Divine Comedy


Among the various tools Dante Alighieri employs in the Commedia, his grand imaginative interpretation of life after death, scenes involving figures and beasts from classical mythology provide the reader with allegories and exempla effectively linking universal human themes with Christian thought and ideology. Among these, the figure of the Siren, found in Canto 19 of the Purgatorio, exists as a particularly sinister and moribund image. Visiting Dante in a dream upon the heights of Mount Purgatory, the Siren attempts to seduce the sleeping traveler with her sweet song. Dante finds himself on the brink of giving in to her deadly charms when Virgil, through the intercession of a heavenly lady, wakes him from this troubled slumber (Purgatorio 19.7-36). A complex image, Dante's Siren demonstrates the deadly peril of inordinate earthly pleasure masked by a self-fabricated visage of beauty and goodness, concurrently incorporating themes of unqualified repentance and realization of the true goodness of things divine.
The Sirens are familiar literary characters from Greek mythology; they are most recognized as one of the many perils Odysseus encounters in Homer's Odyssey. As Circe explains to Odysseus before he sets out for home, "You will come first of all to the Sirens, who are enchanters / of all mankind and whoever comes their way?/ They sit in their meadow, but the beach before it is piled with boneheaps / of men now rotted away, and the skins shrivel upon them" (Homer 12.39-50). Odysseus chooses to listen to their sweet song as his boat passes their island, and, were it not that he were bound fast to the mast, would have jumped overboard to seek his death upon their shores. According to Vernant, examination of the original Greek text, as well as the popular conception of these creatures "locates them in all their irresistibility unequivocally in the realm of sexual attraction or erotic appeal" (104). These seductive creatures however, as seen in the piles of decaying bodies upon the shores of their island, are truly creatures of death. Vernant further asserts, "they are death, and death in its most brutally monstrous aspect: no funeral, no tomb, only the corpse's decomposition in the open air" (104). Thus, the reader finds that the traditional mythological aspects of the Siren-overwhelming temptation, pleasures of the flesh, and ultimately death-are vital to understanding its presence in the Commedia.
In order to attempt a full explication of Dante's Siren, the entire context of the encounter must be examined. At the end of Canto 18, the traveler tires and drifts into dreamy sleep. Just before dawn, the dream of the Siren disturbs his slumber upon the terrace of sloth. Prior to this, the traveler had found himself fading away into sleep, but was prevented when a group of repentants rushed by him. After conversing with some of them, however, his thoughts wander, and he succumbs to somnolencey. The traveler describes his train of thought, "a new thought started forming in my mind, / creating others, many different ones: / from one to another to another thought / I wandered sleepily, then closed my eyes" (Purgatorio 18.141-44). As his mind wanders from one frivolous thought to another, Dante the traveler capitulates to the false sense of release promised by the sin of sloth, which, according to Mazzotta, "is a term describing the somnolence, sickness, spiritlessness, and despondency of the mind?a contemplation of nothingness" (138). In this manner sloth becomes a gateway to other sins, just as it is only through his sloth that the Siren reaches the traveler. This contemplation of empty matters engenders a perilous idleness, which, in turn, leads to pursuit of exorbitant earthly pleasures and leads the soul down a baneful path towards death.
This evil path is delineated by the sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust-the tendencies toward which are redirected at virtue on the three remaining terraces of Mount Purgatory. These sins of incontinence can all be described as different types of inordinate lust. Whether it is lust for material wealth, lust for food and drink, or lust in its traditional sense-a lust for the pleasures of the flesh-all three of these sins reflect the same type of unchecked desires replete with false hopes. The Siren is just that: an embodiment of inordinate desire, the ends of which are naught but false hopes, as the pursuit of that desire ends not in fulfillment, but in death. So too, the pursuit of