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Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  14 Aug 2007

The encounter with Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno is famously fraught with interpretive problems.  Why is the great hero Ulysses not only in Hell but as low as the eighth bolgia?  How do we understand the apparent originality of Ulysses’s last voyage and death as Dante gives it?  Why are Ulysses and Diomed suffering together “inside one flame” (58), “in anger with each other” (56)?  (All parenthetical citations to The Inferno come from Mark Musa’s translation, published by Penguin Books [originally in 1984, itself a revised version of an earlier publication].)  And why is Dante the Pilgrim so eager to speak with Ulysses, his question anticipated by Virgil?  The answers to these questions, to my mind more than any others raised within the Inferno, implicate Virgil, Dante the Pilgrim and the author, and ourselves as readers.

The story of Ulysses’s journey past the pillars of Herakles -- including his discovery of a “new land” (137), a narrow pass with an “endless[ly]” (134) high mountain (the Mount of Purgatory, opposite Jerusalem) in the distance, five months into the voyage -- and his ship’s destruction by four blasts of whirling wind has no literary precedent.  It has been pointed out that there is no evidence that Dante knew The Odyssey (Halpern 191, note 56).  This is irrelevant in this case, however, because The Odyssey is not, as its educated classical readers well knew (but as we rarely teach today), the end of Ulysses’s story; though The Odyssey ends happily, it does so because it terminates the story at a convenient point, although it includes the prophecy that Odysseus’s death would come from the sea.  Dante did not have to know The Odyssey to know that (as elaborated in Eugamon of Cyrene’s Telagonia) Ulysses would be killed unwittingly on a beach by his son Telegonus, whom he fathered with Circe (as if the fruits of his voyaging and philandering were coming home to roost) and who would go on to marry Penelope, the wife whose virtue The Odyssey champions.  Dante did not have to know or pay attention to this myth of Ulysses’s death, which he might have favored because it would grant the opportunity to portray Ulysses unfavorably but which may not have suited his (narrative, if only in as much as Dante’s version helps to establish the geography of the world and thus foreshadow Purgatory, as well as moral, in as much as Dante’s version stresses Ulysses’s restless nature rather than his sexual indiscretions) purposes as much as his own myth of Ulysses’s demise.  In any case, this apparent incongruity is quite classical; the Greeks (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Romans) did not expect consistency from their myths and eschewed the idea of a single, unified mythological narrative.  (The urge to tell what happened to Odysseus after The Odyssey continues, as evidenced by Níkos Kazantzákis’s 1938 33,333-line sequel to The Odyssey.)

In a case of Virgil’s strange mind-reading ability (which he exhibits throughout The Inferno), he knows what Dante wishes to say to Ulysses and demands to speak for him.  His stated reason – “since they were Greeks, / they might not pay attention to your words” (74-75) – may remind us that the Romans, the glory of Italy, was founded, in Virgil’s own epic (which he references in line 82), by Trojans, remembered as the Greeks’ enemy.  But Virgil, even more than Dante, would be aligned with “the enemy” in Ulysses’s eyes.  No one has satisfactorily explained Virgil’s protestation that a Greek might pay attention to him and not to Dante.

Ulysses’s sins, as suggested by Virgil, seem to be “the [deceitful] ambush / of the [Trojan] horse” (58-59), “the trick that caused the grief / of Deïdamia [King Lycomedes’s daughter from whom the two removed, through trickery, Achilles, who was disguised as a woman to avoid the Trojan War]” (61-62), and “the Palladium [the sacred statue of Athena that mythically protected Troy and which the two stole]” (63).  Indeed, Ulysses was known as crafty or tricky, as Homer’s repeated epithets for him attest, and this list of sins may help to explain why he and Diomed suffer together, perhaps blaming each other for their mutual wrongs.  Slthough Diomed was associated with Ulysses, there is no precedent for their anger against each other.  But these “sins” can only remind us that trickery is often used in war, the Trojan horse such a classic maneuver that it has become a generic term; that Deïdamia’s personal response to the conscription of Achilles, if a sin, would make the conscription of anyone with loved ones a sin; and that the Palladium was a pagan statue, not a Christian one.  Moreover, Ulysses himself attempted, like Achilles, to avoid the Trojan War – in his case by feigning madness and sewing his fields with salt until his son, Telemachus, was placed before his plow.  One would think that avoiding conscription, attempting to let others die without the strategy and supernatural might of a Ulysses or Achilles, would be a greater “sin” than tricking someone into admitting what is, after all, the truth – that Achilles is Achilles (or that Ulysses is sane); this, however, gets us into the issue of Dante’s contrapasso, of the punishments he meets out and their poetic or moral appropriateness, always a difficult issue with The Inferno.  It would seem, however, that Ulysses is condemned by his general reputation for trickery – or out of latter classical revisionist history, evident in the fact that we are dealing with Ulysses and not Odysseus and that saw him as a cowardly schemer (as Virgil himself portrayed Ulysses) instead of brave and cunning Greek warrior.

But Ulysses, of course, is also the archetypal journeyer, a role Ulysses emphasizes while ignoring the sins Virgil ascribes to him.  Ulysses himself blames his death, if not his damnation, on “the burning wish / to know the world and have experience / of all man’s vices, of all human worth” (97-99), “to follow paths of excellence and knowledge” (120) as he recounts putting it to his men, a desire more powerful, in Ulysses’s self-condemnation, than “sweetness of a son, ... reverence / for an aging father, ... [and] debt of love / ... owed Penelope” (94-96).  He recounts imploring his crew:

during this so brief vigil of our senses [i.e. life]

that is still reserved to us [before death], do not deny

yourself experience of what there is beyond,

beyond the sun, in the world they call unpeopled” (114-117).

It is hard not to see the similarities between Ulysses, interpreted as such, and Dante the Pilgrim.  Dante’s enthusiasm at speaking with Ulysses – and learning, if we are to believe Virgil that he knows what Dante wants to ask, how Ulysses died – echoes Ulysses’s enthusiasm for knowledge.  This enthusiasm on Dante’s part seems almost groupie-like:

“If it is possible for them to speak

  from within those flames,” I said, “master, I pray

  and repray you – let my prayer be like a thousand –

that you do not forbid me to remain

  until the two-horned flame [containing Ulysses and Diomed] comes close to us;

  you see how I bend towards it with desire!”  (61-66)

This may only be another case of Dante the Pilgrim mirroring the sin of those he sees, but there is a deeper, more universal in terms of the narrative, way in which Dante the Pilgrim mirrors Ulysses – one unique to this particular portion of The Inferno.  After all, though there may be an impiety in Ulysses’s yearning to know even vice, is this not the entire point of Dante – and us, by proxy – visiting Hell?  What is The Divine Comedy but Dante’s Christian odyssey?  In The Odyssey, Ulysses also journeyed to an underworld – albeit Pluto’s and not Satan’s, a crucial difference.  If our pilgrim mirrors the sin of each canto, surely he mirrors Ulysses’s sin in the deepest, most generic way:  after all, both characters are the protagonists in epics of journey, even of journeys with predetermined goals, nostalgic, in the original definition of “longing for home,” in both cases – one home being a marriage bed and the other the heavenly union with God, a classic, if not stereotypical, pagan-Christian split.

But this mirroring effect is deeper here than anywhere else because it also works on a meta level:  both Dante and Virgil are themselves writers of epics of journey.  On a deeper level, writing a poetic depiction of Hell and Heaven, as Milton and his contemporaries knew, risks blasphemy by its very success.  In order to depict such things in poetic narrative, one has to take poetic license, imposing one’s views on God, granting spatiality and character to divine figures – a tricky prospect even if one claims divine inspiration.  In short, Dante’s epic is itself a titanic quest with hubristic implications.

We too, as pilgrims by proxy, are implicated.  The reason we react in surprise at Ulysses’s condemnation is not that he was the hero of a famous epic (Would anyone care if Aeneis were condemned?), but precisely that he symbolizes the quest.  Would Leopold Bloom be in Hell today?  In an epoch of personal journeys in pop psychology and literature, a period that has seen voyages to the moon and probes (including the famous Voyager) beyond, we valorize Ulysses.  Ulysses’s condemnation, therefore, not only implicates us as pilgrims by proxy but challenges values inherent to the modern condition.  We may even be inclined to see this as a precursor, though not necessarily a conscious one, to the guilty reader as a modern literary device.

And, of course, you as readers and I as writer of this essay are also implicated in the sense that we are intellectually questing.  There is probably no more reason for us to learn about Dante and Ulysses, though we enjoy doing so and feel compelled to do so, than there was for Ulysses to sail on that fateful, final voyage.  And understanding this, knowing that we mirror Ulysses’s “sin,” is altogether necessary for understanding this complex passage of The Inferno and its implicit ability to spiral through metatextual levels, forcing us, in turn, to cognitively (though not necessarily intellectually) join Dante in a deeper manner than at any other point in The Inferno.

“And then the sea was closed again, above us” (142).

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby