The Muses and Finding Wisdom

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Paradiso, the reader joins the Pilgrim on a tour of heaven. At the beginning of this reading period in our class, Dr. McCoy alerted us to keep an eye out for the Muses. This is something that I have been attentive to, as a result, and after doing a bit of research and further reading, I noticed that Dante creates a balance and mixture of different faith traditions in his Commedia. We can see allusions to the Greek tradition (including Homer and, especially, Virgil), Judaism, and Christianity. As Mark Musa notes in his paratext to Canto XX, the six souls that compose the eye of the eagle the Pilgrim sees are two Jews, two pagans, and two Christians (243). This means that in Dante’s Paradiso, those of varying faiths are present and not condemned to the Inferno. This is a rather accepting stance in comparison with other historical literature. What kind of implications, then, are there for having this religious diversity in what seems to be a Christian Hell and Heaven?

Here, though, I specifically want to discuss the Greeks and, by extension, the Muses. In Greek mythology, there are nine Muses, usually female figures alike to deities who are often depicted in or aid the production of the arts. The Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, is invoked at the start of Purgatorio, as is Clio the Muse of history and Urania the Muse of astronomy. The others, however, are never named outright. Instead, they are all invoked together by Dante in Canto II of Paradiso: “Minerva fills my sails, Apollo steers,/ and all nine Muses point the Bears to me” (II, 8-9). He asks the Muses to guide him through Paradise, and Beatrice will be his physical guide (I’ll leave you to do with that what you will). The nine Muses, together, cover seemingly every area of Greek life that we think of: writing, music, tragedy, comedy, dance, science, poetry, history, religion, etc. If we are looking the lens of the Muses as guides, then we could say that each one is a guide in these particular areas of life.

It is the last invocation of the Muses that I find the most interesting. In Canto XVIII, the Pilgrim calls out to the “Muse of Pegasus” (XVIII, 82). None of the nine Muses are directly associated with Pegasus, the winged horse. Musa speculates that the Pilgrim may be referring to “Poetry in general” (220). In doing a bit of research on Pegasus, I discovered that he was considered a friend to the Muses and that he created the spring atop the Muses’ Mount Helicon. He is a symbol of wisdom and poetry, and the creator of inspiration for poets. By calling on Pegasus, being aware of his associations, I find that Dante is looking for an objective journey through Paradise, and the ability to account for it in this book as accurately as possible. The ultimate accomplishment that Dante’s Pilgrim seeks is the highest wisdom: knowing God. But, due to the presence of both mono- and polytheistic faiths in the Divine Comedy, I am starting to think that Dante is trying to connect all of these together by emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences. All of them believe in a divine, non-human power. Is this similarity the wisdom that we, alongside the Pilgrim, are seeking in Paradise? Is that the justice of which the eagle symbolizes?

In reading the novels of Toni Morrison, we have found many similarities between her writing and Dante’s Commedia. It is interesting that Dante’s eagle symbolizes divine justice, when the bald eagle is an American national emblem. It will be intriguing to see how Morrison’s Paradise converses with Dante’s Paradiso concerning the questions of wisdom, faith, and justice. Her novels explore, I think, the human desire to find and attain that greater wisdom, and how this ambition affects the human experience.

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