Dante’s Second Dream and What it Means for Us

The Siren’s beauty is only projection.

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, Translator


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

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.

Want to keep the blog going? Donate today!

If you love reading my weekly posts as much as I love writing them, consider a donation to the blog. This helps defray the cost of research materials, upkeep, and the endless admin that goes with running a website!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


All money donated goes to keeping the posts coming and the website running! Whether that’s enough for a cup of coffee, or for another book to show you, every little bit helps!

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
Categories The Eftsoons Writer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close