Dante Alighieri’s magnus opus the Divine Comedy was completed in 1320, the year before the poet’s death. Dante’s story begins on Good Friday of his thirty-fifth year. Lost in the woods, beset by wild animals, he is rescued by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Virgil takes Dante on a guided tour down through the circles of the pit of Hell then up the terraces of the mountain of Purgatory where Beatrice takes over as his guide through the celestial spheres of Paradise. The journey through each of these otherworldly realms is told in a cantica which is titled after the realm in question. These are the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso and each contains thirty-three cantos, with an extra thirty-fourth canto in the Inferno.
In the Inferno, as Virgil and Dante travel down through the nine circles of Hell, the sins and their punishments get worse. The ninth circle is the Cocytus, the lake of ice where those guilty of treachery are sent. The Cocytus is itself divided into four regions, the first two of which are described in the thirty-second canto. The thirty-fourth canto brings Virgil and Dante to the Judecca, the last region of the Cocytus in which those who have betrayed their benefactors are tormented. It is named after Judas Iscariot who, along with the other great traitors of history, Brutus and Cassius, are found at the very bottom of the pit being chewed in the mouths of the three faces of the original traitor, old Lucy himself.
It is the third region of the Cocytus, through which the pilgrims pass in the thirty-third canto that is of interest for the purposes of this essay, however. This region is called the Ptolomaea after the Ptolemy who was governor of Jericho under Antiochus VII in the second century BC. Ptolemy had failed to learn the lesson about the sacred duty of hospitality and what befalls those who sin grievously against it that was so aptly illustrated in the mythology of the land of his ancestors by the stories of the curse on the House of Atreus. (1) He had married the daughter of Simon Thassi Maccabeus, who was the elder brother of the Judas Maccabeus who had led the successful revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes, as well as a High Priest and the first ruler of the Hasmonean Dynasty. In 135 BC, Ptolemy invited his father-in-law to a banquet where he murdered Simon and two of his sons. (2) The Ptolomaea was where those who had dealt treacherously with their guests were sent to be punished.
In the Ptolomaea Dante encounters Fra Alberigo of Faenza who in 1285 had invited his brother Manfred and nephew Alberghetto to a banquet. At the banquet, Alberigo ordered figs to be brought to the table. This was a signal to his men to fall upon the guests and kill them all. In Hell, Fra Alberigo draws Dante’s attention to the presence of Branca d’Oria of Genoa who in 1275 had done the same thing to his father-in-law, and of whom Alberigo says “many years have passed since he was shut up in this manner.” This, Dante finds hard to believe:
‘I think,’ I said
to him, ‘that you deceive me;
Dante had good reason to think this. Branca d’Oria lived a good quarter of a century after the year in which the events told in the Divine Comedy were said to have taken place, outliving the poet. Indeed, Fra Alberigo himself was still alive in 1300, dying seven years later.
All of this is explained in the poem. Fra Alberigo tells Dante, when the latter asks him “Oh…are you already dead?”:
How it stands with
This portion of Dante’s poem is a great piece of political satire. Dante lived and wrote in a period in which the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were engaged in a struggle for power in northern and central Italy. The Italians had split into rival factions, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the former supporting the papacy and the latter the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante belonged to the Guelph faction in his native Florence, a city-state that was divided between the two factions. Fra Alberigo was a member of a Guelph family that had been driven into exile from its Guelph city-state but later returned by making an alliance with a Ghibelline. Branca d’Oria belonged to the Ghibelline faction of a solidly Guelph city-state. Thus, in this episode of the Inferno Dante is not merely drawing attention to the similarity between the crimes of the two men, but is also lampooning a traitor to his own faction and a member of the rival faction by presenting them as being so wicked that their souls were already suffering in Hell while their bodies were walking around on earth.
I have been contemplating this passage in Dante a lot in recent days. It seems to me that bodies, animated in the sense of walking around, talking, breathing, and eating, but devoid of their human souls is not a bad way of describing the great many in our own day who have been willing to sacrifice the basic rights and freedoms, social lives, livelihoods and mental and spiritual wellbeing of all of their family, friends, and neighbours in a vain effort to prevent the spread of the Bogeyman of the bat flu virus. Indeed, thanks to a particular genre of science/horror fiction that has become inexplicably popular in recent decades, we now have what Dante lacked in his day, a household term, borrowed from the legends of Haitian voodoo for mindless, animated, bodies of this sort, i.e., zombies.
There has been much discussion among those of us who are still sane enough to oppose the heavy-handed, diabolical attempts of governments, media and big businesses to coerce people in one way or another into being injected with some concoction or another, hastily whipped together by scientists after the order of Frankenstein and Jekyll, of the potential physical hazards such as blood clots, sterility, and death. Sadly, there has not been as much corresponding discussion of the potential metaphysical and spiritual hazards posed by the needles and their unholy contents. Since a foetus could be said, in a way, to be a guest, a guest in its mother’s womb, abortion is, in addition to being murder, a form of treachery against a guest. Cells obtained from an aborted foetus have, in one way or another – development, testing, manufacture – been involved in the production of these experimental bat flu vaccines. Could this mean that one hazardous effect of the vaccines is to drive souls from their bodies into eternal torment in Hell leaving zombies to walk the earth turning all of those awful graphic novels, movies, and video games about a zombie apocalypse into an awful reality?
The only good argument against this theory that I can see is that all those people who have been living in mindless fear for over a year, relying upon silly totems worn over their faces to magically ward off a virus, were already behaving like zombies before they took the needle.
(1)Tantalus, the progenitor of the line, had invited the Olympians to a banquet where he insulted them by serving up his own son Pelops (after whom the Peloponnesus is named) as the main course. This led to his own famous punishment in Tartarus – being immersed in a pool with grapes dangled over his head, food and water alike receding from him when he sought to satiate his hunger and thirst. It also brought a curse upon his descendants in which the sins of the previous generations kept being re-enacted and revisited on the next. His grandson Atreus, whose wife Aerope had cuckolded him with his brother Thyestes, took revenge on Thyestes by serving up the latter’s own children to him. Thyestes’ son Aegisthus would eventually avenge his father by seducing Clytemnestra, the wife of Atreus’s son Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, while the latter was away leading the Greek campaign against Troy, and conspiring with her to murder Agamemnon upon his return
(2) An account of this can be found in the sixteenth chapter of I Maccabees.
(3) Quotations of the Divine Comedy are taken from the Oxford World Classics edition of 1998, which uses the 1980 translation by Charles H. Sisson.
(4) This is the punishment in the Ptolemaea – the betrayers lie in the lake of ice, with their own tears freezing across their eyes.