Purgatory Canto XXV (the Seventh Terrace: the Lustful)
The constellations in the sky show that it’s 2 p.m. and time to move on. Our heroes climb the straight and narrow stairway onto the Seventh and last terrace.
Something has been bothering Dante since the last terrace but he is too hesitant to ask what. He describes himself as a “fledgling stork” who wants to fly but can only lift and drop its wing repeatedly as it decides whether or not to try.
Virgil, though, knows what Dante is thinking and encourages him to ask, since “the iron of the arrow’s touched the longbow; let the shaft of speech fly.”
So Dante asks, how can a shade grow so skinny if it doesn’t really need food anyway? It is, after all, immaterial.
Virgil looks to Statius and asks him to answer instead. Now, why would Virgil do that? We’d like you to ponder this very important moment.
Statius agrees to do it, but only because he will not refuse Virgil. He starts by explaining how a soul is born.
Quick science lesson: Medieval people thought that our food goes through four rounds of digestion, the third taking place in the heart. Weird, we know.
Statius claims that when the food goes through its fourth round of digestion, and is taken out of the heart and turned into “perfect blood,” there’s some leftover blood; not all of it gets transformed.
Within the heart, those remnants of blood gain a formative power (meaning they can shape themselves) and, transformed again, they flow down into the genital area, which Statius delicately calls “what is best not named.” There the former blood resides as semen. Yes, they really thought this was what happened in the body.
From there, this man gets some hanky-panky and the semen flows into the “natural receptacle,” which is a polite way of saying “womb.”
Here the blood of the man and woman mix—two-thirds of it is “passive” (the woman’s menstrual blood) and one-third of it “active” (the male’s semen). When the active blood reaches the passive, the whole mass coagulates and becomes (voila!) a soul. Yeah, we’re thinking yuck, too. If that’s a soul, we don’t want one.
Within the newborn soul, the active substance (from the male) works to give it senses and to shape it so that it has limbs.
Now for the best part: how does the soul become human? Well, Statius says, be careful what you believe because wiser men than you, Dante, have been mistaken about this process.
Once the fetus is in complete human form, God himself intervenes. He turns to it with joy and breathes into it “new spirit,” which combines with the active substance. Suddenly the soul has self-consciousness; it is now fully human and ready to be born.
Now, jump ahead a few decades. After the soul dies, it lands bodiless in Hell or on the shores of Purgatory. Either way, once the soul has landed, that formative power that shaped it in the womb becomes active again and radiates from the soul outward, forming anew the airy semblance of a human body. Now it is called a “shade.”
Statius compares this radiating process to the sun sending out its rays to form rainbow colors all around itself.
After that, the shade can do whatever humans physically do—speak, laugh, cry, sigh, eat. And that, dear Dante, is how the Gluttonous shades can become thin.
Back to the journey. As our heroes make a final turn, they confront a wall of flame that’s kept in check only by a strong wind that forms its boundaries.
Our trio tries to bypass it, walking with the sheet of flame on their left and the cliff on their right. The way is narrow and hazardous.
Virgil warns Dante not to look at the flame or else they could become distracted, take a misstep, and plummet to their doom.
Right on cue, voices are heard from within the flames. They’re singing “Summae Deus Clementiae,” which translates as “God of Greatest Mercy.”
Dante disobeys Virgil to look at the flames, only to see souls walking in the flames. Yes, in the flames. Ouch.
As they finish singing their hymn, the voices begin shouting examples of punished lust.
Dante introduces this as the punishment for “the final wound of all,” lust.