STACIA LYNN REYNOLDS
This essay will focus upon cultural changes in belief systems and spirituality throughout literature; starting from the ancient period into the medieval period; emphasizing the similarities and differences between three epic poems: Hesiod’s Theogony, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno; in hopes of giving an example, explanation, and appreciation of spiritual poetry
Hesiod’s Theogony, Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno are three epic poems that focus on similarities and differences. Though beliefs differ in these epic poems, they all have a powerful source of a “Supreme Being,” they acquire a spiritual guide on their journey, and focus on an eternal afterlife. Enjoy the crossing of time, as we make our passage through epic brilliance.
In our depictions of divinity, we humans have given form to our sense of the ultimate source of our own significance. When we give form to divinity, we derive that form from our own experience. We make gods in our own image because our own image marks the physical limits of our being. We cannot know the gods; we can only experience them (Leeming, D.A. 2014).
Hesiod’s Theogony is a pre-classical Greek didactic epic poem that focuses on the cosmology of the universe, the genealogy of the gods, and the eventual reign of the almighty Zeus as the “Supreme Being.” Hesiod’s cosmology is important in Greek mythology because the poem explains the gods, and how the “Supreme Beings” created the universe. It was meant as an instructional piece of literature that give answers to questions that the Greeks had regarding why they were here, how the universe was formed, and who formed it. Though Zeus becomes the almighty ruler over all the gods; the gods, goddesses and lesser spirits play a significant role in the creation of the universe, the purge of humanity from the destruction of the flood, and the afterlife. In the Theology, Hesiod fulfills the Muses’ command on the origin and genealogies of the gods and the established reign of Zeus:
So, spoke the fresh-voiced daughters of great Zeus/ And plucked and gave a staff to me, a shoot/ of blooming laurel, wonderful to see/ And breathed a sacred voice into my mouth/ With which to celebrate the things to come/ And the things which were before. They ordered me/ to sing the race of blessed ones who live/ Forever, and to hymn the Muses first/ and at the end. No more delays: begin (Damrosch D. & Pike D. 2008).
A similarity is also found in Virgil’s Aeneid. The gods have a vital part in the lives of the mortals and to the demigod Aeneas. They decide their destinies, especially Zeus who is the “Supreme Being” over all the gods, as in Hesiod’s didactic epic poem. The Aeneid has a lot of involvement of Zeus and the gods through divine intervention, along with the pietas in the character of Aeneas. Although Aeneas is upstanding in character as a hero, the mighty Zeus has great hatred toward him and the Trojans and make a constant effort to interfere in Aeneas’ quest. His mother Venus, who is also a god, pleads with Zeus on her son’s behalf:
It was the day’s end when from the highest air/ Jupiter looked down on the broad sea/ Flecked with the wings of sails, and the land masses/ Coasts, and nations of the earth. He stood/ On heaven’s height and turned his gaze toward Libya/ And, as he took the troubles there to heart/ Venus appealed to him, all pale and wan/ With tears in her shining eyes/ “My lord who rule/ The lives of men and gods now and forever/ And bring them all to heel with your bright bolt/ What in the world could Aeneas do/ What could the Trojan’s do, so to offend you/ That after suffering all those deaths they find/ The whole world closed to them, because of Italy (Damrosch D. & Pike D. 2008)?
While Hesiod’s Theogony and Virgil’s Aeneid focus on the Greek divine myth of many gods, Dante’s Inferno focuses on one “Supreme Being,” the one and only God of the Christian belief. Dante’s Inferno states this fact in lines 1.127-29, “He governs everywhere, but rules from there/ there is His city, His high capital: O happy those He chooses to be there (The Divine Comedy of Dante Inferno, trans. Mandelbaum A. p.9). Though Dante focuses on the belief of one God, Virgil, whose epic poem revolves around the Greek gods, is his guide through his adventure through the gates of hell. Hell, being the opposite of the “happy” place in heaven, is where the two poets venture after Dante is forced to go back to the dark forest. “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way/ I found myself within a shadowed forest/ for I had lost the path that does not stray (The Divine Comedy of Dante Inferno, trans. Mandelbaum A. 1980). Dante saw the sun upon the mountain (the light of God in the upper world) but is forced back to endure the darkness of sin that the Christian faith speaks against in the Bible. It is in this dark forest that Dante meets the spirit of Virgil and begins the descent into hell (Limbo is the first circle of hell where Virgil exists). Dante must journey through hell to reach paradise and spend eternity with God, the Supreme Being.
Throughout all these epic poems, the similarity of acquiring a spiritual guide is apparent in the various religious beliefs. For example: a religious guide is sought out in Hesiod and Virgil’s poems, and Virgil is the spiritual guide in Dante’s poem. The example in Hesiod’s Theogony is the Muses. The Muses in Greek mythology were sister goddesses, daughters of Zeus, who gave the ability of music, and in Hesiod’s case, the ability to write epic poetry. In the beginning verses of the Theogony he says, “The Muses once taught Hesiod to sing/ Sweet songs, while he was shepherding his lambs (Damrosch D. & Pike D. 1.25-26, p.55). In the epic poem of Virgil, Aeneas is guided by Sibyl, a woman who had prophetic powers. In Book Six, he promises to build a temple for the Sybil, the gods Apollo and Diana, and the priests. Aeneas states,
Then I will build you a solid temple/ Apollo and Diana, established hallowed days/ Apollo, in your name. And Sybil, for you too/ a magnificent sacred shrine awaits you in our kingdom/ There I will house your oracles, mystic revelations/ made to our race, and ordain your chosen priests (The Aeneid, trans. Fagles R. 6.83-88, p.184-185).
In Dante’s Inferno, Virgil becomes the guide for Dante. He comes as a spirit to guide Dante into hell. Virgil is the perfect guide for Dante because he lives in Limbo and is also familiar with the inhabitants of hell. Virgil speaks to Dante, “I was a poet, and I sang the righteous/ son of Anchises who had come from Troy/ when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium/ But why do you return to wretchedness/ why not climb up the mountain of delight/ the origin and cause of every joy…Therefore, I think and judge it best for you/ to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking/ you from this place through an eternal place (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri Inferno, 1980, 1.73-76, 1.112-114). Virgil then guides him through hell, so Dante can reach paradise.
Another similarity in the three epic poems is the concept of the afterlife. In the Inferno, Dante’s journey takes him deep into the nine levels of hell, the afterlife of the Christian belief. Like Dante, Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid also journeys to the underworld in Book Six “The Kingdom of the Dead.” Aeneas is seeking out his father who passed on when they left Troy. Aeneas, like Dante faces many obstacles throughout his journey into the underworld. Hesiod’s Theogony also speaks of an afterlife. In his epic poem, the underworld or hell refers to Tartarus. Hesiod speaks of the Titans being thrown into the underworld, with a brief description of the terror of the dreadful place.
Overshadowed the Titans, put them down/ in everlasting shade. Under the earth/ Broad-pathed, they sent them, and they bound them up/ in painful chains. Proud though the Titans were/ they were defeated by those hands, and sent/ to misty Tartarus, as far beneath/ the earth, as earth is far beneath the heavens (Damrosch D. & Pike D. 2008).
There are many similarities between the Theogony, the Aeneid, and the Inferno, but there are some differences in the epic poems. The differences found, are due to the changes that occurred throughout Europe from the ancient period to the medieval period. Some of the differences are: in Greek mythology, mortals believed in more than one god, where as in Christian beliefs, there is belief in only one God. Another example is the cosmology of Hesiod. Hesiod gives explanation not only of the genealogy of the gods, but the creation of the universe and how the gods developed throughout the creation process. In Virgil’s epic, the gods are still active, and though Dante uses Virgil in his epic, Virgil was born before the birth of Christ and the establishment of Christianity. Also, in Greek mythology, the gods and the goddess possess human like traits like love and hate, lying and cheating, anger, and revenge. In Dante’s Inferno, he uses metaphor to give the traits of various sins and actions to animals.
In conclusion, although Dante’s Inferno revolves around the Christian belief of one God, and Hesiod and Virgil’s beliefs revolve around many gods, there is still an established Supreme Being in all three epic poems. They also had a spiritual guide, whether it be a Muse, a Sybil, or the spirit of a man. Finally, they all had a concept of the afterlife. The differences in the three epics occur because of the cultural changes and development of the Christian faith. The comparison of the three epic poems are more similar than they are different, even though there is a change in the belief system.