“You’ve now arrived where Purgatory begins”
After wandering around Ante-Purgatory for 8 cantos, in canto 9 Dante finally makes it to the gate of Purgatory.
The canto opens with a hazy dream sequence, which goes on for 40-odd verses and is punctuated by pagan mythology references. Dante sets the scene through one of the many pagan references we get in the first half of this canto. He says that Dawn - which he refers to as the concubine of Tithonus, who was one of the princes of Troy - slowly leaves the oceanic bed and rises across the sky bearing the constellation of Scorpio on her forehead.
(Note: there is some ambiguity here over the time of day, but most scholars agree he’s talking about a moon dawn, based on the context.)
As darkness covers the mountain, Dante says he still feels “some trace of Adam” in him, meaning he is still very much human and therefore still susceptible to physical exhaustion, and he quickly falls asleep. Hours pass and, as dawn begins to draw near - this time the sun’s - he has a dream.
The set-up to the dream comes with a reference to the myth of the swallow. Dante says that he begins his dream in the hour in which the swallow, perhaps remembering its misery, begins its sad chant. This is a reference to the myth of Philomela, who in Ovid’s Metamorphoses was raped by Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne. Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone, but she wove a tapestry depicting the story of her rape and sent it to Procne, who upon finding out, killed Tereus’s son, cooked him and fed him to Tereus. When the man found out what he had eaten, he wanted to kill both women, but they were all transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow and Tereus into a hoopoe.
Dante’s dream is closely linked to another myth. He says that upon falling asleep, he sees an eagle flying down from the sky as if to swoop him away as it happened to Ganymede.
This is in reference to the classical legend that Zeus fell in love with a young boy named Ganymede and took the shape of an eagle to fly to earth and grab him and carry him to Olympus where he became the cupbearer of the gods.
In the dream, Dante says, the eagle carried him up towards a blazing sphere of fire and the fire was so hot and frightful that he had to shake himself awake from the terrible dream. And here comes the fourth mythical reference, this time to Achilles, who had once woken up mid-flight, not knowing where he was after his mother Thetis moved him from his mentor, the centaur Chiron (remember him from Inferno?) to the island Skyros.
Like Achilles, who wakes up confused in a different place, Dante wakes up to find out the blazing heat he had felt in the dream was the light of day. He is now at the gate of Purgatory, having been carried by none other than Saint Lucia.
Seeing how confused he is, Virgil tells him that the saint descended during the night and picked Dante up, saying that she had turned up to make Dante’s journey easier. So Dante’s dream was not entirely a dream, but more of a prophetic interpretation of the events that had truly occurred.
And here we are finally at the gate of Purgatory.
The second part of the canto is entirely Christian in references and, as Dante announces in verses 69-72, the linguistic register of it is much higher to represent the holy themes that are about to be presented.
Dante quickly assumes a reverent tone as he begins to describe the gate, the three steps leading up to it and the speechless guardian that stands at the top of them.
We find out that the first is made out of impeccable white marble that is so shiny he can see his own reflection. The second is made of dark, rough stone and has a cross-shaped crack in the middle of it, while the third is made of porphyry, which is a vibrant red type of granite.
Scholars have interpreted the steps as an allusion to the three stages of confession: contrition, acts of penance and absolution. And in fact, the fact that Dante can see his own reflection in the first step suggests a moment of self-reflection and confession of one’s sins, while the dark roughness of the second can be read as a symbol of the flawed nature of humanity as well as the difficulty in making amends. Finally, the bright red stone alludes to the reincarnation that will happen after Judgement Day.
On the top step, Dante meets the angel that guards the gate. Dressed in a humble grey frock, the angel holds the sharp sword that keeps reflecting the sun back into the valley, which makes it impossible for Dante to look the angel in the face (the excuse of “blinding” light will come up again when he doesn’t know how to describe parts of heaven).
The angel addresses them and Virgil explains that a woman from heaven told them to come this way, but seeing that it won’t be enough to get them through, he tells Dante to bow and ask the angel for admittance into Purgatory.
As he bows the angel scratches 7 Ps into Dante’s forehead with his sword, one for each of the seven capital sins which are successively purged on the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory. This image sounds gory, but it actually isn’t.
We don’t see any blood on Dante’s forehead and the angel immediately speaks about “scars” that will disappear or “wash away” with every terrace that Dante travels through.
This gives us to understand, once again, that while Dante has to undergo the various rituals of travel through Purgatory, he doesn’t yet have to repent for anything because he is still alive and very much “chosen” for the journey.
The canto closes with the physical passage into Purgatory. Dante tells us that the angel uses two keys, one silver and the other gold, to open the gate.
There are the keys that Jesus entrusted to Saint Peter, the gold representing the power of the Church to grant absolution and the silver a symbol for the intelligence needed to unlock the human heart.
A thundering crash marks the opening of the gate, which quickly mixes with the sound of voices singing Te Deum, the hymn that novices who leave the secular world to join a religious order, once more signifying Dante’s passage into the Holy realm.