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Classical Cannibalism: Personified Vice in Homer and Dante

Have you eaten today? If not, then perhaps it is best that you do, before continuing with this essay. The reason for caution lies in the overlying theme discussed from here on. Both Dante’s Divine Comedy and Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey are similar in that they concern themselves with the virtues and vices of man. This is done by placing the main character in various situations where a certain trait is represented either directly or symbolically. While The Comedy in itself is a great work of human insight, it important to note that Dante, in turn, was continuing a tradition of epic narrative, following in Homer’s and Virgil’s example. This fact is manifested in many similarities between their texts. Among the most curious of these, is the theme of cannibalism. Few things are as revolting to the human society as a cannibal, however both Dante and the ancient Greek that inspired him, have successfully used them as loaded allegories of various human vices.

Dante’s Inferno is the first section of his epic narrative poem titled the Divine Comedy. In this poem, the main character, Dante in the role of the pilgrim, traverses the three major worlds of the Christian religion: Hell, Purgatory, and at last Heaven. His guide is none other than the spirit of Virgil, the Roman poet who serves as a direct influence and a link between much of Dante’s writing and The Odyssey. Dante describes hell as a great funnel, stretching to the center of the Earth and subdivided into circular ledges, each one reserved for punishing a specific sin. The deeper Dante travels, the more grave is the sin which is being punished.

Toward the end of the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim, along with his guide, arrives in the lowest section of Hell reserved for those who have committed treason, the lowliest of all human trespasses. A very graphic scene describes him approaching two souls, one ravenously devouring the flesh of the other. When Dante is spotted, the sinner stops the gruesome act long enough to tell his story. According to him, he is none other than Count Ugolino, most famous for forming a treasonous conspiracy with the archbishop Rugierri, also present as the one being eaten. However their alliance does not last long, as Ruggieri betrays Ugolino and locks him and his children in a tower. The Archbishop then orders the doors to the tower to be nailed shut and lets his prisoners starve to death. Here, Dante uses the theme of cannibalism in a twofold manner. He both cautions the reader of the terrible things a desperate and crazed human is capable of, while forging a symbolic connection between the revolting deed and Ugolino’s sin of treason.

In the passage, where Ugolino tells of how he had died in the “Tower of Hunger”, Dante the poet hints at cannibalism:

Father, it would give us much less pain

If you ate us: it was you who put upon us

This sorry flesh; now strip it off again.’

I calmed myself to spare them. Ah! hard earth,

Why did you not yawn open? […] […]

Two days I called their names, and they were dead.

Then fasting overcame my grief and me. (Alighieri 33.61-75)

While it may be argued that the scene simply relates the suffering of Ugolino as he dies from starvation, a closer reading reveals numerous clues pointing to the fact that he, did in fact cannibalize his own sons. In a weeping lament, Ugolino tells how his sons offered their own flesh to feed him and regrets that “The hard earth did not yawn open” when he was first presented with the idea yet still had the clarity of mind to “calm[ himself] [and] spare them”. However, when mere days later he finds himself locked in a tower with his three sons, now dead, that clarity of mind is no longer there. He says, “then fasting overcame my grief and me.” This last line is, perhaps the most telling of the state of mind in which he spends the remainder of his life. Half crazed and dying, Ugolino can no longer resist the urge and the thoughts originally put into his head by his children. Hunger overcomes his beliefs, morals, and even the sorrow for his dead sons.

The impact of this scene is only strengthened by the fact that it is both preceded and followed directly by Ugolino eating the remains of the man who had driven him to such desperation in the first place. Thus symbolic punishment, a theme with roots reaching back to Homer’s antiquity, ensures that both of the parties suffer according to their involvement. Ugolino sounds resentful and seeks compassion and understanding, but Dante the pilgrim denies him either of those emotions, as is fitting for a sinner. By painting the traitor as the cannibal who devours his own progeny, Dante the poet ensures that the readers too, feel no sympathy for the deserved sufferings of count Ugolino and the sin he represents.

While Dante draws a very strong and interesting parallel between a sinner and a cannibal, it should be noted that he is not the first one to do so. The ancient Greek poet Homer, does much the same thing. The Odyssey is filled with numerous mentions of cannibalism. It is used as a perfect example of the brutal nature of humanity and to deplore such vices as ignorance and betrayal.

An indirect reference to cannibalism is made when Odysseus arrives on Nausicaa’s island. The first question he asks himself is about the type of people that inhabit this place. “What kind of land have I come to now? / Are the natives wild and lawless savages, / Or godfearing men who welcome strangers” (Homer 6.118-20). In these three lines Homer manages to do two very important things. Firstly he makes a clear separation of humanity into two groups: the “godfearing men” representing the virtues and the “lawless savages” standing in for the vices. Secondly, he gives his audience a foreshadowing of encounters with the former group, inciting suspicion and an expectation of danger.

As the narrative progresses it is revealed why the above question was so important to Odysseus. The audience is allowed to relive the horror of the unrestrained side of humanity as Odysseus retells his adventures to the Phaeacians. The most prominent of these encounters occurs in book nine when Odysseus and his crew arrive on the shores of the island of the Cyclopes. There, the Cyclops Polyphemus traps Odysseus and his men in a cave and kills two men for his dinner every night. The gruesome and detailed descriptions of dismemberment and cannibalism, much like in Dante’s hell, are expertly crafted to evoke revulsion and fascination with the raw brute power of the Cyclops along with the idea which he represents.

Everything about the Cyclops is symbolic. His kind and caring behavior toward his sheep after he had been blinded by Odysseus is included in the story to remind us of his essentially human nature and distinguish him from other man-eating monsters such as Scylla. Homer, being a master of symbolism, had went to great lengths to paint a picture of a monstrous human not an wild beast, thus making Polyphemus a representation of a human vice, not an instinctive animal behavior. The physical description of the Cyclops including his size, slow wits, and complete disregard of the xenia tradition are meant to be symbolic of his ignorance from the civilized ways and social customs of society. His mind, dimmed by his bloodlust is contrasted with Odysseus’s cunning, one of the virtues extolled by Homer, who manages to think clearly despite being in grave danger. Thus just like Dante will over two thousand years later, Homer uses cannibalism to demonize human ignorance by placing both in the same disfigured vessel.

Shortly after escaping from the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus arrives at another island and is lured into the town of Laestrygonians, who turn out to be cannibalistic giants. Odysseus describes their initial encounter to the Phaeaceans:

They enetered the house and found his wife inside,

A woman, to their horror, as huge as a mountain top

At once she called her husband, Antiphates,

Who meant musiness when he came. He seized

One of my men and made him into dinner. (Homer, 10.126-30)

Once again, notice how the adversaries’ size is amplified, just as with Polyphemus, to enhance their barbaric nature, while the depiction of their lifestyle such as being husband and wife is kept purposefully human. From the vain promise of hospitality and its betrayal, parallels can be drawn to Dante’s work, as Homer continues firmly attaching the theme of cannibalism to various representations of human vices.

Lastly, perhaps the most indirect reference to cannibalism, at least to the modern day reader, is Odysseus’s meeting of Tantalus in the Underworld. According to Greek mythology, Tantalus was punished by the Olympians after he had murdered his own son and prepared a banquet out of his flesh for the Gods in an attempt to make peace with them. His punishment in Hades is symbolic and the similarity between Tantalus and count Ugolino is too close to be a coincidence. While the story of Tantalus is somewhat obscured from the modern reader, it is a part of the Greek mythos widely known by Homer’s contemporaries and eventually by Roman readers, who would fully appreciate the punishment for its appropriateness. Virgil, an ancient Roman author whom Dante idolized so much that he made him his guide in the first third of his own poem, had in turn composed his epic The Aeneid to be closely based on The Odyssey. The following passage is taken from Virgil’s version of Aeneas’s encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus:

The cave, tho’ large, was dark; the dismal floor
Was pav’d with mangled limbs and putrid gore.
Our monstrous host, of more than human size,
Erects his head, and stares within the skies;
Bellowing his voice, and horrid is his hue.
Ye gods, remove this plague from mortal view!
The joints of slaughter’d wretches are his food;
And for his wine he quaffs the streaming blood.
These eyes beheld, when with his spacious hand
He seiz’d two captives of our Grecian band;
Stretch’d on his back, he dash’d against the stones
Their broken bodies, and their crackling bones:
With spouting blood the purple pavement swims,
While the dire glutton grinds the trembling limbs. (Virgil, Bk. 3)

The critical elements including detailed gory depictions and the monumental size of Polyphemus found in Homer’s poem are present here as well in virtually unaltered form. Thus, Homer, with Virgil acting as a temporal proxy, had indirectly served as Dante’s inspiration.

Cannibalism is both a terrifying and disturbing phenomenon occasionally found among humans. The fact that it appears in the works of Dante and Homer in a very similar setting, is indicative of just how much Dante was affected by the works of the classical antiquity. Perhaps, it is because there is something inhuman and disturbingly bestial about cannibalism, that these authors have chosen to use it as a tool in demonizing certain vices of the society. The cannibals encountered in these texts are more than just monsters. They serve as allegories for various human vices: Polyphemus for ignorance, the Laestrygonians for betrayal of hospitality, Count Ugolino and Tantalus for betrayal of one’s own kin.

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