Throughout Dante’s journey in Hell, he encounters many souls of people that lived before Christ. They are being punished for sins, or crimes committed against God, even though they lived in a pre-Christian time. And as Dante journeys through Hell, he is chronicling the journey of all humankind from the pre-Christian world to the Christian world. In doing so, he must give the pre-Christian world meaning in terms of humankind’s Christian journey. He does this by investing pre-Christian people, events, and images taken from pre-Christian works such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses with Christian meaning. Two such images of this investment of meaning are that of the bleeding, talking tree originally seen in the Aeneid and the transformation of serpent to man found in Metamorphoses

One pre-Christian image that Dante imbues with Christian meaning is that of Polydorus. In the Aeneid, Aeneas stopped at Thrace, and prepared to offer sacrifices to the gods. He tore a branch from a tree, but black blood began to seep out. The tree then spoke to him and revealed that is was the spirit of Polydorus. The tree told its story: when he was human, Polydorus was sent by Priam to the King of Thrace with a large supply of gold, where he was supposed to be taken care of. However, once Troy falls, the King of Thrace betrays Polydorus, steals his gold, and orders him dead. He is assaulted with lances and javelins, which envelop him and transform him into his current form.

An image reminiscent of this encounter is found in Canto 13 of Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil leads Dante through the realm of suicides and together they meet with the inhabitants. The trees themselves are imbued with the spirits of those who committed suicide. In this forest, “no fruit was there” (XIII. 5). The fruit symbolizes the fruit of God’s spirit. In the Bible, God says “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These people did not abide by God; thus they (literally) do not bear fruit. Without God they cannot fulfill their role, as people or as trees. Furthermore, one soul they encounter has the name Piero, meaning “of the vine.” In the act of suicide, Piero cast himself off the “vine” of Christ. When he cast himself off the vine, he removed his ability to bear the fruit of God’s spirit. In doing this, he betrayed the will of God along with his own name, since he was no longer “of the vine” of Christ.

There are other Christian images prevalent in this tree. The wooden tree is symbolic of the wooden crucifix. The tree is “knotted and twisted,” obviously a Hellish rendition of the crucifix, which is straight and even, in the shape of a cross (XIII. 5). And when Dante talked to the tree, there “came forth words and blood together” (XIII. 44-44). The blood symbolizes the body of Christ. The blood was housed in the tree, much like Christ’s body was housed on the crucifix. The words erupting at the same time symbolize the connection between Christ and God’s message. Christ is the word of God, thus the blood and words erupt from the tree at the same time, since the word of God and Christ are inseparable; they are one in the same. Also, when the resurrection of the dead comes, these souls will not be reunited with their bodies. Instead, their “corpses will hang, each on the thornbush of the soul that harmed it” (XIII. 106-107). This is a hellish version of the crucifixion. Instead of Christ hanging on the cross for the sins of humankind, the bodies of these people will hang on the hellish version of the cross because of their own sins. Furthermore, Virgil makes Dante break the branch off the thornbush to teach him a lesson. Virgil apologizes to Piero to making Dante do this, telling him “If he could have believed first ... he would not have stretched out his hand against you” (XIII. 46-50). This also has some connection with the crucifixion of Christ. The sacrifice of the branch was needed to teach Dante a lesson, much like the sacrifice of Christ was necessary to teach humankind a lesson.

Another pre-Christian image that Dante invests with Christian meaning is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In these works, he wrote about the story of Cadmus and the serpent. In the story, a serpent killed some of Cadmus’ men, then Cadmus killed the serpent. He was then ordered by Pallus to sow the teeth of the serpent. He did, and men emerged from the ground. Thus, the imagery of the transformation of the serpent is from a pre-Christian time. However, in Cantos 24 and 25, Dante encounters the thieves, and their punishment is somewhat reminiscent of the transformation found in Ovid’s work about Cadmus. The thieves are punished by having serpents constantly “steal” their forms. In this theft is imagery that has some connections with the main metamorphoses found in the Bible.

In the punishment of Vanni Fucci, a serpent bites him at the base of the neck, and “he catches fire and burns and is all consumed, falling, to ashes” (XXIV. 100-102).

The punishment of Agnello and Cianfa also reflects some Biblical imagery. A serpent combines with each of them and they are each transformed into completely new creatures. They combine so homogeneously that “two and none the perverse image seemed,” saying that the new creature appeared to be like each individual creature in some aspects, but like neither in others (XXIV. 76-77). This is a perversion of the incarnation of Christ, in which God transfuses with man to become a combination of both mortal and divine. The two individual parts are inseparable in this union. The punishment of these people is a hellish version of this incarnation. Instead of combining man and a divine, holy being, these people are united with a serpent, symbolizing Satan and all that is evil and unholy. Instead of becoming the Savior, these people become a combination of mortal and evil that cannot be saved.

The fact that the metamorphoses are all caused by serpents also has some Biblical connotations. In the Garden of Eden, it was a serpent that enticed Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The serpent is always a symbol of evil. These particular sinners combining forms with the serpents to form new creatures is a symbol of sin in them. That is, just like Agnello was indistinguishable from the serpent that united with him, non-repentant sinners are so engulfed with evil that they are indistinguishable from it.

Throughout the Inferno, Dante constantly instills images found in the pre-Christian texts of his elders with Christian meaning. He takes the image of Polydorus in the Aeneid and manifests it with symbols of the crucifixion. He also uses images from Ovid’s story about Cadmus and infuses them with images reminiscent of the Bible. He does this to give the pre-Christian world meaning in terms of the Christian journey all humans must undergo. By doing this, he gives the history of mankind before Christ meaning in terms of all humanity’s Christian journey.

This has been another edition of Node Your Homework

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