Ulysses represents great ambiguity for Dante both as the pilgrim and as the poet. Is he the hero of Greek Cicero and Seneca whose love of knowledge, in Dante’s adaptation, desires to go beyond all earthly boundaries in order to seek human knowledge? On the other hand is he the Ulysses of Latin Virgil and Ovid, the man of cunning and manipulation, who seeks knowledge of the external world and discards all others and more importantly discards all virtue?
Canto 26 is set among the eighth ditch of the eighth circle of Hell, a scene in which the sinners are punished in flames that burn inward, and the central feature is a ‘cloven-crested flame’1 which embodies the shades of Ulysses and Diomed. In all of this Dante creates some of the most complex and intriguing allegory in the whole of the Divine Comedy. The significance of this allegory is based upon the interpretation of Ulysses’ journey. To understand the allegories you first must understand the interpretations. To understand the interpretations you first must understand the role of Dante.
This preface, to the discussion of the most important allegorical features, will outline Dante’s duality, and the two main competing interpretations of Ulysses’ journey – it will set the context. To be considered first is Dante’s dual relationship to the Divine Comedy. He is both the pilgrim experiencing the journey, and the poet who creates the reality to which he narrates the experience of the pilgrim. This narration is from a salvific retrospection on the journey of the pilgrim, where the poet has already, in a metaphorical sense, lived the story and highlights the pilgrim’s human flaws and weaknesses.
This gives a dichotomy of Dante so as it were the nai??ve pilgrim and the matured poet. This mode of being for Dante, in relation to the poetry, is important because only by juxtaposing the audience into the eyes of the pilgrim and into the eyes of the poet can the significance of the journey be realised. Leading on from the last point, in order to understand the complexity of the allegory entwined within this canto, you need to first acknowledge what the perception Dante has of Ulysses, in his duality as both the pilgrim and the poet. In essence, the poet looking back on the pilgrim is self-reflective.
This introspective aspect can also be conveyed as the underlying feature of the Divine Comedy. Only when you truly examine yourself and go down into the depths of your soul, to the depths of hell, and understand not just all of your virtue but all of your vice, can you change, can you begin on the pilgrimage of salvation. A feature of medieval literature, just like that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, is that they are layered in interpretation, meaning, morals, and other poetic devices. The allegory contained within the words therefore fits the readers’ perception of what is unfolding.
It is necessary then to understand the character of Ulysses in order to understand the allegory. There are two main competing interpretations of Ulysses. The first argument focuses on Dante’s admiration of Ulysses. This Ulysses is a glorified hero of antiquity, an interpretation supported by both Fubini and Momigliano2. He is an intellectual who strives to go beyond the earthly limits of this world in search of understanding. It is the legendary figure who bought glory to the Greeks against the Trojans using the strategy of the wooden horse.
This plan of the Trojan horse is one of the three reasons as stated by Virgil as to why Ulysses resides in Hell and not with the other great Pagans in Limbo. The two remaining reasons for Ulysses’ perdition in this canto are that he lured Achilles, with the help of his accomplice Diomed, to his death at the battle of Troy, and that they are punished for the theft of the statues which protected the city of Troy. In contrast the opposing view sees Ulysses as a man of cunning. He is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle of Hell which is noted as being for those of fraudulent counsel.
In this interpretation it asserts that Ulysses is in Hell not just for the three reasons outlined by Virgil, but also for manipulating people for his own ends – as seen in the great voyage of Ulysses. The embodiment of this interpretation can be seen when to the crew of his ship Ulysses proclaims ‘”Brothers,” I said, “a hundred thousand perils you have passed and reached the Occident. For us, so little time remains to keep the vigil of our living sense. Do not deny your will to win experience, behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells. Hold clear in thought your seed and origin.
You were not made to live as mindless brutes, but go in search of virtue and true knowledge. “‘3 This powerful and compelling speech is by a man who uses the gift of intelligence not for the good or the virtuous duty, but instead manipulates those around him with a tongue of fire in the search for ever greater personal glory. Now the context of the allegory has been expressed in the preface, the allegory itself can now be discussed to encompass this. The first important allegorical feature is one which has already been mentioned in passing – this is the allegory of the ‘tongues of fire’4.
This is a symbolic representation of the untamed use of rhetoric, and when one is of self-serving counsel to others. The conception of the allegory lies in the sacred writings of the Holy Bible – a passage from The Epistle of James reads ‘Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongues is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire by hell.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison… ‘5 In this verse the idea that the tongue is untameable by man and that its unremitting use is inevitably poisonous is reflected in the character of Ulysses. This identifiable connection to canto 26 is referring to Ulysses and his gift of intellect and rhetoric, so that in the end it eventually leads to the death of himself and of the crew who were seduced by his exalted words.
The sin which is founded on the tongue of Ulysses expresses itself in other ways in this canto, in as much, as he has also silenced his partner Diomed and the crew of his ship6. Dante the poet therefore is criticising the use of intellect without virtue as it denies people their voice and manipulates them to carry out one’s will. In my opinion, this allegory and ‘the purpose of Dante’s visit to the eighth bolgia is for him and us to learn that the use of intelligence unrestrained by virtue is self-destructive’7.
This can be seen from a purely biblical sense – as man has been endowed with gifts from God – and Ulysses was given the gift of a brilliant intellect. Ulysses, whether through tacit or expressed choice, chose to act without virtue – and so the ‘misuse of mental powers runs against the will of God8’ which in part leads to his demise. ‘Dante’s journey through Hell is a discovery of how deeply intertwined good and evil can be, in ourselves as well as in others, and how difficult and painful it is for any human being to reach, without proper guidance, any kind of moral clarity.
For the poet the original sin is a burden all of mankind has inherited from Adam and Eve, and so the pilgrim just like every other human is committed to the battle of vice and virtue within. With this in mind Dante the poet uses the pilgrim as a device to show that with guidance anyone can be the pilgrim, that anyone can look within and embark on the journey of salvation – this is to say that Dante the pilgrim is the everyman. A character whose path anyone can take. There is another mode of being for the pilgrim, and this introduces the next important allegorical feature – that of the symmetry between Ulysses and the pilgrim.
Here is an important feature which does not just appear in canto 26 of the Inferno, but is an allegory which spans the whole of the Divine Comedy. I believe that it is immensely significant for the poet to express the parallels between the pilgrim and Ulysses, as it serves to be a point of reference for the pilgrims’ journey. Dante the pilgrim is a Ulysses – before the pilgrimage starts he finds himself in a ‘dark wood, the right way blurred and lost. ’10 It is here where Ulysses and the pilgrim are one, for they both have lost their way – one, lost to the sea, and one, beginning to lose himself in a wood.
Ulysses and his journey are a means by which the pilgrim can witness what the pursuit of knowledge inevitably mean. As in the first interpretation, Dante admires Ulysses and he commends his journey. With this admiration of the journey, and the representation of Ulysses as the pilgrim, Dante the poet looks back through the Divine Comedy to show the man the pilgrim could have been, and the progress he has made towards salvation. Part of this can be seen in the opening of the Purgatorio with reference to the ship and to ‘the gulf that proved so cruel’11 – this is the ship and the sea to which Ulysses and his crew met their end.
The next allegory is my own interpretation from the reading of Ulysses’ journey, and of others’ analysis. I would describe this as the allegory of the horses of the soul. In the 26th canto of the Inferno this can be seen as the passage ‘Compare, as also in the Book of Kings: Elisha (once avenged by furious bears) Beheld Elijah’s chariot drawn away by horses rising to the Heavens, straight. His eye, unable to pursue, could see only the flame, like cloud whisp, rising high. ’12 This extract is referring to the biblical story of when Elisha witnessed Elijah’s ascent into heaven drawn by a chariot.
I would say that in this story Dante assumes the role of Elisha and Ulysses assumes an antithetical role of Elijah. Dante here is witnessing Ulysses’ attempt at going beyond human boundaries, just as Elisha observed Elijah – although Elijah soared to Paradise on a chariot, while Ulysses sank to Hell on a ship. Developing this from a story into an allegory is the image of the chariot hauled by horses, in the classical period; this was allegorized by Plato in the Phaedrus – as the chariot allegory.
To begin ‘Let me say right now that it is certain as these things can be that Dante had no direct knowledge of the Phaedrus. On the other hand, if we insist on sources, he didn’t need it. To paraphrase E. Gilson, if, in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, Plato was nowhere, Platonism was everywhere; in the fathers, in Cicero’. 13 On that note the discussion of the comparison between this allegory and the story surrounding Ulysses’ journey are relevant. Plato’s allegory imagines the human soul to be a chariot drawn by two winged horses. One of the horses is of noble breed, and the other is the opposite.
The noble horse represents the rational and the other represents the irrational. When the charioteer tries to steer the horses he has trouble trying to keep the chariot on the right track. This is to say that every human throughout their life will have a struggle, between the rational and irrational desires, impulses and temptations, when trying to keep heading in the right direction. In a Christian sense, I would say that this can be interpreted as the noble horse representing the virtuousness of humanity and the other is the sinfulness of humanity.
Each is trying to pull the chariot, the soul, in its own direction, and when one horse gains ground over the other the chariot is either pulled towards virtue, or sin – towards the heavens or towards hell. With this in mind, Ulysses in his speech about his journey says ‘Wheeling our stern against the morning sun, we made our oars our wings in crazy flight’14 – this crazy flight, the story of Elijah’s journey, and the Platonian allegory all show that it is here where Ulysses gives ground to the sinful horse and leads his ship to damnation.
In finishing this allegory it is the horses, one being of virtue and the other of sin, that pull the soul towards its end, and so it is in the hands of the charioteer to take charge and steer it in the right direction. Elijah to the poet is therefore the exemplification of the virtuousness of humanity, and while Ulysses exemplifies the sinfulness. In conclusion, these three allegories diversify the meaning that Dante the poet has of Ulysses’ journey. The allegory of the tongues of fire and the horses of the soul both strengthen the interpretation that Dante inevitably condemns Ulysses.
While on the other hand the allegory of introspection enhances Dante’s admiration for the love and the pursuit of knowledge – that Ulysses’ characterises although he condemns him the form of the three reasons as stated by Virgil. The allegorical features within the Divine Comedy, then, have infinite meanings and infinite interpretations because only in this ambiguity can Dante get the audience to glimpse an aspect of their own interpretation – and in doing so, get to glimpse an aspect of themselves.