A few weeks ago I talked about the use of pagan deities in Christian literature. I mentioned the idea of “True Myth” and was surprised at the response that I got. The post was merely a small comment on a large issue that is still being debated by scholars and Christians alike. Christians don’t know what to do with pagan concepts in their literature any more than secular scholars know what to do with Christian themes in literature. Fortunately, (I say “fortunately” because I am convinced that there is much knowledge to be gained from studying and understanding pagan thought) there have been many Christians throughout the ages who have embraced the challenges of pagan concepts and Christian themes. As I mentioned in my previous post, Dante and Milton are two of the most famous writers who incorporated pagan deities and concepts into their great Christian epics. They did this because they knew that the pagan ideas would reinforce the Christian truths they were trying to convey.
I would like to take this time to give an example of what I am talking about. By using C. S. Lewis’s and Edith Hamilton’s definitions of the gods and their astrological significance, Dante’s placement of particular characters and topics of conversation in not only Inferno and Purgatorio, but in Paradiso become clear. In pagan thought there are seven spheres of the heavens represented by the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Each sphere has three aspects: the pagan deity, the influence or nature of the personalities of the spheres and the Christianization of these concepts. Without the first two aspects, which are the pagan concepts, the Christianized forms that Dante advocates cannot be understood.
For this demonstration I’ll just be looking at the moon – the first celestial sphere. The moon has many myths associated with it. Artemis, though the goddess of the hunt and the preserver of the young, is almost always associated with the moon (Hamilton 31). Another deity, Selene, is also attributed to the moon. Artemis is a virgin goddess, while Selene was reported to have taken a lover Endymion, who she lulled to eternal sleep so that she could come to him whenever it pleased her (113). However, the concept of Artemis is the stronger myth. Her characteristics are more notable and often attributed to the moon. She is the huntress, the wandering goddess. A hunter tends to have a nomadic spirit, one that follows the game with the seasons and travels into the wilderness. Lewis claims that the moon creates two types of wandering: “she may make them travelers so that, as Gower says, the man born under Luna will ‘seche manye londes strange…but she may also produce ‘wandering; of the wits, especially that periodical insanity which was first meant by the word lunacy” (Lewis, Discarded 109). Those who are influenced by the moon have the propensity for travelling and misplacing their wits. These are very much pagan concepts but there is still truth in myth.
The wandering spirit takes on a different meaning in the Christian context. Dante “assigns the Moon’s sphere to those who have entered the conventual life and abandoned it for some good or pardonable reason” (109). This is seen in Piccarda’s story. She went to a convent to become a nun but her family forced her to break her vows on pain of death to marry:
But, even after she was cast into the world
Against her will and against all proper custom,
The veil was never loosened from her heart. (Dante III.115-117)
Though Piccarda was coerced to wander the world and to travel far from the life that she would have preferred, she stayed true. Dante used the theme of wandering to indicate that those who were influenced by the moon wandered physically if not a little spiritually from their faith and true love.
Piccarda’s placement in the sphere of the moon at first sounds as though she is being punished:
And this our lot, which seems so very low,
Is given us because of vows neglected
And in part, no longer valid. (Dante III.55-57)
However, this is not the case. Her placement is based on an influence and not a character flaw as the modern mind would understand it. Piccarda chastises Dante when he asks if she desires a higher place in heaven:
Brother the power of love subdues our will
So that we long for only what we have
And thirst for nothing else.
If we desired to be more exalted
Our desires would be discordant
With His will, which assigns us to this place. (III.70-75)
The wandering soul finds contentment in the sphere of the moon. The absolute will of God gives peace and satisfaction to the soul that on earth was unhappy with his or her lot in life. Piccarda, who desired to serve God in the Church, now finds contentment with her place in the heavens.