Ulysses, Dante and Stromboli

Stromboli spends most of his time looking at the infinity of the sea, with his nose and ears ready to pick up any smells or sounds from the water that unfolds in front of him. If I didn’t know my dog, I would think he was a philosopher. Although he is not among the clever creatures, there is something undeniably stoic about him when he stares at the horizon. The other day he made me think about Ulysses.

No, I don’t think of my dog as legendary hero either. After all, Ulysses managed to blind a Cyclops while Stromboli at the most he was able to be pinched by a land crab in my garden. Yet, his curiosity for the unexplored sea reminded me of a scene I’ve read in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a scene where Ulysses tells his last adventure and becomes my favourite hero. In today’s post I want to introduce to you that Ulysses, who is by far the best Ulysses I’ve ever encountered, hoping that you might fall in love with him too.

I met Ulysses for my first time at school while reading a few sections of the Odyssey (Odysseus is the greek name for Ulysses) and the Iliad. There, he was the mind behind the Trojan horse, a wise and cunning hero looking forward to come back to his home Ithaca and his wife Penelope. Well, this Ulysses did not make a great impression on me.  Rather too old for an adolescent like me who was dreaming of escaping from her family and drooling after a di Caprio-without-beard screaming from the prow of a ship. Not even the romance, the solid love between Ulysses and Penelope appealed to me at that age (and still for that matter). I guess the idea of being left alone for ten years on a tiny island in Greece spending my days knitting was definitely not my idea of love.

Finally, Dante came and thanks to the verses of his Divine Comedy the character of Ulysses came to life in my mind and I saw it in completely different light. Before showing you the scene that I’ve been dying to tell you about since the beginning of this post, a little introduction of Dante’s masterpiece is required.

The Divine Comedy is the story of the travel of Dante into the three worlds created by God: Inferno, where all sinners are left to suffer for the eternity a punishment equal to the sin committed in life; Purgatorio where sinners have been forgiven and can work for deserving their sit in heaven, and then there is Paradiso, as always the most boring of all places. Through the Inferno and the Purgatorio Dante is accompanied by Virgil, the latin poet and author of Aeneid. Through the Paradiso Dante is guided by his beloved Beatrice.

Dante meets Ulysses in the twenty-sixth section or ‘canto’ of the Inferno where people are punished for the sin of deception. Virgil, who wrote of Ulysses in his Aeneid, approaches him first, with a respect that was never shown before to the other sinners. It is already clear that Ulysses is one of a kind, undeniably guilty of a grave sin, but a hero of great intelligence nonetheless. Virgil asks him about the end of his life. Dante was not aware of the Odyssey’s version according to which Ulysses comes home and he was curious to know how the life of such a famous character ended. Dante wanted Virgil to find out Ulysses’ last adventure before his destiny of hell. Ulysses – who is punished eternally by a flame that wraps him – begins his tale from the moment he and his crew left the sorceress Circe from the coast of Gaeta (between Naples and Rome). This is the moment in which he decided to explore more of the world and beyond, rather than returning to Ithaca and to his family.

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta (nor the tenderness of my child or the pity)
del vecchio padre, né ’l debito amore (for my old father, or the debit of love )
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta, (that would have made Penelope happy)

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore (could win the fire of desire inside of me)
ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto  (the desire of becoming expert of the world)
e de li vizi umani e del valore; (of the human vice and virtue)

ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto (I put myself in the wide ocean)
sol con un legno e con quella compagna (only with a boat and that crew)
picciola da la qual non fui diserto. (that small crew that never deserted me)

Ulysses wanted to know what was behind the strait of sea between Spain and Marocco (Strait of Gibraltar) where Hercules posed the limits of the world (the Pillars of Hercules).  Therefore he convinces his crew with the most memorable speech of all times:

“O frati,” dissi, “che per cento milia (“Oh brothers” – he said – “who through hundreds)
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente, (dangers came to the West)
a questa tanto picciola vigilia (so close to the end of the world)

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente (to what remains still to see)
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza, (do not deny yourself to know)
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente. (what is behind the sun, in that world without people)

Considerate la vostra semenza: (consider your origin)
fatti non foste a viver come bruti, (you were not made to live like beasts)
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza
. (you were made to pursue virtues and knowledge)

That is how begun “il folle volo” (the crazy flight), the last adventure of Ulysses. He and his crew sail beyond the limits of the world up to the mount of the purgatory on which not other mortal eyes had set eyes before. But that was all before the end:

Tre volte il fé girar con tutte l’acque; (three times the water turned the boat around)
a la quarta levar la poppa in suso (the forth time it lifted up the stern)
e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque, (and the prow went down according to the wishes of God)

infin che ’l mar fu sovra noi richiuso” (until the sea closed up above them)

The Ulysses of Dante dies and a hero of self-realization is born. On the one hand the writer condemns him to hell for his deceptions, on the other hand he cannot stop admiring his curiosity and his thirst for knowledge. It could not be otherwise given the moving speech that Dante puts in Ulysses’ mouth. He is not a regular hero. Dante envisions his end and labels it crazy for Ulysses attempted to know with reason what the author believed could only be revealed to a man by faith and the grace of God. And yet, Dante cannot stop himself from loving this craziness. After all, wasn’t he the man who considered himself worthy to travel through the three reigns of the afterlife?

And now I am left to wonder about how much inspiration we can get from a dog who is neither a philisopher or a hero…

Featured Image: MS. Holkham misc. 48, p. 40. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Via Internet.

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