In dream a woman sought me, halt of speech,
Squint-eyed, on maimed feet lurching as she steps,
With crippled hands, and skin of sallow bleach.
Canto XIX, Lines 7-9
Dorothy Sayers, TranslatorDante
Dante’s Dream of the Siren: This, the second of Dante’s dreams of Purgatory, is the subtlest and most difficult of the three. It has often been imitated since his time, but never with his wealth of implications.Dorothy Sayers
Dante’s second dream happens right before Cornice V where the Covetous are put towards purgation. The final three levels are sins which are excessive love of otherwise good things. Covetousness is excessive love of goods, for instance.
He dreams of a Siren which tries to lure him away from the path in Purgatory. She’s stopped before she gets too far, thankfully. Another lady rouses Virgil to action and Virgil awakens Dante from his dream. Later, he explains that the Siren is the “ancient witch.”
So what actually has happened here? This requires some unpacking. First things first, who is the ancient witch?
The Ancient Witch
If you’ve read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then you actually do know who the ancient witch is. She is Lilith.
For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, and for George MacDonald, Lilith was the fabled first wife of Adam–before Eve was created from one of his ribs. The legend says that Lilith was made from the dust of the earth–just as Adam was. Only she refused to submit to him and left the Garden of Eden.
In legend, she is supposedly a seducer of men, mother of demons, and slayer of children. Today, she’s something of a feminist icon, the myth having roused the understandable sympathies of women all over the world. Given the overly zealous depictions of a simpering Eve in Western Literature (such as Milton), I can’t say that I blame the feminists for this one.
The Siren is the Fantasy of Love
What she represents here is the fantasy of womanhood–not an actual woman. Just as Lilith wasn’t Adam’s true partner–Eve was. The Siren is not the true good worth of love. She’s what a warped mind conjures to be loved.
It’s like having a crush on a famous figure when you’re a teenager. You’re in love with the image of the person as they are in your imagination–not the person themselves. The reality is something which is more than likely not what you’re actually searching for in a partner.
And Dante knows this–he recognizes her at first as an ugly monster but the mind plays it’s trick. Until another lady intervenes.
The lady who comes and warns Virgil that Dante is in peril doesn’t have an identity. She is not Beatrice, Lucy, or any of the other ladies mentioned in the Comedy thus far. We don’t see her again after this Canto either.
Sayers says in her commentary that the lady could represent intuition. She rouses Virgil, after all, not Dante and its Virgil (representing human reason) who shows the monstrousness of the Siren. Intuition cannot act on itself. It needs our reason to act upon what it sells us.
Fittingly, we don’t see the Lady again. Intuition, after all, is subconscious and fleeting. It’s only there when we absolutely need it. And Dante soon will not need it or human reason.
Translating the Dream into the 21st Century
So what does Dante’s dream mean for us in the 21st century?
Setting aside the more recent attitudes surrounding Lilith and the more blatantly sexual associations with her, what do we have? We have the allegory of loving our own projections over the actual good things and people in this world.
We love our partner so long as they don’t shatter the image we have of them in our own minds. It’s much harder to love them for themselves. It’s much harder to love anything for itself when it doesn’t conform to what we think it should be.
But the fantasy is shattered when we follow both intuition and reason. It doesn’t mean we can’t have fantasies–far from it. Rather that we should take care to not let it keep us from the path before us.
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