Dante and the three beasts

In the first canto of the Inferno, Dante, having gone astray in a dark wood, reaches the base of a sunlit hill (later described by Virgil as “the mountain of delight, the origin and cause of every joy”) and begins to climb — only to find the way blocked by three beasts. First, a leopard appears.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise–
look there! — a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

It is a spring morning, and “the hour and the gentle season” give Dante “good cause for hopefulness” upon seeing the leopard — but then he sees a lion.

but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
His head held high and ravenous with hunger —
even the air around him seemed to shudder —
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

When the third beast appears, Dante gives up hope entirely.

And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.
The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
. . . I retreated down to lower ground.

Allen Mandelbaum, in his notes to his translation of the Inferno (which is the version I have quoted), writes, “For most early commentators — and, after many alternate proposals, for many moderns — the leopard represents lust; the lion, pride; the she-wolf, avarice or cupidity.” In what appears to be the most popular of the alternate proposals, the three beasts, instead of representing a seemingly arbitrary subset of the seven deadly sins, stand for the three divisions of Dante’s hell: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Everyone who advocates this latter scheme agrees that the lion represents violence, but there is no agreement as to which of the other two beasts maps to which of the remaining categories of sin. (The leopard’s spotted hide could represent camouflage and thus fraud, or it could be “spotted” in the sense of being impure — macolato as the opposite of immaculate — and thus represent the lusts of the flesh.) In any case, regardless of the details, commentators are unanimous in interpreting the three beasts as allegories of sin and in associating at least one of them with lust or incontinence, and it is in this general sense that I wish to discuss them.

There is, on the face of it, something very odd and counterintuitive about portraying lust as an intimidating beast which stands uphill from the pilgrim, blocking his ascent and forcing him to turn back down the mountain. Surely people are lured from the path of virtue — not intimidated — by lust, and a more natural allegory would have depicted lust as an enticing siren located downhill from the pilgrim, drawing him towards her rather than scaring him away. The same is doubly true of pride, if that is indeed what the lion is meant to represent. How can it possibly make sense to say that the pilgrim had been full of hope until his own pride struck terror into his heart? What has trepidation to do with pride? If the beasts are sins, whatever particular sins they may be, one would expect them to be portrayed as tempting Dante rather than frightening him — but when Beatrice tells Virgil of how Dante is “hindered in his path along that lonely hillside,” she says nothing about temptation or going astray; rather, she reports that her friend “has been turned aside by terror.”

So it appears that what bars “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is not sin but fear of sin, not temptation but the avoidance of temptation. When Dante repeatedly turns back and retreats, this does not symbolize sinning or backsliding; rather, he is abandoning his spiritual quest for fear that if he continues he will fall prey to sin. Ascending the mountain — which surely symbolizes spiritual advancement and drawing closer to God — nevertheless exposes Dante to the danger of sin, which no longer menaces him when he retreats to lower ground.

Perhaps this lower ground, where one can be safe from sin and yet unsaved, is the ground taken by those Dante later encounters in Canto III,

the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
. . .
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.
. . .
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.

To remain in safety at the foot of the mountain is to be one of these “wretched ones, who never were alive.” To attempt the ascent is spiritual suicide, a sure path to damnation — for the she-wolf, Virgil explains, “allows no man to pass along her track, but blocks him even to the point of death.” Dante is quite literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and he escapes his predicament only through divine grace, when the saints in heaven (the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, and Beatrice) send Virgil to his aid. The remainder of the Comedy — the grand tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise — is nothing but the detour Virgil arranges for Dante because “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is blocked.


Dante’s dilemma brings other heroes to mind — Gilgamesh, for one, who also finds his mountain path blocked by fierce beasts, but who reacts rather differently:

At night when he came to the mountain passes Gilgamesh prayed: ‘In these mountain passes long ago I saw lions, I was afraid and I lifted my eyes to the moon; I prayed and my prayers went up to the gods, so now, O moon god Sin, protect me.’ When he had prayed he lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions round him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the string, and struck and destroyed and scattered them.

What the lions meant to the Mesopotamian poets is unknown, but that they represented “sin” or anything of that nature seems unlikely, so the Dante-like imagery of this episode is probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, the parallels are more than superficial. In broad terms, Gilgamesh faces the same dilemma as Dante — whether to ascend the mountain and dare damnation or to settle for the safety and stagnation of moral circumspection — and he makes the other choice. Gilgamesh is perhaps the earliest prototype of the Faustian man, and it is Faust even more than Gilgamesh who comes to mind as a counterpart to Dante, one who is put in the same predicament and chooses the other path. As Terryl Givens puts it in an insightful essay comparing Faust to Eve,

Dr. Faustus conveys the pathos of what it means to be Eve in a claustrophobic garden: Logic, medicine, law—the entire medieval curriculum he has mastered. His narrow study, like the boundaries of Eden, fits only “a mercenary drudge . . . too servile and illiberal for me.” So finding his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, he takes it.

Dante also finds that his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, and he retreats to lower ground. Of course, Dante reaches heaven in the end, while Faustus is damned, all his daring and striving ultimately as futile as Gilgamesh’s. Only in Goethe’s version is Faust saved — and, like Dante, only by grace. “Whoever strives with all his might,” say the angels in the closing scenes of Goethe’s drama, “we are allowed to save.”

Goethe uncannily echoes the Book of Mormon here — “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23) — and Givens in his essay sees Goethe’s conception of Faust as parallel to Joseph Smith’s conception of Eve. Smith taught that the Fall was not an unfortunate catastrophe, but rather a necessary step along the road to salvation; had Adam and Eve not fallen, they would have remained in a state reminiscent of the “sorry souls” encountered by Dante, “having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). Dante, in contrast, follows the more orthodox understanding that it would have been better if Adam and Eve had not fallen, that had they chosen pusillanimity instead of sin, God could have saved them from that as well.


1 Comment

Filed under Literature

One response to “Dante and the three beasts

  1. Daniel

    Don’t find it odd at all. What is odd, is that such a master poet would simply be prefiguring the three realms of his story with these three beasts. Rather, it is precisely through these three realms that these three beasts are slain.

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