Dante’s Sacred Wood, and Why It’s the Dark Wood’s Opposite

Eager to search, in and throughout its ways

The sacred wood, whose thick and leafy tent,

Spread in my sigh, tempered the new sun’s rays,

I made no pause, but left the cliff and went

With lingering steps across the level leas

Where all the soil breathed out a fragrant scent.

Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII, lines 1-6

Dante Alighieri

The first lines of Inferno open in a “dark wood.” The end of Purgatorio is in a sacred wood. This is Dante’s final stop before he enters into heaven in the final installment of The Divine Comedy and it’s heart-breaking in the best of ways.

Because the Sacred Wood is where Virgil leaves us, safe, comforting, Virgil who came to Dante in the Dark Wood and never left him through all the long leagues of hell and encouraged him up all the many stairs of purgatory. If you’ve been following the blog, then he’s been with us since the beginning of March when I started writing about The Aeneid.

This part of the story ends exactly as it began only this time, Dante hasn’t lost himself. He’s remembered and in the remembrance, his weeps with sorrow, with relief, and with all the pain he’s suffered in both his life and his near-spiritual death.

The sacred wood is in “Earthly Paradise” and it’s somewhere we’ve probably seen before…

The most high Good, that His sole self doth please,

Making man good, and for good, set him in

This place as earnest of eternal peace.

Short time did he stay here, because of sin;

Because of sin he changed his harmless mirth

And joyous play for labour and chagrin.

Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII, Lines 91-96

Dante Alighieri

If you know your Greek or Roman mythology, then you might remember the idea of a “Golden Age” of man. In Christianity, this is the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve fell and were cast out. Other writers have referred to it as well. You’ll find it in The PIlgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Perelandra by C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis, The Silmarilion by J. R. R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien), and perhaps most lovingly, in Leaf by Niggle, also by J. R. R. Tolkien.

The “Earthly Paradise” or “Golden Age” is an idea that runs through all mythology the world over. It’s the idea that there was a time when the world was absolutely perfect. When animals didn’t kill and each other, where humans and nature lived in harmony, and where no mistakes were made. Everyone was happy and lived in abundance.

It’s the idea that the entire world was at one time happy with itself, there was peace, leisure, and enough of everything for everyone.

So why is it here? Well, this idea is almost definitely in a Christian context, but there is real-world application too.

As Dante goes through purgatory, he has each of the seven cardinal sins purged from him. This means that by the time he gets to the top, he is free (or nearly so) from all faults. He’s unlearned all the bad habits he’s picked up from his life, and he’s replaced them with the right habits.

Now, isn’t that exactly what happens in this life when we break old habits? When we get rid of all the detritus of life that doesn’t serve us or that holds us back?

Life becomes more like an earthly paradise the more we master ourselves because we are no longer slaves to the world or people around us. We are only the servants of ourselves. Theoretically at least.

The sacred wood is the end of the nightmare.

Cast your mind back, or, if you have a copy. Go back and pick up Inferno again. Remember the three beasts that come out of the woods and hinder Dante from climbing the mountain at the end of the valley?

The leopard, the lion, and the wolf are enslavers. They want to keep Dante where he is. They don’t want him to climb that mountain because the more he lingers, the greater hold they get on him. By the time the wolf appears, Dante is so lost that he starts running in pure terror.

Contrast this to the sacred wood. Dante doesn’t run away from anything. He hastens towards something and, at the very last, he’s carried up the last stair and wake up in the Earthly Paradise.

Wakes up, notice. He fell asleep when he entered the Dark Wood. He wakes up in the Sacred Wood. It’s almost as if the dark wood was just a nightmare.

And, in a sense, it was a nightmare. Doesn’t life, especially when you’re in a bad place, seem like a nightmare? I know in all the long years I’ve suffered from depression I’ve often cried myself to sleep, hoping my life was just a nightmare. That somehow, I would wake up and be a completely different person in a different time and place, with a different life.

Can you relate?

If you can, then take comfort. Because while we know the dark wood almost certainly is not a nightmare. It’s a very real and very horrible place for each of us. But, if there is a nightmare, then if we do the work, if we face our faults, our fears, and do the work of happiness, then the sacred wood is the end of the nightmare for us too.

Beatrice appears and Virgil disappears

But Virgil–O he had left us, and we stood

Orphaned of him; Virgil, dear father, most

Kind Virgil I gave me to for my soul’s good;

And not for all that our first mother lost

Could I forbid the smutching tears to steep

My cheeks, once washed with dew from all their dust.

Purgatorio, Canto XXX, Lines 49-54

Dante Alighieri

The tears begin when Virgil disappears. Dante mourns his going, but there’s one final hurt he must suffer. Beatrice, waiting for him on the other side of Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, berates him for getting into the dark wood in the first place.

She recounts how he went astray, how he found other friends, other loves, and other passions, and lost sight of what actually mattered. Namely, he lost sight of his own liberty. He allowed himself to become trapped. He’s better than that, she know he’s better than that. And so does he. Because when she’s finished, when she’s reproached him with all of his faults, he bursts into tears again.

This is the sort of ugly crying that you do when you’re really hurt mixed with relief. He’s remembered who he is at last. And he’s acknowledged that he was wrong.

Why must Virgil disappear at this point? Because Virgil, being in Limbo, wouldn’t understand. He can understand only so much of the perfection in the Earthly Paradise because there is an element of mystery here that can only be revealed.

That too is a lot like life. You may have a very best friend, who understands you like no one else does, who’s been with you through everything life’s thrown at you. But there will and inevitably does, come a time when you outgrow the friendship. When you go somewhere they can no longer go. Whether that’s because you start a business while they start a family, or they get married and you stay single. Or you move far away and they stay put.

It doesn’t mean you love them any less. True love, even in friendship, never really dies. It lives on, even if it’s from afar.

That’s what we see here. So, yes, Dante weeps at the parting, but there is more which awaits.

It’s a beautiful portion of Purgatorio, perhaps the most beautiful of all, but make sure you have tissues with you! Dante really understood some of what happens when your realize that you’re finally free from all the weight of your trauma, your hurt, your pain, and your guilt, especially if you’ve just been through hell.

If not quite so literally.

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