Mapping Morality: the Afterlife of Virgil and Dante

November 26, 2008

The elaborate and highly Christianized conception of hell as imagined by Dante Alighieri in the Inferno portion of the Divine Comedy borrows heavily from the earlier depiction crafted by Virgil in the Aeneid. It is presumably for this reason, among others, that Dante chooses Virgil to be the guide for his surrogate self through his creation. Some translators and critics have gone so far as to say that Dante’s version commits a kind of patricide upon Virgil’s version by virtue of its quantitative—and, arguably, qualitative—superiority (Mandelbaum ix). Value judgments aside, the two explorations of the afterlife, or one portion thereof in the case of Dante’s work, serve to illustrate the disparate views held by the Romans and Christians with regards to the physicality of death and the appurtenant moral or ethical concerns. For the most part, Virgil’s narrative is descriptive, while Dante’s is normative; Aeneas embarks on his journey to see his father, while Dante’s journey is one of both internal reflection and the representation of externally imposed moral guidelines.

Both Aeneas and Dante begin their journeys in a similar landscape: a dark, forested area that leads to a cave, which in turn takes the hero underground. Virgil describes the landscape as a “forest encircled by the black curves of Cocytus” (VI.183) and a “great wood” (VI.256). He also places the Sibyl, who will guide Aeneas through the underworld, in a system of caves with a hundred gates through which the winds blow. The underworld is also referred to as Aornos, the birdless place, because of its lifelessness and subterranean nature. All of this points to the Roman conception of death as a physically dark environment, in which one finds “things buried in the dark and deep of earth” (VI.355). There is no morality implicit in this fact; all who die go to the same place, generally speaking. Dante also finds himself in a “shadowed forest” (I.2) and “savage wilderness” (I.93), but his is more of an allegorical than a physical location. Dante’s forest represents the spiritual or moral confusion in which he finds himself, having “lost the path that does not stray” (I.3) in the middle of his life. He begins his journey on Good Friday, that day on which Jesus reportedly died, and thus Dante’s descent into the underworld follows in the footsteps of Jesus’ descent. Once again, there is the entrance into a cave, but this cave mirrors the one in which Jesus was interred. This is a much more figurative than literal representation, and reflects the Christian nature of his narrative as opposed to the more secular nature of Virgil’s.

Upon reaching the boundary that explicitly separates the living from the dead, both Aeneas and Dante encounter Charon and the souls of the dead waiting to cross the river Acheron. Charon is described in virtually identical terms by both Virgil and Dante: “white hairs lie thick, disheveled on his chin; his eyes are fires that stare” (VI.395) in the Aeneid and “an aged man his hair was white with years” (III.83) with “eyes like embers” (III.109) in the Inferno. However, the depictions differ in the manner in which Charon interacts with the dead souls, which in both instances are eager to cross over. In the Aeneid, Charon refuses to carry any dead souls that were not properly buried. The souls are consigned to wander aimlessly along the banks of the river for a hundred years before they will be allowed passage; this is presumably the amount of time it will take both for their bodies to decompose sufficiently, and for their memories on earth to be figuratively entombed by successive generations having no direct memory themselves of the deceased. This reflects the Roman emphasis on the importance of funereal rites and entombment, as well as the belief that death carried with it a kind of forgetfulness and fading for the dead, who are shades rather than tangible creatures.

Dante’s Charon, on the other hand, bluntly informs the dead:
Woe to you, corrupted souls!
Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
to the eternal dark, to fire and frost. (III.84-87)
Here, the emphasis is on the evil nature of the souls that are destined to spend eternity in hell. The souls themselves are, as Dante’s Virgil puts it, “eager for the river crossing because celestial justice spurs them on” (III.124-5); they know that they deserve the punishment that will be imposed upon them, and so they crave it. This highlights Dante’s argument, as writer, for the external and objective nature of the laws of morality as determined by God and explained by Virgil throughout the journey. Those who violate the laws will suffer consequences which are neither arbitrary nor subjective, and Dante intends them to serve as a warning for his readers. Additionally, both Virgil and Dante compare the souls of the dead to autumn leaves falling from trees, both to illustrate the enormous quantity of dead souls and their fragile, insubstantial nature, as well as to compare death with the onset of winter. Virgil goes further and compares the souls to birds fleeing winter, while Dante calls them “the evil seed of Adam” (III.115); this draws attention to the Roman vision of death as a natural, cyclical occurrence, and the Christian connection of all men to Adam, the progenitor.

From there, the two heroes pass into the vestibules of their respective underworlds, Aeneas on Charon’s boat and Dante through mysterious means while he is unconscious. There, they both find Cerberus, who prevents the living from entering and the dead from leaving. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl throws a honey cake laced with sleeping drugs to Cerberus, and he eventually succumbs and falls asleep so that she and Aeneas can pass. This illustrates that the “living” inhabitants of the underworld, its gods and monsters, were as real and tangible to the Romans as Aeneas himself, and thus susceptible to things like drugs and sleep. They are literal creatures rather than mere symbolic representations of abstract concepts or natural processes. In the Inferno, by contrast, Virgil flings a handful of muck to Cerberus rather than a honey cake, and Cerberus is depicted “as a dog that barks with greedy hunger” (VI.28) who is then quiet when fed, “intent and straining hard to cram it in” (VI.30). It is notable that while Cerberus is at the vestibule of hell in the Aeneid, just on the other side of the Acheron, in Dante’s hell he is located in the third circle, watching over the gluttons. These sinners are punished by having all possible comforts denied to them, and as their overseer, Cerberus is also denied any comforts, left as hungry as his charges. Dante’s hell is completely devoid of any possible pleasures; there are no honey cakes there, not even for the inhabitants who supervise the sinners.

Aeneas subsequently encounters the weeping souls of infants and the falsely accused, both of whom are innocents who have no assigned place in the afterlife. The infants are the more significant of the two in that they illustrate the Roman conception of good and evil as being accumulated through deeds. Because they never had a chance to commit misdeeds, the infants are blank slates and have done nothing to merit either reward or punishment. Dante also encounters unbaptized infants in Limbo, the first circle of hell. It is outside the boundaries of the circles where punishments are meted out because, once again, the infants have done nothing to merit punishment. However, there are not simply infants, but unbaptized men and women as well; in the Christian view, all humans are born with the original sin of Adam and Eve marring their souls, and this sin can only be cleansed through baptism. Even though they themselves had been virtuous, these people still carried the original sin and thus were unable to ascend to heaven. This illustrates the sharpest dichotomy between the Roman and Christian views of morality: for the Romans, everyone went to the same place when they died, but only the evil were punished when they arrived. By contrast, to the Christians, it was not sufficient simply to live a virtuous life; one also had to be baptized in order to achieve salvation.

Virgil next locates the suicides just inside the underworld: “although innocent, [they] took death by their own hands” (VI.574-5). They are surrounded by marshland and the river Styx, just beyond Minos, the “magistrate” who judges men. The Roman conception of suicide appears to be that it was tragic, because death to them is permanent and irrevocable, but it was not evil. Dante, on the other hand, places the suicides in the seventh circle of hell, which is reserved for those who commit crimes of violence. This emphasizes the Christian view of suicide as violence against one of God’s creations; the proscription “thou shalt not kill” includes the self as well as others. Virgil gives no special consideration to the physical manifestation of the suicides; they are as insubstantial and shadowy as the other spirits. Dante, however, specifically describes them as twisted trees: “No green leaves in that forest, only black: no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled; no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison” (XIII.3-6). This description is reminiscent of the forest outside the underworld through which Aeneas sought the golden bough that would permit him passage and return; however, Dante’s forest of suicides is not simply meant to recall the dark barrenness of death, but to render a punishment befitting the crime of suicide. Because they rejected their own forms in life, these spirits are bereft of those forms in death as punishment. Both groups of suicides are depicted as trying to escape the pain they suffered in life, but now Virgil’s dead crave it as superior to nothing, and Dante’s must endure it forever from the Harpies, who tear at the trees that they have become. While Virgil emphasizes innocence and regret, presenting the Roman view that death was terminal and a mere shadow of former life, Dante considers it pitiable but nonetheless a serious digression.

One of the last landscapes that Aeneas explores before he reaches the goal of his quest, his father, is the Fields of Mourning. Here, “concealed by secret paths, are those whom bitter love consumed with brutal waste” (VI.583-4); here Virgil places Dido, despite the fact that she committed suicide. Dante also notably places Dido among those who committed crimes of passion rather than suicide. Virgil sets these spirits inside a myrtle grove; that tree is sacred to Venus, symbolizing love. Once again, there is a dark forest, this time representative of the love that was itself darkened by rejection and death and has led to continued pain in the afterlife. Dante, on the other hand, places those who commit crimes of passion into an unending tempest, buffeted about by winds as they were moved in life by their uncontrollable lust. To Dante’s Christian perspective, lust is a crime of incontinence, in which the person is unable to contain his or her baser impulses. It is distinguished from love, which is the purer expression and greatly desirable while lust is to be avoided. In particular, Dante notes that adulterous love is sinful by singling out Paolo and Francesca; Virgil instead reunites Dido with her dead husband Sychaeus, choosing to honor her original vow rather than subject her to any punishment for breaking it. This indicates a broader conception of what is permissible morally in that realm to the Romans, and a more narrow definition of what is sinful in the case of the Christian perspective.

Finally, Aeneas comes to the pathway that leads either to Tartarus, for the evil spirits, or to Elysium, for the good. This is the first clear indication that those who are evil or good in life will find some kind of appropriate justice in the afterlife, rather than merely being flung together. However, given the previous fates of other spirits in the poem, these ideas were apparently just becoming or had recently become popular in Virgil’s time. Tartarus is described as having a giant gateway, potentially analogous to the portal into hell in the very beginning of the Inferno, as well as a tower of iron in which the sinners were imprisoned, judged and whipped. Specific people here have specific punishments, such as Tityos, who has his liver and intestines continuously eaten by a vulture only to grow back and be eaten again. There is no clear indication of contrapasso, the punishments being tailored to fit the crime, as Dante does with his construction of hell. This again points to Virgil’s work as descriptive rather than normative; unlike Dante, he is not seeking to provide a template for proscribing particular behaviors. The only inkling of contrapasso in Virgil’s work is the table at which the gluttons sit, unable to eat lest the Harpies attack them. It is, however, very different from Dante’s depiction of gluttons, who fall under the province of incontinence, and as previously described are deprived of all the creature comforts of their lives and pelted eternally with cold rain. Although the manifestations are dissimilar, it is clear that both the Romans of Virgil’s time and the Christians of Dante’s time find overindulgence to be condemnable.

Further exploration of the underworld in the Aeneid is more personal, with Aeneas being reunited with his father in the everlasting summer of the Elysian Fields. Dante continues his enumeration of sins and their consequent punishments, going into much greater detail than Virgil. The farther into hell Dante the character explores, the more detached he becomes, and the less sympathetic towards the sinners as they suffer their punishments. This reflects the Christian notion that certain sins are easier to commit than others, namely the sins of incontinence, which merely require passivity or lack of restraint rather than active malfeasance. Virgil’s underworld has only the most nascent construction of a hierarchy of sin as evidenced by some spirits having their own unique landscape and others being specifically punished for objectively immoral behavior. As discussed, his afterlife is intended more as a portion of Aeneas’ complete heroic journey, whereas for Dante, the afterlife is the entire journey, a kind of pilgrimage to instruct the reader in proper moral behavior rather than simply to illuminate the land of the dead for the sake of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. Dante lost his way and must find it again, for his own sake and that of his sinful readers, while Aeneas knows exactly where he is going and why, and needs no such assistance.


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