In response to the recent assumption that we are all disrespecting authority, judging or disagreeing with Dante, and getting stuck behind cultural biases, I would like to clarify my views on Dante by further expanding on the subject I began exploring in my first post. In case you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. Otherwise, what I say in this post may seem unclear or out of context. Basically, I believe there is strong evidence so far in the Dante’s Comedy that he was quite open-minded about and courteous toward other beliefs and ways of life, and I find this inspiring. Support for this can be found in the respectful way he depicts Virgil (a non-Christian), Saladin (a Muslim), and mythological gods. This latter group is what I want to focus on in this post. I am particularly interested in the ways in which Dante incorporates mythological characters and beliefs into his version of the afterlife.
The first time I really took notice of the repeated mythological themes was rather late in The Inferno when Dante encounters Ephialtes and Antaeus among the giants in Canto XXI. On pages 243 and 244, Dante describes how these two souls are being punished for rebelling against the gods, specifically Jove. I was confused about why Dante, a devout Christian, would place so much power and authority in the hands of these pagan gods. Virgil, when speaking of Ephialtes, says, “this piece of arrogance…dared try his strength against the power of Jove” (XXXI 91-92). Antaeus is rewarded for staying loyal to the gods. Ciardi notes that “Antaeus did not join in the rebellion against the gods and therefore he is not chained” (246). Why would it matter that these two rebelled against pagan gods who couldn’t have been powerful or even existed if Dante believes in one, all-powerful God who had existed since before time began?
The only answer I can give is to ignore for a moment any literal interpretation of this passage. If taken allegorically, it could be shown as an example of what happens when one rebels against God, his angels, Church authority, or authority in general. Virgil calls attention to Ephialtes’ arrogance. It would indeed be the ultimate arrogance to challenge God. The fact that these are giants further illuminates their arrogance and the idea that they were so filled with pride that they quite literally had “big heads,” as we say today.
Another example of mythic characters is in Canto XXXII where Alessandro and Napoleone lie among those who were treacherous to kin. I draw a parallel between these brothers and Eteocles and Polynieces, Oedipus’ two sons who inherited his kingdom and ended up killing each other in a duel over who would control their inheritance. I have little interpretation of their inclusion other than that it only furthers my point that Dante relied on the classical myths when writing.
Further, mythological ideas of the afterlife and its physical structure literally run through The Inferno and The Purgatorio. Dante includes the rivers Tiber, Acheron, and Styx which figure prominently in classical mythology.
It seems obvious to me that just as Dante’s choice of Virgil as mentor (a Pagan leading a Christian = Paganism leading to Christianity) shows his respect for those beliefs which laid the foundation for his, his frequent use of mythological figures reveals not only a respect for traditional beliefs, but also for traditional stories and devices. Dante as poet and as character pays homage to the great poets and literary figures who he encounters. I think he also pays homage by including references to the great stories that came before his.