DANTE’S DIVINE COMEDY & THE ARCHETYPE OF THE COSMIC JOURNEY TO HEAVEN AND HELL IN WORLD LITERATURE—FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is a journey and Odyssey of cosmic dimensions, departing from the troubled world of our own experience, through a descent into the Underworld, or the Hell of the “Inferno,” followed by a re-ascent up the atoning slopes of the Mountain of Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise of our Lost Eden in the “Purgatorio,” and finally from thence an exalted flight into the Heavens of the Spirit and nighness to God in the “Paradiso,” before returning to our shared world of human existence on Earth.
The structure of the “Commedia” is thus both dazzlingly simple and impossibly intricate as an attempt to mediate to us the Christian Cosmos pervaded by the mystery of the Trinity and God’s plan for the world from its Creation through to the Last Judgment. It is also, evocative of modernity, the journey of one man, a man like ourselves, Dante himself, a soul in transit, an exemplary Pilgrim, a man whose aloneness casts a shadow across the transited cosmos, a man who may be taken as an Everyman, yet through all a voice which remains “io sol uno”….”only myself.”
The Divine Comedy, however, speaks to us not only as a polemical catechism of the Christian cosmos, but also as the living voice of the universal Collective Unconscious. Its journey re-enacts the primordial archetypes which have informed and enhanced human existence from its origins to the present.
WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?
C.G. Jung identified as “Archetypes” dynamic symbolic complexes charged with energy in the human psyche which mediate and help transcend the inextricable contradictions and limitations of human existence, and which serve to enhance psychic wholeness, growth, and the greater powers of life itself. Archetypes recurrently irrupt from latent unconsciousness into living human consciousness in the form of dreams and as expressed in literature, art, religion and myth serving as guides and healers towards grater life. Archetypes are generally manifested in the forms of characterological personas, situational motifs and oppositional symbolic patterns.
Examples of archetypal characterological personas charged with the immense hidden energies of the Collective Unconscious would include:
1. The Hero–who typically struggles against inimical and powerful forces beyond his control, overcoming them with his own virtues aided by benevolent powers of the universe;
2. The Scapegoat–an animal or more likely a human whose ceremonial sacrafice or expulsion expiates some taint or sin afflicting the community;
3 The Outcast–a figure banished from a human community
4. The Devil–Evil incarnate, inimically opposed to human well-being
5. The Earthmother–symbol of fruition, abundance and fertility
5. The Anima Inspiratrice–the Platonic inspiring feminine beauty whose image leads to transcendence of the baser limitations of the self towards enhanced spiritual powers—the prime examples of which are Beatrice of the Divine Comedy who is Dante’s feminine guide in Heaven, alongside Petrarch’s Laura, Goethe’s “Ewige Weibliche” Eternal Feminine, and others.
6. The Sage or Mentor–an older and wiser father-figure who acts as a guide in aid of greater knowlecge and maturity–Exemplified by the figure of Vergil in the Divine Comedy who is Dante’s Guide in Hell and Purgatory.
Examples of Situational Archetypal Motifs would include:
1. The Quest–a search for something or a powerful talisman which will restore fertility to a wasted and blighted land
2. The Task–to save the kingdom, win a fair lady or perform some superhuman deed
3.The Journey–usually to find some vital information or truth
4. Death & Rebirth
Sybolical Archetypal oppositional patterns might include:
1. Darkness & Light
2. Water & Desert
3. Heaven & Hell—Man has traditionally associated places not accessible to him as the dwelling places of the hidden primordial powers that govern his world, as exemplified by the Heaven and Hell of Dante’s Commedia. The cosmic journey through heaven and hell allows the traveller and vicariously humanity as a whole, to channel, ally and transform these forces to the benefit of human life, and by concurrent self-transformation en route, attain wholeness and oneness with the dominant forces of the universe. These derived enhanced powers enable him to come to terms with and transcend the inescapable reality and horror of death, and to seek out the ethical and existential meaning of his life.
Since Archetypes emerge from and express the universal Collective Unconscious of humanity they occur in all cultures and at all times in human history, though shaped in their expression by each cultural tradition in its own way. Accordingly, the Cosmic Journey of Dante’s Commedia can find parallels in most literary and cultural traditions of the world. Dante’s cosmic journey in the Commedia can thus be seen as one manifestation of the general archetype of “The Night Journey” or “Cosmic Journey,” a plot-line in which a major character, literally or symboically goes through hell and emerges as a better person, generally exhibiting the following characteristics:
1. The hero suffers a moral or spiritual crisis (Separation);
2. The hero is told to seek knowledge, insight or solutions in hell (Quest);
3. The hero accompanied by a wise guide, embarks on his journey;
4. The hero realizes that he is in Hell, literally or symbolically, through the recognition that he himself is one of the morally or spiritually dead;
5. The hero, after speaking to the dead, gains knowlege and understanding about mortality, life and himself;
6. At the depth of his descent, the hero faces either a devil figure or challenge that he must defeat or overcome to return to life (Challenge & Victory);
7. A return to the human world, generally bearing some boon (Re-Integration).
PARALLEL WORKS OF WORLD LITERATURE TO THE DIVINE COMEDY EXHIBITING ARCHETYPAL COSMIC JOURNEYS TO HEAVEN AND HELL: THE ODYSSEY, THE AENEID, THE MYTH OF ER, DREAM OF SCIPIO, THE ISRA & MI’RAJ, KITAB AL-MIRAJ, RESALAT AL-GHUFRAN AND THE MAHABHARATA
Almost all the great literatures and cultures of the world have similar expressions of the Cosmic Journey and Night Journey archetypes. Thus Dante himself did not fashion his epic out of the whole cloth of the pure imagination but based the Commedia on classical models, the two most notable of which are the Nykia, or descents into the Underworld in Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid.
In the Odyssey Odysseus’s conundrum is how to ruturn home after his wayward wanderings. In Book VI, The Nykia, he is told by his sorceress-lover Circe that he may only find out how through visiting the seer Teresias in the Underworld. Thereupon he sets sail to the gates of Hades and prepares a sacrafice, saving the blood for Tiresias to drink in order to exercise his gift of prophecy. In the course of the book he speaks with his dead comerad Elpenor, his dead mother Anticleia and with his friends the dead heroes Achilles and Agamemnon. Finally Tiresias reveals the route by which he may return home, including a testing visit to the island of the Bulls of Apollo in which he must not violate their sacredness.
The next great model for Dante in his visit to the Underworld is that of Aeneas’ archetypal visit to the Underworld in the Aeneid. Aeneas is a regugee from the fall of Troy whose mission is to found the city of Rome that will become the greatest empire of antiquity. He must visit his dead father Anchises to accomplish this divinely inspired task. To secure his passage to the Underworld he first must undertake a quest to obtain the Golden Bough to give to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and which will become the archetypal symbol of fertility and immortality in Sir James Frazer’s study of myth of the same name. In his descent to the underworld Aeneas has a guide and helper, the Cumaean Sybil, or prophetess. She guides him and uses the Golden Bough to pass the obstacles of Charon the Boatman and Cerberus, the Three-Headed guard-dog of Hades, figures that will recur in Dante’s Commedia, along with the presence of Vergil himself, author of the Aeneid, who will take the Sybil’s place as the pilgrim Dante’s guide. He witnesses the Judges of Hades, such a Radamanthus who pass judgment on each of the dead, determining their fates in the afterworld. With the Sybil’s help Aeneas accomplishes his mission while witnessing many of the same sights encountered by Odysseus such as the archetypal punishments of Sysiphus, Tantalus, Ixion and Prometheus.
Less well known classical models, such as the Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic also embody the archetype of the cosmic journey. In the Myth of Er, Er the hero visits the palace of Ananke, the Goddess of Necessity, which features four caves or tunnels, comprising the entrances and exits respectively of Heaven and Hell. In the Myth of Er, however, the cosmology incorporates the element of reincarnation, in which souls return from both heaven and hell to drink of Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, before drawing lots to enter into a new lifetime on earth. Here, befitting Plato, philosopical wisdom which transcends a single lifetime aids the reincarnated souls in choosing which new life upon which to enter, with the unenlightened souls choosing poorer lives fated for suffering.
In the Roman world the “Dream of Scipio” or “Somnium Scipionus” relates the dream of the great Roman general on his campaign against Rome’s arch-enemy Carthage, in which he is exalted to Heaven where he observes Rome’s destiny to become a great empire if he rises to the challenge of martial valor on the campaign.
But the archetype of the cosmic journey is by no means limited to the Western tradition. In Islamic Literature the foremost example is that of Mohammad’s “Night Journey” in which he is transported in a single night by the Angel Gibreel, first to Masjid al-Aqsa, the “furthest mosque” at Jerusalem, where he mounts the flying horse Buraq, and then visits Heaven, confers with the prior phrophets Moses and Jesus as well as Abraham, and then encounters Allah himself, who confirms his mission to found the religion of Islam. This is related in part in the Koran itself, in the episode of The Isra and Mi’raj, dialated in the Hadith to the “Kitab al Miraj.” This theme was further expanded upon by Al-Maʿarri in his “Resalat Al-Ghufran” or “The Epistle of Forgiveness” in which the poet is transported to the Muslim heaven where he meets with many Arabic poets and personages. Al-Ma’arri was a somewhat iconoclastic rationalist, even athiest, whose heaven included the pre-Islamic pagan poets and heroes, contrary to traditional Islamic dogma. Many scholars feel that Dante may have read a Latin translatin of Al-Ma’arri’s work, as well as works of al-Arabi, as a partial model for his Paradiso.
In the literature of India, the Sanskrit classic Mahaprasthanika Parva, part of the Mahabharata alongside the Bhagavad Gita, at its conclusion relates the ascent of the five Pandava brothers, foremost Yudistra, and their common wife Draupadi, accompanied by a faithful dog as they journey to heaven. All but Yudistra (and the dog) are found to have sinned in life and suffer death en route to Heaven. Yudistra makes it to heaven without death but is disappointed to have lost his brothers and to discover some of his earthly enemies in heaven. He decides he would rather join his brothers in Hell than live with his enemies in Heaven. After joining his brothers in hell however, it is revealed that all this was only a test of his virtue, and the heaven with his enemies was only an illusion. He further learns that after his brothers have atoned for their sins, Purgatory-like, they will join him in the true heaven.
DANTE’S DIVINE COMEDY
Reading Dante’s Commedia is an epic journey in and of itself. In “The Inferno” there is little of the Hollywood gore, demons and sadistic macabre torment associated with the popular notions of Hell. Instead, it is a place were the souls of the damned converse with Dante, and he shares a humanistic understanding of their fates. At first he is sympathetic towards such of the damned as Paolo and Franchesca, who from their excessive and uncontrolled love and lust, are damned to be blown forever by a chaos of errant winds. Gradually, he overcomes the temptation to over-sympathize with them, or even suspect God of injustice in creating such a fate, and comes to see how the punishment fits the crime, expressing both the reason and justice of God’s cosmic design. We are awed by the cosmic and human spectacle of the Inferno, but not subjected to a mere horror-show.
Purgatorio is less dramatic, and one’s interest can often flag in the mid-section of the epic, a journey up the slopes of Mount Purgatory to Lost Eden in which the souls of the dead are morally and spiritualy purified. Nonetheless, there is a deep educational lesson that remains with us, that perhaps ironically rooted in our heritage of the Enlightenment: “Love is the seed in you of every virtue, and of all acts deserving punishment.” That is to say, in finding the one same source for all good and all evil is to insist on the need for the education of desire.
If the Purgatrio is the education of desire, the Paradiso is desire’s exaltation and transcendence. Here Dante must change guides, as the reason and wisdom of Dante’s spiritual father Vergil cannot take the cosmic pilgrim towards his ultimate desire of union with God, love and the spirit. Instead his guide must be first his beloved Beatrice, his archetypal anima and femme inspiratrice—the incarnation of Goethe’s “Ewige Weibliche,” or “Eternal Feminine” which calls our souls in a spiritualization of desire and in excess and refinement of love, ever higher. In the final stage of his journey through the multiple spheres of heaven even Beatrice cannot guide him to the ultimate union with God, and he must call upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Mystic Saint, to approach the final stage of spiritual union through faith and openness to mystical transformation.
Dante’s Commedia and the archetypes of the Cosmic Jouraney and the Night Journey deeply incluenced the composition of my own contemporary and fututist epic, Spiritus Mundi. The overall narrative architecture of Spiritus Mundi is that of a cosmic journey and quest, first from the realistic human world of Book I, relating the lives and loves of a group of social idealists undertaking a not too successful campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, through the “hell on earth” of nuclear terrorism in Jerusalem and the Aramgeddon of a threatened World War III, thence onward to a descent into the Underworld of Middle Earth, a Verne-like voyage to the Great Central Sea and Island of Omphalos at the center of the Earth’s core, then further onward to a more modernistic transit of a Cosmic Wormhole through Einsteinian Time-Space to the Black Hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, where a “Baby Universe” contains the amphitheater of the Council of the Immortals in which the protagonists will plead for the continuance of the human race on Earth. Here Goethe, the father of World Literature, takes on the role of Vergil in the Commedia as the protagonist’s guide in the netherworld.
The Nykia, or Descent into Hell archetypal motif is further reflected in the Mexico City chapter of Book I, “The Volcano’s Underworld & Teatro Magico” in which the protagonist of Spiritus Mundi, Robert Sartorius, surrealistically undergoes the hallucinations of a drug and alcohol induced mental breakdown in contemplation of suicide on his fiftieth birthday, which is also the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” In the Magic Theater of the “Teatro Magico” he further undergoes a magico-hallucinatory descent into the Mayan-Aztec Underworld of the Popul Vuh. Here as in the later cosmic voyage of Book II, Sartorius’ beloved Eva takes on the role of the archetypal spiritual anima Beatrice to draw Sartorius from a living hell onward to spiritual growth. The bi-sexual night club performer Tiresias and the fertility figure Maria take on the role of Vergil as a guides through Sartorius’ private hallucinatory hell, as did Tiresias and the Sybil in the Nykia of the Odyssey and the Aeneid.
Additionally, Spiritus Mundi follows generally the Situational Archetypal Narrative Pattern of the Cosmic Journey or Night Journey:
1. The hero suffers a moral or spiritual crisis (Separation)—The protagonists of Spiritus Mundi are taken captive as “human shields” to the underground nuclear facilities in Qom, Iran, then escape downwards to “Middle Earth,” the center of the globe;
2. The hero is told to seek knowledge, insight or solutions in hell (Quest)—-In Spiritus Mundi the challenge is to prevent the end of the human race through the Aramageddon of World War III, which they accomplish through undertaking a Quest for the Sylmaril Crystal to the Council of the Immortals at the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy;
3. The hero is accompanied by a wise guide—-In Spiritus Mundi Goethe takes on the role of Dante’s Vergil, with Sartorius’s love Eva serving as a functional equivalent for Dante’s inspirational beloved Beatrice;
4. The hero realizes that he is in Hell, literally or symbolically, through the recognition that he himself is one of the morally or spiritually dead—–Sartorius’s abandonment of suicide in the Teatro Magico sequence and his regaining of faith in life inspired by his realized love of Eva, the archetypal Eternal Feminine figure;
5. The hero gains knowlege and understanding about mortality, life and himself—-Sartorius’ encounters with Goethe and the Magister Ludi, a 23rd Century Time-Travelling mentor, sustains his resolve to fight to save humanity, even at the cost of his own death;
6. At the depth of his descent, the hero faces either a devil figure or challenge(Challenge & Victory)—–Through the descent to Middle Earth and the ascent to the Council of the Immortals in the Milky Way Galaxy, Sartorius must constantly battle the Spirit of Negation, Mephisto;
7. A return to the human world, generally bearing some boon (Re-Integration)—-Sartorius returns to Earth bearing the Sylmaril Crystal, which through the Crystal Bead Game allows benign alteration of human history and aversion of WWIII. Though Sartorius dies before returning to our everyday world to carry through his project of foundinbg a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, he realizes that his comrades will attain the victory for him.
In conclusion, I invite everyone to enjoy the greatness of Dante, and look into other manifestations of the Archetype of the Cosmic Voyage to Heaven and Hell, including Spiritus Mundi, novel by Robert Sheppard.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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