Among the various tools Dante Alighieri employs in the Commedia, his grand imaginative interpretation of life after death, scenes involving figures and beasts from classical mythology provide the reader with allegories and exempla effectively linking universal human themes with Christian thought and ideology. Among these, the figure of the Siren, found in Canto 19 of the Purgatorio, exists as a particularly sinister and moribund image. Visiting Dante in a dream upon the heights of Mount Purgatory, the Siren attempts to seduce the sleeping traveler with her sweet song. Dante finds himself on the brink of giving in to her deadly charms when Virgil, through the intercession of a heavenly lady, wakes him from this troubled slumber (Purgatorio 19.7-36). A complex image, Dante’s Siren demonstrates the deadly peril of inordinate earthly pleasure masked by a self-fabricated visage of beauty and goodness, concurrently incorporating themes of unqualified repentance and realization of the true goodness of things divine.
The Sirens are familiar literary characters from Greek mythology; they are most recognized as one of the many perils Odysseus encounters in Homer’s Odyssey. As Circe explains to Odysseus before he sets out for home, “You will come first of all to the Sirens, who are enchanters / of all mankind and whoever comes their way…/ They sit in their meadow, but the beach before it is piled with boneheaps / of men now rotted away, and the skins shrivel upon them” (Homer 12.39-50). Odysseus chooses to listen to their sweet song as his boat passes their island, and, were it not that he were bound fast to the mast, would have jumped overboard to seek his death upon their shores. According to Vernant, examination of the original Greek text, as well as the popular conception of these creatures “locates them in all their irresistibility unequivocally in the realm of sexual attraction or erotic appeal” (104). These seductive creatures however, as seen in the piles of decaying bodies upon the shores of their island, are truly creatures of death. Vernant further asserts, “they are death, and death in its most brutally monstrous aspect: no funeral, no tomb, only the corpse’s decomposition in the open air” (104). Thus, the reader finds that the traditional mythological aspects of the Siren-overwhelming temptation, pleasures of the flesh, and ultimately death-are vital to understanding its presence in the Commedia.
In order to attempt a full explication of Dante’s Siren, the entire context of the encounter must be examined. At the end of Canto 18, the traveler tires and drifts into dreamy sleep. Just before dawn, the dream of the Siren disturbs his slumber upon the terrace of sloth. Prior to this, the traveler had found himself fading away into sleep, but was prevented when a group of repentants rushed by him. After conversing with some of them, however, his thoughts wander, and he succumbs to somnolencey. The traveler describes his train of thought, “a new thought started forming in my mind, / creating others, many different ones: / from one to another to another thought / I wandered sleepily, then closed my eyes” (Purgatorio 18.141-44). As his mind wanders from one frivolous thought to another, Dante the traveler capitulates to the false sense of release promised by the sin of sloth, which, according to Mazzotta, “is a term describing the somnolence, sickness, spiritlessness, and despondency of the mind…a contemplation of nothingness” (138). In this manner sloth becomes a gateway to other sins, just as it is only through his sloth that the Siren reaches the traveler. This contemplation of empty matters engenders a perilous idleness, which, in turn, leads to pursuit of exorbitant earthly pleasures and leads the soul down a baneful path towards death.
This evil path is delineated by the sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust-the tendencies toward which are redirected at virtue on the three remaining terraces of Mount Purgatory. These sins of incontinence can all be described as different types of inordinate lust. Whether it is lust for material wealth, lust for food and drink, or lust in its traditional sense-a lust for the pleasures of the flesh-all three of these sins reflect the same type of unchecked desires replete with false hopes. The Siren is just that: an embodiment of inordinate desire, the ends of which are naught but false hopes, as the pursuit of that desire ends not in fulfillment, but in death. So too, the pursuit of the sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust leads to death on the spiritual level, for, as St. Paul writes, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23).
Yet, when Tozer describes the Siren as “representing the vices of avarice, gluttony, and lust, which are expiated in the three remaining Cornices, and which may be classified together as cupidity” (306), he only brushes the surface of the allegorical potential of this figure. Truly, she does represent these things, but her holds still deeper implications. The traveler’s first perception of the Siren, “a woman, stuttering, / cross-eyed, stumbling along on her maimed feet, / with ugly yellow skin and hands deformed” (Purgatorio 19.7-9), is replaced, through the workings of Dante’s imagination, by a seductive beauty (19.12-15). Thus, the Siren receives her destructive power only from those around her who allow themselves to be overtaken. “In herself,” Hollander states, “she is powerless, crippled, and ugly” (163). One must freely choose to sin, though temptation may at times seem irresistible.
It should not, however, be irresistible. When examined objectively, the outcomes of pursuing avarice, gluttony, and lust are in no way truly desirable. All that these accomplish is pain, suffering, and hardship for both the sinner and those around him in this world, and, for the sinner, eternal death in the next. Neither should the Siren-a loathsome, cross-eyed, maimed beast-seem in any way desirable. However, “this repulsive figure is idealized by the imagination of one who gazes long upon it, so that its defects pass out of sight, and it exercises a powerful attraction upon him. Similarly, the pleasures of the world and of sense dazzle the man who falls under their influence, so that their true nature is concealed from him” (Tozer 306). The traveler Dante, however, proves unable to overcome temptation at this point.
The reader finds that at this point in the Commedia, the traveler Dante still demonstrates strong signs of moral weakness. Though he has passed through Inferno and has witnessed the wages of sin, he has not yet rid himself of the tendencies to committing those same sins. Indeed, he falls almost immediately into sloth, leading him dangerously close to the sins of inordinate desire previously described. Here the image of the Siren is further developed. Just as the traveler is on the brink of seduction:
a saintly lady standing at [his] side,
ready to foil the Siren’s stratagem.
“Virgil, O Virgil, who is this?” she cried
with indignation. Virgil moved toward her,
keeping his gaze fixed on that noble one.
He seized the other, ripped her garment off,
exposing her as far down as the paunch!
The stench pouring from her woke [him] from sleep. (Purgatorio 19.25-33)
The traveler Dante surely is no heathen or great sinner-he has been chosen to embark on a journey culminating in the Beatific Vision-yet he is unable to overcome the great temptation manifested in the Siren without heavenly aid. Even Virgil, a pagan who has no belief in God, realizes that the power of the Siren has the potential to overcome him, and he therefore fixes his gaze on the power that, though he knows nothing more of it, he knows to be good. He relies on this heavenly lady in example for Dante to follow, as he tells the traveler, “‘You saw…that ageless sorceress / for whom alone the souls above must weep; / you also saw how men escape from her'” (19.58-60). Thus, Musa’s description of Purgatory as “a place of repentance, regeneration, conversion” (xxxiv), not only refers to the penitents, but also to the traveler, Dante, who must purge himself completely for the last phase of his journey.
This purgation culminates in the traveler’s meeting with Beatrice on top of the mountain. He confesses that “‘Those things with their false joys, / offered me by the world, led me astray” (Purgatorio 31.34-5). Beatrice responds to this denunciation of his sins by telling him to master his feelings that he “may truly feel shame / of all [his] sins-so that, another time, / [he] will be stronger when the Sirens sing” (31.43-5). Having sought heavenly aid and repented for his sins, Dante is encouraged to remain strong willed, for temptation will always remain a constant challenge. The manner in which he must do this stems from reason, from rational thought.
This brings full circle what Mazzotta said of sloth, describing it as a “contemplation of nothingness.” The contemplation of nothingness leads directly to sin and death under the visage of false earthly pleasures, as manifested in the figure of the Siren. In Canto 12 of the Paradiso, Dante the traveler finally fully realizes the degree of evil behind the Siren and her sweet song.
After discoursing with St. Thomas Aquinas, champion of Scholastic thought and of the contemplation of Divine things, Dante hears the song that breaks forth from the sphere of the Sun, the realm of Christian learning, “song that in those sweet instruments surpassed / the best our Sirens or our Muses sing, / as source of light outshines what it reflects” (Paradiso 12.7-9). Dante the traveler here discovers that in the contemplation of divine things lies the path to ultimate truth. Completely polar from contemplation of nothingness, contemplation of Divine things, even of simple matters, avoids idleness, frivolity, and sloth. Thereby, while one contemplates Divine things, there exists a much lower propensity to succumb to the temptation of inordinate worldly pleasures. The sweet but short lived and fallacious song of the Siren is silenced, replaced by a song of truth, infinitely sweeter and eternally sung.
Though ultimately drowned out by the mellifluous tones of heavenly souls, Dante’s Siren remains a powerful figure within the Commedia. A classical mythological character, the Siren’s traditional attributes of the deadly temptress provide symbolic ground for the convergence of things human and things divine. The thesis of this paper, then, is that Dante uses the figure of the Siren, a simultaneous reification of seduction and death, to demonstrate to the reader, to things.
Generally, he demonstrates the dangerously alluring prospect of turning down a sinful-and thereby deadly-path towards greed, gluttony, and lust, after succumbing to the seemingly benign idleness of sloth. More particularly, the poet demonstrates the traveler Dante’s own process of realizing the full extent of his weakness, turning to Heaven for aid, truly repenting his sins, and, after all this has been accomplished, finally being granted a vision of the eternal and unadulterated happiness experienced by those souls, now in Heaven, who avoided traveling the path of the enticing but deadly Siren.
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