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Ulysses’ Shipwreck in "The Divine Comedy"

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna, northern Italy, in 1321. He is a key author in Italian literature and gives a fundamental contribution to Italian culture and consciousness, as well as to Italian language. He wrote The Divine Comedy, which he simply called The Comedy (Inf. XVI, 128, XXI 2.), over a span of years going from 1304/7 to 1321, abandoning all his other literary projects (Bellomo, 2012) while in exile. The experience of exile is fundamental to understand Ulysses’ portrayal.


The Divine Comedy influenced all Western literature because of the multitude of themes it gathers, from the spiritual journey to love, vices, virtues, and so on. Its greatness lies beneath the veil of universality. It is a multifaceted work that blends elements of classical literature, theological and philosophical thought, as well as the vernacular literary tradition of the time (Inglese, 2002).

Figure 1: Engraving of Dante and Virgil (Flaxman, 1793).

Just for the record, the Divine Comedy is divided in three Canticles, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise and consist of one hundred Cantos, with a total of 14,233 verses, 142 of which are dedicated to Ulysses, in the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno. Ulysses occupies a leading position among the other penitent characters portrayed in it, because Dante tends to compare his own journey to Ulysses’. The main difference between these two character’s journeys is the help coming from the Divine intervention: as Dante respects God’s will, he gets it. Ulysses, on the contrary, has no respect for his Gods’ will and prohibitions, and so he is eternally punished in Hell.


Before diving into a description of the section and its issues, it is necessary to give an overview of the structure of Dante's Hell and the reasons for which Ulysses is condemned. However, it should be kept in mind that The Divine Comedy was written during the Middle Ages, and it should be noted that symbolism and allegory (gr. ἀλληγορία, "veiled language”) had a major role at that time. Indeed, allegory is the literary figure of speech that moves The Divine Comedy's true meaning. It is fundamental to understand this to fully comprehend his masterpiece and the medieval mentality of the time surrounding it.


Ulysses in Dante's Hell

The fact that Ulysses represents the modern man par excellence is well-known. Less known is the fact that the understanding of this Greek hero significantly changed over time, from the Classical Age to the Middle Ages. This said, Dante had a different view of Ulysses from the classical one, both from an ethical and moral perspective. Unlike in Greek tradition, to him Ulysses did not represent an example to follow, but a symbol of what a good man should avoid in order to get eternal salvation.


Figure 2: A map of Dante's Hell (Caetani, 1855).

Dante's Hell has a reversed cone structure (Figure 2), where the sins are divided into the Aristotelian categories of Indulgence (Upper Hell, until the city of Dis), Violence (among the three infernal rivers), and Fraud (Lower Hell, Malebolge and iced Lake of Cocito). Ulysses is in the eight bolgia (Eng. "ditch") dedicated to the counselors of fraud, or those who gave fraudulent advice to lead to demise and ruin others, in the XXVI Canto. Their souls burn in a neverending flame, using the allegorical mechanism of the "contrappasso" (Eng. "retaliation"), the process that either replicates or reverses the sin represented. The contrappasso was refined by Dante for each sinner. Here the flame represents their tongue, capable of burning others with their deceiving.


Traditionally, as described in Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses (Odysseus in ancient Greek) sails from Ithaca to Troy to fight in the Trojan war, and then, as described in the Odyssey, he wanders in the Mediterranean Sea for ten years just to eventually return to Ithaca. In the first verses of the Odyssey, composed of 24 books in the 8th Century BC, Ulysses is portrayed as a cunning man, multifaceted (gr. πολύτροπον, "the man of many resourceful", trad. Murray, 1919), and wise. The three key elements of his journey are the search (or thirst) for knowledge, treachery/loyalty, and wandering (Guidorizzi, 2002) and these are fundamental points in order to understand Dante's judgmental idea of Ulysses and his wanderings.


On the contrary, in The Divine Comedy Dante plays indeed two major roles by being both the protagonist and the author. This is helpful because in this double role he gives punishment to the condemned as he wishes and so he is not subjected to any other moral imposition except his.


Figure 3: Miniature from a manuscript of Dante, Virgil, Ulysses and Diomedes (14th Century).

In Latin the word “error” means both mistake and wandering. Ulysses’ greatest sin is the thirst for knowledge proceeded through continuous wanderings towards the unknown, and this concept is used throughout the twenty-sixth Canto to define his punishment. Still, his main sin does not lie in his wanderings but in his incapability of respecting the divine restrictions, in particular the Pillars of Hercules in Gibraltar (Avalle, 1975). This is relevant because these Pillars represent what must not be gone beyond, by being both a territorial border and a religious limit. Whoever dared to go past the Pillars of Hercules were swallowed by the sea and could never go back, as this was their punishment for disrespectfully challenge God’s will, like Ulysses did.


The Importance of Ulysses in Dante's Journey

Ulysses occupies a central position in The Divine Comedy because of the similar condition he shares with Dante, as they are two exiled men drawn to search for knowledge. Their wanderings are different but they share similar roots, even if, according to Dante, he is the only one actually innocent. He is, because he represents a new kind of man: he follows Christian rules and for that he is rewarded with salvation. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Ulysses is not guilty because of his wanderings but because of his lack of judgment while deceiving his comrades through his last journey (Avalle, 1975). With his words, contained in verses 112-120 of the Hell’s XXVI Canto, he convinced them to set off into the unknown. His sin takes place here, given that he knew that they would encounter inevitable death.


Figure 4: Head of Ulysses in the sculptural group of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus.

In this encounter with him Dante does not speak directly to Ulysses: on the contrary, it is Virgil who asks for the hero's background story, as he does in many Cantos of The Divine Comedy. This happens because of an inevitable distance that Dante experiences while facing the Greek hero. Ulysses is punished while he is not, and Ulysses only speaks to those who are as great as himself, such as Virgil. Moreover only Virgil can approach him because they share knowledge of the Trojan war, as described in Virgil's work the Aeneid. In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses wanders in the Mediterranean Sea for ten years but is longing for his return to Ithaca, where he eventually arrives and encounters his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. Upon this, his wanderings end happily as he reunites with his family, his main goal since his departure from Troy, as Homer tells us. On the other hand, in The Divine Comedy’s version, Ulysses tells Dante and Virgilio his final journey, starting from his departure from Gaeta, near Naples, instead of Ithaca. This detail is very important. It is important to underline that Dante did not have direct access to Greek sources, as pointed out by Avalle (Ulysses’ Last Voyage, 1975) and Cerri (Dante and Homer, 2007). Instead, he gathered information about Greek sources from Latin writers, considered irrefutable messengers of truth. These are the so-called Auctores (Eng. "authors"), as mentioned in the fourth Canto of the Hell (Inf. IV, vv. 85-96, also in Cerri, 2007). So Dante is unaware of Ulysses' return to Ithaca, as he has no direct access to Homer’s works and follows only secondary sources which do not mention it (Cerri, 2007).


So, in Dante’s perspective, Ulysses did not reach Ithaca ever again, his thirst for knowledge was too overwhelming to be repressed and he had to follow it across any prohibition, by going beyond the famous Pillars. Therefore, he sets off into the unknown, and goes past the Pillars of Hercules, despite the complete ban that forbid any man from traveling further them. He sees the mountain of Purgatory and the stars hidden from human eyes. Eventually, he is swallowed by the sea along with his ship.


Ulysses’ Thirst for Knowledge

Following the verses of Ovid (Heroides I, 97-98), Dante writes in the twenty-sixth Canto about how no kind of affection could distract him from his thirst for knowledge (Inf. vv. 94-96): "Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence / Of my old father, nor return of love, / That should have crown'd Penelope with joy, / Could overcome in me the zeal I had / To’ explore the world, and search the ways of life, / Man’s evil and his virtue” (trans. by Cary, 1819).


Figure 5: Miniature of "La comedia" (Vellutello, 1444-1450).

The XXVI Canto has a double structure and a glowing atmosphere created by the flame in which Ulysses is condemned to burn for eternity. The first part focuses a description of the ditch, with flames resembling stars, and the second one describing his going beyond the Pillars of Hercules and his consequent shipwreck. Ulysses’ flame takes the shape of a tongue, and when Ulysses speaks, it crackles. It is clear then that fire and water are the two main symbols of the XXVI Canto. It is important to underline that each Canticle's opening is based on a marine symbolism, and every final verse of each Canticle focuses on the stars, which Ulysses can only glimpse before his shipwreck. The two protagonists of the section, Dante and Ulysses, are like the two sides of the same coin, but only one of them (Dante) can navigate into the unknown, as he gained the Divine permission because of his condition of Christian man in front of God’s authority.

The verses 112-120 contain the so-called “orazion picciola” (Eng. "small speech"), the most important part of this Canto. Here the difference between them is fully represented, as Ulysses goes for the pursuit of his own knowledge through deception, whereas the pilgrim Dante follows a Divine and Universal purpose. In his closing speech, Ulysses refers to his thirst for knowledge and to his desire to become an expert in all the things of the world: “O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand / Perils,’ I said, 'have come unto the West, / To this so inconsiderable vigil/Which is remaining of your senses still / Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge, / Following the sun, of the unpeopled world. / Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang; / Ye were not made to live like unto brutes, / But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge" (trans. by Cary, 1819).


Ulysses and Dante as Two Types of Travelers

Dante’s description of Ulysses is primarily based on the reverence towards him as a Greek hero but, at the same time, it reflects Dante's feeling of virtue, as he observes Ulysses in his eternal damnation. Ulysses is a man who consciously decided to surpass all the limits imposed on humankind. When Dante embarks on his Other-worldly journey, he mirrors Ulysses' experience (Basile, 2013).


Figure 6: "The Delightful Mount" (Dalí, 1951-1960).

The section portrayed in the twenty-sixth Canto causes to Dante a range of opposite emotions, from excitement to grief, but also empathy, even if this is still argued, as Sonia Gentile pointed out in its essay Fire of Ulysses (2014). Ultimately this happens because Dante admires Ulysses and feels fascinated by his figure and his attitude to knowledge. The main difference stands out as Dante gains access to the Other-worldly journey that Ulysses wished for, because of God authority and aid.


Dante included Ulysses in the frame of the infernal ditches because he represents the folly of reason when unregulated by God. Therefore Ulysses, as Dante's alter-ego, deserves to be punished first with a physical shipwreck and then with endless damnation. Ulysses as a mere character in The Divine Comedy is immortal, as in Hell time does not exist. Dante created a quite different Ulysses, driven in the direction of the highest temporal wisdom and against all boundaries.

This Canto is powerful because of this similarity between the two protagonists. The key to understand their relationship is seeing how Ulysses provokes to Dante a great fascination, because of his recklessness. Ulysses, in his last speech, gives us an emotional portrayal of his thoughts and his sin, as he does not regret his action and, on the contrary, is proud of its last voyage. In Ulysses’ last words there is all his yearning for human knowledge, which blows and expires with him but is not extinguished.


Bibliographical References

Alighieri, D. (2007). Commedia, (Original work published in 1472). Carocci.

Basile, B. (2013). Tragedia di Dante, tragedia di Ulisse, in Lectura Dantis Romana vol. I, 2, Salerno editrice.


Bellomo, S. (2002). Filologia e Critica Dantesca, La Scuola.

Cerri, G. (2007). Dante e Omero (Il volto di Medusa), Argo.

D’Arco Avalle, S. (1975). L’ultimo viaggio di Ulisse in Studi Danteschi fondati da Michele Barbi, Volume Quarantetreesimo, Sansoni.

Gentile, S. (2014). Il fuoco di Ulisse in Per civile conversazione con Amedeo Quondam, Volume Primo, Bulzoni.

Guidorizzi, G. (2002). Letteratura greca. Da Omero al secolo VI d.C. Mondadori Università.

Homer. (1963). Odissea. Einaudi.


Inglese, G. (2002). Guida alla Divina Commedia. Carocci.

Ovid. (1989). Heroides. BUR.


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Alessandra Cipolloni

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