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The achilles simile in Purgatorio 9.

The comparison between the pilgrim's disorientation and fear upon awaking at the threshold of Purgatory and the young Achilles' reaction as he awakes in unfamiliar Skyros intimates the pilgrim's continued attachment to the secular values of glory and honor, as well as his doubts about the success of his spiritual journey. This simile at the opening of Canto 9 and the narrative that surrounds it mark this point before the door of Purgatory as a crucial moment in the process of conversion, in which the pilgrim struggles at a deep level against the forward momentum of the journey. While most commentators and critics have focused only on the primary point of the comparison, there are compelling reasons for considering the wider effects of linking the two characters here. (1) First, the poet hints strongly that he is interested in describing more than mere disorientation, as he reminds the reader in the course of the comparison that Achilles' journey will not end in Skyros, as his mother had hoped, but rather with the Greek army on the plains before Troy: "... quando la madre da Chiron a Schiro/trafuggo lui dormendo in le sue braccia,/la onde poi li Greci dipartiro" (Purg. 9, 37-39, emphasis mine). (2) Second, the projection of Achilles' tragic future within the simile also recalls all the ambivalence of the pilgrim toward the figure of Ulysses, who, as the pilgrim hears in Inferno 26, was instrumental in Achilles' destruction, even as he led him to glory (Inf. 26, 61-63). Here Ulysses continues to figure in the pilgrim's imagination throughout much of the journey as a temptation to an experience that opposes that of the journey toward conversion. Third, Dante's redaction of the scene from Statius' Achilleid intensifies the emotion of the waking protagonist. Singleton suggests that the language of intense fear here echoes other points of crisis in the pilgrim's journey, such as the pilgrim's utter sense of loss before the horror of Lucifer's image (Singleton, 185). Given these aspects of the figure of Achilles, the timing of the comparison seems particularly peculiar and purposeful, as it occurs just after the pilgrim has received the grace to lift him to the threshold of Purgatory proper. Finally, the Achilles simile is tied to the complex of signs woven into the first part of Purgatorio 9, and is inextricably linked to the pilgrim's dream that precedes it. It is impossible to read the anxiety of the pilgrim without recalling the image of Ganymede snatched violently from his familiar surroundings.

The comparison to Achilles here provokes questions about the pilgrim's susceptibility to the rhetorical power of Ulysses intimated in Inferno 26 and the temptation to value worldly glory over heavenly grace. Compared to other mythological figures evoked in the Commedia as negative exempla for the pilgrim, such as Phaethon, Achilles' direct connection to Ulysses points to the danger not only of obvious pride and presumption but also of the more subtle parts of one's character upon which a master rhetorician could work. If, as many commentators believe, Ulysses is a constant reminder for the pilgrim/poet of his potential for transgression, Achilles is a figure of the hero tempted, a hero who could not restrain himself. (3) In this specific passage, Dante's highly condensed account of the story of Statius' Achilles here reduces it to two essential movements: the movement away from danger and tragedy and a subsequent counter-movement toward it, Thetis' attempt to save her son by hiding him in Skyros and the Greeks taking him away from there. Dante's terse description of the counter-movement of the Greeks away from the island ("la onde poi ...") suggests the strong, nearly inevitable pull of Ulysses' manipulation of Achilles' will, as he thoroughly erases the moment of Achilles' initial resistance to the call to war. This double movement, the second of which "undoes" the first, has strong implications for the pilgrim. Although he is lifted by Lucia to the "salvific" steps of Purgatory, Dante suggests that, as with Achilles, this progress could be undone if temptation for worldly honor and the weakness of his will were to conspire against him. And at this point in the pilgrim's journey the fascination with Ulysses and the temptation to Ulyssean experience remain active, at least until the second dream in Purgatorio 19.

Before Singleton, Grabher and Pietrobono had also noted in their commentaries on this passage Dante's subtle intensification of the fear of his waking subject, compared to his model in Book I of Statius' Achilleid; in Dante's verse, the pilgrim is "ismorto" and frozen ("agghiaccia") with fear, in contrast to the "stupore" of Statius' Achilles. (4) As at other points in which the pilgrim feels this intense fear in the Commedia the pilgrim has recurring doubts about the prospective success of his journey, and he is confronted with the necessity or possibility of turning back. (5) Such a pattern makes the language of the Achilles passage more surprising, because it occurs while the pilgrim is advancing toward his goal, not, as in these other moments of crisis, when he is at a standstill. Yet because the fear is so short-lived--Virgil comes quickly to the pilgrim's aid with comforting words--critics have downplayed it, viewing it as a localized fear and unwilling to pursue Singleton's suggestion that the passage looks back to earlier moments of crisis.

In his commentary Giacalone typifies the minimization of the thematic importance of the fear, concluding that it merely helps "solennizzare il racconto itinerale." Nevertheless, by nodding to the future fate of Achilles in the last line of the comparison, Dante insists that even though the success of the journey is apparent to the reader, the pilgrim is ironically fearful that, despite reassurances from Virgil and others, his journey will end in death.

The Achilles image reveals how little progress the pilgrim has made in convincing himself that he is worthy of the journey which he has undertaken, as the scene in Purgatorio 9 recalls the pattern of action in Inferno 2. Just as he confessed his doubts to Virgil at the beginning of his journey, so here at this crucial point before the door of Purgatory his conscience is tinged with doubt. And the doubt is intensified. Not only does he feel himself neither Paul nor Aeneas, but also he fears he will be another Achilles, brought temporarily to a safe place, only later to succumb to tragedy. When Virgil assures him of the divine sanction of the journey in his account of Lucia's actions, one can see clearly the pattern of fear and reassurance that recalls that in Inferno 2. In both instances the pilgrim overcomes his fear at Virgil's evocation of divine aid that has descended to aid him, figured both as virtue and beauty. Virgil's description of Lucia's "occhi belli" (Purg. 9, 62) recalls his similar admiration for Beatrice's radiant eyes (Inf. 2, 55). In both cases Dante uses a simile to express the renewed hope of the pilgrim in the voyage. Thus, by linking the two scenes, Dante seems to emphasize that the pilgrim continues to be susceptible to the doubts he feels early in the journey.

Dante manipulates the episode from the Achilleid in order to dramatize further the fear of the pilgrim, as well as a vague, subconscious resistance to the journey. Like Statius' Achilles, the pilgrim is snatched up at night and awakes well after the sun has risen. Yet while Statius has Achilles simply open his eyes toward the light of the sun (Achilleid I, 242-248), Dante notes that, as he awakes and faces the sun, the pilgrim is also turned toward the sea: "e 'l viso m'era a la marina torto" (Purg. 9, 45). Commentators generally ignore this line. The line has an obvious function: to show that the pilgrim has risen out of the valley where he had fallen asleep to a place from which the sea is now visible. The new panorama clearly must have contributed to the pilgrim's disorientation and fear. Yet the gesture of turning implies a motion and a countermotion, a motion and a change in direction. If the pilgrim is turned toward the sea, he is turned away from the mountain, away from the task on the mountain that awaits him. In contrast to Inferno 1, when the poet compares his looking back at the dark wood from which he has escaped to a survivor on land who "si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata" (Inf. 1, 24), here the "marina" seems a rather tame body of water. "Marina" typically means the part of the sea that meets the coast, the part that welcomes the traveler. Dante had used the term in Purgatorio 1 to signify the gentle waters near the shore and in Purgatorio 2 to indicate the shore at the mouth of the Tiber where Casella awaited passage to Purgatory. It thus connotes home and tranquility. Hence, one can detect a subtle resistance to the work the pilgrim must do to climb the mountain, a nostalgia for the past, an internal pull toward a false home, figured in the marina. This sense of the pilgrim's resistance is borne out in the way he struggles to uphold the angel's command not to turn back as he passes through the door of Purgatory proper: "e s'io avessi gli occhi volti ad essa/ qual fora stata al fallo degna scusa" (Purg. 10, 5-6). The pilgrim's preoccupation with not turning back appears to betray an undercurrent of desire that conflicts with his movement forward.

The significance of the Achilles comparison intensifies when it is viewed in relation to the Ganymede dream that precedes it. Although critics and commentators have tended to treat these images of ascent and escape as separate, Dante seems to juxtapose them purposefully. First, both figures flight away from one's accustomed surroundings; both Achilles and Ganymede are forced away from their homes. Achilles is a sleeping youth, unaware of his mother's plan; Ganymede is a frightened and helpless boy who watches his former world disappear in the distance. Both have beauty, youth, and innocence, and are poised between boyhood and manhood. These common characteristics place in relief their striking differences. The one is Asian, the other Greek. Ganymede is a shepherd. Achilles is a soldier in the making. The one is borne away by a gentle and loving maternal force, the other by an empowered masculine one, figured in Jove's eagle.

Most important, both figure the subtle fear and resistance of the pilgrim to his journey. In the Ganymede dream the pilgrim has imagined himself painfully lifted up to a point that climaxes at his very consumption:
   Ivi parea che ella e io ardesse;
   e si lo 'ncendio imaginato cosse
   che convenne che 'l sogno si rompesse.
      (Purg. 9, 31-33)

The pain is not limited to the physical sensation of burning, but extends to the psychological fear of the dissolution of his very identity. The process of burning describes the coalescence of the eagle and the pilgrim into one, the meshing of the self into something greater, and this remaining sense of loss of identity produces the pilgrim's disorientation and terror portrayed in the Achilles simile. Commentators and critics have interpreted the event described here in various ways: the eagle has been understood as pervenient grace or contemplation, and the ascent as baptismal regeneration or the anticipation of the pilgrim's ascent to God. (6) Dino Cervigni points to the concentrated quality of the images in the dream, as he sees the dream as prophetic of the pilgrim's whole experience in the poem (Cervigni, 95-116). None of these useful interpretations, however, accounts for the pilgrim's fearful state as he awakes from the dream and the enigmatic comparison to the ill-fated Achilles that immediately follows. In contrast, Zygmunt Baranski's interpretation focuses on how the dream reflects the state of the pilgrim. In examining the three dreams in Purgatorio, he argues that they should not simply be viewed as prophetic, but rather as useful signposts of the pilgrim's progress and degrees of intellectual confusion. The confused imagery of the dream leads Baranski to conclude that the pilgrim "is not yet able to assimilate properly the intervention of the divine in his life" (Baranski, 219). (7)

Together with this intellectual confusion, there is subtle hint of nostalgia in the Ganymede dream, for there one can detect the pilgrim's fear of forward progress. In describing Ganymede's ascent Dante is careful to point toward the world that Ganymede is leaving behind:
   ... ed esser mi parea la dove fuoro
   abbandonati i suoi da Ganimede,
   quando fu ratto al sommo consistoro. (Purg. 9, 22-24)

Dante fashions the tercet such that, initially, it seems that it is Ganymede who is actively abandoning "i suoi," despite the reference in the next line that he is being forced away ("fu ratto") by divine power. The reference to the "abbandonati" left behind by Ganymede is a metaphorical glance backward, and it draws our attention back to the earth where Ganymede's former companions watch, presumably in amazement. Ovid's much simpler, but equally short version of the rape of Ganymede focuses primarily on Jupiter, and the Latin poet never mentions the company that the boy is leaving behind. (8) With the inclusion of this detail Dante hints at the pilgrim's resistance to the grace that drives him upward and forward and the strength of his ties to the relations he must leave behind. The pilgrim's nostalgia for his past has been suggested as the source for the fear he feels in the Medusa scene in Inferno 9. John Freccero sees the threat of the Medusa as that of "a retrospective glance that evades the imperative to accept an authentically temporal destiny" (Freccero, 128). The backward-looking Ganymede enacts the same nostalgia that threatens to end the journey in Inferno 9, and again indicates the pilgrim's stubborn resistance to progress and internal change. (9)

The backward gaze of both the pilgrim as he awakes and as he imagines himself as Ganymede contrasts sharply with the pilgrim's later gaze back at the earth, as he nears the end of his journey in Paradiso 27. And the difference helps to underline the progress the pilgrim has made since the scene before Purgatory's door. The two figures representing the ascent to Purgatory proper, Achilles and Ganymede, have a striking parallelism with the two enigmatic figures to which the pilgrim turns, as he looks back at the earth in Paradiso 27, Ulysses and Europa. In this way, the Achilles/Ganymede pair anticipates the pilgrim's view of possible human destinies represented by the fates of Ulysses and Europa. As the pilgrim views Ulysses' fatal flight westward beyond the limits set on man, he surely recalls Achilles' equally tragic voyage from Skyros to Troy, at the urging of Ulysses. Yet from his new perspective, the explicit attraction the poet had expressed earlier in Inferno 26 is gone and the fear of succumbing to him, as Achilles' had, is defused. The figure of Europa is complex. On the one hand, as Rachel Jacoff notes, the medieval allegorists saw Europa as the soul lifted to heaven by Christ, figured as the bull. Yet she also sees both Ulysses and Europa as examples of transgression, pointing to their "horizontal" voyages as "counterexamples of Dante's own sanctioned journey" (Jacoff, 240). In my reading, the split between the activity and passivity, between desire and resistance, in the figure of Europa recalls Ganymede and, hence the pilgrim of Purgatorio 9. Dante writes that she made herself a "dolce carco" by not resisting, but not resisting is an act of will. She accepts the invitation of the bull. The conflation in Dante's imagination of Europa and Ganymede is further attested by the fact that the details that are lacking in Ovid's account of Ganymede are found in his narration of Jove's rape of Europa in the Metamorphoses where Europa looks back at her companions. The resistance implied here against forward, or rather, upward movement derives from the sense of loss of what is left behind. Hence, both Ganymede and Europa look back on what they are abandoning--earthly things. Yet the nostalgia felt in the Ganymede simile is now replaced by the distant, critical view of the pilgrim in heaven, who now sees the earth as a mere threshing floor. From this new perspective, the pilgrim sees these figures as mere reminders of his past attachment to the earth.

In Purgatorio 9 the pilgrim's doubt and fear regarding his divinely sanctioned journey are still active, and the opening images of the canto anticipate Dante's exploration of the pilgrim's ambivalence about the role of the divine in his life. In the reference to Procne's remembering her rape, her "primi guai," one feels the imperfection and violence in human relations on earth, and hence, the need for some kind of divine intervention. Yet the canto's first image, which focuses on the tragedy of the union of the ageless Aurora and Tythonus, who is doomed to old age, suffering, and weakness after the goddess made him immortal, hints at the destructive and painful consequences when divinity enters the lives of mortals. Together the two images indicate both the need for divine intervention in human affairs and the possibility that divine aid will bring not salvation but tragedy. They reflect the basic tension in the pilgrim throughout the poem of needing and fearing aid. In Purgatorio 9 the pilgrim stands between the awareness that a better world awaits him and a fear of and resistance to the grace that would take him from this one.



Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Commedia, Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Turin: Einaudi, 1975.

--. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio. Vol. 2. Commentary. Ed. Charles Singleton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Baranski, Zygmunt. "Dante's Three Reflective Dreams." Quaderni d'italianistica. Vol. 10, 1-2, 1989.

Cervigni, Dino. Dante's Poetry of Dreams. Florence: Olschki Editore, 1986.

Freccero, John. "Medusa: The Letter and the Spirit." Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Jacoff, Rachel. "The Rape/Rapture of Europa: Paradiso 27." The Poetry of Allusion. Ed. Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey Schnapp. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

Musa, Mark. "The Sensual Pilgrim's Dream in the Purgatory." Rivista di Studi Italiani 1.2 (1983).

Ovidio, P. Nasone. Le Metamorfosi (testo latino a fronte). Ed. N. Scivoletto. Turin: UTET, 2005.

Statius. Thebaid, Books 8-12; Achilleid. Ed. and Tr. D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

(1) Unless otherwise indicated, all references to commentaries on the Commedia are taken from the electronic database, Dartmouth Dante Project. http//

(2) All citations from the Commedia are from La Divina Commedia, Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Torino: Einaudi, 1975.

(3) There is a strong critical tradition that recognizes the contradictions or "dangers" encountered by Dante poet in the daring undertaking of writing a poem which promises to traverse territory that "gia mai non si corse" (Par. 2, 7). The dangers evoked are pride, desire for fame, misreading, and heresy. Figures of artistic and intellectual ambition in the poem, like Arachne and Ulysses are adduced as points of contact with Dante's enterprise that he confronts and overcomes. At the center of this tradition is the Ulysses episode in Inferno 26.

(4) "... stupet aere primo,/qual loca qui fluctus, ubi Pelion" (Achilleid I, 248-249).

(5) The pilgrim feels doubts about this journey as early as Inferno II, when he acknowledges his unworthiness. The fear of abandonment is felt throughout the Inferno, and in particular in the Medusa scene and the menacing words of devils before the gate of Dis (Inferno 8, 91-96).

(6) In his commentary, Carroll cites various opinions of Oelsner, Butler, and Hettinger on the religious significance of the eagle and adds his own contention that the eagle represents the empire neglected by the princes from whom the pilgrim has just departed. http://dante. php?doc=1904520901308cmd=gotoresult8arg1=2

(7) For a discussion on the sexual language of the pilgrim's dream see Musa (1-12).

(8) See Ovid's Metamorphoses, X, 155-161: "Rex superum Phrygii quondam Ganymedis amore/ arsit, et inventum est aliquid, quod Iuppiter esse,/ quam quod erat, mallet, nulla tamen alite verti/ dignatur, nisi quae posset sua fulmina ferre./ nec mora, percusso mendicibus aere pennis/ abripit Iliaden, qui nunc quoque procula miscet/ invitaque Iovi nectar Iunone ministrat."

(9) The string of references that link Purgatorio 9 with Inferno 9 (Medusa) and Inferno 26 (Ulysses) makes it difficult to deny that pilgrim is reliving a persistent doubt in the divine plan, as well as the still active temptation to go "where virtue does not lead." One recalls Freccero's characterization of Medusa as a figure of nostalgia. Freccero writes that Medusa may represent Dante's previous idolatrous relationship with "la donna petrosa" expressed in the poet's early Rime. By not looking at Medusa, the pilgrim can move forward in his poetic and spiritual life (Freccero, "Medusa," 128-130).
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Author:Mussio, Thomas E.
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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