Dante’s Metam-Orpheus: the Unspoken Presence of Orpheus in the Divine Comedy

Dante’s Metam-Orpheus: the Unspoken Presence of Orpheus in the Divine Comedy

By Leah Schwebel

Hirundo, the McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Vol.4 (2005-06)

Introduction: The myth of Orpheus figures prominently into literature from the Hellenistic era to the present day, yet the interpretations of the myth have remained anything but static during its transmittance. The myth of Orpheus has undergone so many interpretive changes throughout the ages that the mere mention of the name Orpheus evokes a plethora of images, concepts, literary tropes, and archetypes. The physical rending apart of Orpheus by the Maenads, as told by Virgil and Ovid in the Augustan Age, foreshadows the literal fragmentation of the Orpheus myth by writers over time, who have repeatedly manipulated the myth to bolster their own literary aims. This cannibalization of the Orpheus myth was especially popular for writers in the Middle Ages, a time when pagan myths were typically explained either allegorically or euhemeristically so that they could be synchretized with Christian ideology. For this paper I am tracing the implicit and explicit references to the multifaceted figure of Orpheus in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante only explicitly names Orpheus once in his Divine Comedy, upon seeing him within the Limbo for intellectuals. Yet the function of the Orpheus figure in the Divine Comedy, similar to his overall function in literature, is that of a chimera. The shade of Orpheus residing in Dante’s Limbo serves only as the mold for the multiple imprints the figure leaves throughout the text.

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