255. The Divine Comedy II. Purgatory (Il Purgatorio) by Dante Alighieri (1308-1320)

Having emerged from the bottom levels of Hell, Dante and his guide Virgil must now scale the heights of Mount Purgatory, each level the site of the purging of heaven-bound souls of the sins they carried most in life. My reading copy was Purgatory, translated and explained by Dorothy L. Sayers and published by Penguin Classics, 1955.

Thoughts : The first thing to confess is my initial ignorance of what Purgatory is – literally a place where souls are purged. Before now, I had unthinkingly equated the word with Hell, or at best some sort of waiting room for Heaven. But the latter description utterly fails to really understand its role.  Here those who have turned to God before death (even if only in the last moments) are promised redemption and a place in Heaven, but must first be purged or purified.

Again, Dante does an amazing job of world-building, with each level of the mountain reserved for the purging of one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a reverse of the geography of Hell. But whereas those sinners suffer in Hell for eternity, those in Purgatory know they will reach Heaven, and willingly submit to the punishments which purge them.

Dante eventually reaches the top and enters the Forest representing Earthly Paradise (otherwise known as the Garden of Eden), a bright version of the dark and hopeless forest in which he had found himself lost at the beginning of Hell.

Again I’ll briefly outline the levels of Purgatory …..

Firstly there are two levels that actually are waiting rooms for entry to the Mountain ; the first for the Excommunicate (where souls wait for 30x the length of their earthly life) and the second is for Late Repentants : the Indolent, the Unshriven and the Preoccupied who wait only a single length of their lifespan.

After this wait ends, they mount the three steps to the gate of Saint Peter to enter Purgatory proper. Dante is marked on the forehead with 7 P’s representing the Deadly Sins, each to be removed as he passes out of each level or Cornice.

Cornice 1 is for the Proud, who carry heavy stones on their back, forcing them to look down at the ground as they stagger around the Mountain ledge. Cornice 2 is for the Envious, who have their eyes wired shut (easily the most horrific scene in this book). Next is the Cornice of the Wrathful, who run about in blinding, choking smoke. The Slothful run perpetually around the ledge of Cornice 4, while the Covetous lie prostate staring at the ground of Cornice 5. The Gluttonous starve slowly on the next level tantalised by fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, while on the last level the Lustful whose penance is to burn in fires, again running around the ledge.

Once a soul has been cleansed of its particular sin/s, it comes to the realization that it is now able to rise, either to the next necessary level, or direct to Paradise. The air is filled with the singing of all the penitents in celebration and the mountain shakes as if an earthquake is happening. Souls may be moved along faster on their course by prayers from the virtuous still alive on Earth. Dante is often begged to carry messages back to the world by souls seeking remembrance and forgiveness.

“Truly we ought to help them cleanse the smears,

they carried hence, that, weightless and washed white

they may fare forth and seek the starry spheres”    Canto XI, page 151

Reading Purgatory required even more reliance on Sayers’ excellent explanatory footnotes not only to fill in the biographies of the souls Dante meets, but also to help understand the discussions on free will, love, sin, political and church history which crop up between progresses. (Climbing the Mountain is impossible at night, giving the author the opportunity to lecture the reader).

Perhaps not as awe inspiring a read (and certainly not as horrific) as Hell but certainly memorable.

Personal rating:  6/10

In the years 1310-1319:

  • Robert the Bruce invades England, 1311. Edward II fights back but is defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn, 1314.
  • Order of the Knights Templar is abolished, c1312 ; and their ex-Grand Master Jacques de Molay is burned at the stake for heresy, 1314
  • Legends of Prester John, Christian king of a nation in east Africa, prompt Pope John XXII to send a squad of Dominican friars to Ethiopia in search, 1316

taken from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

Other reading: 

The Book of Dede Korkut : Folktales of heroes and battles of the Oghuz Turks, originally Siberian or Mongol people who migrated west to Iran and Turkey around the 11th and 12th centuries. Their tales are contradictory and mirror ancient Greek stories in some respects. The best image is when someone is quaking with fear, the lice jump off their bodies and lie in piles at their feet. Another Penguin Black Classic read but I didn’t feel inclined to write a full post for the blog.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett : I never quite liked Discworld. So much cleverness that it starts to become commonplace. I’ll try again starting with this first in the series which even Pratchett himself admitted was not his best.

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. A British Library Crime Classic lurking quietly in my local library! Fun murder mystery meets supernatural atmosphere. Or does it? Train passengers leave a snowbound train to walk (?!) to a nearby deserted house. They should have stayed put.

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