Dante Alighieri Curses From Heaven Modern Day Avarice & Dante’s Plea From Heaven For Restoration Of Roman Imperial Rule

Don't Test Me, Second Guess Me, Protest Me, You Will Disappear

God Damn you, ageless She-Wolf, you whose greed,
whose never-sated appetite, has claimed
more victims than all other beasts of prey!

You heavens, whose revolutions, some men think,
determine human fate – when will he come,
he before whom that beast shall have to flee?
Purgatorio XX

John S. Carroll (1904), Purgatorio 20.10-15

The sight of them distilling drop by drop
Through their eyes the ill which all the world pervades,
rouses his indignation:
Accursed mayst thou be, thou old She-wolf
That more than all the other beasts hast prey,
Because of hunger infinitely hollow!
O heaven, in whose circling it seems to be believed
That the conditions here below transmuted are,
When will he come thro' whom she shall depart?
This passage seems decisive of the meaning of the She-wolf which met him at the outset of his pilgrimage -- the fiercest of the three beasts which opposed his deliverance from the dark and savage wood. Whatever more she may symbolize, her primary significance is Avarice. In the description of her in the Inferno there is the same bottomless hunger, only the keener for being fed, the same multitude of her victims, the same cry for a deliverer. Here, however, the cry is much vaguer: perhaps in the interval Dante felt that the Greyhound, whoever he was, who was to hunt her down and drive her back to Hell, had failed to fulfil his hopes (Inf. I. 49-60; 91-111).

While the primary meaning is thus undoubtedly the vice of Avarice, there seems to be good grounds for identifying the She-wolf, in a secondary sense, with the Papacy, as the chief representative of the sin. As we have just seen, the first soul singled out on this Terrace is an avaricious Pope. In the Fourth Circle of Hell, guarded by the 'accursed wolf' Plutus, Dante sees on the left hand, and therefore amont the Misers, a great many tonsured heads, and Virgil informs him (Inf. VII. 46-48),
'These were clerics, who have no covering
Of hair upon the head, and Popes and Cardinals,
In whom doth Avarice practise its excess.'
When the vice grows so vile as to turn the very Church into its tool and victim, as in Simony, a special Bolgia is provided for it in the Eighth Circle, and simoniacal Popes, in a long infernal succession, are driven head-foremost, one on the top of the other, into the heart of the rock. It is not meant, of course, that the Papacy had any monopoly of the vice, but that it was most deeply polluted with it, and perhaps also that its power of corruption was greater in men who professed solemnly to have given up the world. Probably the deliverer Dante longed for was some form of the temporal power to restrain the Papal greed; but he had learnt by bitter experience that the temporal power only curbed the avarice of Popes in order the more freely to indulge its own. A great part of the Twentieth Canto is occupied with a description of the insatiable cupidity of the royal house of France which shrank from no crime. There is a note of despondency in Dante's question,
When will he come through whom she shall depart?
We may conjecture that the passage was written during that period of suspense when Henry VII. was hesitating about his descent into Italy. For avarice, the Papacy had sold herself to a king who, for avarice, had bought her, and Heaven seemed to look down with careless eyes. The She-wolf ravaged Church and State with impartial greed, and no revolution of the stars brought the predestined man, born to hunt her back to her native Hell (Inf. I. 111) --
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Dartmouth Dante Project


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