by Dante Alighieri
Where It All Goes Down
Mount Purgatory, Easter Sunday, April 10 to noon on Wednesday, April 13, circa 1300.
Dante doesn’t fool around when he’s imagining the settings for his Divine Comedy. So it should come as no surprise that he can practically give us the coordinates for the Mountain of Purgatory. Want to go find it? Be our guest. It’s at the south pole, directly opposite from the city of Jerusalem; and it’s at the tail-end of Hell.
Dante even gives us the story of how the island of Purgatory was created in Inferno, Canto XXIV. Basically, when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he plummeted so far into the ground that he ended up at the center of the Earth, completely frozen in ice. Now, we know what you’re thinking: from the sky into the middle of the earth? That’s a LOT of displaced dirt. Where did it go? You got it. All that dirt was pushed from underneath the falling body of Lucifer, right through Hell and straight into the other hemisphere, where of course, everything is upside down (in comparison to the northern hemisphere). So instead of forming a hole the size of Texas, it piled up into a mountain island on the far side of the world. Voila, Mount Purgatory!
Now, let’s talk about the mountain itself. It’s divided up into three basic sections: ante-Purgatory, which consists of the shores and the flattest lowest parts of the mountain; Purgatory proper, which takes up the majority of the mountain; and the Earthly Paradise, which resides as a heavenly little forest at the peak of the mountain. Ante-Purgatory is a pretty chill place. All its inhabitants pretty much do nothing but lounge around all day, sitting on the rocks and getting a nice tan. All well and dandy? Not really. They’re suffering extreme pain. As live human beings, we might call it boredom, but for them it’s more than that. They feel intensely their painful separation from God and use this time (some thirty times the span of their lifetimes, so we’re talking up to 3000 years of downtime) to meditate on the sins they committed in life and to repent for them. After that time, they’re allowed to approach and enter the gate of Purgatory and begin their penance.
Purgatory proper has a bit more of a lively environment. Consider this: on the second terrace of the Envious, the rock walls match the color of the penitents’ robes, a color suggesting envy. On the third terrace of the Wrathful, a cloud of smoke envelops the penitents and blinds them. The sixth terrace of the Gluttonous features a fabulous tree laden with fruit hanging above a pool of soothingly cool water; yet the penitents cannot touch such fresh fare. Finally, on the seventh terrace of the Lustful, the penitents burn in a literal hotspot, a huge wall of flame that encloses them all. Get our drift? The different environments of the various terraces reflect the sin and punishment of its penitents. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a bit like Hell, but perhaps Hell-lite since these inhabitants are only here temporarily.
Did you notice that the terraces of Purgatory are in the same shape as the circles of Hell? Yes, they’re circles. So what? Remember the funnel shape of Hell – concentric circles that get smaller and smaller the deeper one goes? Take a gander at Purgatory’s shape. It’s a mountain, so….oh, got it. It’s the opposite of Hell. Instead of a funnel, it’s like a dome (an inverted funnel), with its concentric circles getting smaller the closer one gets to the top. Also, its structure is the opposite of Hell’s. The most serious sins are punished at the bottom while the farther you progress up the mountain, the more virtuous you become. Whereas the penitents at the bottom are weighed down heavily by their sins, by the time they get to the top, their sins have been removed and thus they’re feeling lighter. You get the basic idea: Purgatory is designed to be the exact opposite of Hell because its purpose is the exact opposite of Hell’s. Instead of punishing the eternally damned, Purgatory cleanses the worthy and makes them more virtuous in preparation for Heaven.
The Earthly Paradise is testament to all of this. As we learn from Matilda, this place is the Garden of Eden, the place God made to delight his favorite creation – man. This garden boasts every species of flower, fruit, and flora in general. The weather is always perfect because the altitude makes it impossible for clouds to form…or something like that. The water in the rivers is clear enough to act as a mirror. We bet even the lions and lambs cuddle at night and sing kum-ba-ya to each other. Everything’s just perfect.
There’s one little inconsistency that only literature buffs would care about. (That means you, shmoopsters!) Dante puts the rivers Lethe and Eunoe up in the Earthly Paradise. But Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in the Underworld of Greek mythology, so it’s supposed to be in Hell. Oops. But Dante spins it well enough so that it makes sense for it to be in Purgatory, as a pseudo-baptism and, more importantly, the final purgation process: the washing away of one’s memories of sins. What about the Eunoe? It’s fake. Dante makes it up to complement the Lethe because you simply can’t have amnesiac souls running amok in Heaven. That would be disastrous. So Dante makes a river up and puts together some random Greek words (“Eu” = good, “Nous” = mind or memory; Eunoe = “memory of the good”). Bathing in the two rivers is a ticket to Heaven.
But wait! Don’t rush off to Paradise just yet. We still have to talk about time. Purgatorio begins at dawn on Easter Sunday, the day that Christ rose from his grave after his crucifixion. By coincidence it’s also the same day that Dante starts climbing Mount Purgatory after a depressing journey through Hell. Parallel metaphorical deaths? Check. Parallel upward movement? Check. We think we see a Christ figure being set up. Just a hunch, but maybe you can back us up. So why does it take Dante almost four full days to climb the mountain? Wouldn’t the allegory be perfect if he spent the 24 hours of midnight on Good Friday to midnight that Saturday (Christ’s death) in Hell, 24 hours of Easter Sunday (Christ’s resurrection) in Purgatory, and the following day in Heaven? Wouldn’t it be perfect and symmetrical and allegorical and just what English teachers want to see? Well yeah, but that would be too easy. And if you haven’t noticed, Dante isn’t down with easy.
So why four days? It seems clear that the penitents labor harder in Purgatory than the sinners in Hell, simply because they have a goal; they’re working towards something. This labor, this improvement of the spirit, takes time. More than twice as long as it takes to tour Hell, because Dante is doing the work too. If you think about it, this is the hardest Dante will have to work in the entire Divine Comedy. In Hell, work has no point because the sinners are already damned; in Heaven, there’s no work to do because everyone is perfect. That leaves all the work for Purgatory. So, the main message? Self-improvement takes time.