Study Guide

Purgatorio Purgatory Canto IX (Ante-Purgatory: the Valley of the Rulers)

By Dante Alighieri

Purgatory Canto IX (Ante-Purgatory: the Valley of the Rulers)

  • Night has fallen. Dante tells us that dawn (or Aurora, if you want to get technical) has abandoned the bed of her lover and is growing beautifully pale. Meanwhile, opposite her the constellation Scorpio has jewels (read: stars) lining its tail. You astronomers out there can calculate to the exact minute what time of night it is, but for us average readers, roughly two-thirds of the night have passed by.
  • Dante observes that, unlike his comrades, he bears “something of Adam” (he has a human body with a biological clock) and is sleepy. So he lies down on the grass.
  • It’s implied that he falls asleep.
  • In the hour “when the swallow begins her melancholy songs,” or near dawn, Dante has a dream. (Note: popular medieval belief held that dreams experienced close to daybreak were most likely to come true.)
  • In his dream, Dante sees a golden eagle poised high in the sky, as if ready to swoop down on him. Hmm, this might be highly symbolic.
  • Dante imagines that the eagle can only hunt for food here, not elsewhere. How comforting.
  • Then, the inevitable happens: the eagle dives like a lightning bolt and snatches up Dante in its talons and soars upward. They both burn in the flaming sky.
  • At this point, Dante does something clever: he wakes up.
  • Being the proud man he is, Dante compares his awakening to Achilles’ when he woke up in a new kingdom after being carried there by his mother. Dante is so startled that he turns pale and cold.
  • Virgil, at his side, comforts him.
  • Dante notices that the sun is already up; it’s two hours into the morning.
  • But something’s gone wonky. Dante sees the sea… which wasn’t in sight when he went to sleep.
  • Virgil explains to Dante that they’re already at the gate of Purgatory; see over there, where there’s a breach in the wall?
  • To stymie Dante’s questions, Virgil continues. At dawn, while Dante was still in the throes of his nightmare, a lady came by, called herself Lucia, and asked permission to “speed [Dante] on his way.”
  • Apparently someone gave consent because Lucia (yes, the saint) carried Dante all the way to Purgatory’s gate, with Virgil in tow. She set Dante down, showed Virgil the entrance, and then disappeared.
  • Dante listens with consternation but quickly regains his composure.
  • Afterwards, he follows Virgil confidently to the entrance.
  • As they draw near, Dante notices three stair-steps that lead towards the entrance, each a different color. There’s also a guard sitting on the top step; and he’s shining. In fact, he’s so bright that Dante can't bear to look at him. It doesn’t help that the guard holds an unsheathed sword that reflects more light into Dante’s eyes.
  • The guard speaks, asking them where their escort is and warning them to be careful in their approach.
  • Virgil answers: that a lady from Heaven just pointed them here.
  • Suddenly, the guard doesn’t seem so menacing anymore. He blesses them and invites them onto the stairs.
  • Dante, being a keenly observant poet, makes note of the color of each step. The first step is made of white marble, so polished that Dante can see his own reflection in it. The second, made out of cracked rock, is dark purple. And the third appears to be made from blood-red porphyry.
  • On the top step stands the guardian angel before the adamant (read: diamond) gate.
  • Virgil urges Dante to climb these steps and to beg the guard to let them through. Dante, being a closet thespian, overdoes it a little.
  • He beats thrice on his chest, Tarzan-like, then throws himself at the angel’s feet, begging for mercy.
  • The angel’s response is equally strange. He raises his sword and carves seven letter P’s in blood on Dante’s forehead.
  • The angel says that when Dante enters Purgatory, he’ll slowly be able to wash away those wounds.
  • Now let’s check out the angel’s clothes. Seriously. Dante notes that the angel’s robe is the color of ash (earth tones?) and from beneath that robe, the angel fishes out two keys, one gold and one silver.
  • He uses both to unlock the gates. He then tells Dante that although one key is more expensive, the other requires more skill to use. Cryptic. He informs Dante that he got the keys from Peter, who warned him—when in doubt—to open the gate rather than turn praying souls away. A truly nice Apostle.
  • He allows Virgil and Dante to enter, but warns them that they can't look back or they’ll be ousted. Consider him the bouncer for Club Purgatory.
  • The gates creak as they open, sounding really old.
  • From within come the lovely strains of “Te Deum laudamus,” yet another hymn (which translates as “We praise you Lord”).
  • Dante compares this music to an organ and vocal song—where the words are fleeting.
  • On that strange note, the canto ends.