By Julie Butler
The third round of the 7th circle, with its Blasphemers, Sodomites, and Usurers, is a barren desert whose burning hot sands are subjected to a perpetual rain of fire. There is no way a mortal like Dante could make it alive across this fiery waste. In the previous canto, however, Virgil leads Dante across the edge of the desert until they encounter an overflow from the River Phlegethon—a little stream jutting out into the desert and traversing it [14.76-90]. The edges of this stream are free of the burning sand, and the clouds of vapor that rise from the stream’s boiling surface quench the flames that fall from above [14.140-42]. Protected by the powers of this stream, the poets treat one of its banks as a pathway across the desert. We begin Canto 15 in the midst of their journey.
One of the three types of inmates of this section of Hell are the Sodomites, so called after the biblical city of Sodom whose male citizens were known for sexual practices contrary to nature—i.e. homosexual acts. Medieval theological ideology and even law were dead set against homosexuality. Nonetheless, in Dante’s time, homosexual male-male relations were common—especially between an adult and an adolescent. This was no more evident than in teacher-student relationships in which the older adult could take advantage of his adolescent pupil.
As the poets pass a “ghostly crew” of Sodomites [line 22], Dante says, “I was recognized by one who seized the hem of my skirt, and said, ‘Wonders of wonders! You?’” [lines 23-24]. With great difficulty, as a result of his burnt and “baked features” [line 25], Dante finally recognizes his beloved mentor Ser Brunetto Latino whom he addresses with great surprise and sorrowful affection. While alive, Brunetto was a prominent Florentine Guelph, a scholar and poet who was involved in Florentine politics. Out of filial respect, Dante calls him ‘Master’. This is how Dante acknowledges his scholarly indebtedness to him. In fact, Dante learned a number of poetic devices from Brunetto’s poem, the ‘Treasure’ [cf. line 118].
Brunetto asks, “What brings you here before your last day? What fortune or what destiny? And who is he that leads you this dark way?” [lines 46-48]. Dante explains that he had a mid-life crisis, went astray, and found himself in the Dark Wood of Error. To return to the path of the True Way, Virgil—the voice of reason—“guides me home again along this road” [line 54]. It is clear that the respect Dante has for Brunetto is returned to him by Brunetto. Even from Hell, Brunetto supports Dante’s recovery efforts. “Follow your star, for…if I had lived to do what I meant to do, I would have cheered and seconded your work” [lines 55-58].
Yet Brunetto has something ominous to tell Dante. The Florentines will persecute him. Upon hearing this, Dante responds, “Twice already in the eternal shade I have heard this prophecy; but let Fortune turn her wheel as she please…” [lines 94-96]. No matter what Lady Fortune and the unpredictable revolutions of her wheel might have in store for Dante, he is ready for anything and is resolved to remain true to his goal. Virgil is pleased with the courage of his student who has evidently been listening to him [cf. 10.127-32]. Virgil says, “Well heeded is well heard” [line 98].
Apart from the inauspicious import of Brunetto’s words to Dante, what can we glean from their conversation? Of all the characters we meet in Dante’s Hell, Ser Brunetto Latino is one of the most sympathetic. It’s almost as if Dante the author had a hard time placing him in Hell. And yet Brunetto is a sodomite. According to medieval thinking and the morality of Dante’s Inferno, this is a pretty bad sin. It’s not just lust. It’s lust mixed with violence towards nature. It’s so bad, it’s not even explicitly mentioned by name in the canto. And here’s something else to consider that might resonate more with us moderns: the sort of homosexuality being condemned here very well might be pederastic in character, and so less than fully consensual. This would only add to its aspect as “violent”. What should we make of this seeming tension between the sympathy Dante the author has towards Brunetto and the gravity of Brunetto’s sin? While speculative, John Ciardi’s note to lines 23-119 contains a possible way forward.
Perhaps when Dante began writing the Inferno, he had never intended to place Brunetto Latino there, and that “he found reason to believe [Brunetto] guilty of [the sin of sodomy] only years after Brunetto’s death…” Here, then, we see Dante the author’s fidelity to his religious beliefs and the seriousness with which he took serious sin. No matter how much admiration and esteem Dante the author might have had for Brunetto, he also had to honestly reckon with the truth of Brunetto’s sin.
Some actions bring us closer to God and some bring us farther away from Him. We are all challenged with whether to follow our faith and reason, leading to God’s truth, or to be swayed and led astray by our passions. Given today’s confusion over sexual morality, Canto 15 is an especially relevant Canto. The relationship between Brunetto and Dante was significant. Yet, in his lifetime, Brunetto Latino made certain choices and did not repent of them. It is said, “each person chooses his or her seat in Hell”. With free will as our common denominator, we must choose wisely because with every action, whether we like it or not, there is a consequence. Ironically, since Circle 2, each person Dante has encountered in his infernal journey has had a similar character flaw—while alive, they were “hell-bent” on, as they say, “doing it my way”.
While on earth, Brunetto taught Dante much about poetry. Perhaps from Hell, he has taught him something more important—namely, while alive, repent of your sins, because once you’re dead, it’s too late. This final lesson strengthens Dante’s resolve to do God’s will instead of his own. With this, although he has an arduous journey ahead of him through the remainder of Hell, Dante is nonetheless on his way toward the Mount of Joy.
Ms. Julie Butler holds a BS in Speech Communications from the University of Utah, and is midway through her Masters in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, in Cromwell, CT. In her local parish, Sacred Heart Church of the Archdiocese of Hartford, CT, she is an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, serves on the Board of Finance, and is the finance representative for the Parish Council. Every year, she volunteers as co-manager for the handicap section during Divine Mercy Weekend, at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA.