Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 25

While climbing the stairs to the next terrace, Dante is tormented with a question: how could it be that the gluttonous sinners were so terribly thin? At Virgil’s prompting, Statius delivers a long and fascinating lecture on the generation of the body, the implanting of the soul, and the formation of the shade after death. As Statius finishes, the travelers arrive at the seventh terrace where they are greeted by great flames shooting out from the walls, making their passage along the cliff edge very dangerous. Within the flames, Dante sees spirits singing hymns and praising the virtue of chastity.

            Since it was almost mid-afternoon, it was time to move onward in earnest. And so we started climbing the stairs like men pressing on toward a goal and stopped by nothing along the way.

            As we climbed, though, I was like a baby stork wanting to fly, lifting a wing, but lacking boldness, and dropping it again. So there I was, dying to ask a question; but lacking the confidence at that moment, I withheld it. Nevertheless, Virgil, who could read my thoughts, urged me on: “I can see that you’ve drawn the bow of your speech right to the tip. Go ahead, now, let it go.”

            And so, with my confidence restored, I spoke to him. “I don’t understand how they could become so terribly thin like that since there’s no need to eat in this place.”

            “Ah,” he replied, “but if you remember the story of how Meleager slowly died as the log burned on the fire, you should be able to understand. On the other hand, think about how your image in a mirror moves as you do. But, since Statius is here with us, set your mind at ease. I will ask him to heal this wound that troubles you so.”

            “You know that I cannot deny your request,” replied Statius, “and so let me answer from God’s point of view.

            “My dear son,” he began, “listen carefully to what I am about to tell you because I will now explain how it can be that those souls are so thin. Within a man’s body there is a perfect blood, separate from that which flows through his veins. Within his heart this special blood acquires powers to form and shape the human body. This special blood, transformed, flows down through the man’s hidden parts and blends with the blood in the woman’s womb – one blood active, the other passive. Joined together, these two bloods begin their work as they coagulate.

            “Following this, it begins to move with life as it becomes the matter that will soon begin to take shape. This active force becomes a soul, like a plant’s soul at this point – except the plant’s growth stops here, whereas the new soul has only begun. Soon it reaches the stage of a simple creature, like a sea sponge. It now moves and feels, and then organs begin to take shape for the various faculties.

            “Now, my son, this living force keeps on growing, having originated in the man’s heart as nature’s seed for all the body’s parts. But how it moves from animal to human – this cannot be seen yet. It led Averroës astray in his teaching, where he separated the passive intellect from the soul because he couldn’t find an organ to contain it.

            “So now, attend to what I am going to tell you. When the brain has been shaped within the embryo, God rejoices at Nature’s art and breathes a new and powerful spirit into it. This spirit shapes everything together into a single, complete soul. It lives and feels and can think about itself. If you have difficulty understanding this, think about how the sun’s heat on the grapes works to form the wine.

            “Now, then, when a person dies, the soul is released from the body, but carries away with it both human and divine faculties. The human faculties soon become muted, while those faculties of the spirit – intellect, memory, and will – become even more active and far more acute than they were in life. At the same time, immediately, the soul finds itself either on the shore of the Acheron in Hell or on the shore of the Tiber, bound for this place. And on either shore it learns its eternal destiny.

            “Once there, the soul is enclosed in space and the powers active within it radiate outward, reshaping the body to its original form. It is like the air, filled with moisture after the rain. When the sun shines on it, the rainbow takes shape. So with the soul. The air around it takes the shape of the soul’s powers reflected on it. And as the flame follows the fire wherever it may move, so this new shape follows the soul everywhere.

            “The air around the soul makes it visible, and so we call it a shade. And out of that air it also forms the organs for every sense, including sight. We can speak, laugh, cry, and make sighs – like those you have heard here on this mountain. In the end, the shade takes the shape of our desires and changes according to how we feel. This is what so amazed you down below.”

            By now we had arrived at the final terrace, and we made our usual right turn. However, our attention was immediately drawn to something else: great flames shot out from the inner wall, and from the outer edge of the cliff came up a blast of air that forced the flames to bend back a bit, leaving a narrow path along the edge where we could only walk one by one. I was terrified! From the wall came the flames, and here I could fall off!

            Seeing my panic, Virgil said: “Be very careful here. Make sure you keep your eyes straight on the path ahead. Otherwise, you could slip and fall.”

            Then in the midst of that terrible heat I heard chanting: it was the hymn Summae Deus clementiae. Hearing this, I was more curious than ever to see what was there. And within the flames, now, I could see spirits walking. Frightened, but curious at the same time, I had to be careful where I stepped.

            When the hymn was finished, those flaming spirits cried out: Virum non cognosco. And then, more softly, they sang the hymn again. This time when it was finished, they cried out: “Diana stayed in the forest after chasing away Helice who had been seduced by Jove.” Then the hymn started again, and following it more shouts praising those who kept their marriage vows. As long as they walked within those flames they did this – the  wounds of their sins healed by the fire and the hymns.