, imposed on him by the continual gradation of punishment that the Church meted out to sinners.

In the Purgatorio, the entry into purgatory proper is preceded by a number of cliffs and ledges that form "ante-Purgatorio," the space between the outer rings of Hell and purgatory. The structure of purgatory itself is evident in passages about its mountainous aspect, especially as observed in cantos i-vi. The geography of the mountain is explained most thoroughly in canto IV, to which we will now turn our attentions. Ante-purgatory is occupied by the Late Repentant; those at the bottom of the mountain are the Excommunicated, and those nearer to the gate of purgatory are merely the Negligent, Indolent, and Unshriven, in that order (Ciardi, 30). Canto IV is an account of the Pilgrim's experience on the ledge of the Indolent, which is entered by a small gap in the rocks between this ledge and the foot of the mountain. The ascent to the first ledge is arduous, and the Pilgrim describes it as requiring not only hands and feet, but also wings (IV, 26-27). These are the sentiments of the lazy, that a struggle requires "inhuman" capabilities and that it is impossible to go onward without them, so one had better rest. Dante, in contrast with the indolent souls of the first ledge, is driven by the "swift wings and feathers of desire," a desire to know God, to ascend through purgatory to heaven, and also to know what happens to the souls in purgatory. Throughout the Commedia, the reader is fascinated by horrors and wonders in much the same way that the news-watcher is fascinated by human-interest stories, disaster, and scandal. The Pilgrim listens intently to the stories of souls he meets along the way because he is naively enthralled with his unearthly surroundings.

The fourth canto opens with a few stanzas of Dante’s philosophy of feelings. The apology that Dante makes for wasting his guide’s time listening to Manfred hinges on the notion that one can become lost in another’s sufferings just as easily as one can become lost in one’s own. This empathy with the incidental characters allows Dante’s narrative to proceed as it does, a device that is useful in character-driven allegories. In the first two stanzas, Dante refers to the Platonic notion that there are separate souls in the human being: one in the liver, one in the heart, and one in the brain (Ciardi, 61). These locations correspond to the impulses of the body, of the emotions, and of the intellect. However, the plurality of souls cannot be reconciled with the Christian doctrine of the unity of the soul. While this simplifies Christian mythology, it complicates the ethics of intentionality which Plato’s proposal was meant to solve. Dante’s reference to Plato’s ‘error’ is an erudite way of rationalizing the character’s habit of delaying the ascent of the group to heaven by listening to the piteous stories of those he encounters.

The canto moves on to a description of the nether-world’s peculiar astronomy, and it is this subject that does most of the work in this canto, and not necessarily the description of the ledge itself. Apparently the world is split into two hemispheres: one is the world of Zion, the promised land, and the other is the location of the mountain of purgatory. As the sun circles this orb at an angle to the disc of the equator, it appears to list to one side of the sky while it hangs over one hemisphere, and to the other side when it moves over the other hemisphere. This strikes Dante as extremely strange, and it is significant that he is so shocked by the appearance of celestial objects that he must ask Virgil about the position of the sun. In Dante’s era, astronomy was the most advanced of the sciences, for many of the same reasons that particle physics is so advanced in the current era. Being intent on ascending into heaven, most of Italy’s population was interested in some part in “what was going on up there?” This inquisitive temperament was absorbed by the Church, which funded approved studies of the heavens contingent upon the findings’ compatibility with established doctrine (Caesar, 109). But the astronomy of the Purgatorio is also in large measure part of Dante’s own personal mythology, which we shall never have the key to. However, by looking at the information contained in canto IV, we can draw inferences from both Dante’s evident ethical priorities and from the common mythology and astronomy of the fourteenth century that make sense of the model of the universe that canto IV describes.

Much of canto IV is also involved in describing the structure of the mountain, as mentioned above, and its allegorical behaviors. As the repentant ascend the mountain of purgatory, their journey starts out harshly. The first few levels of ascent are the most difficult, but as they reach the upper limits of the mountain, their journey becomes far easier, and Dante’s guide compares it to drifting a little boat down a river (IV, 93). If this seems to defy basic mountainclimbing principles, the reader has only to remember that this is a mystical mountain as well as a mythological one, and is subject to an intentional architecture rather than the arbitrary mystery that is the earth. The hardships of those who have a long way to travel are an impediment to their progress, but as the traveler nears the much-anticipated destination, he or she is so overcome by the closeness of the final entry to paradise that the steep mountain seems no obstacle at all.

The poets’ encounter with Belacqua is an informative turn of events. It demonstrates that purgatory can be just as unhappy a place as Limbo, the outer level of Hell. Belacqua is condemned to wait until sufficient time has passed, but he seems to have given up hope, for he is described as a “sorry heap,” (IV, 109- 112) and though the translation may be a bit colloquial, the reader is still given the impression that Belacqua’s fate is unwelcome, and he is close to giving up hope. However, his humorous jibes at the poets reflect his knowledge that he will, eventually, ascend to paradise. He has, after all, got the rest of eternity to wait. This description of punishment, as with those given throughout the poem, reflects a notion of God’s personality as being juvenile and vengeful. Though this may come as no surprise to scholars of Christian texts, it is interesting to note that the punishment meted out to Belacqua sounds remarkably like the technique used by many passive-aggressive types to punish their tardy romantic partners. The idea that God would be emotionally hurt by the unwillingness of His creation to be saved merely because they can be, is a bit of a logical stretch, but it is no less irrational than many of the beliefs that Dante, and indeed that Christianity, ask us to hold.

At the first ledge, Dante has been exposed to the wondrous strangeness of the nether realm’s astronomy. This point could bear more study, and it is here that the text of canto IV will be analyzed with an eye for comparison with the anthropology of religion. The strangeness of the sun’s position is discussed in IV 54-85, and make up the middle third of the canto. This “obscure middle” is often glossed over by scholars in order to get at the more interesting social commentary that the beginning and the end offer the reader. However, the religious ontology and astronomy of Dante’s universe are just as important as the value of eager faith to an understanding of the early Renaissance. The Pilgrim’s wonderment at the path of the sun is an odd remark, and strikes the reader as contrived, since after such a long and strenuous climb, the last thing one would think to check would be the location of such a reliable landmark as the sun. How, one wonders, would Dante be able to tell the sun’s northward-swinging arc independently of the sun’s position itself? It is its angle from the shore that tells Dante what is amiss. This mild strangeness is a common feature of supernatural environments. The reader will note that gravity still applies, and that the sun does rise and set every day, as is common to many mythological locations (Erickson, 11). However, features of purgatory that violate earthly principles are the ‘backwards’ position of the sun, and as mentioned above, the decrease of a climber’s exertion as the angle of ascent increases with the approach of heaven. These features, though not unimaginable, are leaps of faith that the author thinks will make this purgatory a believable deviation from earth. Surely Dante would be happy to concede a few revisions if it was discovered that the lower half of the earth was not the home of souls on probation, but of Australians. His astronomical predictions, however, would bear out, since it is true that the sun’s path in the sky does in fact tilt to the left when one looks eastward in the southern hemisphere.

Recent writing about the anthropology of religion has turned on the Chomskian idea of universality, which seems to be propagating itself through anything that will call itself a science. Western religions have been taboo for many years as a subject of study in this field, though for what reason I know not; the ideal of scientific objectivity has been an uneven guide at best for the social sciences. Cognitive models for religion contain a comprehensive ontology for the nether-world or myth-space, whether it contains Valhalla, il Inferno, or a clamor of angels praising God. Each person has their own vision of this myth-space, but in general it is to be expected that the rules that apply to the physical world also apply to the metaphysical, with notable exceptions. In Dante’s case, these exceptions are almost arbitrary: they follow from moral guiding metaphors and common astronomical wisdom, but they mark purgatory as a strange place, literally un-earthly. Paul Boyer’s study of central African and South American myth systems, as well as other cognitive anthropologies of religion, go a long way in establishing the usefulness of these aberrations in propagating these ideas throughout culture (Boyer, 149). It is probably agreeable to many Dante scholars, as well as measurably true, that the conception of the Christian mythspace that is proposed in the Commedia has become part of the Western cultural tradition, and contains features which are part of many people’s mental model of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Boyer’s findings detail a system of thinking about ghosts. His hypothesis is that the strange features of ghosts – that they are invisible, can move faster than the eye can see, cannot communicate with humans directly – make them “salient,” or memorable and likely to become part of a culture’s mythology. If ghosts’ abilities are too outlandish, however, they will not become part of mainstream culture. We can see this phenomenon in action when considering how little of advanced theology has become part of the mainstream Judeo-Christian concept of God. However much the educated faithful would like to believe that God is invisible, omnipotent, and unknowable, most day-to-day concepts of God still echo the image of a wise bearded man on a huge throne floating in the sky (Banton, 16). Concepts of religion must yield to the limitations of the human imagination, it appears, and even though we may annotate them with references to infinity, they are still beholden to what images we can compose from our experience.

There is a peculiar irony in the position of the indolent being nearly outside the gates of purgatory itself. It is as though the author wishes to suggest that these souls can’t even trouble themselves to climb the short way to the door, but must lie around outside it like vagrants. The story of these souls, according to most scholars, is that they waited until their final moments to convert to Christianity; as Belacqua says: “I delayed the good sighs till the last” (IV 132). This practice of deathbed conversion was in fact common among Medieval pagans, including Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. The practice was derided by pious Christians, who saw in these latecomers the shallow conversion from fear, not the earnest faith of the true convert. Hasty conversions that were made in the face of one’s own mortality were apparently not enough to put one squarely on the roster of St. Peter, but those in Purgatory retain hope of eternal salvation, and the knowledge that with a little effort they will achieve it. The trials of the indolent attest to the fact that even in Dante’s era, the seeds of Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic were brewing in Christian theology. If indolence is sinful, then the ideal Christian life is obviously the life of faithful hard work in the service of God. This demonstrates the same sort of disdain for the ‘contemplative life’ that Calvin and Luther wrote of; though for 14th-century Catholics, it is possible that the contemplative life was perceived to be a restrained, difficult scholarly endeavor. Christianity is portrayed in the Purgatorio as something difficult to maintain, which upon examining the requirements for being a perfect Christian, one might be led to believe. The most pious souls alone were admitted to paradise, those repentant souls who had committed any sins at all were left below.

The punishment that the indolent receive, that of being made to wait out a term equal to the unsaved (but no longer ignorant) part of their lives, seems like a fitting, but ineffective one. The reader may wonder, why are the indolent being punished by being allowed to remain their usual indolent selves, and not subjected to a trial of exertion or of impatience? The purpose of the Purgatorio, however, is not to decide fitting punishments for the souls of the sinful repentant, but to describe them in a personal context. Like the history plays of Shakespeare, Dante’s Purgatorio draws from old and established stories about what happens to the soul in purgatory (Fergusson, 230). Since Christianity was an enormous part of Italian culture in the 14th century, it is reasonable to assume that much of the popular imagination was captured by ideas of what the afterlife would be like, similarly to the contemporary fascination with what life in outer space is like.  For more information go to

Canto IV of the Purgatorio concerns a minor part of purgatory itself, and even of ante-purgatory. However, apart from the presence and experiences of the indolent souls, this canto concentrates on revealing the astronomy and physics of the theological space that is purgatory. Dante’s description places the poets’ feet squarely on the ground, though the fact that it is no familiar earthly ground is made perfectly clear by aberrations in the behavior of the mountain’s physical laws. Associating purgatory with the unexplored territories of the earth makes the idea all the more real and accessible, while the oddity of the environment makes the story salient and memorable. These features of the Purgatorio, as expressed in canto IV, have helped to make this canonical work an inextricable part of Italian, and of Western culture.


Banton, Michael. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock Publications, 1968.

Boyer, Pascal. “Cognitive Constraints on Cultural Beliefs: Natural Kinds and Religious Ontologies,” in Mapping the Mind, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Caesar, Michael, ed. Dante: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.

Ciardi, John, tr. The Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri. New York: New American Library/Mentor, 1959.

Erickson, Wayne. Mapping the Faerie Queene: Quest structures and the world of the poem. New York: Garland Publishers, 1996.

Fergusson, Francis. Dante’s drama of the mind: a modern reading of the Purgatorio. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956. 

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