ice in the Inferno: Buddhist eschatology in the Divine Comedy

Lucifer in Dante's Inferno

Hell is frozen over in the deepest pit of Dante’s Inferno. That’s odd. Hell freezing over is usually deployed as an impossibility in a rhetorical declaration. Dante’s Divine Comedy has long been revered as a literary masterpiece and a defining work of European literature. But why the hell is there ice in Dante’s Inferno? The answer may come from Buddhist meditation.

The twentieth-century American poet Robert Frost naturalized ice in the Inferno. In one of his most famous poems, Frost connected a personal sense of love and hate to pondering the end time (eschatology):

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s personal library contained four editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.[1] Frost’s poem has nine lines, and Dante’s Inferno has nine circles of Hell. Frost uses a modified form of the terza rima (three-line rhyme group) of the Inferno. Frost gives ice the more negative valiance, just as Dante froze over the place for the worst sinners. Yet hate being cold, and reason being more destructive than passion — those are romantic platitudes. Frost doesn’t really explain ice in the Inferno.

Earlier Christian eschatological literature includes desultory use of cold as punishment. The Apocalypse of Paul, written about 400 GC, describes twenty-five categories of punishment. Twenty categories explicitly refer to punishment with fire or extreme heat. Two punishments refer to icy circumstances:

I beheld there men and women with their hands and feet cut off and naked, in a place of ice and snow. Worms devoured them. When I saw it, I wept and asked, “Who are these, Lord?” He said to me, “These are they that injured the fatherless and widows and the poor, and didn’t trust in the Lord. Therefore they pay without ceasing the due penalty.” …

I looked from the north to the west and saw there the worm that never sleeps. In that place was gnashing of teeth. The worms measured a foot and half, and on them were two heads. I saw there men and women in cold and gnashing of teeth. I asked, “Lord, who are they in that place?” He said to me, “These are they who say that Christ didn’t rise from the dead, and that our flesh doesn’t rise again.” I inquired, “Lord, is there no fire nor heat in this place?” He said to me, “In this place is nothing else but cold and snow.” He further said to me, “Even if the sun rose upon them, they would not be warmed, because of the excessive cold of this place and the snow.” [2]

The punishment in cold and snow is the last-listed punishment in the Apocalypse of Paul. To deny the resurrection is to deny a key Christian belief. Dante referred to Paul’s journey to Hell and probably knew the Apocalypse of Paul.[3] Dante, however, treats icy punishment as a much more integral part of the Inferno than it is in the Apocalypse of Paul.

Other early Christian eschatological literature refers to icy punishment. A vision that Bede recorded in eighth-century England connected cold and hot punishment:

Walking on, we came to a valley of great breadth, depth, and infinite length. On the left it appeared full of terrifying flames. The other side was no less horrid for violent hail and cold snow flying in all directions. Both places were full of human souls, which seemed by turns to be tossed from one side to the other, as if by a violent storm. When the wretches could no longer endure the excess of heat, they leaped into the middle of the cutting cold. Finding no rest there, they leaped back again into the middle of the unquenchable flames. [4]

The narrator’s remarks underscore the association of Hell with flames:

I began to think that perhaps this might be Hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk. My guide, who went before me, answered to my thought, saying, “Do not believe so, for this is not the Hell you imagine.” … That valley you saw so terrifying for consuming flames and cutting cold, is the place in which the souls of those are tried and punished, who, delaying to confess and amend their crimes, at length have recourse to repentance at the point of death [5]

The alternate punishments of hot and cold are part of an figure of Purgatory. Hell in this vision is fiery, not frozen over.

Medieval European literature prior to Dante’s Inferno doesn’t offer any vision of rationalized icy punishment. Alternating punishments of hot and cold occur in Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis and Lotario dei Segni’s De miseria humanae conditionis — two highly influential, twelfth-century Latin works. Those depictions probably represent Bede’s influence. Vincent of Beauvais’s thirteenth-century Speculum Historiale includes simple accounts of visions mentioning cold punishments in Hell: rivers of ice-cold water, torments of heat and cold.[6] Such torments are more realistic than visionary. No one in Europe prior to Dante seems to have thought deeply about including ice within the well-known intolerable flames of Hell.

Ice in the Inferno, however, has well-pondered precedent in Buddhist eschatology. Narakas in Buddhism are places of torment analogous to Hell. Buddhist texts from no later than the fifth-century GC describe eight cold Narakas (“cold Hells”) and eight hot Narakas (“hot Hells”). One of those cold Hells is named Arbuda:

Arbuda or Chubur-chan. The bodies of the sattvas who fall into this Hell are frozen to bubbles, as foam is formed in the sea, when agitated by high winds. Unbelievers in Buddhism, particularly those who hold that nothing will exist after death, and that death is the end of existence, are destined to fall into the Arbuda or Bubble Hell, which is a gloomy, deep, cold valley filled with ice. Here they are continually smitten by a freezing wind, which penetrates to the bones. [7]

Other cold Hells similarly have evocative descriptions. Buddhist descriptions of the cold Hells involve complex figures and long calculations:

Buddha said to the bhiksus: “Suppose there is a big bamboo container which holds sixty-four pecks of sesame seeds. Suppose one goes to it every hundred years, and takes one sesame seed away. When finally one empties the container, the sinners in the Thick Clouds Hell {a cold Hell, as are the subsequent named Hells} have not yet exhausted their punishment. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Thick Clouds Hell is the equivalent of one period in the No Clouds Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the No Clouds Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Ho Ho Sound Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Ho Ho Sound Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Nai Ho Sound Hell. Twenty times the length of suffering in the Nai Ho Sound Hell is the equivalent of one period in the Goats Bleating Hell [8]

Buddhist descriptions of cold Hells occur in long, complex, learned cosmological texts. These include the Abhidharma-kosa {Treasure House of Higher Knowledge}, written in Sanskrit in the fourth or fifth century GC, and the Dirghagama (Long Discourses), Sutra of Cosmology, translated into Chinese in 414 GC. In intellectual scope and intent, these works’ depictions of cold Hells are the most similar prior literature to Dante’s complex figure of ice in the Inferno.

In the Inferno, the mythic Greek ferryman Charon takes Dante across the mythic Greek river Acheron into the Underworld. Charon tells Dante and the other souls waiting to cross over:

Give up all hope to look upon the sky!
I come to lead you to the other shore,
into eternal darkness — fire and ice!
{Non isperate mai veder lo cielo:
i’ vegno per menarvi a l’altra riva
ne le tenebre etterne, in caldo e ’n gelo.} [9]

A underworld of fire and ice has little precedent in surviving European literature. Those who would consider Dante and Buddhism only when Hell freezes over should show more respect for the Inferno.[10]

Hell on Cosmic Buddha (Vairochana)

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[1] Serio (1999) p. 220, n. 1. Serio describes Frost’s poem as “a brilliant, gemlike compression of Dante’s Inferno.” Id. The subsequent three observations above draw from Serio’s analysis.

[2] Apocalypse of Paul 39, 42, from Latin trans. M.R. James for Clarendon Press, 1924. I’ve modernized the English. Bremmer (2009), pp. 303-7, dates the work about 400 GC in Egypt for the original Greek version, and the end of the fifth century for the Latin translation. A prevalent, less substantiated dating for the original version is the middle of the third century.

Here’s a table of sins and punishments in the Apocalypse of Paul, with each row (sin / punishment) categorized by temperature (fire, snow, or not specified). I’ve adapted the table from Bremmer (2009) pp. 307-8.

[3] On Paul journeying to Hell:

Later, the Chosen Vessel also went
to bring back comfort, strengthening the faith
which is the first step on salvation’s way.
{Andovvi poi lo Vas d’elezïone,
per recarne conforto a quella fede
ch’è principio a la via di salvazione.}

Inferno 2.28-30, from Italian trans. Esolen (2002) p. 15. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-7, Paul describes (with the modesty of a third-person narrative) being “caught up in the third heaven.”

[4] Bede, Ecclesiastical History Bk. 5.12 (Vision of Drythelm), from Latin trans. L.C. Jane (1903), printed by J.M. Dent, London. I’ve modernized the English. The subsequent quote is from id. Bede dates the vision to 696 GC.

[5] Walter of Châtillon’s twelfth-century Latin poems refer to Hell as “the blazing inferno” (ardentis … inferni) and “everlasting fire” (ignis sempiternus). Poems 45, 50, from Latin trans. Traill (2013) pp. 130-1, 166-7. Fiery images of Hell have been dominant throughout Christian history.

[6] Vision of the Boy William (dated 1146) describes in Hell ice-cold rivers as tortures. The Vision of Tundale (Irish, dated 1149, here’s the Middle English version in modern English) has in Hell mountains of fire and ice, as well as cold punishments. Gardiner (1989) pp. 156-7, 169. Both William’s and Tundale’s visions are in Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, Book 27. The Vision of Orm (England, 1125/6) reports torments of heat and cold. The Vision of the Monk of Eynsham (dated 1196) uses a figure of cold punishment that parallels that in Bede’s Vision of Drythelm:

The side of the mountain overhanging one part of the lake sent fire up to the the heavens, on the opposite promontory of the same hill there was such an intense cold, caused by snow, hail, and raging storms, that I thought I had never seen anything more torturing than the cold in that place.

Adapted into modern English by Gardiner (1989) p. 206. Morgan (1990) provides a less accessible review of popular visions of Hell before Dante than does Gardiner’s Hell Online.

Morgan (1990), Ch. 4, finds considerable continuity in types of sins punished in popular European visions of Hell through to Dante’s Inferno. Morgan, however, ignores the distinction between hot and cold punishments. Barolini (2015) notes that Dante “is original in producing ice at the pit of hell.”

[7] Journal of the Buddhist Text Society of India, Volume 1, Part III (1893), p. 17. Id. p. 12 observes:

The Buddhist Hell which is the sixth state in the Samsara Chakra, or “World Cycle,” is described in Buddhist literature with a minuteness which bespeaks a vast amount of labour on the part of the monks. The terrors depicted far surpass anything of Dante’s Inferno, the tortures are more excruciating than the mind ever conceived, not excepting the darkest days of the inquisition.

Some Buddhist texts report ten cold Hells rather than eight. Howard (1986) p. 140 (Dirghagama); Duyvendak (1952) pp. 288, 297 (An Shih-kao, Chinese translation of the Sutra of the Eighteen Hells; Chinese popular belief). Duyvendak dates An Shih-kao’s translation to the second century. It includes cold punishment:

People in snow mountains with an icy wind blowing; their skin cracks but death, though they pray for it, does not come.

Id. pp. 281-2. Images of Hell are an important theme in Eastern Asian art after the tenth century. Leidy (2008) p. 91.

The English chroniclers Ralph of Coggeshall and Roger of Wendover preserved the Vision of Thurkill (dated 1206). Among European eschatological visions, Thurkill’s vision uses cold most similarly to cold Hells in Buddhist texts. Consider:

The second court contained similar cauldrons, but these were filled with snow and cold ice, in which the spirits were tortured by the dreadful cold in intolerable agony.

Vision of Thurkill, trans. Gardiner (1989) p. 232. Different courts of punishment commonly feature in Buddhist visions of Hell.

[8] Dirghagama (Long Discourses), Sutra of Cosmology Chuan 19: Chapter 4, “The Hells,” from Chinese trans. Howard (1986) p. 140.

[9] Dante, Inferno 3.85-7, from Italian trans. Esolen (2002) p. 27.

[10] Important recent scholarship has explored the relation of Islam and Byzantium to Dante’s Commedia. Ziolkowski (2014), Ziolkowski (2015). Duyvendak observes:

The identity of certain fundamental conceptions about Hell, found in East and West, has very ancient origins.

Duyvendak (1952) p. 313. Those common conceptions extend all the way to eastern Eurasia.

[images] (1) Illustration from Dante Alghieri, La Commedia, with commentary by Christophorus Landinus (Brescia, Boninus de Boninis, de Ragusia, 31 May 1487) Columbia University Library, Rare Book Incunabula GoffD31. Here are more information about this book’s illustrations and more information about the book. (2) Digitally enhanced photo of the punishment registers on the front of the Cosmic Buddha (Vairochana), item F1923.15, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This sculpture dates to the late-sixth century. Here’s more information about the Cosmic Buddha, which you can view in 3D imagery.

The fifth cubicle from the left in the lowest register of the Cosmic Buddha’s front design may represent a form of the Buddhist “Hell of the Dark-Cold.” That cubicle shows:

Two sinners are obliged to plunge into some liquid substance. One has immersed already the top-half of his body, and his legs are visible kicking in the air. An impassible warden pushes them down.

Howard (1986) p. 4. In the “Hell of the Dark-Cold”:

There is a round clear pool of water, with small demons attending on either side, and shouting. Dragging a man by the arm, they throw him into the water, where a large fish with a big head swallows him up in one gulp. And so on, one man after another.

Duyvendak (1952) p. 305.


Barolini, Teodolinda. 2015. “Inferno 34 : Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Bremmer, Jan N. 2009. “Christian Hell: From the Apocalypse of Peter to the Apocalypse of Paul.” Numen. 56 (2/3): 298-325.

Duyvendak, J. J. L. 1952. “A Chinese “Divina Commedia.” T’oung Pao. 41 (4-5): 255-316.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2002. Dante Alighieri. The inferno. New York: Modern Library.

Gardiner, Eileen, ed. and trans. 1989. Visions of heaven and hell before Dante. New York: Italica Press.

Howard, Angela Falco. 1986. The imagery of the Cosmological Buddha. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Leidy, Denise Patry. 2008. The art of Buddhism: an introduction to its history & meaning. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, Alison. 1990. Dante and the medieval other world. Cambridge {England}: Cambridge University Press.

Serio, John N. 1999. “Frost’s: Fire and Ice and Dante’s Inferno.” The Explicator. 57 (4): 218-221.

Traill, David A., ed. and trans. 2013. Walter of Châtillon, the shorter poems: Christmas hymns, love lyrics, and moral-satirical verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. 2014. Dante and the Greeks. Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. 2015. Dante and Islam. New York: Fordham University Press.

Cicero unpacked: piss on learned hypocrites to cultivate public fields

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

About 2050 years ago, the revered Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero eloquently stated the importance of education. Cicero, who chooses his words carefully, used an agricultural metaphor. The full significance of Cicero’s pithy words can be understood through the brilliant medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf and a lively poem of Luxorius.

Cicero addresses education in the context of philosophers’ hypocrisy. The teacher declares of philosophers:

How few there are that think the tenets of their school are not ostentatious display of knowledge but a law of life! … Some of them we may see guilty of such frivolity and vanity that it would have been far better for them never to have been students; we see them greedy of gain, not a few of fame, many slaves to lust, so that there is a strange contradiction between their public utterances and their life. This seems to me to be an extreme disgrace.
{qui disciplinam suam non ostentationem scientiae, sed legem vitae putet? … Videre licet alios tanta levitate et iactatione, ut eis fuerit non didicisse melius, alios pecuniae cupidos, gloria non nullos, multos libidinum servos, ut cum eorum vita mirabiliter pugnet oratio. Quod quidem mihi videtur esse turpissimum.} [1]

Cicero then provides justification for education:

Just as the field, however fertile, without cultivation cannot be fruitful, likewise the soul without instruction.
{Ut ager, quamvis fertilis, sine cultura fructuosus esse non potest, sic sine doctrina animus.}

As the worldly Cicero surely knew, instruction to be fully educational must involve more than just learning approved doctrines. Cicero’s agricultural metaphor implicitly suggests how to cultivate fields of intellectual activity so that they are most fruitful.

Solomon and Marcolf elaborates on Cicero’s metaphor of educational cultivation. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, declares:

Learning and wisdom ought to reside in the mouth of the wise.
{Doctrina et sapiencia in ore apientis debet consistere.} [2]

The shrewd peasant Marcolf, who courageously protested against malice toward men, responded:

A donkey ought to always be among the crops. Where it grazes, there they grow back. Where it eats one shoot, forty rises up. Where it shits, there it fertilizes. Where it pisses, it irrigates. Where it wallows, it breaks the clods.
{Asellus in messe semper debet esse. Ubi pascit, ibi renascit. Ubi pascit unam plantam, quadraginta resurgunt. Ubi cacat, ibi fimat. Ubi mingit, ibi rigat. Ubi se volutat, ibi frangit glebas.}

Wisdom that merely seeks to exalt one’s own social status is hypocrisy. Learning and wisdom that resides only in the mouth of the wise won’t be fruitful. Pissing and defecating are vital actions in public fields.

The sixth-century Vandal poet Luxorius crafted a poem that highlights Solomon and Marcolf’s point. That poem concerns the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes positioned himself as a gadfly to the philosophical students of Socrates, who himself had claimed gadfly status. At a banquet, some persons reportedly kept throwing bones at Diogenes as they would at a dog. Diogenes in turn pissed on them. In addition, Diogenes was so successful in attracting and stirring up crowds in Athens that one day some persons reportedly pissed on him.[3] Plato evaluated that action as merely contributing to Diogenes’s vanity.

Fruitful fertilization of public fields depends on personal integrity. Luxorius’s poem focuses on that issue:

About a painting of Diogenes, in which a lasciviously straying woman plucks his beard and Cupid pisses on his book

Showing the ridiculousness of Diogenes, the courtesan Lais
plucks the beard of her companion in love.
Neither a virtuous mind, nor a morally pure way of life
deters the philosopher from being a repulsive man.
Thus the unhappy one is doing that for which he frequently faulted others,
and what is most pitiful: a wise man is skillfully being pissed on.

{De Diogene picto, ubi lascivienti menetrix
barbam evellit et Cupido mingit in codice eius

Diogenem meretrix derisum Laida monstrat
barbatamque comam frangit amica Venus.
nec virtus animi nec castae semita vitae
philosophum revocat turpiter esse virum.
hoc agit infelix alios quo saepe notavit;
quodque nimis miserum est, mingitur arte sophus.} [4]

Diogenes ostentatiously fashioned himself as a ridiculous and repulsive man. Luxorius here describes Diogenes as being ridiculous and repulsive for being humiliated in heterosexual desire, just as the great philosopher Aristotle was. Calling Diogenes the “unhappy one” (infelix) further deflates his philosophic pretensions. Diogenes is a hypocrite for disparaging other men’s heterosexual desire while pathetically acting on his own. Pissing on him for that hypocrisy is vital public instruction.

Marcolf described a donkey usefully urinating and defecating in response to King Solomon’s pompous hypocrisy. Learning and wisdom should be apparent in the actions of the wise. Pissing and defecating on learned hypocrisy serves to instruct others and cultivate public fields.

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[1] Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes 2.11-2, from Latin trans. J. E. King (1927) for Loeb Classical Library. I’ve made some minor adaptations to the translation. The subsequent quote is from Tusculanae Disputationes 2.13. Cicero wrote that work about 45 BGC. Cicero and others vigorously denounced hypocrisy in forensic oratory.

[2] Solomon and Marcolf, Prologue 19a-b, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 56-7.

[3] Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 6.41, 46, from Greek trans. Robert Drew Hicks (1925) for Loeb Classical Library.

[4] Luxorius, Diogenem meretrix, from Latin my translation, with help from Rosenblum (1961) (poem 88) pp. 163, 249-50. In the Anthologia Latina, the poem is numbered 374 in Riese (1894) and 369 in Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982).

The manuscript reading of the title has in codice. Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) follows that reading. Riese (1894) and Rosenblum (1961), following earlier authorities, emend in codice to in podice (“in the anus”).

The last two words of the poem are disputed. The manuscript has artis opus. Riese (1894) emends that to archisophus. Rosenblum (1961) has arte sophus. Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) has artis honos. The over-all sense of the poem seems to me to favor arte sophus. I’ve recorded that above.

Describing and commenting on a painting is a common context for ancient epigrams. Whether the poem’s title is original is questionable, as is whether such a painting actually existed.

In another poem, Luxorius similarly chides a Stoic philosopher:

To a hairy philosopher who has sex with girls only at night

Shaggy all over your face and members,
a properly uncut mane about your head,
you are a distinguished Stoic philosopher.
You only pretend to men that you are moderate,
not seeking sexual fulfillment by day
so that you won’t be caught and will always be concealed.
Boiling with lascivious impudence,
your loins plough beautiful girls at night,
A night-demon you in action suddenly become,
you who in teaching had long represented Cato.

{In philosophum hirsutum, nocte tantum cum puellis concumbentem

Hispidus tota facie atque membris,
crine non tonso capitis verendi,
omnibus clares Stoicus magister.
De viris te unum simulas modestum,
nec die quaeris coitum patrare,
ne capi possis lateasque semper.
Fervidus sed cum petulante lumbo,
nocte formosas subigis puellas,
incubus fies subito per actus,
qui Cato dudum fueras per artes.}

Anthologia Latina 353, my translation, Latin from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) pp. 276-7. Latin text and English translation in Rosenblum (1961) pp. 154-5 (poem 72). Among this poem’s many fine features, fully apparent only in the Latin, is the close association in sound of nec die (“not by day”) and nocte (“at night”). Cato in this poem refers to Cato the Elder. He was a stock figure of the silly traditionalist, but he actually had some keen insights.

[image] Diogenes and Alexander the Great. Painting by Thomas Christian Wink, dated 1782. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Riese, Alexander, and David R. Shackleton Bailey. 1982. Anthologia latina: sive poesis latinae supplementum. Pars. 1. Carmina in codicibus scripta. Fasc. 1. Libri Salmasiani aliorumque carmina. Stutgardiae: In aedibus Teubneri. Online prior edition Riese (1894).

Rosenblum, Morris. 1961. Luxorius: a Latin poet among the Vandals; together with a text of the poems and an English translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Dante’s eternal death evokes Alexander’s quest for glory

Satan-Lucifer in Dante's Inferno

In the last canto of Dante’s Inferno, in the sinkhole of Hell, Virgil told Dante to behold Satan. Dante wrote:

How faint I then became, how turned to ice,
Reader, ask not; I will not write it down,
for any words I used would not suffice.
I did not die, did not remain alive.
Think for yourself, if wisdom buds in you,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
{Com’io divenni allor gelato e fioco,
nol dimandar, lettor, ch’i’ non lo scrivo,
però ch’ogne parlar sarebbe poco.
Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo;
pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno,
qual io divenni, d’uno e d’altro privo.} [1]

Dante in this canto subsequently described Satan as “the emperor of the reign of misery.” That’s easy enough to understand, but what is Dante saying about his own condition? An eminent Dante scholar observed:

The last verse of this seventh and last address to the reader in Inferno is treated by most commentators as a triviality, i.e., Dante assures the reader that he was indeed half-dead (as he has already said). See, for example, {a scholarly commentary states}: “The expression simply translates… that simple and banal phrase… in Italian, mezzo morto {half dead}.” Does Dante need to ask us to exercise our wits, if we have these, in order to understand that? The portentousness of his declaration that he cannot write what he became because words would fail him cannot be squared with such an interpretation, words for which would fail no one. Few, however, have come forward with more vital readings. [2]

Some scholars have provided abstract theological explanations. A lengthy scholarly analysis, published in 2002, interpreted the passage as describing “a parodic moment of mystical perception.” A better interpretation centers of the greatest sin of men. In a personal encounter with Satan-Lucifer-Leviathan, Dante apprehended the prideful quest for glory of Alexander the Great and of many other ordinary men like Dante himself. As Virgil advised, Dante must arm himself with fortitude to fight against that false ideal of virtue in gynocentric society.[3]

The interpretive key to Dante’s difficult text is the Alexandreis, a widely read Latin epic that Walter of Châtillon wrote about 1180. In Book 10 of that epic, Nature descended to the underworld. There she saw personifications of sins being punished in contrapasso:

Lust, submerged in burning slime, writhes
with flames that fully consume her genitals to the core.
Drunkenness is nauseated. Lavish gluttony licks
her own limbs and like a beggar by bites consumes them.
{Mersa iacens ardente luto torquetur et ardet
Pube tenus totis exhausta Libido medullis.
Nauseat Ebrietas, Gula deliciosa ligurrit
Et mendica suos consumit morsibus artus.} [4]

Stirring the flames of death in the Underworld was Leviathan, a figure of Satan-Lucifer. Nature brought to Leviathan “common complaints of humans and gods {communes hominumque deumque querelas}: Alexander the Great was conquering all the world. He even planned to besiege Paradise and the Underworld. Nature urged the serpent to “avenge our common plague {communem nobis ulciscere pestem}. She goaded his pride:

What praise is yours, serpent, what glory is yours
for expelling the first man if such a venerable garden
is yielded to Alexander?
{Que tua laus, coluber, uel que tua gloria primum
Eiecisse hominem si tam uenerabilis ortus
Cedat Alexandro?}

Leviathan loudly proclaimed that he would help Nature and ensure that their mutual foe Alexander was swallowed in infernal darkness. Leviathan’s pride was thus matched against Alexander’s quest for glory.[5]

The shared terrain of that contest was the circumstance that Dante perceived. The Alexandreis depicted Dante’s paradoxical condition:

Tortured agony of unheard of death, that death
that is unable to die. For he whose deadened life
has been sinful, here he shall always live
the punishment of death, so that he who never
ceased to sin, may not know the end of his dying.
Numbed by ice and snow, from coldness he passes
to burning coals. O pitiable punishment! Always
and never he dies who suffers in Avernus’s prison.
{Mortis inauditae torquentur agone, quibus mors
Est non posse mori. quia quorum hic mortua uita
In culpa fuerit, ibi uiuet semper eorum
Mors in suppliciis ut qui hic delinquere uiuus
Non cessat, finem moriendi nesciat illic.
Attritus glacie niuium, de frigore transit
Ad prunas. O supplicium miserabile! Semper
Et numquam moritur quem carcer torquet Auerni.}

Dante wasn’t feeling half-dead. He was feeling death that didn’t end — eternal death. That experience isn’t confined to the Underworld. Ordinary men feel eternal death within the demonizing circumstances of gynocentric society.

The first verse of the last canto of Dante’s Inferno comes from a sixth-century Latin hymn celebrating Jesus’s crucifixion. Virgil urged Dante:

“The standards of the king of Hell advance
toward us, and therefore look ahead and see,”
my Teacher said, “if you can make him out.”
{“Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni
verso di noi; però dinanzi mira,”
disse ‘l maestro mio, “se tu ‘l discerni.”} [6]

The standards of the king of Hell were huge wings like those of bats. These wings waved beneath each of the three faces of Satan. Each mouth of that satanic trinity was chewing on a betrayer’s body. The great warrior-king Alexander relentlessly pursued Darius’s betrayer. Alexander and Satan-Lucifer-Leviathan are corresponding figures in the human world and in the Underworld. They fought for their own glory. From a Christian perspective, Jesus is a king who acted much differently:

The standards of the king advance
the mystery of the cross shines forth,
whereby the founder of our flesh
in flesh upon a gibbet hung.

All hail, O altar; victim, hail,
for sake of his passion’s great fame,
by which our Life endured his death,
and by his death restored our life.

{Vexilla regis prodeunt,
fulget crucis mysterium,
quo carne carnis conditor
suspensus est patibulo.

Salve ara, salve victima
de passionis gloria,
qua vita mortem pertulit
et morte vitam reddidit.} [7]

The standards of the king advance. At the core of the world, Dante perceived Alexander the Great and eternal death. Dante soon reversed his trajectory to rise toward eternal life. You can, too.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Dante Alighieri, Commedia {Divine Comedy}, Inferno, Canto 34.22-7, from Italian trans. Esolen (2002) p. 351. Dante reprises ineffability at the summit of Heaven. Paradiso 31.133-8.

The full text of the Commedia, Robert Hollander’s scholarly English translation, and a vast array of resources for thinking about the work are freely available online at the outstanding Princeton Dante Project. Dante completed the Commedia about 1320.

[2] Robert Hollander in commentary for Inferno 34.22-7 at the Princeton Dante Project. The internal reference is to Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio (1979), Commentary, Inferno 34.25-27. The subsequent quote is from id., citing Ledda, Giuseppe, La guerra della lingua (Ravenna: Longo, 2002).

[3] In Inferno 34.20-1, Virgil advised Dante, “Behold there, Dis {Satan-Lucifer}! Behold the place  / where you must arm yourself with fortitude.” Trans. Esolen (2002) p. 351.

[4] Walter of Châtillon, Alexandreis 10.39-42, from Latin my translation, with help from Townsend (2007), Pritchard (1986), and Jolly (1968). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Alexandreis 10.102-4 and 10.114-20. The full Latin text of the Alexandreis is available online. On contrapasso, Inferno 28.139-42 and references in note [5] in my post on Lotario dei Segni’s De miseria humanae conditionis 3.9.

[5] Alexander the Great sought immortality. The oracle of Ammon to Alexander declared:

If you wish to bloom for ever in incorruptible youth,
Found the city rich in fame opposite the isle of Proteus

Alexander Romance 1.33, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) p. 65. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria and built a Grand Altar on a hill near it. There Alexander sacrificed and prayed to the god Sarapis. When Alexander asked about his death, the god gave a lengthy reply that included, in some manuscripts, paradoxical lines on death:

Dying but not dying, you shall come to me.

You shall live in it
For all time, dead and yet not dead.
The city you have built shall be your tomb.

Id. For more general consideration of Alexander’s concern for immortality, Stoneman (2008), Chs. 8, 9.

[6] Inferno 34.1-3, trans. Esolen (2002) p. 351.

[7] Venantius Fortunatus, Vexilla regis prodeunt {Hymnus in Honore Sanctae Crucis / Hymn in honor of the Holy Cross}, from Latin trans. Walsh (2012) pp. 101, 103 (Hymn 21). Here’s the Latin text and online translation notes.

Another of Forunatus’s hymns, Pange Lingua Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis {Sing, tongue, the battle of glorious combat} has similar ideas and includes the figure of budding (cf. Inferno 34.26, fior):

Cross so faithful, tree of all trees
glorious, having no peer;
such a tree no forest brought forth
with such blossom, leaf, and bud;
sweet the wood, which with sweet nails
its sweet burden undergoes.
{Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis,
nulla talem silva profert flore, fronde, germine,
dulce lignum dulce clavo dulce pondus sustinens.}

Verse 8, from Latin trans. Walsh (2012) p. 99 (Hymn 20).

Barolini (2015) highlights the importance of transition in Canto 34:

Lucifer is for Dante the embodiment of transition in malo, of negative conversion. … Lucifer’s transition out of good and into evil is a trajectory that is crossed, in the chiasmic diegesis of Inferno 34, by Dante’s transition out of evil and into good.

The association of Satan-Lucifer and Alexander the Great competing to seize the terrain of eternal death further underscores Dante’s transition.

[image] Lucifer in the ninth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Gustave Doré, book illustration, made between 1861 and 1868. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Barolini, Teodolinda. 2015. “Inferno 34 : Satanic Physics and the Point of Transition.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2002. Dante Alighieri. The inferno. New York: Modern Library.

Jolly, William Thomas. 1968. The Alexandreid of Walter of Châtillon: a translation and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis, Tulane University.

Pritchard, Roger Telfryn, trans. 1986. Walter of Châtillon. The Alexandreis. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander romance. London, England: Penguin Books.

Stoneman, Richard. 2008. Alexander the Great: a life in legend. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Townsend, David, trans. 2007. Walter of Châtillon. The Alexandreis: a twelfth-century epic. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One hundred Latin hymns Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Alexander the Great is exemplum for men: do less, value being more

I pluck my twenty-stringed harp, striking an octave cord;
and you just are, young Leucaspis. [1]

medieval-T-O-schematic of world

In the medieval European global schematic, Asia covered half the world, and Africa and Europe, each a quarter of the world. Alexander the Great, who had a keen sense of manhood, began his Asian journey of conquest by shooting an arrow into Asia. According to the twelfth-century Latin epic Alexandreis, Alexander told his generals that they could have Europe. Alexander declared that he wanted only Asia: “this one land is sufficient for me {michi sufficit una hec regio}.”[2] Learned medieval clerics would have immediately recalled God’s words to Saint Paul:

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. {in the medieval standard text: mihi sufficit tibi gratia, mea nam virtus in infirmitate perficitur} [3]

A Jewish Passover prayer recounts fifteen gifts of God. After each gift, the people recite the refrain “it would have been sufficient for us {דַּיֵּנוּ / Dayenu}. Alexander’s desire for glory, even if it had remained limited to just conquering Asia, contradicted Jewish-Christian gratitude and appreciation for God’s gifts. The fundamental issue transcends traditional Greco-Roman culture, Jewish understanding, and Christian belief. Men lacking appreciation for the beauty and wonder of their own masculine selves seek to achieve virtue in its oppressive, gynocentrically constructed sense. Men, as a result, lose their lives.

Like many men today, Alexander the Great grew up in difficult family circumstances. His mother Queen Olympias desperately wanted to have a child. The Egyptian pharaoh-magician Nectanebo, disguised as Macedonian street prophet, was brought in by a servant woman to help the queen. Nectanebo, who lusted after Olympias, proposed that she have sex with an incarnate God:

He is a man of middle age, with hair and beard of gold, and horns growing from his forehead, these also made of gold. You must make yourself ready for him as befits a queen. [4]

That very night Nectanebo came to Olympias in his godly costume and had sex with her. Olympias apparently thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The next day, she said to Nectanebo:

I beg you, prophet, make him make love to me again, and be sure to let me know in advance when he is coming, so that I may be better prepared for the bridegroom. [5]

Nectanebo asked Olympias to give him a room next to hers, so that he could “make prayers to him on your behalf.” Nectanebo then “went in to her as often as Olympias wanted.” Olympias became pregnant and gave birth to a son. That son was Alexander the Great. His cuckolded, nominal father King Philip was suspicious, because he had been on a trip and could not have contributed to the pregnancy. Nectanebo, however, partially succeeded in getting Philip to believe that Olympias’s pregnancy was the work of a god and that he should be grateful for it.

Alexander grew up with anxiety about who his father was. Philip noticed and remarked upon lack of resemblance between Alexander and him. Alexander himself surely also noticed this lack of resemblance. One day, Alexander led Nectanebo to a deep pit and pushed him in. Before Nectanebo died in the pit, he confessed to being Alexander’s father. According to the Alexandreis, Alexander as a twelve-year old declared:

Will I always be thought to be
Nectanebo’s offspring? Let no one call me bastard behind my back!
{Semperne putabor
Nectanabi proles? Ut degener arguar absit!} [6]

Even at twelve, Alexander ardently sought to be a warrior. Fighting other men would serve as an outlet for his anxiety and anger about fatherhood.

Alexander failed to recognize the true goodness of being a man. Part of the problem was bad teaching. Alexander’s teacher Aristotle, who couldn’t even manage his relationship with the beautiful Phyllis, advised Alexander:

Do not grow soft
with wanton luxury; and let not break your breast
love, sickness of the mind, which takes its joy in murmured assignations.
If you devote time to Bacchus and Venus, though you subdue all else,
you have come beneath the victor’s yoke. In madness perishes
the freedom of an idle soul. The burning forge of Venus
dulls the mind. Brawls and wars start with
the rule of drunkenness, which buries reason in a vile tomb.
Those two {Bacchus and Venus} weaken even a strong character.
Scant will for pleasure should be with those
who legislate for humankind and hold the reigns of the world.
{sed non te emolliat intus
Prodiga luxuries, nec fortia pectora frangat
Mentis morbus amor, latebris et murmure gaudens.
Si Bacho Venerique uacas, qui cetera subdis,
Sub iuga uenisti: periit delira uacantis
Libertas animi. Veneris flagrante camino
Mens hebet interius. rixas et bella moueri
Imperat et suadet rationis uile sepulchrum
Ebrietas. rigidos eneruant hec duo mores.
Parca uoluptates sit eis explere uoluntas
Qui leges hominum et mundi moderantur habenas.} [7]

Men should be taught better. Men have a human right to love. A glass of wine every now and then is no big deal. Shunning life’s true pleasures is foolish. Sing in joy and gratitude simply for the beautiful wonder of masculine being!

Alexander the Great deprived himself of his essential being through idolatrous striving. Alexander made himself into merely an instrument of violence against men. Lying in bed, gravely ill, Alexander expressed his hope for recovery: “I seek space not so much for life as for war {Me non tam uitae spacium, quam querere belli}.”[8] Alexander viewed his life  in terms of the socially constructed abstraction of glory:

Yet my mind is entirely unlike
your mind, nor do I wish to desist from what’s begun
or to conclude war. A lifespan does not contain me.
I measure myself neither by the space of the age nor its laws.
My glory exceeds this age’s measures.
By this alone I will to be the measure of your king.
Bastard spirits and ignoble hearts
believe the highest good is living a long life.
But I, the world’s one and only king, who count my triumphs
and not my years in thousands, if I correctly tally
Fortune’s gifts, and if I well contemplate my famous
deeds, I am already long-lived.
{uerum non est michi prorsus
Mens ea que uobis, neque enim desistere ceptis
Aut bellum finire uolo. non me capit etas,
Sed neque me spacio etatis uel legibus eui
Metior. excedit eui mea gloria metas.
Hec sola est, uestrum metiri qua uolo regem.
Degeneres animi pectusque ignobile summum
Credunt esse bonum diuturna uiuere uita.
Sed mundi rex unus ego, qui mille tryumphos
Non annos uitae numero, si munera recte
Computo Fortunae uel si bene clara retractem
Gesta, diu uixi.} [9]

Medieval clerics knew well Isaiah’s words from God, “My thoughts are not like your thoughts.” They fully understood that the fundamental promise of God was abundant life — immortal life, and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.[10] Alexander the Great offered similar understanding, but with him in the position of God and conquest of space substituting for life.

Alexander aspired to be a god. He asked ascetic Indian philosophers how a man might become a god. They stated that a man becomes a god if he does something that men cannot do. That’s logically impossible. Another approach was for a man simply to start believing that he is a god, and to force others to assent to his divinity. According to the Alexandreis, that’s what Alexander did:

In addition, who could overlook his arrogating for his own father
the greatest Jove? He commanded belief that he was the offspring of Jove
and believed that he exceeded all humans in power.
A human who disdained his own humanity, it seemed a trifle
to him to be greatest among mortals.
{Preterea quis pretereat summum sibi patrem
Vsurpasse Iouem? nam se genitum Ioue credi
Imperat et credit hominem transgressa potestas,
Seque hominem fastidit homo, minimumque uidetur
Esse sibi cum sit inter mortalia summus.} [11]

When a Roman goddess of war came to Alexander with instructions not to pursue and kill the fleeing king Darius, Alexander rebuked her fiercely:

Although a seven-walled tower shield Darius,
although churning all around with burning waves,
Acheron should protect his fortifications with its sulferous banks,
Fortune shall not snatch him from me.
{Sed neque, si turris Darium septemplice muro
Includat, licet ardenti circumfluus unda
Sulphureis Acheron defendat menia ripis,
Eripiet Fortuna michi.} [12]

Medieval Christians believed that Jesus had descended into Hell to redeem the righteous. From that perspective, Alexander was willing to go to Hell to capture Darius.

Alexander’s acts were not only blasphemous to Christians, but also self-hating in a way in which men are particularly driven. At the end of the Alexandreis, the narrator observes:

At great danger to our souls,
while seeking wealth, while deceitful glory of things
flies on wings of vanity around our mortal eyes,
while grasping for fleeting honors now being sold,
we travel the fluctuating seas, and with hated lives,
commit head and goods into the tumid surge.
{animae discrimine magno
Dum queruntur opes, dum fallax gloria rerum
Mortales oculos uanis circumuolat alis,
Dum petimus profugos qui nunc uenduntur honores,
Verrimus equoreos fluctus uitamque perosi
Et caput et merces tumidis committimus undis.} [13]

Alexander died an early death from poisoning. The poison within him might as well have been self-generated. Alexander serves as a warning for all men:

The Great One is an exemplum. For whom the world was insufficient space,
Five feet of hewn marble buried in the earth
Sufficed to make a tomb, in which that noble corpse
rested in scant soil.
{Magnus in exemplo est. cui non suffecerat orbis,
Sufficit exciso defossa marmore terra
Quinque pedum fabricata domus, qua nobile corpus
Exigua requieuit humo.} [14]

Just being a man is sufficiently great for anyone. Alexander the Great lacked big understanding of his own nature.

there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we have brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [15]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Anacreon, frag. 374, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 105. Anacreon lived in the sixth-century BGC in Teos in the middle of the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey.

[2] Walter of Châtillon, Alexandreis 1.440-1, from Latin my translation. Here’s online Latin text of the Alexandreis.

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:9. The standard medieval European Christian bible was the (Latin) Vulgate, the widely disseminated fourth-century translation by Jerome.

[4] Alexander Romance 1.4, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 38-9.

[5] Alexander Romance 1.6, trans. Stoneman (1991) p. 39. After the second night of sex with Nectanebo, Olympias asked him, “will the god come to me again? For it was very sweet with him.” Id 1.7, p. 40. The two subsequent short quotes are from 1.6-7, pp. 39-40.

Middle-aged men should think carefully before attempting to imitate Nectanebo’s seduction game. Under current U.S. laws criminalizing men seducing women, Nectanebo could be charged with felony seduction or perhaps rape. Boccaccio’s story of Madonna Lisetta, Frate Alberto, and the Angel Gabriel shows other risks to men of enacting divine seduction.

[6] Alexandreis 1.46-7, my translation, drawing upon the fine translation of Townsend (2007) p. 34.

[7] Alexandreis 1.164-74, my translation, drawing upon Townsend (2007), Pritchard (1986), and Jolly (1968). Bacchus is associated with drunkenness, and Venus, with love. Here’s better advice of Aristotle to Alexander the Great.

My translations from the Alexandreis attempt to be close translations, with diction and lines that encourage the reader to explore the relation between the English and the Latin. All subsequent quotes from the Alexandreis are made in that way.

[8] Alexandreis 2.213.

[9] Alexandreis 9.551-62. Alexander’s references to space (spacio) for time emphasize his orientation to measuring life in spatial conquest.

[10] Isaiah 55:8 (my thoughts are not like your thoughts); John 10:10, 3:16, Romans 6:23 (promise of eternal life); Genesis 22:17, 26:4 (descendants as numerous as the stars).

[11] Alexandreis 3.253-7. On Alexander’s questions to the ascetic Indian philosophers (gymnosophists / “naked” philosophers), Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alexander 64.9. That same question of Alexander to the gymnosophists about how a man can become a god is also preserved in Berlin papyrus 13044, from Greek trans. Stoneman (2012) p. 78.

[12] Alexandreis 5.252-5. Acheron signifies the traditional Greco-Roman understanding of the underworld / world of the dead. The Persian Bessus led a coup that killed Darius. Alexander then determinedly pursued Bessus. The Alexandreis declares of Alexander in pursuit of Bessus:

he did not cease his enormous and painful labors
in serving as Fate’s worldly hammer
{nec destitit ille laborum
Prodigus et patiens fatalis malleus orbis}

Alexandreis 8.337-8. A hammer is an instrument that delivers blows by taking blows. Men deserve better than being used as hammers.

[13] Alexandreis 10.436-41. Similarly, 8.332-4. The Scythians offer a counter-exemplum:

The free people of Scythia desires nothing more than
what our first parent Nature has given. By that munificence,
no one serves power or commands desire.
Each person being her own law, protecting herself,
content with her possessions, seeking no one else’s,
produces beatitude. If more than this you seek,
your will exceeds the boundary that defines the end of beautitude.
{Libera gens Scitiae nichil appetit ulterius quam
Prima parens Natura dedit, de munere cuius
Nec cuiquam seruire potest nec ut imperet optat.
Esse sui iuris hominem, sua seque tueri,
Contentum esse suis, alienum nolle, beatum
Efficiunt. igitur si quid quesiueris ultra,
Excedunt tua uota modum finemque beati.}

Alexandreis 8.409-15.

[14] Alexandreis 10.448-51. John of Hauville’s Architrenius (The Arch-Lamenter), which John finished in 1184, frequently refers to the Alexandreis. Regarding the death of Alexander, the Architrenius declares:

No certain outcome
accrues to glory: for a little urn
contained the great man who would swallow worlds.

Architrenius 6.485-7, from Latin trans. Townsend (2007) p. 234.

As depicted in the Alexandreis, Alexander the Great certainly isn’t “the greatest possible human being.” Cf. Lafferty (2011) p. 198. Kratz interprets the Alexandreis as “a clever and biting attack upon the desire for glory as vain and foolish.” Kratz (1980) p. 155. The poem ends with a triumphal dedication to Walter’s patron, William of the White Hands, Archbishop of Reims:

Surviving and living on with his poet,
William’s glory shall not die until the end.
{uiuet cum uate superstes
Gloria Guillermi nullum moritura per euum.}

Alexandreis 10.468-9. Walter and William apparently had a complex relationship. A thirteenth-century biographical gloss (in BNP MS lat. 8358, fol. 91v, translated and discussed in Townsend (2007) pp. 12-4) discusses sexual relationships and intrigue in a message to the Pope. Kratz insightfully perceives irony in the concluding triumphal proclamation. Kratz (1980) p. 155. Kratz also rightly indicates in the Alexandreis the importance of the Consolation of Philosophy, which is marital pleasure. Id., passim.

The Alexandreis surely is more than merely a negative exemplum or a mocking of Alexander. The Alexandreis engages with the epic problem of man-hating Amazons and poetically resolves it. Walter’s readers would have appreciated that effort, as should readers today. The Alexandreis also artfully addresses conceptual limitations in historical interpretation. Lafferty (1998). For a brief review of other recent scholarly interpretations of the Alexandreis, Lafferty (2011) pp. 197-9.

[15] 1 Timothy 6:6-8. Compare the narrator’s address to Alexander:

Forever you will be a pauper. A soul lacking nothing
is produced not by things but by sufficiency. Even
a little, if sufficient, lacks nothing.
{Semper egenus eris. animum nullius egentem
Non res efficiunt sed sufficientia. quamuis
Sit modicum, si sufficiat, nullius egebis.}

Alexandreis 10.195-7.

[image] Medieval T-O world map schematic. In the inner circle, Asia is on top, Africa in the bottom right, and Europe (Evropa) on the bottom left. From a twelfth-century Latin manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. British Library (record number: c5933-06) Royal 12 F. IV, f.135v. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Jolly, William Thomas. 1968. The Alexandreid of Walter of Châtillon: a translation and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis, Tulane University.

Kratz, Dennis M. 1980. Mocking epic: Waltharius, Alexandreis, and the problem of Christian heroism. Madrid, España: J.P. Turanzas.

Lafferty, Maura K. 1998. Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis: epic and the problem of historical understanding. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. {revised version of her Ph.D. Thesis, University of Toronto, 1992}

Lafferty, Maura. 2011. “Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis.” Ch. 8 (pp. 177-99) in Zuwiyya, Z. David. A companion to Alexander literature in the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill.

Pritchard, Roger Telfryn, trans. 1986. Walter of Châtillon. The Alexandreis. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander romance. London, England: Penguin Books.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 2012. Legends of Alexander the Great. London: I.B. Tauris.

Townsend, David, trans. 2007. Walter of Châtillon. The Alexandreis: a twelfth-century epic. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press. (review of earlier edition)

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Luxorius on women’s desire to compete with men

woman competes with man

Sex typically delimits sharply status competition in non-human animals. Females compete with other females to determine the female status hierarchy. Males compete with other males to establish the male status hierarchy. Inter-sex competition is much less intense. In a female-male conflict, an individual male might prevail over a female, but overall social life is organized to favor female welfare.

Especially in poetry, humans create more complex individual interactions. From the time of the ancient Greeks, epic poetry has struggled with the poetic problem of Amazons who act like men and hate men. In early sixth-century Roman North Africa, the poet Luxorius apparently addressed women who desire more to compete with men than to have pleasurable sex with men:

To a girl woman man

Two-organed monster of the female sex,
whom driving lust turns into a man,
why don’t you enjoy having your cunt fucked wildly?
Why does impotent pleasure deceive you?
You don’t do, nor allow your cunt to be done.
When you offer that part that proves you are a woman,
then you will be my girl.

{In puellam hermaphroditam

Monstrum feminei bimembre sexus,
quam coacta virum facit libido,
quae gaudet futui furente cunno
cur te <de>cipit inpotens voluptas?
non des quo pateris facisque, cunnum.
illam qua mulier probaris esse
partem cum dederis, puella tunc <s>is.} [1]

Luxorius is a poet who requires a reader “proficient in decoding hidden meanings.”[2] In this poem, two-organed connects literally to the titular reference to being hermaphroditic. But the title may not have been original to the poem.[3] In any case, two-organed seems to me to suggest more allusively genitals and brain. Lust encompasses not just sex, but also power and prestige. The key to the overall sense of the poem is the fourth line:

Cur te decipit inpotens voluptas?

The phrase inpotens voluptas (“impotent pleasure”) suggests to me pleasure not associated with vigorous sexual intercourse between the male narrator and the female addressee. In this poetic context, impotent pleasure seems to mean intellectual competition for power and prestige. In short, the male narrator is chiding the female addressee for her intellectual striving with him. He is also declaring to her that they can interact in a more truly pleasurable way.

Luxorius’s poetry apparently was widely read in early sixth-century north Africa. A surviving poem lauds Luxorius:

Against the ancient poets, Luxorius, the win certainly goes to you:
For surely your poem has carried forth a double victory.
{Priscos, Luxori, certum est te vincere vates:
Carmen namque tuum duplex Victoria gestat.} [4]

Circumstances now are rather different. Today’s ruling authorities probably would not permit Luxorius’s poem on the “two-organed monster” to be discussed on university campuses or printed in intellectually dominant publications. But at least until further crackdowns on free thought and free expression occur, you still have the liberty to think about it in the privacy of your home.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Anthologia Latina 312 (Riese 317) (Luxorius, In puellam hermaphroditam), Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) p. 254, my English translation. A Latin text with English translation is in Rosenblum (1961) pp. 130-1 (poem 31). The Anthologia Latina has survived in only one manuscript: Codex Salmasianus, Prisinus 10318, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Reise & Shackleton Bailey (1982) currently provides the best critical edition of the Latin text.

My translation tracks closely Rosenblum’s, but doesn’t bowdlerize the poetry. Here’s Rosenblum’s translation:

To a Hermaphroditic Girl

Two-organed monster of the female sex, whom enforced lust turns into a man, why do you not enjoy the normal way of making love? Why does violent, vain pleasure deceive you? You do not give that with which you are passive and also active. When you offer that part of you which proves that you are a female, then you may be a girl.

Id. p. 131. In excising earthy references to genitals, Rosenblum makes the poem much less lively. Moreover, the central concern of the poem surely isn’t ontological (“then you may be a girl”). The Latin supports either “a girl” or “my girl.” The latter is vastly preferable.

In an award-winning book, Boswell provided a poor-quality translation:

You, strange mixture of the female gender,
Whom driving lust makes a male,
Who loves to fuck with your crazed cunt,
Why has pointless desire seized you?
You do not give what you get, though you service a cunt.
When you have given that part by which you are judged a woman,
Then you will be a girl.

Boswell (1980) p. 185. The initial, second-person address seems to me to betray the subtly of the Latin. As a translation for monstrum bimembre, “strange mixture” is loose and vague. Moreover, virum isn’t a male; it’s an adult male human being, i.e. a man.

In addition to other translation weaknesses, Boswell records the fourth line in Latin as Cur te ceperit inpotens uoluptas? Both Riese (1894), p. 262, and Rosenblum (1961), p. 198-9, which were available to Boswell, have the reading Cur te decipit inpotens voluptas? That follows Burman’s eighteenth-century emendment of the manuscript reading quur te cepit inpotens voluptas. Boswell provides no indication of or justification for replacing the standard reading decipit with ceperit. The former reading seems to me preferable in relation to the overall meaning of the poem. Respect for textual correctness would require at least noting a ideosyncratic emendment. Boswell declares, “the poem certainly is about lesbianism.” Id. That’s certainly wrong.

Art Beck, an independent intellectual, has been a leader in proclaiming the poetic merit of Luxorius. Here’s his translation:

Hermaphroditic Girl

As if you were a double-organed
monsterwoman who, rather than joyfully
stuffing herself
when she gets excited,
can’t help her compulsive erection.

Why do you hide behind that frantic
pretend pleasure? You never really
give your cunt, neither open up nor squeeze.
If you want to prove you’re a grown up woman,
quit playing the role and be my girl.

Beck (2012) p. 79. Beck declares, “these are interpretative translations and not intended as authoritative, i.e. my purpose was aesthetic, not scholarly.” Id. p. 16. Beck seems to me to have best conveyed the sense of the underlying Latin text. My translation attempts to provide more scholarly fidelity to the Latin text and to convey that sense.

[2] Wasyl (2011) p. 219.

[3] Rosenblum (1961) pp. 65-9. The title has a paradoxical element. Luxorius frequently used paradox. Wasyl (2011) p. 219. I have highlighted paradoxical meaning in my English translation of the title.

[4] Anthologia Latina 24 (Riese 37) (De titulo Luxorii cum versibus), Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) p. 51, my translation. Rosemblum (1961), p. 38, notes that Luxorius’s contemporary Coronatus also praised him.

Learned readers largely haven’t appreciated Luxorius. Palmer (1962) condemned Luxorius for “insipidly scabrous poems.” According to Palmer, Luxorius’s poetry was a “shallow pond” that “better remained in obscurity.” Wasyl (2011), Part III, however, provides compelling scholarly vindication for Beck’s appreciation of Luxorius.

[image] Etiud golovki (Head study), detail. Photograph by Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ, between 1905 and 1915. Item LC-P87- 7293 [P&P] LOT 10333, LC-DIG-prokc-21657 (digital color composite from digital file from glass negative). U.S. Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication.


Beck, Art, trans. 2012. Luxorius. Opera omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone. Los Angeles: Otis Books | Seismicity Editions.

Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press. 35th Anniversary Edition, 2015.

Rosenblum, Morris. 1961. Luxorius: a Latin poet among the Vandals; together with a text of the poems and an English translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Palmer, Robert E.A.  1962. Review. Rosenblum. Luxorius: A Latin Poet Among the Vandals. The Classical World 55 (9): 296.

Riese, Alexander, and David R. Shackleton Bailey. 1982. Anthologia latina: sive poesis latinae supplementum. Pars. 1. Carmina in codicibus scripta. Fasc. 1. Libri Salmasiani aliorumque carmina. Stutgardiae: In aedibus Teubneri. Online prior edition Riese (1894).

Wasyl, Anna Maria. 2011. Genres rediscovered: studies in Latin miniature epic, love elegy, and epigram of the Romano-Barbaric age. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press.

privileged women promoted men’s education in medieval Islamic world

princess with prince

Under the heading of gender equality and development, international organizations today prioritize educating women and girls. That makes about as much sense as prioritizing violence against women. In the medieval Islamic world, highly privileged women promoted men’s education.

Princess Ismah was a highly privileged woman in the medieval Islamic world. The daughter of a sultan, she married Caliph al-Mustazhir about 1108 GC. Two years after that marriage, she took up residence with the Caliph in the Caliphal Palace in Baghdad. She apparently was in no rush to be with her husband, nor he, with her. She was known as a “highly intelligent woman, an aristocrat and a virago.”[1] One suspects that the Caliph married a virago for the political power she brought to him, the nominal ruler of the Islamic world.

Princess Ismah made an important contribution to men’s higher education. After Caliph al-Mustazhir died, she returned to her native city of Isfahan in present-day Iran. There she founded a law college. In a work written shortly before 1258 GC, the Baghdadi historian Ibn al-Sa’i, who had served as the librarian of two great law colleges in Baghdad, noted of the law college that Princess Ismah founded in Isfahan:

This was the biggest law college in the world. She endowed it for the followers of Abu Hanifah — God show him mercy. I hear that nowadays it has become very run-down — it has no door and is uninhabitable.

Perhaps her law college grew too quickly. Like all bureaucracies, colleges have difficulty in making sustainable growth choices. Nonetheless, Princess Ismah deserves credit for her contribution to men’s higher education.[2]

Princess Saljuqi was another highly privileged woman in the medieval Islamic world. She was the daughter of the ruler of Anatolia. She married Caliph al-Nasir in 1186 GC. Right after her betrothal to him, he brought her to live with him:

He then sent an escort to bring her to Baghdad, consummated the marriage, and gave her priceless jewels and gifts fit for caliphs and kings. [3]

Unfortunately, Princess Saljuqi died two years later. The Caliph was devastated:

Al-Nasir was so grief-stricken at her passing that he could not eat or drink for days. For many years her house was left just as it was, with all of its draperies and furnishings intact; it was never opened, nor was anything ever taken from it.

Princess Ismah’s law college was different from Princess Saljuqi’s house. Love didn’t sustain the law college.

The site of Princess Saljuqi’s grave became an institution for public education. A mausoleum was completed for her only after her burial. The completed mausoleum included a public library:

A library of valuable books was installed there by bequest in perpetuity, to be lent against a deposit.

The most important learning for men is women’s love for them. The library at Princess Saljuqi’s mausoleum is a poignant monument to men’s education. Elite women across the world should consider establishing such libraries at their gravesites.

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[1] Ibn al-Sāʿī, Consorts of the Caliphs, entry for Ismah Khatun, from Arabic trans. Toorawa (2015) p. 105. The subsequent quote is from id. On the two-year delay between marriage and co-residence, id. p. 153, n. 90.

[2] Women may have also studied at the law college. Women probably borrowed books from the library at Princess Saljuqi’s mausoleum. The focus of this post, however, is men’s education.

[3] Consorts of the Caliphs, entry for Saljuqi Khatun, trans. Toorawa (2015) p. 117. The subsequent two quotes are from id. Next to Princess Saljuqi’s mausoleum, Caliph al-Nasir established for Sufis “a splendid lodge with a large inner court”:

He had a pleasant orchard planted in front of it, overlooking the Tigris and irrigated by a waterwheel that drew from the river. … He also arranged for someone to perform the hajj every year on her behalf; for quantities of alms to be handed out on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, including water, provisions, clothing, sandals, and medicine for the sick; and for a number of devout and virtuous persons to be sent on the hajj.

Id. pp. 117-8. Princess Saljuqi was memorialized not just with concern for men’s education, but also with Islamic piety and care for the poor, the sick, and pilgrims.

[image] Princess and prince embracing. Manuscript illumination, Iran, c. 1550. Item S1986.295, Sackler Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Thanks to Freer|Sackler Open F|S.


Toorawa, Shawkat M., ed. 2015. Ibn al-Sāʿī . Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. New York, London: Library of Arabic Literature.

love poetry of slave girl Mahbubah for her owner caliph al-Mutawakkil

About 1150 years ago in what’s now Iraq, the caliph al-Mutawakkil received as a gift four hundred slave girls. He loved above all others Mahbubah. She was a poet and singer, with a beautiful face and voice. Her name means “beloved.”

young woman beauty

One day, al-Mutawakkil was drinking with Mahbubah. He gave her an apple perfumed with an expensive musk blend. She kissed the apple and then departed. Soon one of Mahbubah’s slaves returned with a piece of paper. The paper contained a poem as sensuous as the scented apple:

You — fragrance of an apple I had to myself —
you ignite in me the fire of ecstasy.
I weep and complain of my malady,
and of my grief’s intensity.
If an apple could weep, then the one I hold
would shed such tears of pity.
If you do not know what my soul has suffered,
look, the proof is my body.
If you gaze upon it, you will see
one unable to suffer patiently. [1]

Everyone found those verses “utterly delightful.” The caliph ordered the verses set to music. That was the only song sung for the rest of the day.

A highly privileged slave girl, who herself owned slaves, passionately urged her owner to gaze upon her body. Such circumstances explode the minds of present-day man-hating academics. But wives, you might enjoy trying such poetry with your husbands.

Caliph al-Mutawakkil appreciated other women’s beauty. One day upon a visit to the woman poet Qabihah, he found that she had written his name on her cheek using an expensive blend of musk perfume. Al-Mutawakkil said to ‘Ali, his close friend and confidant:

‘Ali, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than that streak of black against her white cheek. Go ahead and compose a poem for me about that!

Mahbubah had been sitting behind a curtain in the same room and heard what her beloved al-Mutawakkil had said. Before ‘Ali managed to make any progress on the requested poem, Mahbubah improvised the following verses:

She wrote “Ja’far” in musk on her cheek,
how lovely that streak where the musk left its mark!
On her face she wrote just one line,
but she etched many more on my heart.
Who can help a master in thrall to his slave,
subservient in his heart, but plain to see,
Or one whose secret desire is Ja’far —
may he drink his fill from your lips! [2]

Al-Mutawakkil’s given name was Ja’far. In sympathy with her owner’s love for another woman, Mahbubah wrote the first four lines in his voice. The next two lines are from an objective, third-person perspective. The last two lines sympathize with the other woman, Qabihah. Mahbubah addressed to Qabihah a prayer that she experience passionate intimacy with al-Mutawakkil. That’s astonishingly big-hearted generosity, as difficult to imagine today as the big-hearted generosity of Bacchis and Colophon.

Mahbubah remained loyal to al-Mutawakkil even after he was assassinated. Al-Mutawakkil’s Turkic chamberlain Wasif, who was a eunuch and an enslaved soldier who rose to become a general, participated in the assassination. One day after al-Mutawakkil has been killed, Wasif ordered that the court slaves be displayed for him:

They arrived in all their splendor, adorned, perfumed, and dressed in brightly colored clothes bedecked with jewels, except for Muhbubah, who came dressed in plain mourning white and not wearing any makeup.

Wasif and the slaves sang, drank, and enjoyed themselves. But as a eunich, Wasif surely didn’t enjoy himself with the slave girls in a way that al-Mutawakkil had. Wasif ordered Mahbubah to sing. Sobbing, she took a lute and sang:

What sweetness does life hold for me
when I cannot see Ja’far?
A king I saw with my own eyes
murdered, rolled in the dust.
The sick and the sorrowful,
they can all heal;
But not Mahbubah —
if she saw death for sale,
She would give everything she has to buy it
and join him in the grave.
For the bereaved, death is sweeter than life.

The slave girl Mahbubah loved her former owner, the assassinated caliph al-Mutawakkil, with loyalty that transcended death. She was a strong, independent woman who sang a declaration of political rebellion. Infuriated, Wasif was about to order Mahbubah killed. But Wasif’s co-commander asked for her. He received her and freed her. She left the city and died in isolation and grief.

For her amazing love, Mahbubah deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

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[1] Toorawa (2015) p. 79. All the quotes and narrative details are from id. pp. 77-83.

[2] In the ancient Islamic world, poets competed aggressively with each other for acclaim. Slave girls’ poetic skill sometimes overwhelmed their attractiveness. For example, the poet Ibn Abi Tahir visited the slave girl Nabt. He noted, “She had a lovely face and voice.” But her skillful capping of poetic lines humiliated Ibn Abi Tahir. He got up and left. Id. p. 93. The most highly intelligent women know how to use their intelligence intelligently.

[image] Young woman with a spray of lilies. Painting. 16th century Iran. Item F1932.64, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Thanks to Freer|Sackler Open F|S.


Toorawa, Shawkat M., ed. 2015. Ibn al-Sāʿī . Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad. New York, London: Library of Arabic Literature.