Dante in ring of lust saw men being purified of their sexual sins

Jacob embracing angel, by Rembrandt

Led by Virgil his guide, Dante in Purgatory came upon the ring of lust:

And here the walls shot out a blast of flame,
but the ring sent a breeze from down below,
driving it back and sheltering a slim
pathway along the unprotected edge,
for walking one by one. This side, I feared
the fire; that side, the sheer fall from the ledge.
“All round this ring,” my guide began to say,
“you’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes.
On small misstep and you’ll have gone astray.”

{ Quivi la ripa fiamma in fuor balestra,
e la cornice spira fiato in suso
che la reflette e via da lei sequestra;
ond’ ir ne convenia dal lato schiuso
ad uno ad uno; e io temëa ‘l foco
quinci, e quindi temeva cader giuso.
Lo duca mio dicea: “Per questo loco
si vuol tenere a li occhi stretto il freno,
però ch’errar potrebbesi per poco.” } [1]

Virgil was warning Dante about the male gaze. Many men enjoy gazing upon beautiful women, especially if the women are naked or nearly so. In the relatively enlightened medieval period, the male gaze wasn’t dogmatically defined as an act of violence against women. The male gaze was more rationally understood as tempting men into lust, including lust within men’s hearts. Men, especially lively and wonder-filled men, have difficulty controlling their eyes.

So it was with Dante walking about the burning ring of lust. A song caught his attention, and his eyes roamed:

Out of the bosom of the ardent fire
“God of the greatest clemency” was sung,
and turning toward them, equal in desire,
I beheld spirits walking through the flame —
so, portioning my glances here and there,
I looked at them, and watched the way I came.

{ “Summae Deus clementiae” nel seno
al grande ardore allora udi’ cantando,
che di volger mi fé caler non meno;
e vidi spirti per la fiamma andando;
per ch’io guardava a loro e a’ miei passi,
compartendo la vista a quando a quando. } [2]

Those singing had committed sexual sins — some heterosexual sins, some homosexual sins, and probably some gyno-idolatry. Dante humbly and rightly regarded himself as “equal in desire” to these passionate sinners. They weren’t condemned to the inferno of Hell. They were being purified of their sins through fire in Purgatory.

The hymn the spirits were singing, “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” is a frightening, seventh-century exemplar of long-enduring castration culture. In this hymn, the chanting men beg God to castrate them:

God of greatest clemency,
who made the world’s machinery,
one in power of action,
three in persons,

Devotedly, with kindness,
receive our tears mingled with songs,
so we, hearts of foulness purified,
may enjoy you more abundantly.

Our diseased loins and livers,
cauterize with fitting fire,
so that they may be continually in our pants,
far away from the worst lust.

{ Summae Deus clementie
mundique factor machinae,
unus potentialiter,
trinusque personaliter,

Nostros pius quum canticis
fletus benigne suscipe,
quo corda pura sordibus
te perfruamur largius;

Lumbos iecurque morbidum
adure igni congruo,
accincti ut sint perpetim
luxu remoto pessimo } [3]

The spirits in the ring of lust in Dante’s Purgatory were being purified with fire,  not being castrated with fire. They were self-consciously appealing for forgiveness, not literally calling for themselves to be castrated. Within their earthly life, men should exercise self-control to keep their pants on when doing so is right. But even if men have failed to keep their pants girt around their waists, Dante’s Divine Comedy offers them a way to Heaven.

Dante’s way to Heaven for lustful men draws upon the biblical account of Jacob wrestling at Peniel. In Hebrew scripture, the blessing of God is primarily fecundity: offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand of the sea. With help of his mother’s guile, Jacob took the blessing his father intended for his first-born son, Jacob’s older twin brother Esau. Esau subsequently sought to kill Jacob. To make matters worse, Jacob, like Dis in celibate Hell, struggled to gain a wife. Jacob had to work fourteen years in order to be allowed to marry his beloved Rachel. After Jacob has gained Rachel, he still had to face an attack from Esau. Jacob had to protect his blessing by protecting his family.[4]

One night Jacob sent his family across the Jabbok ford and remained alone on the near side. Then someone started wresting with him. With his strong, dog-like sexuality, Jacob continued wrestling until daybreak. The other, moving sharply and unexpectedly, wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket. Jacob, however, refused to let go until he was further blessed. The God-woman then conceded, declaring that Jacob had wrestled with God and women and had prevailed. Jacob thus received the blessing of God and continued to enjoy the blessing of women. He had engaged God face-to-face and survived. Yet, with his injured groin, he could no longer could be as sexually vigorous as he had been. His dog-like sexuality had been domesticated.[5]

The fourth-century scholar and bishop Ambrose of Milan provided keen insight into Jacob’s wrestling. Ambrose explained:

For what is wrestling with God if not venturing upon the fight for virtue, and coming to grips with one more powerful and stronger than the rest, becoming an imitator of God?

{ quid est enim luctari cum deo nisi virtutis suscipere certamen et cum superiore congredi potioremque ceteris imitatorem fieri dei? } [6]

Jacob initially thought he was wrestling with a man in usual man-on-man violence. But his wrestling had called forth someone stronger than himself, a woman. Jacob had imitated God’s action as Adam explained it with an enveloping Hebrew phrase:

this one shall be called woman,
for out of man was taken this one.

{ לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻֽקֳחָה־זֹּֽאת } [7]

In extracting a woman from a man, Jacob had become an imitator of God. He thus encountered God. That’s what men’s sexuality does for women and men. Yet a price was paid for this blessing. That price was the sexual wounding of men.

The biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling is complex and enigmatic. Prudentius’s fourth-century poem, “Night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila},” summarizes well the story and its meaning:

Through the dark night Jacob
dared wrestle with an angel
until the light arose,
sweating in an unequal fight.

But when the sunbeam shone,
his hamstring gave in, lamed,
defeated, his thigh crippled,
he lost the power to sin.

He grew weak in his wounded groin,
far below the heart,
the lower part of his body,
that feeds lust’s ominous flames.

From such examples we are taught,
that a man enclosed in darkness,
if he refuses to yield to God,
loses his rebellious strength.

So much more he will be blessed,
with his unruly member lamed,
when day’s dawn will discover him,
diminishing from wrestling.

{ Sub nocte Iacob caerula,
luctator audax angeli,
eo usque dum lux surgeret,
sudavit inpar proelium;

Sed cum iubar claresceret,
lapsante claudus poplite
femurque victus debile
culpae vigorem perdidit.

Nutabat inguen saucium,
quae corporis pars vilior
longeque sub cordis loco
diram fovet libidinem.

Hae nos docent imagines
hominem tenebris obsitum,
si forte non cedat Deo,
vires rebellis perdere.

Erit tamen beatior,
intemperans membrum cui
luctando claudum et tabidum
dies oborta invenerit. } [8]

From no later than the seventh century, Christians lit candles to begin their Easter Vigil. Celebrating the coming of light, they sang, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! {O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem!}.”[9] Jacob, wrestling with the one who accosted him, lost the ominous, rebellious element of his lust through daringly exercising it. He became more blessed. The universal implication is this: men’s dog-like sexuality, even with resulting wounds, can bring blessings in unexpected ways.

Jacob wrestling, 13th-century Exultate hymn

The spirits being purged of their sexual sins through fire in Dante’s ring of lust sung more than “O God of greatest clemency.” They also sung of marital love:

Returning to their singing, they would cry
of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived
as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

{ Indi al cantar tornavano; indi donne
gridavano e mariti che fuor casti
come virtute e matrimonio imponne. } [10]

Paul of Tarsus advised men that it’s better to marry than to burn.[11] In considering marriage, men today must consider the danger of a marriage becoming sexless, being cuckolded and then enduring large financial obligations for being a cuckold, being summarily stripped of everything, including the right to live in their own home, to say nothing of anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings. But the alternative isn’t just castration with a burning implement. From the story of Jacob at Peniel, men might hope that their non-marital sexual wrestling will lead to blessing. From Dante’s Purgatorio, men at least have the comfort of knowing that their sexual sins can be forgiven.

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Notes:

[1] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.112-20, Italian text and English translation from Esolen (2004). Esolen’s translation is poetic yet quite faithful to the Italian text. The Princeton Dante Project provides the Latin text, Robert Hollander’s English verse translation, and a variety of other resources for studying the Divine Comedy. Dartmouth’s Dante Lab Reader provides the Italian text and the English translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867).

[2] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.121-6, from Esolen (2004). As Hollander commented, Jacopo della Lana’s near-contemporary commentary (written 1324-28) on Purgatorio 25.121-124 provides the Latin text of Summae Deus clementiae as Dante likely knew it.

[3] “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” st 1-3, Latin text from Walsh (2012) p. 148, my English translation. My translation benefited from Walsh’s. I’ve sacrificed the meter to make the translation more literal and accessible. The original text of this hymn has only one additional, concluding stanza:

So we who break the hours of night
now singing together,
with the gifts of our blessed fatherland
may all be amply enriched.

{ Ut quique oras noctium
Nunc concinendo rumpimus,
Donis beate patrie
Ditemur omnes affatim. }

Id., similarly my English translation.

The phrase mundi … machinae in the first stanza echoes Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.96. Lucretius sought to dispel men’s delusions about women, including the delusion that women are angels. Walpole (1922), p. 274, provides helpful textual notes in addition to Walsh’s.

Summae Deus clementiae exists in various forms (list of manuscripts). The above version is an Ambrosian hymn from the seventh century. It exists in the New Hymnal from the tenth century and the Mozarabic Breviary. Walsh (2012) p. 149, McGrath (1939) p. 118. Pope Urban VIII in 1632 muted the sexual references in the third stanza and changed the first line to Summae Parens clementiae {Father of greatest clemency}. Here’s the revised version as translated by Edward Caswell (1849) and by John David Chambers (nineteenth century). Here’s a chanted version. The different forms are easily conflated and confused. See, e.g. Donahoe (1908) pp. 44, 261.

[4] On the blessing of numerous offspring, Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, Exodus 32:13. On Jacob’s personal history, Genesis 25:19 – 35:29.

[5] For Jacob’s wrestling, Genesis 32:22-32. The text describes the one who initially started wrestling with Jacob as “a man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). His opponent declares that Jacob has struggled “with God and with men” (אֱלֹהִים ‘elohiym, אֱנוֹשׁ ‘enowsh), but the term “men” might best be understand as adult human beings. I’ve used “with God and with women” above because that seems to me the most relevant meaning in context.

Beginning with the third-century BGC Septuagint, translators have differed on the meaning of this passage. Kugel (2003) pp. 29-30. Jacob says of his experience of wrestling, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. One interpretation is that Jacob initially saw an angel. That angel was actually God. Id. pp. 27-32.

[6] Ambrose of Milan, Of Jacob and blessed life {De Iacob et vita beata} 2.7.30, Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012) p. 77. Ambrose’s interpretation is similar to many others in the fourth century. Sheridan (2012). It has roots in Philo of Alexandria’s allegorical exegesis of Hebrew scripture:

We shall also find that the change of Jacob’s name to Israel is much to the purpose. Why so? Because Jacob is the supplanter, and Israel he who sees God. It is the task of a supplanter in the practice of virtue to disturb and shake and upset the supports on which passion rests, and all the firmness and stability which they have. That is a work which cannot commonly be done without hard effort and the stains of the arena, but only when one maintains the contests of wisdom to the end, and drilled in the gymnastics of the soul wrestles with the thoughts which oppose and hold it fast in their grip.

{ Ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν Ἰακὼβ μετονομάζεσθαι συμβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν Ἰσραήλ, οὐκ ἀπὸ σκοποῦ. διὰ τί; ὅτι ὁ μὲν Ἰακὼβ πτερνιστής, ὁ δὲ Ἰσραὴλ ὁρῶν τὸν θεὸν καλεῖται. πτερνιστοῦ μὲν οὖν ἔργον ἀσκοῦντος ἀρετὴν τὰς βάσεις τοῦ πάθους, αἷς ἐφίδρυται, καὶ εἴ τι ὀχυρὸν καὶ ἱδρυμένον ἐν αὐταῖς κινεῖν καὶ σαλεύειν καὶ ἀνατρέπειν—ταῦτα δὲ οὐ δίχα ἀγωνίας ἀκονιτὶ φιλεῖ γίνεσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδάν τις τοὺς φρονήσεως ἄθλους διαθλῶν γυμνάζηταί τε τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς γυμνάσματα καὶ πρὸς τοὺς ἀντιπάλους καὶ τραχηλίζοντας αὐτὴν λογισμοὺς παλαίῃ }

Philo of Alexandria, De mutatione nominum 81, cited in Sheridan (2012) p. 319. See id. pp. 318-27 for related analysis. In contrast to Philo’s exegesis, the wrestling of Jacob the sexual athlete isn’t against his dog-like sexual passion, but with the God-woman. The unwilled, blessed result is to cripple his dog-like sexual passion and supplant it with domesticated sexual desire for a fully human wife.

[7] From Genesis 2:23. That passage includes etymological reasoning: “woman” (אִשָּׁה ‘ishshah) is derived from “out of man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). The account of Jacob wrestling is also centrally concerned with etymology. Genesis 32:28, 30. For etymological analysis of Jacob wrestling, but not recognizing the sexual level, Kugel (2007) pp. 160-2.

[8] Prudentius, Cathemerinon 2, Morning Hymn {Hymnus Matutinus}, O night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila}, st. 19-23, Latin text from O’Daly (2012), my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Walsh (2012), and Richardson (2016). Pope (1895) provides an online Latin text and English translation.

Richard translates stanza 23 to contrast, rather than elaborate upon, stanza 22:

These figures teach us that the man
who is in darkness overwhelmed,
if he does not give way to God,
is ruined by rebellious strength.

But far more blessed will he be,
whose body dawning daylight finds
with his unruly member lamed,
and wasted from the bitter strife.

Richardson (2016) pp. 36-7. He explains, “This stanza {st. 22} describes the man who does not give way to God, and so his ‘rebellious strength’ destroys him (cf. 20.3 culpae vigorem), by contrast with st. 23, where one who eventually yields like Jacob is ‘far more blessed’.” But losing the power to sin is a victory / blessing that st. 23 elaborates upon. That’s the interpretation of O’Daly:

His wrestling is an image of the victory of virtue over vice, a victory that, paradoxically, involves a defeat against an unequal, because divine, adversary (l. 76). His victory‐in‐defeat entails the loss of the power to sin (l. 80), and this is reiterated in the generalizing l. 88, applicable to all humans who wrestle with the divine: there is loss of the energy to rebel.

O’Daly (2012) pp. 77-8. This interpretation I find more convincing.

[9] From the Exsultet (full Latin text and English translation; its liturgical history). The Vulgate version of Psalm 80 (now typically numbered Psalm 81) begins:

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

{ laudate Deum fortitudinem nostram iubilate Deo Iacob }

By the early 13th century, psalters began this psalm with exultate rather than laudate. See, e.g. British Library Royal 1 D X, folio 74v. It is now commonly titled Exultate Deo. These changes appropriately associate Jacob with a “happy fault.”

[10] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.133-5, from Esolen (2004).

[11] 1 Corinthians 7:9.

[images] (1) Jacob wrestling with the angel (woman). Oil on canvas painting by Rembrandt about 1659. Preserved under accession no. 828 in Gemäldegalerie (Berlin, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jacob wrestling. Historiated initial “e” for exultate beginning Psalm 80 (Vulgate numbering; now typically numbered Psalm 81) in manuscript created in Oxford, England, between about 1200 and 1220. From manuscript preserved in British Library, Royal 1 D X, folio 74v.

References:

Donahoe, Daniel Joseph. 1908. Early Christian Hymns: translations of the verses of the most notable Latin writers of the early and middle ages. New York: The Grafton Press.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2004. Dante Alighieri. Purgatory {second section of the Divine Comedy}. New York: Modern Library.

Kugel, James L. 2003. The God of Old: inside the lost world of the Bible. New York: Free Press.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to Read the Bible: a guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McGrath, George Warren. 1939. The Revision of the Hymns of the Roman breviary under Urban VIII. Thesis (M.A.). Loyola University of Chicago, 1939.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pope, R. Matin, trans. 1895. The Hymns of Prudentius. London: J.M. Dent.

Richardson, Nicholas J., trans. 2016. Prudentius’ Hymns for Hours and Seasons: the Liber Cathemerinon. New York: Routledge.

Sheridan, Mark. 2012. “Jacob and Israel: A Contribution to the History of an Interpretation.” Pp. 316-34 in Mark Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: studies in early monastic literature and scriptural interpretation. Analecta monastica, 12; Studia anselmiana, 156. Roma: Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo.

Walpole, Arthur Sumner, ed. 1922. Early Latin Hymns: with introduction and notes. Cambridge Patristic Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University 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.

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