The Unusual Connection between a Roman Poet and an Irish Saint

Horatio: These are but child and whirling words, my lord.

Hamlet: I am sorry they offend you, heartily, Yes, faith, heartily.

Horatio: There’s no offense, my lord.

Hamlet: Yes, by Patrick, but there is, Horatio, And much offense too. Touching this vision here, It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 133-138

William Shakespeare

A Saint, a Poet, and a Politician walk into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? Well, this whole post is going to seem like a joke for some of you, no doubt. For others, it will be a red-pill moment. Because the saint is Saint Patrick, the poet is Virgil, and the politician is Dante Alighieri and they all have one thing in common: the underworld.

No, not the Marlon Brando Godfather underworld.

This is the idea and conception of purgatory. And it was a matter of such controversy in human history it set off two centuries’ worth of upheaval. I’m talking specifically of Purgatory.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory is an actual place, but it’s also a legend.

Most of the Celtic saints of old preferred isolated islands to set up their holy houses. St. Patrick was no different. He spent a good deal of his life in the islands in Lough Derg, a lake in County Donegal. It was there, according to legend, where he found the entrance to purgatory. While this is almost certainly an embellishment of St. Patrick’s legend, the place is still a site for pilgrimage in Ireland.

And St. Patrick’s “discovery” of the stone and the cave within isn’t all that unlike Aeneas’ own descent into the Underworld. St. Patrick’s entrance may have been in the middle of a lake, but Aeneas’ was on the shores of one. Where you can still see the temple of Apollo where the Sibyl once prophesied.

The impact of St. Patrick’s discovery is reflected in multiple literary pieces such as those written by Marie de France and Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Even Shakespeare mentions St. Patrick in Hamlet.

The doctrine of purgatory is one which has haunted Christianity for almost as many years as it’s been around.

Why bring any of this up? Because while its actual existence is still up for debate, it was a major literary influence on the fabric of Medieval Europe.

Writers like William Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman and The Gast of Gye explore the topic and you’ll find Purgatory pop up in many of the “miracle” plays that survive.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one of the most eminent Spanish dramatists of the 17th century, even shrouded it in a play, and it was performed all over Europe. The Purgatory of St. Patrick was still being staged in the 1800s.

Understanding Purgatory, however, starts with understanding the Roman poet who had some of the biggest influence on the European literary scene well up to the time of Shakespeare himself: Virgil.

Wait, didn’t Virgil just have Hell and Elysium?

Yes, you are correct. Virgil did just have Hell and Elysium. But, The Aeneid has a few clues how purgatory came to be such a major influence. Romans spend significant time with their dead. More so than we are used to today. In fact, the Mexican Day of the Dead and even All Souls Night, or Samhain, are probably closer to what the Romans believed and practiced.

If you visit any of the tombs in Pompeii or along the Appian Way in Rome, you’ll notice benches in some tombs. This is because you were expected to visit your dead regularly. Aeneas’ offering sacrifices of bulls and wine at his father’s tomb were based in actual practice.

Now, compare this to the Medieval Era where people paid to have masses said for their departed loved ones. The two are very much alike, aren’t they? Saying masses for the dead and praying for the souls of the departed has been a part of Christian practice, but it was one that was closely related to the Roman culture that also influenced Christianity in its early stages.

No, Christians didn’t “steal” this one from the Romans. It was more a matter of the Romans’ native cultural practices informed some of the liturgy that came from their conversion. We have evidence of this from multiple sources, including the words of St. Augustine of Hippo himself. His mother, St. Monica, also brought offerings to the departed as an act of piety. She was a Christian, but she saw no reason at all why her. Christianity and her Roman culture couldn’t coexist.

As Stephen Greenblatt points out in Hamlet in Purgatory, psychologically, the practices surrounding the dead were a practical way of dealing with grief and of remembering. It wasn’t just a blunt “they’re dead, get over it” kind of attitude that has since become associated with some branches of Christianity.

Dante’s Purgatory was the first to offer such detail and to make it less about suffering and more about learning.

Other accounts of purgatory portray it as a “Christian hell” of sorts where the suffering is as bad if not worse than Hell itself. This was not Dante’s vision. Dante’s vision had it as a purification process where the souls cooperated with the tasks given and those only lasted for the day.

The night was for sleep because in Purgatory–a foretaste of the greater rest to come, a stark contrast from the endlessness in hell.

Souls ascended through the different levels of purgatory in pace with their own spiritual growth. They want to be there and they keep going forward because they want to reach the top.

This is not the purgatory of William Langland or even of Shakespeare. This is a much different place than either. And, remember, Dante used it as an allegory as well.

But, again, Dante’s chief inspiration for all of his writing was Virgil. Virgil’s Aeneid is just as much about the journey and embracing destiny as it is about what happens to a group of hapless Trojans after the war.

No where does Dante showcase this idea of personal development more than in Purgatorio because that is where the real inner work begins. Just as Aeneas’ genuine work begins when he finally leaves Carthage. He’s no longer just a hapless Trojan after Carthage. He is a man with a destiny to fulfill–and one which he believes in more than ever.

Similarly, Inferno is Dante’s wake up call. His almost literal dark night of the soul shows him how bad things truly can get and that to avoid them, he still can do something. Purgatory is the beginning of the inner work after the dawn. As it should be for all of us.

For St. Patrick, I highly suspect that his “Purgatory” in Lough Derg was closer to Dante’s idea of doing the inner work. Celtic Christians preferred the lonely places of the world to better commune with God and to work on themselves.

Incidentally, you can see an example of the loneliness of one of those places if you watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The round beehive-style buildings you see are on Skellig Michael.

Dies iræ, dies illa, Solvet sæclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla.

Author Unknown

Fun Fact: The Cumaean Sibyl makes an appearance elsewhere too…

The Cumaean Sibyl who leads Aeneas through the Underworld is also a piece of the puzzle. If you have listened at all to Mozart’s or Verdi’s Messe de Requiem, the Sibyl is mentioned in the Dies Irae alongside David.

Fans of Endeavor or Inspector Morse will probably recognize Mozart’s Dies Irae right off the bat, as the music often featured in the opening credits. And if you know Verdi’s Dies Irae, then my hat’s off to you. I love it too, but it rattles my bones to listen to it because it sounds like Dante’s Inferno opening up.

Makes the whole angle with St. Patrick’s Purgatory seem even more Virgilian, doesn’t it?

What to know more? Recommended Reads list incoming!

The links below will take you all over the place. Some will take you to where you can read the actual work for itself.

The Purgatory of St. Patrick by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681)

The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland. Piers Plowman is widely available in print, but it’s an archaic form of English that is hard to read unless you have a lot of spare time and energy. So, I’ve lined information from Oxford University for your perusal.

Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt. I really can’t say enough good things about this work. It was invaluable to me in college in more than one course and for more than one paper.

The Confessions of St. Patrick by the man himself. I wrote a short piece on St. Patrick as a writer in 2021, because to read his confessions really is to read, in part, a lot of our own frustrations as human beings (and writers). A go-to and a must-read for St. Patrick’s Day every year.

Thank you for reading!

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