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Violence in Dante's Inferno and Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Julian E. Wright Dr. Sharon Fulton Literature Humanities/Essay 1 27 February 2014 Violence in Dante’s Inferno and Ovid’s Metamorphoses Scenes of great violence, as the prompt says, are often written into dynamic narratives of great literary merit. From Dante Alighieri’s Inferno to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the inclusion of violence as a literary technique is used to propel the narrative forward, all while adding action, intrigue, and engaging the reader. Despite it’s validity as a literary technique, the inclusion of violent scenes in literature serve much more than the simple purpose of pushing a plot along a set of structured points. Scenes of violence provoke thought in areas ranging from human nature to the nature of sin, thoughts that often can’t be provoked my images of calm, sublime, or tranquility. Extreme violence, juxtaposed with other scenes, provides insight into the amazing nature of human capability and human nature. In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno there is an abundance of violence that is illustrated in varying ways. Despite the copious inclusion of violence scenes throughout the text, violence does not appear throughout the literary work for its own sake. As one reads on through the Inferno, it provides it’s own clarity. As the levels of Hell increase, the severity of violence does so as well. The violence that appears occurs in different fashions, sometimes mentally, sometimes physically and many times both simultaneously. The scenes violence included in Dante’s Inferno contributes to the theme and darker overtone of the poem. An example of a scene of violence is shown in Canto 13, Circle Seven. Considering this

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circle is where the suicides reside, it is the level known as “The Wood of Suicides”. The souls sent to Hell by suicide are turned into trees for the rest of eternity, being denied a human form. These souls are also denied a voice, except through their own blood. The Harpies, a mythological creature, constantly rips and tears at the human­trees. When The Harpies do this, they cause the trees to bleed, which in turn allows them to speak. Although they are in tree form, they still feel all of the pain that comes along with the violence of the Harpies. In Canto 4, Circle One, the scene of violences manifest as mental violence towards the sinners. Virgil explains to Dante the punishment of the Virtuous Pagans in this Canto, “For these defects, and for no other evil, we now are lost and punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” (IV. 40­43). Because Beatrice sent him to Dante, Virgil has excessive knowledge of this circle as he lived among these sinners in a group of poets. Virgil’s words illustrate the violence that the Virtuous Pagans go through: a lack of hope. They lack hope of new life, forgiveness, and even in their God. This lack of hope violently attacks their minds just as brutally as physical violence would’ve attacked their body. Another representation of violence throughout Dante’s Inferno is the consequence of hypocrisy, shown in Canto 23, Circle Eight. These sinners suffer both physical and mental pain simultaneously as they are forced to wear heavy robes for the rest of eternity. As noted in the text, the robes appear to be gold, yet the sinners feel only the weight of them caused by the weight of the lead which lines the robes on the inside, “And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low they fell before their eyes, of that same cut that's used to make the clothes for Cluny's monks. Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;but inside they were all of lead, so heavy. (XXIII, 61­65)” As this is a subtle form of a violent attack on their bodies, Dante creates this

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consequence as a method to show the sinners what it feels like to be deceived as they did to the world in their lives. There is one sinner, however, that suffers more than the others. Caiaphas, who was a high priest in his life on Earth, is violently crucified to the ground as a symbol for betraying the church in hypocrisy. The way he is crucified forces him to lay on the ground directly in the path of the other robed sinners, in a manner so that they are forced to walk on him whilst donning their heavy robes. The subtle violence of the consequences contrived to see the effects of hypocrisy that the sinners caused to their friends, family and strangers was ultimately done unto themselves. Seeing the pain they caused other people causes great pain to the sinners physically as well as emotionally. Throughout the Inferno there are numerous examples of violence and brutality, presenting Dante’s purpose with clarity and precision. The violence is placed in the poem specifically for reason, to show that the souls that are in Hell are there for a good reason. It also shows that the worse the sin was, the worse the sinner’s punishment would be, causing them the pain that they caused the world through different ways of violence. Some of these are physical and others mental violence. However, most of the punishments in the text are both physically and mentally violent to the sinners, showing them that what they did was wrong in the mysterious, conniving ways of karma. Dante’s seventh circle is one that has lies and violence in it. This then divides into murderers and tyrants. It is than separated into violence again. Along with Dante’s use of scenes of violence in the Inferno, Ovid’s stories in his text Metamorphoses are also blatantly full of trauma and violence, more often committed by Gods against women than any other derivation of violent behavior. Within the first two books alone, three young women are raped by Zeus while a fourth is nearly raped by Apollo before being

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mercifully turned into a tree. Meanwhile, the Gods rid the world of the human race and the son of the Sun streaks through the sky, while his flesh is consumed by the flames. Throughout the books, bodies are transformed in violent and grotesque fashions. Girls are morphed into cows and bears, Gods disguise themselves as bulls, grieving sisters take root in the earth and ooze tears of amber. Within the universe of the Metamorphoses, changing both perpetrators and victims into forms beyond human recognition acts as a striking, yet less active than rape or murder, manifestation of violence Scenes of violence occur in almost every story in Metamorphoses mostly in connection with an act of revenge or vengeance. The scenes of violence most often manifest in rape or murder. In Book 3, Cadmus planted the teeth of the great serpent in the ground and armed men sprung from the soil, subsequently a bloody and violent battle took place. Ovid offers a detailed description of the blood and gore of the battle as he does in several other violent moments throughout the text: “The dragon furiously snapped at the metal and worried the spearhead between his teeth had no purpose. By now the blood had started to trickle from out of that venomous throat; the rich green grass was bespattered with deep red gore. (III, 83­96)” For the pure narrative scheme of the text, such violence really wouldn’t be necessary, however it seems that Ovid overemphasizes the violence presented in battle. In book 3, both Bacchus and Diana act in a manner of grisly revenge against the humans who wronged them. Rather than to simply turn them to stone, the Gods both have the humans who've slighted them violently ripped to pieces. Bacchus had Pentheus' mother and sisters kill him, while Diana used gruesomely used Actaeon's hunting hounds to kill Actaeon. In book 5, the description of Perseus' fight in the palace

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of Cepheus is just a narration of the outcomes of the fight, however Ovid also delves into great detail about how most of the characters were killed, and the story is extremely violent. Violence and gore continues in book 6, when Apollo ripped Marsyas skin off because the he challenged him to a pipe­playing contest. Also in Book 6, Ovid includes the story of Procne, Tereus, and Philomela, a particularly gruesome story because it contains rape, mutilation, kidnapping, and cannibalism: “At the sight of the sword Philomena was praying to die, and freely presented her throat to be cut. Her tongue was still voicing her sense of outrage and crying her father’s name, still struggling to speak, when Tereus gripped it in pincers and hacked it out with his sword. As its roots in the throat gave a flicker, the rest of it muttered and twitched where it dropped on the blood­black earth… (VI, 553­58)” In book 8, Meleager commits the first crime by killing his uncles, but the shocking and gruesome scene of violence the way that his mother burns him alive by throwing the brand that holds his life into a fire. In book 9, Hercules’ skin is burned away because of the he shirt Deianira sent him which was tainted with Hydra's poison. As the poison slowly disintegrates Hercules' mortal body, he becomes immortal. And lastly, in book 11, Orpheus is ripped limb from limb, as Ovid describes the way that his body parts were scattered in a very violent and gruesome scene. Stories throughout of Ovid’s Metamorphoses share a commonality in their theme, the idea of metamorphosis or transformation, which is almost always accompanied by somes scene of violence. From a narrative standpoint, this basically gives all the stories an inherently dramatic and gripping quality, aided by the scenes of frequent violence involving a protesting, weak, and helpless victim. And more often, the evidence of the scene of violence for those who are changed

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often mares in the landscape, the heavens, or in natural life. The inclusion of scenes of violence allow Ovid to transform any story he seizes to write upon into a situation potentially full of human pathos, driven by emotions provoked by violence, which is something that transforms a potentially beautiful scene or character into a martyr of symbol of suffering and pain. And most often, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the description of an idyllic happy setting or a happy pastoral life within the narrative is usually always the prelude to some brutality or scene or act of violence. As the subject matter of the transformations with in Ovid’s work in almost every case involves scenes of violence, sex, and suffering. As to acknowledge the victims, they are often innocent females, pursued for the purpose of rape by either humans or Gods. With the inclusion of those violent scenes in particular, the narrative repeatedly calls for more attention to the dramatic pathos of the moment of metamorphosis, when the violently suffering victim, like Niobe or Daphne, transform into something else. It’s often as if the the pressure of their suffering had become too much for human capabilities. Violence provides another dimension to the narratives these two literary works are trying to tell. They provide another aspect that can be delved into and parsed apart by the reader. While some literature offers narratives based in the tranquility and gentleness, offering scenes of violence illustrate the other side of human nature and capability. The idea of pure evil, manifested through violence, introduces concepts that can’t be explored when literary works only include the contrary. Violence creates a space for mistakes to be made, evil to manifest, consequences to be served, and most of all, irreparable damage to be done. Both Dante’s Inferno and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, use scenes of violence to illustrate those points. As these texts attempted to conquer themes of life, death, vengeance, and much more, violence propels characters and their respective narratives into

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successfully achieving their purposes, literary and beyond.…...

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