Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 19

Late at night Dante dreams of an ugly Siren. The more he stares at her, the more beautiful she becomes, until a holy lady arrives who calls Virgil to awaken him. Virgil rips away the Siren’s  clothing down to her waist and a terrible stench from her awakens Dante. Later, an angel shows them the way to the stairs and soon they arrive at the fifth terrace where the sin of avarice is punished. Virgil explains that the Siren represents the sins punished higher up on the mountain. Dante has a conversation with Pope Adrian V, who explains the nature of his punishment.

            It was far after midnight, when the heat of the day was replaced by the cold rays of the moon – and the cold light of Saturn, too. It was also that time of night when geomancers watch the stars of Fortuna Major rise in the east where soon they will be followed by the rising sun. Dreaming, I saw a hideous woman approach me, stammering, cross-eyed, stumbling on her crooked feet, with mangled hands and ugly skin. But it seemed that my prolonged staring at her worked a change upon her so that her tongue was loosened, her misshapen body was straightened, and her pale, blemished face became warm and lovely to look at.

            With her tongue now freed from its impediment by my staring, she began to sing – singing in such a way that I was completely captivated by her and could not break free. “I am,” she sang, “I am that sweet Siren whose song charms the sailors at sea, enchanting them. It was my songs that made Ulysses stray off course. I satisfy so well that whoever stays with me rarely leaves.”

            But no sooner had she finished her song than there appeared at my side a saintly lady standing ready to ruin that Siren’s scheme. She cried out indignantly: “O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?” Keeping an eye on that holy lady, he moved forward, grabbed that Siren roughly, tore at her tunic, and exposed her down to her belly! At that moment, such a stench came off her that I was jolted awake.

            As I looked at Virgil sleepily, he said: “At least three times I’ve called you. Get up now. Let’s find the stairs where you can ascend.”

            The sun had risen and its light now shone brightly over all the circles on that sacred mountain as we walked along. I must have looked like part of an arch as I followed Virgil, bent over with my thoughts. But suddenly I heard a voice: “Come this way; here are the stairs,” it said in tones we would never hear on earth.

            Then I saw the angel’s wings, outstretched like a graceful swan. He showed us to the place where the stairs rose upward between two high walls of stone, and then moved his wings over us declaring those who mourn – qui lugent – to be blest.

            “You are bothered by something,” Virgil said to me as we climbed upward past the angel. “Why do you look down like that?”

            “I’m haunted by that strange dream,” I said. “It fills me with dread and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.”

            “What you saw,” he replied, “was that ancient witch who makes the souls above us weep. And you also saw how to escape from her enchantments. This is all you need to know for now, so let’s quicken our pace. Instead of looking downward, look up and be enthralled at the heavens laid out for us by the Eternal King.”

            And so I was the falcon who had been staring at his feet, but hearing the call, stretched out its wings and flew to his food. I pressed onward to reach the top step and begin exploring the next terrace. Once there at that fifth level, I stopped to look around and saw that the path was filled with souls lying face-down upon the ground, all of them weeping. I heard the Psalm,  Adhaesit pavimento anima mea, sung with great sighs that made it hard to hear the words.

            “O elect of God, you whose sufferings are made easier by justice and hope, please tell us how to reach the next stairs.”

            “If you are excused from our prostration here, and seek the quickest way to the stairs, keep moving with your right side toward the ledge.”

            Thus I heard a nearby soul reply to Virgil’s query – so close was he that I could tell which one he was, though his face was against the ground. Seeing the happy approval of my desire in Virgil’s face, and now free to do what I had wished, I went forward and stood near the head of that soul who had just spoken to us.

            “O spirit,” I said, “whose tears are making good your repentance, allow me to interrupt this holy labor of yours. Please tell me who you were, and why all of you here lie with your faces to the ground. Alive as I am, perhaps there is some way I can help you when I return to the world.”

            “In a moment you will understand why Heaven makes us turn our backs to it,” that spirit replied, “but first, scias quod ego fui successor Petri. Between Sestri and Chiaveri a river flows from which my family derives its noble name. I was pope for only a month before I realized how heavy the great mantle weighs on him who would keep it clean. Compared to it, anything else is like a feather!

            “Unfortunately, it was only when I was made the Shepherd of Rome that I came to realize the emptiness of the world. The restless heart, the endless striving for more – these taught me to love the life above. Before that, I was a miserable slave to the avarice that separated me from God. In this place, as you can see, I pay for my sins. You see, this punishment is perfectly fitting for the avaricious soul. And I tell you this: there is no more severe punishment to be found on this mountain.

            “When we were alive, we were so attached to the things of the world that we never bothered to look up to Heaven. Thus, divine Justice forces us to look at the ground. Any consideration of good works was lost in our continual grasping for more, and so here we are bound tight by the bonds of justice. We lie here, as you see, facing the ground until God will be pleased to bring us into his eternal realm.”

            Well, by now, I was already on my knees, and he could sense my respect by the tone of my words.

            “But why are you kneeling there beside me?” he asked.

            “Because of the honor your office demands. I could not, in good conscience, remain standing.”

            “No, my dear brother,” he replied, “do not kneel for me, because I, like you and everyone else, am just a servant of that One Power in Heaven. If you understand the gospel passage that tells us, Neque nubent, then you will also understand what I just told you. But please leave me now because our conversation interrupts my tears of repentance. On earth, I have a niece called Alagia. She is good, and I hope she will not be tainted by the bad example of my family. She is all that is left to me there on earth.”