Canto 20: Beginning to Purge the Sins of the She-Wolf

King_Hugh_CapetBy Sebastian Mahfood

In Canto 20 of the Purgatorio, we find that Dante leaves Pope Adrian V to finish his purgation in peace though Dante is still thirsty for more conversation from him. Given the rather significant population of souls on this cornice, an observance which causes Dante to curse the she-wolf of incontinence who made this ledge so crowded, Dante soon finds someone else with whom to speak in the person of Hugh Capet, the founder of the Capetian dynasty of kings in France.

The reader might note at this point in the journey that Dante’s journey up Mount Purgatory is in reverse direction as his journey down Hell’s funnel. To get through hell, Dante traveled as follows among the vices: lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath, envy and pride, but to get through heaven, Dante is moving in the inverse direction as follows: pride, envy, wrath, sloth (which we see throughout hell as a general spiritual malaise), avarice, gluttony and lust. This backwards trajectory indicates the progress that he has thus far made in eradicating from his soul the sins of the leopard and of the lion. He has only these remaining sins of the she-wolf yet to purge.

Dante is reflecting on this when he hears three whips. The first is “Blessed Mary! How poor you were is testified to all men by the stable in which you laid your sacred burden down.” The second comes immediately after, a pagan example about the Consul Fabricius who chose poverty over dishonorable wealth and died so poor that the state had to bury him. The third concerns St. Nicholas’s providing a dowry for three young girls who would otherwise have gone into the brothel. The pattern, as we’ve noticed so far, is to begin with an example from the life of Mary and continue with a pagan and a Christian example.

While Dante heard the whips come from only one soul, Hugh Capet tells him they are actually coming from all the souls on the ledge. Everyone here bears their burden. If we contrast this group effort with the ledge below where the majority of the penitents merely received the whip from some and the rein from others, we find another layer of community cohesion in progress – something that has been building since the first ledge. If hell models the gradual disintegration of community, then Purgatory is modeling the gradual reintegration of community, and we will increasingly see that in the two ledges above.

Hugh Capet continues in his explanations for Dante’s good rather than for his own. The problem, he explains, with the line of Kings that he founded is that they became too rich too quickly and fell into an avaricious fervor “that was the birth of its rapacity, its power, its lies.” Here, he accuses Charles of Anjou of poisoning St. Thomas Aquinas. And it gets worse. He shows that one of his line will sell a daughter for a high price and that it will force the papacy into slavery and submission in Avignon (which it did in 1309 following hard on the destruction of the Knights Templar, erstwhile guardians of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem).

By far the greatest crime, though, is Philip the Fair’s arrest of Boniface VIII in 1303, subjecting him to such great indignities, John Ciardi notes in his translation, that Boniface’s mind cracked, followed by his death of ‘hysterical seizures’ on October 12, 1303. (That Dante considers this act to be an indignity, by the way, provides an important insight into his ability to separate the person and the office he holds from the acts of that person while in office. Remember, Dante is no fan of Boniface.)

After Hugh Capet explains all this, he then provides the reader with insight into the relationship between the whip and the rein of avarice—during the light of day, the penitents cry the whip, but throughout the night, they cry the rein. He then relates the seven reins all of the hoarding rather than of the prodigal type— of Pygmalion’s self-destruction in pursuit of gold, of Midas’s despair at having his wish gratified, of Achan’s theft from Joshua, of Sapphira’s and her husband’s blame in stealing from the early Church, of Heliodorus’s and Polymnestor’s crimes, and of Crassus’s reputation as a money-grabber causing the Parthian king to defile his disembodied head by pouring molten gold into its mouth.

Now satisfied, the poets move on, wiser in the knowledge that their encounter with Pope Adrian had not preceded the whip but interrupted his articulation of it. Suddenly, the entire mountain shakes “as if it tottered,” Ciardi translates. Dante is seized with dread at what this might mean, but Virgil reassures him. All the souls cry out “Glory to God in the Highest!” Gradually, the ground grows still again, and Dante finishes the canto pondering this phenomenon in his heart.

So, that’s what salvation is like—an earthquake of the soul that suddenly snaps us into realignment with God. We will learn in the next canto that the earthquake is the signal to everyone on the mountain that another soul has finished its purgation and is ready to ascend to heaven. Naturally, no one envies that soul for all know that one day it will be their turn to ascend. The only thing they can do is rejoice for the soul. Who this soul is who has just been admitted to paradise we will come to find out. Importantly, though, it could be any of us who at any point in our lives experience a moment like an earthquake of the soul.

Dr. Sebastian Mahfood is a Lay Dominican of the Province of Saint Albert the Great, and serves as Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Through the Catholic Distance Learning Network, he sponsors the Digital Dante contest (, which each year awards a Dante medallion to the person who submits the best digital interpretation of some aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He lives in St. Louis, MO, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.

Posted in Purgatorio

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