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The Path of Initiation in Dante’s Divine Comedy – Part 1

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The Divine Comedy by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (Florence 1265 – Ravenna 1321) is considered to be a masterwork of world’s literature. Its profoundness and beauty have fascinated its readers over many centuries. Besides the general agreement about its literary aspects and the fact of being a fundamental piece in the transition from the medieval to the renaissance thinking, from our point view, the most important factor is that it describes a spiritual route of universal character, an initiation path which is still valid today.

Many authors have offered us an esoteric interpretation of Dante’s work. Thus, René Guénon, in his book Dante’s Esoterism, informs us about the poet’s links with secret societies and chivalry orders of his time, such as the “Fede Santa”, “The faithful of Love”, the Albigensians or the Templar Order.

Whatever the case, Dante himself states:

O ye who have undistempered intellects,

Observe the doctrine that conceals itself

Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses!

(Inferno IX, 61-63)

The indications are clear and explicit, as the poet manifests that his work has an occult meaning, that the exterior is only appearance, just a veil and he asks his readers to “look inside” for the veiled meaning.

In another of his works, Dante exposes that his writings may be understood and can be explained according to four meanings: “Si possono intendere e debbonsi sponere massimamente per Quattro sensi” (Convivio, II, cap. 1)

The experts usually recognise three of such meanings: the literal of the poetic story, the political and social, and the philosophical and theological meaning. In general, they miss the fourth meaning. Authors such as René Guénon understand that the fourth meaning is, strictly speaking, the initiatory and metaphysical sense and gives a series of indications that allow us to guess that Dante was the leader or “Kadoch” (a Hebraic word meaning “dedicated”) of a mysterious masonic and hermetic order (of Templar affiliation) named Fede Santa.

Guénon, according to the approaches of Gabriele Rosseti, poet and painter, and Eugene Aroux in their book Histoire des Rose-Croix (the firsts to point out the existence of an initiation esotericism in The Divine Comedy) go deep into the idea that “Inferno” in the Divine Comedy represents the profane world, “Purgatory” describes the initiatory probation and “Heaven” is the dwelling of Perfects.

For their part, the Masters of the Spiritual School the Golden Rosycross, Mr. J. van Rijckenborgh and Mrs. Catharose de Petri, in their book The Universal Gnosis, state that we are before a genuine gnostic work, a personification of a complete transfiguration path:

In his Inferno, Dante describes the hell of the dialectic life and its consequences. In Purgatorio, the mountain of the purification, he shows us how the spiritual core, as a base of a new life, can be liberated by annihilating the egocentric being. And in his Paradiso, Dante presents the Kingdom of God.

Further down, the authors explain the symbolic meaning of the three main characters in the Comedy: Virgil, Dante and Beatrice.

Dante is the combatant microcosm, the complete system that in a due moment discovers his exile in the dialectical life and is touched by the call of the Gnosis. Virgil is his dialectical being, the true natural being, the dialectical conscience.

Guided by Virgil, Dante goes across hell and discovers this world in its infernal state and destroyed reality. Always guided by Virgil, Dante enters the purgatory, the world where the being is annihilated and then, once he has climbed up to the higher summits of this purification mountain, when he had endured and gone more deeply into all suffering, Virgil abandons him. The earthly being, the natural being, must die (be dissolved), he cannot enter the new earth (…) And as soon as Virgil disappears, the Other, Beatrice, appears before Dante. Beatrice means, “the one that makes you happy”. Indeed, she is the true heavenly Other. The new form appearing when the earthly being has disappeared is the very eternal happiness! Beatrice is the Gnosis, the one that makes you eternally happy. (J. van Rijckenborgh and Catharose de Petri, The Universal Gnosis translated from the original Dutch version entitled: De Universele Gnosis)

The candidate must transcend all dialectical knowledge in order to reach an intimate relationship with God. When he has met his Beatrice, and only then, can he enter Paradise and become one with the Gnosis.

The initiation trip

Dante begins his journey on a Holy Friday, a date of deep, religious and symbolic significance, which alludes to Jesus-Christ’s death, his descent to hell and his resurrection.

At the beginning of his journey, Dante, still an unconscious soul, is well aware of being lost in a dark wilderness:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

(Inferno I)

He recognises having been asleep, that is, confused and ignorant of the true spiritual essence:

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

(Inferno I)

In short, he knows “that he doesn’t know” and yearns for the initiatory knowledge. Trying to get away from the dark forest, he arrives to a mountain’s foot, where the valley ends. When looking to the top, he sees the rays of light indicating the right way, the true path the soul must follow:

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet's rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.

Inferno I

However, as soon as he stars going the path leading to the summit, he sees three wild animals (a panther, a lion and a wolf) blocking his way.

Dante tries to escape from the dark forest in which he knows his soul is immersed and tries to “climb the mountain” or, in a symbolic language, he tries to reach the Wisdom of the Spirit.  Although his wish for light is evident, he is still not prepared, he is not yet mature to elevate himself to the mountain’s top. Before having access to the luminous areas, he must enter and traverse the abyss of the subconscious, the dark places of the being in which ignorance and passions shelter. The proof of it is that three threatening animals prevent him to follow the direct path to the heights of the spirit. These three animals symbolise the three sanctuaries of the still impure human being (head, heart, pelvis) and, generally speaking, the passions and desires holding a grip on the soul.

He was thus compelled to retrace his own steps. Then before him appears the shadow of a man to which Dante asks for help. He is the poet Virgil who offers his guidance and after encouraging him promises to get him out of there by going through the Inferno and then through Purgatory.

Virgil explains to Dante that he was sent by Beatrice to help him. As we have already explained, Beatrice represents the “Other”, the Soul-Spirit as a member of the Brotherhood of Life. Then, Dante answers:

Thou with thine eloquence my heart hast won
To keen desire to go, and the intent
Which first I held I now no longer shun.
Therefore proceed; my will with thine is blent:
Thou art my Guide, Lord, Master; thou alone
!'

(Inferno II)

(To be continued in part 2)

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