The Monstrosity of Sin in the Divine Comedy
Encountering Three Beasts
As Dante awakes from the night of absolute terror that he’s passed in the dark wood, he looks up at the first rays of the rising sun appearing at the top of a hill in front of him. A glimmer of hope awakens in his heart as he sees that sun rising, and he resolves that he’ll climb that mountain to try to get a perspective, to get above the trees of the forest so as to find his way. But as he does so, as he climbs the mountain, he encounters three beasts — a leopard, a lion, a wolf.
Our Sins Are Monsters
Now, the traditional interpretation of the appearance of these animals is that they represent human sinfulness in its three most basic types. The leopard, the sins of incontinence or lust, excessive desire. The lion, the sins of overweening pride and violence. The wolf, the sins of avarice, of fraud, and of betrayal. This tradition of interpretation is well-grounded. It occurs first in scripture, which Dante was probably referring to.
In the book of Jeremiah 5:6, we read the following, ‘Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many.’ Jeremiah is voicing here what I think we can appropriately call the monstrosity of human sinfulness, that deep conflict that is the result of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden by which human beings are put at enmity with that part of themself which attaches them to nature, to the earth, their animal-rootedness in the world.
Breaking the Bond with the Animals
Recall that, in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were invited by God to name the animals. In some sense, this is a fundamental parental prerogative. The animals were their children. They shared a deep bond of communication between them.
But with their sin, Adam and Eve, not only broke their bond with God, they broke their bond with the animal world. A deep enmity arose that separated them, alienated them, made them strangers to the animals and the animals to them. This rift that opened up is one of the consequences of sin, and that consequence goes on having its effect throughout the ages.
The Beast In Us
What’s behind that notion of enmity between the animal and the human? These are not just three animals that Dante encounters in the forest. They are monstrous. They are monsters.
The very notion of monstrosity has haunted the human imagination since the beginning of time. The idea that there could occur a freak of nature, a mistake, an atrocity, a monstrosity in which something within us becomes real outside of us and takes on a vitality that threatens our very existence as human beings, threatens to destroy us. But not simply to kill us but to consume us, to ravage us, to tear us to pieces. This is the idea that Dante is working with– that there’s something about sin that’s genuinely monstrous.
The leopard, the lion, the wolf could well be thought of as figures that are familiar to us throughout the fairytale history of the human memory– the fables of Little Red Riding Hood, the stories of human beings who turn into animals, are consumed by animals, who consume other human beings, the vampires, the werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster. All of this is contained in these three images– that deep sense that something went wrong in humanity in its deep primordial past and that what went wrong lingers as a possibility for a nightmare, an encounter with something which is us and yet is horribly different than us, at war with us.
This possibility of the monster within emerging and becoming real in the world, this is the terror that haunts Dante as he begins to climb the mountain. It’s a terror that what we hope for will not occur, cannot occur because of something within us ourselves.
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